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03/22/20 – Uncharted Territory Sermon

UNCHARTED TERRITORY

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March 22, 2020
4th Sunday in Lent
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

We are told we are in a crisis. A crisis does not just mean a time of peril, it also means a time when a difficult or important decision must be made. Jesus experienced a crisis during his 40 days in the Wilderness when tempted by Satan. In health terms, a vocabulary with which we are all becoming more conversant lately, the crisis, or critical stage, is the turning point of a disease when an important change takes place that points to either death or recovery. John the Baptist announced the world was in a spiritual health crisis and must repent or die. World leaders during this global pandemic are at a crisis point at which decisions must be made and the future of their peoples depends on their choices. We depend on our leaders, political, financial and scientific, to put the common good ahead of personal gain or glory. We want their hearts to be “in the right place.”

When we say someone’s heart is “in the right place,” we usually mean it as a tongue in cheek pronouncement that their actions, motivated by good intentions, failed due to poor judgment or ineptitude. But, it can also be used to describe someone whose priorities are in order, choosing the just, merciful or kind action rather than an action that will be self-serving. Our scripture readings for today testify to God’s intention for where we place our hearts. In times of crisis, such as the whole world is facing with the Covid-19 virus, our hearts need to be in the right place, prioritizing the common good over our own convenience and personal freedom.

This week we heard in the news an example of the unrighteous way to behave in a crisis. Two brothers from Tennessee became infamous for amassing nearly 18,000 bottles of hand sanitizers from stores across Tennessee and Kentucky. Their first 300 bottles of hand sanitizer sold for between $8 and $70 bottles apiece. They also bought large quantities of face masks and sold 2,000 packs for $40-$50 apiece. One of the brothers was already making a 6-figure salary selling products on the internet. Now they were on their way to making an even bigger fortune off peoples’ fears of getting the new virus. When their “unfruitful works of darkness were exposed – to use Paul’s language from Ephesians, the brothers first justified their actions as solving “inefficiencies in the marketplace.” They argued they were marketing the goods to areas in the country that had fewer opportunities to purchase them than those that lived in major market hubs.

(Marketwatch.com, March 16, 2020) The fact that they were selling these items at a tremendous mark-up made their claim questionable.  Few believed their hearts were really in the right place. The brothers became instant pariahs and were banned from internet sales sites. They became models for heartless greed. We don’t know if true repentance was their motivation for donating the rest of their stash because they lost peoples’ trust.

In our Old Testament reading for today, Israel was experiencing a crisis in leadership. God had warned Israel that having a king, with unchecked political, judicial, and economic power, would be a big mistake. Yet, the people insisted they wanted to be a “great nation” more than they wanted a good and faithful nation. All the “great” nations had kings. God had given them the kind of king they thought they wanted. Saul’s outward appearance showed him to be handsome and tall. He exuded strength and confidence. At the beginning of his reign, he said all the right things and the people put their trust in him. But, as soon as he started wielding his newly acquired power, he got addicted to it. Then Saul became fearful of losing that power; and, that’s when his wisdom and love of justice and mercy left him. Saul became enamored of building great monuments to impress; and, economically enslaving his people to finance and provide labor for his building projects. Saul became increasingly less trusting of people he deemed a threat to his absolute power. Thus, to confront this perceived threat, Saul became less trustworthy himself. His heart was no longer “in the right place.”

Today we read that God has in mind a new king for Israel, based not on his outward appearance, but on his heart. It was the judge and prophet, Samuel, who had anointed Saul to be Israel’s king. Now, God instructed Samuel to initiate a “do-over.” Understandably, Samuel was afraid of Saul’s anger and retribution, since Saul still occupied the throne. With an unexpected endorsement of “white lies,” God gave Samuel a “cover story” to explain to anyone who questioned his trip to Bethlehem to meet Jesse’s sons. God told Samuel to bring a heifer with him and coached him to say he was going to bring a sacrifice to share with Jesse in a worship service. However, the real purpose was to select one of Jesse’s sons to replace Saul on Israel’s throne.

Lined up for inspection, Samuel walked past all the tall, strapping young men from Jesse’s household and, to his surprise, God rejected them, one by one. It wasn’t until Samuel asked Jesse if he had any more sons that David, the youngest and smallest son, was presented. Samuel, having grown up in the temple under the care and tutelage of Eli, the priest, had been called by God as a young boy himself. Samuel trusted that God had a wise and good plan in selecting David, yet he was not without fear of the consequences to himself. Samuel knew there would be fallout from his anointing this unlikely king and he might be caught in the middle of it.

Like Samuel, both the blind man and his parents were put in an awkward, if not dangerous position. When the man and his parents were called before the Pharisees, they sensed trouble was brewing for them. The Pharisees demanded to know who had healed him. The parents had a crisis of faith. If they tell the truth they risk being cast out of their congregation. So, they passed the buck to their son. “Ask him” they respond. The man who was blind, but now able to see made a different choice at this critical point. He testified to what he knew to be true. We experience these moral and spiritual dilemmas every day, but we don’t have people watching us like Samuel and the healed man — or do we?

Let’s look more closely at the blind man’s dilemma after his powerful encounter with Jesus. This story from John’s gospel gives us a picture of first-century Judaism – the historical context of scripture.  For the first 40 years or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection, most Jewish Christ-followers continued to observe Jewish worship practices and religious festivals. They continued to worship at the Temple or synagogues right alongside all the other Jews. They respected the authority of Jewish religious leaders – the Pharisees, the Sadducees, or the Chief Priests and the Scribes. But, in addition to their Sabbath worship, they also gathered every Sunday with their fellowship of Christ-followers to share a meal, to be taught by apostles, and to pray. (Acts 2:42)

But gradually, Jesus’ Jewish followers came to be seen as a divisive group in the Jewish community. They weren’t being proper Jews with their devotion to that unorthodox itinerant rabbi who got himself crucified. The “peace and purity” of the temple was being threatened. John’s gospel spoke to these Jews on the outs with their faith family. John was like Christians today whose congregations have split, forcing one side out of the church family out over issues of faith and practice, these Jewish disciples of Christ were being forced out of their Jewish congregations. They were no longer welcome in the family. Anyone who has ever experienced family discord so strong that you can no longer sit at the table together knows how traumatic an experience this is.

By his argumentative language toward “the Jews,” it is obvious that John was incensed at his fellow Jews, who forced his Jewish-Christian community members out of their synagogue. This is the kind of divisive rhetoric we hear far too much in our society today, particularly among our political leaders – “the right-wingers,” “the liberals,” “the educated elite,” “the ignorant,” “the Jews, “the blacks, “the Muslims,” and so on. We know all too well the fear narrative that is used to demonize those we “otherize.” Putting John’s term, “the Jews,” in context, we must keep in mind that John had his own agenda. He wrote from the position of anger toward fellow Jews who he blamed for their lack of acceptance of his community of Jewish-Christians. Unfortunately, historical misinterpretation and misuse has used John’s gospel to justify violence and persecution toward Jews.

In our gospel passage from John today, the Pharisees confront Jesus, questioning him about his “authority” to heal the blind man. Does Jesus have the right credentials? Did he do it “decently and in order” according to the laws and tradition? Did the man deserved to be healed or was he to blame for his condition? Do his parents share blame for his condition?  Laws, traditions, and questions of authority are the go-to justifications we use when our hearts are not in the right place. The famous rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, observed: “When religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.” The Pharisees wanted the privilege of power and authority and were not pleased to cede any of it to an unconventional outsider like Jesus, whose heart was in the right place – with God.

The blind beggar’s parents are too afraid to stand up and speak the truth, fearing retribution by their religious leaders or their congregation. Yet, the blind man who was healed speaks God’s truth. He responds to the Pharisees’ interrogation by stating what he knows is the important issue: “I was blind, but now I see.” He understands he, by Jesus’ healing, has been treated more mercifully and compassionately than anyone has treated him before. That is the greatest evangelical tool Jesus has taught us. That is how to be a witness for Christ — to show compassion, to seek healing for ourselves and act in ways to bring about healing for others. This is putting our hearts in the right place.  Jesus never asked anyone who came to him if they deserved to be healed.  The only privilege he granted was for the ones with the greatest need.

Paul encourages the Ephesian congregation to “Live as children of light— 9for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.”  When we walk in the light, even in the shadows of death, we are being led by God’s kingship while the world offers worldly kingdoms for the mere price of worshipping its gods. During this Lenten season, we are challenged to look honestly at how well our actions model our faith. Are we demonstrating that our hearts are in the right place? When we are faced with decisions, are we willing to sacrifice worldly gains for our spiritual beliefs? Are we willing to sacrifice from our abundance when faced with human need? Are we willing to stand up against the majority and be counted when it would be more popular or less trouble to go along with what others are doing?

Christ has given us reason to hope that even the evil of the dreaded Coronavirus may be redeemed. May we use this time of crisis to be honest with ourselves, to examine our priorities and seek the path Christ has shown us. If we can learn to share our toilet paper and Purell, Christ has much more to teach us about putting our hearts in the right place.

Amen.

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2020, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Avenue | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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