Epiphany 2B Sermon (2003)

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: John 1:43-51;
1 Sam. 3; 1 Cor. 6:12-20


It was a rollicking night at the theater. (1) A young actor named Tom Key was playing the part of Jesus in the play Cotton Patch Gospel, and he was clearly bringing the house down. The play, a romping bluegrass musical, which depicts the ministry of Jesus as if it took place in the cotton fields of the Baptist South, was in its final performance run, and Key was feeling confident and even inventive with his lines.

During the scene depicting the Sermon on the Mount, Key, as Jesus, suddenly turned from the group on the stage. He turned toward the audience, pointed to the blank auditorium side wall, and said, “Look at the lilies in that field…” He stopped, almost as if he had forgotten the next line, peered around at the disciples, focused again on the audience, and repeated, “Look at the lilies in that field…” Once more he stopped and seemed to be searching for the next words. The audience began to shift uncomfortably. His hand extended yet again to the blank wall, and this time he spoke the words slowly and deliberately, “Look…at…the…lilies…in…that…field…” Now he turned to the disciples on stage, shrugging his shoulders, and said, “I can’t get them to look.” The room filled with laughter as it dawned on the audience that he really wanted them to look. And sure enough, when he gave one more try, “Look at the lilies in that field…” every head in the audience turned toward the side wall.

For St. John the Evangelist, this was his kind of show. Indeed, he spends his entire gospel trying to get people to look, really to look, at the life of Jesus. Light and darkness, vision and dimness, “Once I was blind, but now I see,” these are the images and materials of John’s gospel. Chapter after chapter, John’s finger points toward his Lord and his voice sounds the refrain, “Look… look… look.”

The willingness to look and to see stands at the center of this morning’s story about Nathaniel and Philip. Philip has made an important discovery in Jesus and says to Nathaniel: “Come and see.” Philip uses three words which embrace everything the church knows to say in its evangelism: “Come and see.” Like children who have seen a meteor shower lighting up the night sky and have run breathlessly into the house to beckon their parents, the church runs toward the world, pulling it gently but urgently by the hand, “Come and see. Come and see. There are wonders beyond imagining to behold.”

“Come and see,” says John’s gospel, but the actor playing Jesus, shrugging his shoulders, said, “I can’t get them to look.” In fact, it’s shocking to realize all the imagery in the Bible having to do with God not being able to get us to look and really see, to listen and really hear. Our First Lesson this morning comes at a time of crisis for the people of Israel. Eli, representing the current leadership, is blind, we are told; he literally can’t see. And the story is about Samuel’s first attempts to listen to God. He has ears, but can’t understand who is talking to him. Samuel will learn to listen to God for a time; but a whole slew of prophets would have to come along and continue the job of listening to God.

The greatest of those prophets was Isaiah. And it is the following passage from Isaiah which is quoted as a central piece in all four gospels (Mt. 13:14-15; Mk. 4:12; Lk. 8:10; Jn. 12:40). Isaiah tells the story of his own calling as a prophet, and says,

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” (Isa 6:8-10 NRSV)

Wow! Isn’t this a strange and shocking passage? It’s as if Isaiah came to view his whole ministry as one that was impossible for people to really see and hear and understand.

Yet Jesus, too, quotes this call of Isaiah in all four gospels as a way to say the same thing: that he came to give us a message from God that is nearly impossible for us to hear and see and understand. We look, but what do we see? We listen, but what do we hear? The gospels show how Jesus’ own disciples had a difficult time seeing and hearing; they wouldn’t really start to see and hear until after Jesus rose on Easter and came back to them and graciously forgave them for not hearing and not seeing and not understanding. Thank God for that forgiveness! And thank God that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them, or we might never have begun to understand!

So what is it that is so hard for us to hear and see and understand? I was privileged to attend the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration this past Monday at Festival Hall downtown. The main speaker, C. T. Vivian, had been at King’s side throughout much of his ministry. He was able to give compelling insight into King’s life and ministry and convincingly argued that King was truly one of our latter day prophets.

In other words, Martin Luther King, Jr. was another sent from God to try to help us see and hear and understand what is so hard for us to get. It is the same thing that it took the cross to help us to see and hear and understand — namely, that our sin runs so deep that it is woven into the fabric of our societies and religions. We can be mired in sin without being aware of it, just by living a normal life within our human communities. That’s because our human way of community is based on what the cross shows us: namely, that our ways of life depend upon placing a disproportionate share of the community’s sins on the backs of a few, or even the one. In short, our societies have a scapegoating structure to them. That’s what racism is! That’s why King is a prophet whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow. He called us to see and hear and understand that people of color have been made to bear a disproportionate share of the sin in our society.

That was literally true in the days of slavery, when African-Americans were made to bear our multiple burdens on their backs. But even when slavery was abolished, the laws of segregation, or the lack of laws to protect people of color from discrimination, were still unfair. And they continue to be today, in many respects. For example: the white men who ran Enron, who ruined the lives of thousands of people, are said to just be bad business men and walk scott-free, while a black teen who stole a car stereo is thrown into the juvenile prison over on Memorial St. Do you see? When you look at our prisons — and I’m not saying that those in prison didn’t do anything — but I think a good case can be made that the people of color in our prisons are still bearing a disproportionate share of our sinfulness. The governor of Illinois last week commuted all the death sentences in that state, partly because he recognizes that people of color bear their unfair share of those sentences, but even more because too many have been found to be innocent.

There’s one current example of this scapegoating structure to our societies — one that is even riskier to try to point out, one that’s even harder for us to see right now. And it involves the issue that’s threatening to tear our church apart, just as churches were torn apart over slavery in the years before the Civil War. I’m talking about the place of gay and lesbian people in our churches. Again, what it is so hard to see is that a group of people may be being made to bear their unfair share of our society’s sins.

And our society’s sins are considerable in this area. I fear that we may be on the verge of a meltdown from the running rampant of our sexual desires, unchecked. I’ve barely run into the tip of the iceberg of the explosion of pornography being consumed on the Internet — much more heterosexual pornography than homosexual. I get spammed with invitations to pornographic sites — for those of you who haven’t experienced the Internet, getting spammed is receiving unsolicited email. That’s right, even the Internet is loaded with junk mail and pesky marketers. What is a big concern to me is that, even though pornographic material can’t pass through the regular U.S. mail, much less junk mail, that apparently isn’t true yet of the Internet. Our children can get spammed with pornographic email! Some familiar with the Internet have claimed that it is only the burgeoning number of pornography distributers who are really making money on the Internet — indicating an appetite on our part that is out-of-control. Just one quick story can perhaps give an impression: a friend of mine was recently devastated when her long-time pastor was dismissed for downloading pornographic material onto his church office computer. This is scary stuff folks! It’s all over our media and all through our culture.

Yet our church [the ELCA] has not been able to make a clear statement about the crisis facing our human sexuality because it has become so hung up on one issue: homosexuality. Do you see? We want a small minority among us to bear the burden of our sinfulness. We want to shine the light on their supposed sin, so that we don’t have to look so closely at our sin, all around us. When our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ seek to have monogamous, faithful sexual relationships recognized and blessed, the majority wants to lump those efforts in as symbols of our human sexuality gone awry and thus make them the scapegoats for all of us. If their sexuality is automatically discounted as bad, maybe the rest of us won’t have to take responsibility for our sexuality having become a famished craving, warning us of an impending societal meltdown.

There’s a story in John’s Gospel, that brings these images of seeing and not seeing to a climax: It is the story in John 9 of the Jesus and his disciples encountering a man born blind. The disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” — and he proceeds to heal him. But this healing only takes seven verses in a story that goes on for 41 verses, ending with Jesus saying,

“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

The Pharisees, in the many verses which follow the healing, have persisted in seeing this man born blind as a sinner — if not for having been blind, then for believing in Jesus. Why is Jesus so bad? Because this healing also happened to take place on the Sabbath. Jesus was breaking laws of the thing that was held most dear in Jewish society. Their whole understanding of the created order depended on it. It wasn’t just any old law. It was how they saw creation itself to be fashioned. God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh. This is in the category of an order of creation. (2)

Yet the most consistent picture of Jesus’ ministry shows him bucking up against these very Sabbath laws. Why? I submit to you that it was because we humans had come to use these laws to oppress people, to make a few people in the society to bear the burdens of their sins. Jesus let himself be made into one of those people, a scapegoat, the Lamb of God, so that he could finally show us the sin that is hardest of all for us to see.

How about us? The man born blind was denied a place in their community by its religious leaders. Jesus, in the end, was also denied such a place for confronting the ways they used an “order of creation” to oppress people. What about us today? What about the place of gay and lesbian people in our religion. Are they truly welcome? Can they have an equal place with us if we say that they defy the laws of created order itself? We can’t solve this question here this morning. But can we at least see the ways in which our sense of created order might be being used to deny a few folks among us an equal place in our midst?

If we still have trouble being healed of our blindness in this respect, then our Lord comes into our midst once again this morning as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He comes to take away our blindness — a blindness since humanity itself was born, a blindness to the ways in which we structure our societies and religions so that a few among us bear their unfair share of our sins. In other words, Jesus is not unlike all the scapegoats throughout human history when he dies on the cross. In fact, he’s in solidarity with them. But there is also one most important difference: as the unblemished Lamb of God, God raised him from the dead so that he might forgive us. And, in that forgiveness, we can be healed of our blindness. Come and See. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, January 19, 2003

1. The opening five paragraphs (+ one sentence) were edited from a sermon by Thomas G. Long, Shepherds and Bathrobes: Sermons for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany (Cycle B Gospel Texts). Lima, OH: C.S.S. Publishing, 1987, pp. 70-75.

2. There is a caution in applying the story of John 9 to the issue of “homosexuality”: the latter might be seen as a mere defect, like blindness, which Jesus can heal. Instead of focusing on that healing, I would counsel paying closer attention to the Pharisees treatment of that healing when we are trying to locate our treatment of gays and lesbians. I would regard the majority’s view of “homosexuality” as akin to the prevailing view of the Sabbath as practiced by the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day. Similarly, today we use Genesis 1 to tout an “order of creation” that oppressively asserts “male and female” over other possible created orders. Aware of our possible heterosexism we might instead view Creation in light of its diversity more than its order — opening the way for straight people to accept gay brothers and sisters as having an equal place in God’s good creation — as yet incomplete, but on its way to perfection.

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