I usually listen to really upbeat music when I’m writing my sermons, often the Piano Guys, who do instrumental mash-ups of pop and classical music. Their driving rhythms mixed with familiar melodies propel me forward as I write. I’m sure I bop my head along, my fingers click-clacking across the keyboard in time with the percussion. When I sat down to write this sermon, I put on the Piano Guys like normal. But about thirty seconds into the first song, I had to switch to something else.
Because today is not normal. Today is about as far from normal as I can remember since the days following September 11, 2001. As I thought and prayed my way into today’s sermon, I noticed just how un-calm I was. I had not slept well in several nights. I had pain in my jaw, always a sign of stress. I had a thick knot of anxiety in my chest. I looked beyond the anxiety and felt a roiling mix of other emotions, which I’ll get into in a moment. Realizing my state on un-calm, I changed the music. I selected a setting of the mass in Latin by the Renaissance composer Palestrina, who never fails to help me take deep breaths.
On Sunday, I promised a fuller discussion of the use of the term “the Jews” in the Gospel According to John. Here it is. What follows is a lightly edited and expanded section from my seminary thesis on the “Fourth Gospel,” which my outside reader, the truly wonderful Brian McLaren, encouraged me to include in the final manuscript. Previous to the inclusion of this section, I had footnoted the use of the term “the Jews,” but back in 2008 Brian rightly identified it as more important than a mere footnote.
After the turmoil in Charlottesville, VA where white supremacists were heard chanting anti-Semitic slogans, I now have firsthand knowledge as to why Brian urged me to add it to the final draft. To all my Jewish friends, please know I stand with you in denouncing the hateful and disturbing rhetoric of those white nationalists, Klan members, and neo-Nazis, whom you have been attacked by for years and years, but to whom many of us Christians are only now and belatedly waking up. For not speaking out sooner, I seek your forgiveness.Continue reading ““The Jews” in John’s Gospel”→
Sermon for Sunday, March 30, 2014 || Lent 4A || John 9:1-41
“Let me see some I.D.”
I have had this exchange a handful of times with police officers and one very friendly Texas state trooper. They, of course, want my driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance so they can go back to their cars and run me through their databases looking for past infractions while I’m sweating through my palms and my stomach feels like I just swallowed several gallons of quick-dry cement and my mind is racing in compound-complex run-on sentences such as this one. A warning. Yes, officer. Yessir, no more rolling stops. Yessir. Thank you. You too.
But the words they use are telling: “Let me see some I.D.” Some identification. Really, they just want my name and some corroboration that the picture next to the name matches my appearance. They ask for my identity, and all I give them is a plastic card with my name on it. Date of birth. Address. Sex. Height. Eye color. The fact that I’m an organ donor.
But there’s so much more to my identity than the information listed on that plastic card. I’m a husband and a son and a brother and a priest and a writer and a guitarist and a board game enthusiast. And I’m a follower of Jesus. In fact, my identification card has no room for the most important pieces of my identity. The relationships we hold dear, the values we live by, the priorities that shape us – these are the markers of our true identities.
In our Gospel reading today, we hear the story of a man who discovers and proclaims his true identity. Jesus heals this man, but the miraculous granting of sight is only part of the story. The truly extraordinary aspect of his healing is his ownership of an identity he always had, but which was hidden within him.
Jesus sends the man to the pool of Siloam to wash, and this man, who was blind from birth, comes back able to see. Do you remember what happens next? His neighbors don’t recognize him! Now, he hasn’t put on weight or grown a big bushy beard or dyed his hair. Nothing cosmetic has changed about him. And yet these people, who have presumably lived near him his entire life, can’t decide if he’s the guy they always saw on the street corner begging. All they ever saw was his blindness; they never looked deeper to see the identity of the man beneath his physical challenge. And since others’ impressions of us tend to shape our identity, I bet the man himself had stopped looking deep within himself, too.
That is, until Jesus heals him. He returns home, and when his neighbors ask him if he’s the blind street corner beggar, he says, “I am.” Now, we’d be hard-pressed to find two more important and impactful words in the entire Gospel according to John. Jesus says these two little words all the time: I am the bread of life. I am the good shepherd. I am the light of the world. I am; don’t be afraid. I am. I am. I am.
These are magic words in the Gospel. Mystical words. These two little words, “I am,” transport us all the way back to Mount Horeb, to a man exiled from his home in Egypt, to a bush ablaze with flame, to an encounter with the Creator-of-all-that-is. Near the end of their conversation, Moses asks God what God’s name is. “I AM WHO I AM,” responds God. “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
When Jesus echoes God’s “I am” in the Gospel according to John, he reveals his divine identity in small pieces, pieces small enough for us to digest over the course of a lifetime. Jesus’ echoes God’s “I am.” And the man who was formerly blind echoes Jesus’ “I am.” Thus, the man reveals his discovery of Jesus’ identity within himself. Jesus heals him in order that he might take on this identity that he always had buried deep inside, but which had never come to light.
After discovering Jesus’ identity within himself, he can’t help but proclaim it. Even as the religious officials hound him about the details of his story, he sticks to the truth and proclaims Jesus’ healing presence in his life. No threat, no argument, no earthly authority can take away this new identity he has discovered within himself, this new identity as a follower of Christ.
But what of us? What of our identities? We may have never washed in the special pool of Siloam, but we have washed. We have washed in the waters of baptism. We may never have had mud spread on our eyes, but we have been marked as Christ’s own forever. Our baptism into Christ’s body reveals an identity we’ve always had, an ability to echo Jesus’ “I am” with one of our own. The act of baptism marks and celebrates our identity as followers of Jesus Christ.
Each of us has this identity within us. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. But if you’re anything like me, the times when this piece of my identity rises to the surface are few and far between. Other pieces of my identity take charge, and “follower of Jesus” sinks down the list. But if I’m honest with myself, if I listen for the whispered invitation of Christ in my depths, I hear him beckoning me, I see his radiance shining within. And God’s promise resonates in my bones: seek God first, own your identity as Christ’s follower, and each other piece of your identity will find a snug fit, properly ordered so that you can experience the abundance of life, so that your default nature is one of service and love, so that you may invite others into the brilliance of the Light of World each day of your life.
Promoting “Follower of Jesus” up the list of pieces of our identities takes commitment. “Husband” wouldn’t be high on my list if I weren’t whole-heartedly committed to my marriage. “Writer” wouldn’t be high up there if I didn’t write every single day. “Follower of Jesus” trends upwards when we commit to praying daily, serving the least of those around us, dwelling deeply in God’s word, and cultivating an awareness of God’s presence in our lives. As this season of Lent marches toward Easter, dedicate yourselves to owning your identity as followers of Jesus. Like the man born blind, hear Jesus’ divine identity echo within you. Look yourself in the mirror and say aloud: “I am. I am a beloved child of God. I am a follower of Jesus Christ.”
This is and always will be the primary piece of our identities, whether or not we put it at the top of the list. God created us to be God’s beloved, and following Jesus Christ leads us to embrace God as our beloved. This is our true identity. This is what the card we hand to the police officer should say. To begin to own this identity, I invite you to sit down and write out a list of all the pieces of your identity. Order those pieces from most to least important. Be honest where you slot in “Follower of Jesus.” Does it make the Top 10? Top 5? When you’re done, recommit yourself to partnering with God to move “Follower of Jesus” up just one slot. Just one. Baby steps here. Over time and with God’s help, move it up the list. Notice how your life changes. Notice how you change the lives of those around you. Own your true identity and shine with the Light of the World.
*Art: Detail from “Christ Healing the Blind Man” by El Greco (1560)