Embrace the Suck

Embrace the Suck

August 18, 2019*

By Pastor John Partridge

 

Isaiah 5:1-7                Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2                        Luke 12:49-56

What do you do when everything seems to be going badly?

You know what I mean.  When your plans are falling apart, and nothing is going the way that you expected it to go.  Worse than that, what do you do when the tide, and life itself, seems to have turned against you?

There is a famous phrase that has been incorrectly attributed to several well-known people but whose origins remain unclear that says, “If You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going” – Unknown

Simply put, don’t get stuck in a bad place because you gave up trying.  Keep going.  Keep moving forward until you get to a better place.  But, at the same time, as we move forward, and as we find success and a better place, we must be careful not to think that we are responsible for what God has given us.  In both extremes, in both good times and bad, we are often tempted to go our own way.

In Isaiah 5:1-7, God’s prophet tells a story about a lover (who is God) who has built a vineyard (which is Israel), but after all of his work to build, and to care for, the vineyard, the results were not what most of us would hope for.

5:1 I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.

“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
    what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
    and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
    and it will be trampled.

Isaiah says that God built his vineyard from scratch by carving it out of a fertile hillside, but no matter how much work he put into it, no matter how he protected it, all that it produced was bad fruit.  Whether it was in good times or bad, Israel chose to go her own way and ignored the God that had done so much for her.  And, as a result, God, after many repeated attempts to improve his vineyard, finally threatens to give up, plow the whole thing under, and allow Israel to be trampled underfoot.

God’s threat carries through the ages.  It is as if he is saying that at some point, he is willing to cut his losses.  And the loss that he is prepared to cut, is us.  But it doesn’t need to be that way.

In Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2, we are reminded of many times that God was faithful to his people, and the many times that his people were faithful to God, even when things were not going well.

29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.

31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.

32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God

At first, this sounds like a list of great heroes of the faith and the great stories that we heard where faith allows them, with God’s help, to conquer despite facing great odds.  But then the tone of the story changes dramatically.  Suddenly, with the phrase, “there were others…” we hear about people, who with great faith, were tortured to death, were flogged, laughed at, stoned, sawed in two, and killed with swords.  Still others ran for their lives and wandered in the deserts, or mountains, and lived in caves.  All of these, both victors and victims, are commended for their faith because whether they were victors or victims, neither received everything that they had been promised because God had something better planned for them than they could ever receive on earth.

In the military, there is a phrase that is often used when things are not going well, or when you find yourself in conditions that are unpleasant and likely to stay that way.  The phrase that is used is, “Embrace the suck.”  Now, I appreciate that this is the kind of thing that my mother would find to be inappropriate for a gentlemen to say, and certainly to use in church, but bear with me for a minute and I’ll explain what it means and why it fits here.  “Embrace the suck” can be defined as an encouragement to consciously “accept or appreciate something that is extremely unpleasant but unavoidable for future progression.”  During World War Two, there was a period when the front was moving forward so quickly that logistics and supply could not move forward fast enough to provide the support that their leadership normally requires, but they did manage to keep the forward troops supplied with food and ammunition with what became known as the “Red Ball Express.” 

From August until December of 1944 the Red Ball Express moved as much as 12,500 tons of supplies each day through France, by truck, to forward supply depots, until the port of Antwerp, Belgium was reopened, the rail lines were repaired, and portable fuel pipelines were constructed.  As many as 5,958 vehicles, mostly trucks, were pulled from anywhere they could be found, and they were driven nearly 24 hours a day.  Drivers were pulled from any unit that could spare personnel of any kind, particularly from administration, clerks, and even wounded who were waiting to be reassigned.  These drivers ran almost nonstop for three months and many suffered accidents, and even death, from lack of sleep.  More than 75 percent of the drivers were African Americans.  In order for the Allied armies to continue moving forward and to prevent the German Army from having a chance to regroup and rebuild, the men of the Red Ball Express “embraced the suck,” they accepted that what they were doing was unpleasant, even deadly, but they knew that what they were doing was unavoidable if the Allies were going to win.

In many ways, this is what we see in the list of faithful saints that we read about in Hebrews.  For some of them, things went well, God was with them, and they were victorious.  But not all of them.  Some of them, despite their faith, and despite God being with them, were not victorious, did not win the day, were not rescued, did not have enough to eat, and they suffered, and they died, in the wilderness and at the hands of their enemies.  But, and this is important, they did not give up.  They did not give up their faith, they did not stop believing in God, they “embraced the suck” and recognized that to get where they wanted to go, they had to pass through unpleasantness, pain, suffering, and death, to reach their goal.

And that brings us to an uncomfortable teaching of Jesus from Luke 12:49-56 where Jesus says this:

49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54 He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?

Jesus is clear that not everyone is going to want to follow him, and not everyone is going to want to live their lives for God.  Some people will stand against God and go their own way.  But Jesus also says although sometimes things go well, sometimes the world is going to stink.  Watch for the signs.  Know that the world we live in is in a constant battle between good and evil.  Know that good doesn’t win all the time.  Things don’t always go your way.  Sometimes rescue doesn’t come in time.  Sometimes the good die young and evil thrives.  But knowing that God is in control, and knowing that ultimately, God is going to redeem the world and make everything right again, helps us to understand what is going on around us and keep things in the right perspective.  Like those heroes of the faith, both the victors and the victims, know that we look forward to something that we will never receive on earth.  Know that there is more to life than… life.

When things are going well, enjoy it, and give thanks to God.  But don’t forget to give God the credit so that you don’t begin to think that you are solely responsible for your good fortune and begin to think that you no longer have need of God.  At the same time, when things are not going well, look to God for your strength to stand up for what’s good and what’s right and against injustice and evil.  Sometimes the world stinks.  Or, to put it more crudely, sometimes the world sucks. 

Embrace the suck.

Appreciate that although what you are going through is unpleasant, it is also unavoidable on the way to the future that God has prepared for you.  Don’t give up.

Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

Stay strong in your faith no matter what.

Let us run with perseverance when times are good.

And let us run with perseverance when everything seems to be against you.

You know how the story ends.

You know that victory lies ahead.

Don’t be afraid to “embrace the suck” so that you can get from where you are, to the home, and to the reward, that God has prepared for you.

 

 

 


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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

When Legal is Wrong

“When Legal is Wrong”

August 27, 2017

By John Partridge*

 

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10                   Romans 12:1-8                                   Matthew 16:13-20

 

 

Have you ever watched your local, state, or federal government, your employer, or some big business, do something that just didn’t seem right?  Of course they assured the public that everything they were doing was perfectly legal, but regardless of its legality, it just smelled bad and people grumbled because what they were doing seemed wrong.

 

Just because something is legal, doesn’t mean that it’s right.  It is fairly common for us to open the newspaper or turn on the news and find a story about a district court, or appellate court, or even the Supreme Court overturning a law because it is unconstitutional.  But sometimes, even laws that are constitutional are still wrong.  In 1793, the federal government passed the Fugitive Slave Act as an enforcement tool of Article 4 Section 2 of the United States Constitution which required the return of runaway slaves.

 

Did you hear that?

 

The US Constitution required that fugitive slaves, even if they were found in free states, be returned to their masters.  The thing is, a great many people in northern states completely ignored this provision as well as the requirements of the Fugitive Slave Act.  Some state and local governments passed laws that prohibited their law enforcement agencies from enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.  However, by the mid 1800’s this defiance of the law on the part of many in the north caused so many slaves in border states to attempt escape, that the entire institution of slavery was close to collapse and southern slave holding states were angered at their northern neighbors’ failure to uphold the law.

 

And so, the southern states went to Congress and attempted to fix their problem.  In their eyes, the problem was that the northern states were acting in defiance of the United States Constitution and if their compliance could not be enforced, then secession would become a serious possibility.  As such, a new Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850 that would penalize government or law enforcement officials who refused to arrest runaway slaves, even those who were accused, without proof of being runaway slaves.  Further, any person who aided a runaway slave “by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.”[1]  And, although a $1,000 fine doesn’t sound too bad, if we adjust for inflation, this becomes almost $30,000 in 2017 dollars.  Accused slaves had no right to speak for themselves in court, no proof or documentation was required, and only the word of the accuser was needed to take someone into slavery.  In fact, in this way, a great many free blacks were taken illegally into slavery simply by a slave holder, or fugitive slave hunter, claiming that they belonged to them.

 

But still, many people, even at the risk of losing their homes, their businesses, and all that they owned, refused to comply with the law.  It was not only the Underground Railroad, but many people who harbored, protected, and transported fugitive slaves, as well as free blacks, in defiance of the law because they knew that the law was unjust and wrong.

 

We have similar discussions today about a number of subjects, but this is the core of the story that we hear in Exodus 1:8 – 2:10.  We rejoin the story of the people of Israel several generations after Joseph has died, and now, no one remembers, or cares, who he was or what he did for Egypt.

 

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

11 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13 and worked them ruthlessly.14 They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”

19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.

22 Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”


2:1 
Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.

Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said.

Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?”

“Yes, go,” she answered. So the girl went and got the baby’s mother.Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So the woman took the baby and nursed him. 10 When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.”

 

The Egyptians are worried that there are now so many of them, the Israelites might rise up and attack.  And so, the solution that the Pharaoh decided upon was to kill every Israelite male child at the moment of his birth.  But since there wasn’t a soldier in the household of every pregnant woman, they instead commanded the midwives to do their dirty work for them.

 

And here is the heart of the story for today.  The midwives are faced with this moral and ethical dilemma: Do you obey the law, murder an innocent newborn, or disobey the law, and risk imprisonment, beating, and death?  The midwives knew that the law was unjust and wrong, and they knew that obeying the law would be immoral, unethical, and evil.  Despite the risk of significant physical and emotional harm to themselves, they lied, and disobeyed the law in order to honor God.

 

Moses’ mother was forced to make the same moral judgement because although the midwives could lie and refuse to murder newborn baby boys, eventually those baby boys would be discovered by, or be reported to, soldiers who had no moral or ethical problems with obeying the commands of the Pharaoh of Egypt.  Moses’ mother hid him for three months, but at that point it became too difficult to keep his existence a secret.  Babies make noises, and they create smells, and other evidence that people will eventually notice.  And so, Moses’ mother made a deliberate choice to disobey the law and trust God rather than take the risk of him being discovered and murdered by an Egyptian soldier.  Instead of keeping him at home, she built Moses a basket made of papyrus reeds  that was waterproof enough to act like a boat (interestingly, in ancient times, it was common for boats to be built with bundles of papyrus reeds tied together and we also find that the original language for “basket” might also be translated as “ark”).  For her, risking that Moses might be carried out to sea, or drown, or eaten by wild animals, was better than the almost certain death that he faced if she kept him at home.

 

But all of that brings us to Romans 12:1-8, where the Apostle Paul describes what living the life of a follower of God looks like.


12:1 
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

 

Paul says that we should live as if we were daily sacrificing ourselves to God.  Paul understood that most of us will, thankfully, never be called upon to die for the sake of God, so instead of giving our lives in one dramatic moment, we called instead to give and to live each moment that we have as a gift to God.  Instead of living our lives in the way that others in our culture do, instead of living in order to gratify our desires, we are called to be transformed by studying and learning about God, and becoming the kind of people that God wants us to be.

 

In the end, the message for today leaves us with two difficult lessons.  First, although it might be unlikely, it is possible, that we might one day be faced with the choice of obeying the law and thereby doing something that we feel is morally and ethically wrong, or disobeying that law and facing whatever consequences might befall us because of that choice.  The midwives fully understood that they might be imprisoned or killed because of the choice that they made and our disobedience will likewise force us to risk whatever punishment there is for breaking that particular law.  We don’t have the time to discuss the specifics of the various people in our modern times that have done so, but the seriousness of this matter adds compellingly to Paul’s encouragement for us to be in regular study because when it happens to you, you had better be very sure of what it is that God wants.

 

The second lesson is even harder than the first.  Whether or not we are not asked to disobey the law in some dramatic fashion, every morning we are called to sacrifice that day to God.  We are called to live that day in a way that honors God.  The old saying, “What would Jesus do?” is just a start.  Every day we should live as Jesus would ask us to live.  At the end of every day we should ask ourselves if we have represented God, as ambassadors of his kingdom, in ways that would please God.

 

This is what it means when we say that we are called to be a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.

 

This is what it means for us to worship God daily.

 

Are you prepared to do the will of God… every day?

 

 

 

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[1] Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fugitive_Slave_Act_of_1850
U You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646.  These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at subscribe@trinityperryheights.org.  To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn.   These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

 

Can You See?

“Can You See?”

March 26, 2017

By John Partridge*

 

1 Samuel 16:1-13                   John 9:1-41                            Ephesians 5:8-14

 

What is it that you are good at?

Each of us is good at something.

With the possible exception of the very young, most people have invested enough time and effort into one or more subjects to have become reasonably good at them, and knowledgeable about them.  It might not be rocket science, but just about everyone knows a lot about something.  It might be engineering, or law, or medicine, but it might also be homeschooling, or auto repair, antique tractors, hair, jewelry, video games, coin collecting, home repair, or negotiating the convoluted steps of government grant writing.  Whatever it is that you are good at, we all recognize that there is a difference between knowing a little, knowing a lot, and being an expert.  We all know a little about filing our taxes, but if we’re smart, we know when it’s time to get our questions answered by an expert.  Many of us can do basic home repairs, but we still keep the phone number of a good plumber handy.

With that in mind, think about those times when, you, as a person who knows a little, or even a lot, about one particular subject, have had a conversation with someone who was truly an expert.  Wow.  Sometimes these experts give speeches, and we go to large arenas and concert halls just to hear them talk about the things we are interested in.  I follow Buzz Aldrin on Twitter and I read the blog written by Ben Witherington III.  Why? Because Buzz Aldrin has forgotten more about space, astronauts, and astrophysics than I can ever hope to know, and Ben Witherington has forgotten more about the New Testament scholarship and proper Greek translation than I am likely to ever learn.  When experts look at a problem, they see things that non-experts might not ever notice.  The efforts of people like me and other fans or novices are not likely to impress the experts.  What will impress the experts are not the things that might impress the rest of us and as a result, we sometimes notice that experts will make surprising choices because they can see and anticipate things that we cannot.

Not surprisingly, we see the same thing in scripture and we also see that when compared to God, even the experts are put to shame.

We begin this morning in 1 Samuel 16:1-13, where we hear the story of when God sent the prophet Samuel to anoint David as the king of Israel in place of King Saul.

16:1 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.”10 Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11 So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.

 

Throughout this story, everyone thinks and reacts only within the limits of what they know and of course, this is only natural.  We can only use the tools that we have.  We can’t use knowledge that we don’t have.  And so what we see is town elders who are afraid of God’s prophet because in the past they have witnessed him only as the bearer of bad news.  We have Jesse, the father of many sons, and the resident expert on what his children are capable of doing, who fails to call the youngest because someone has to watch the sheep, and who would imagine that the youngest would be of any value for anything that the prophet of God would want?  And finally, we have Samuel, the prophet of God, who is indisputably the expert on God, but who is utterly wrong about what God is looking for in a new king.

 

The town elders were wrong about why Samuel had come because they thought of him only as a messenger of doom.  Jesse was wrong because he assumed that David was too small and too young to be of any value.  And Samuel was wrong because he was only capable of looking at the superficial realities of how men appeared on the outside.  They were wrong because none of their expertise and knowledge came close to the expertise and knowledge of God.  Because God knows everything that is know-able, his expertise rises to levels that exceed even our imagination.  And because God’s expertise and knowledge so far exceeds our own, God sees differently than humans do.  What impresses God is not what impresses human beings, and God’s choices are often not what we would expect.

 

 

And that brings us to this week’s gospel lesson from John 9:1-41.  This is, as we noted last week, another story that is longer than usual, because it is one of the great stories of scripture.  It is the story of Jesus healing a man that had been born blind and it is a story that deserves to be read as a whole and not broken up and studied in pieces.


9:1 
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was.

Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”

But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.

11 He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

12 “Where is this man?” they asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said.

 

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”

But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.

17 Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

The man replied, “He is a prophet.”

18 They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. 19 “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”

20 “We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. 21 But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

24 A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

26 Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

27 He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”

28 Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”

30 The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. 32 Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

34 To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

 

35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

39 Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”

41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

 

The Pharisees, despite being experts in the Jewish scriptures and writings, were baffled by the healing of the blind man.  Their understanding led them to believe, just as the disciples had, that the man’s blindness, because blindness was bad, must have been a punishment from God.  And, at the same time, they had never seen, nor heard, of anyone being healed after being born blind.

 

But God’s understanding goes far beyond that of the religious experts, and Jesus explains that this blindness had not been caused by the sin of the man, nor of his parents, but that sometimes God allows bad things to happen “so that the works of God might be displayed.”  What Jesus is saying is hard for us to grasp.  But in this passage he tells us that sometimes God allows bad things to happen because, somehow, in ways that we cannot understand or comprehend, these things pave the way for something better to happen later.  Somehow, accidents, and even evil, are allowed by God because they fit into, and are a part of, the larger tapestry of God’s plan for the universe.  Now I’m not going to even try to tell you that this is much comfort when children die or when the innocent suffer.  It is impossible for us to even imagine what good could possibly be accomplished by such things.  But somehow, even in our suffering, even in our hurt, even in our disbelief, we must trust that God knows and understands more than we are capable of understanding and far more than we are even able to imagine.  Because God is all knowing, but also because God is loving, kind, and just, we must find a way to trust that these things are, somehow, a critical part of the plan of God because anything less would require us to believe that God is capricious and cruel instead of thoughtful and good.

 

But all of that brings us to the “So what?” part of the message.  What difference does knowing these things make to me?  And for that we arrive at Ephesians 5:8-14 where we hear these words:

 

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 14 This is why it is said:

“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

 

Paul says that because we believe, we have stepped out of darkness and into the light of God and as such we must live and act as if we are.  We must be agents of light, goodness, righteousness and truth.  Since God is the expert in everything, we must study the word of God to discover what things are pleasing to him and which of those things we can do.  Paul says that we must not only avoid darkness and evil but we must work to make the world better, and we must fight against immorality and evil.  We must not pass through the world as if we are asleep at the wheel.  We must wake up, rise from the dead, and do those things that God has commanded because he is the expert, and our job… is to change the world.

 

 

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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646.  These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at subscribe@trinityperryheights.org.  To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn.   These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

 

Helium, God, and the Church


Most of us want as little of God as possible.
    We don’t want to admit it of course, but God scares us.  My friend Brian Baer once read a meditation in our Sunday school class called “Just a cup of God please.”  It said that God is prepared to pour out blessings on us through a fountain the size of Niagara Falls.  But we come prepared to collect it in a tea cup because we’re afraid of what God might do with us if we had more.
    The other day I saw a yard sale sign with balloons attached to it but the balloons had been there too long.  Instead of floating, they just sort of hung there.
Lifeless. 
    As I drove by, it occurred to me that our churches are a lot like that.  We are like a balloon.  We are a vessel that takes its shape by being filled with the Spirit of God.  The more of him we contain, the more we begin to take the shape that he intends for us, the more we look like what God intends for us to look.
But to get there, we have to be stretched.
    Balloons aren’t useful unless they are stretched.  Until they are stretched, and dangerously close to bursting, they do not, they cannot, do the thing that they are intended to do.  If they aren’t stretched, they just hang there… lifeless.  
That’s exactly how many of us are.  We want God to come into the church, but too much of God frightens us.  
Being stretched is hard.
It scares us.
    We’re afraid of what might happen if we allow too much of God to come into our lives.  When balloons are too full they fly away or they burst.  We’ve read the stories in the Bible.  When God fills people up, scary things happen.  Life feels like it’s out of control.  Lives are changed.  God asks people to do things they’ve never done before.
Like helium in a balloon, when God comes in we get stretched.
    But if a balloon isn’t stretched by the helium in it, there isn’t enough to overcome the effects of gravity that is pulling it down and it just hangs there.  Lifeless.
    Likewise, even though it might feel safer, when there isn’t enough God in us to stretch us, then there isn’t enough of God to overcome the evil in the world that drags us down.  Without enough of God in the church, we look just like every other human organization. 
We don’t have enough God in us to take his shape.
I know that it’s scary.
Being stretched is uncomfortable.
Being filled with God feels dangerous (and it is).
But if we aren’t filled with enough God to really stretch us…
                  …we will never fly.

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Trayvon, George, and the Church

    I wrote Sunday’s message, “The Test”, long before the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was announced and yet, the parallels between these events and scripture reading were worth noting.

    In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) a religious lawyer seeks to use Jesus to assure himself that he is good enough to go gain eternal life.  The lawyer and Jesus agree that the two fundamental criteria are 1) to love God and 2) to love your neighbor, but that isn’t good enough and so he asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?”  In the time of Jesus, rabbis had differing opinion over who qualified to be a “neighbor” and these opinions ranged from friends and family, up to including anyone who was Jewish.  This man was hoping, even expecting, that Jesus’ opinion would be similar so that he could declare himself “good enough.” But Jesus goes an entirely different direction.  Jesus tells this story of a man who was brutally robbed, beaten and left for dead in the wilderness only to be rescued by a Samaritan.  
For many of us, this may also require some explanation.
    Long before the birth of Jesus, the Jews and the Samaritans hated one another with a deep and abiding hate.  Regardless of whose version of history you believe, hostilities between the Samaritans and the Jews dated back to the Old Testament, perhaps a thousand years or more.  Over the centuries, each side had attacked the other and had desecrated or burned the others’ temple.   A great many had been killed on both sides.  The only reason that the two groups were not fighting one another in the time of Jesus was that the Roman army was there to make sure that they didn’t. 
    In this environment of hatred, Jesus tells a story in which the Samaritan enemy was the hero and tells the man that even his enemy is his neighbor.  Jesus’ command is to “Go and do likewise.”  As followers of Jesus the  command to “Go and do likewise”  instructs us to show mercy to people we’ve never met, to share what we have with people who can’t do anything in return, to help people who aren’t like us, people who don’t like us, and even to people whom we consider to be our enemies.  It was a tough pill for that lawyer to swallow and it isn’t any easier for us today.  The parable of the Good Samaritan has always been, and will always be, difficult to put into practice.
    If we measure the events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin by this standard we find that everyone failed.  Both George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin failed when they chose to be suspicious and hostile and to engage in a brutal brawl on the ground rather than try to explain, discuss or walk away.  Both men assumed the other was his enemy.  The news media when they looked first for sensational headlines before reporting the facts.  Others failed because they were looking for an enemy and assumed that this violence was somehow different, that this murder was somehow more notable than the other thousands of young people who have been victims of violence since Trayvon Martin died. 
    Finally, the church failed.  We have known the story of the Good Samaritan since we were children.  We know that Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us.  And yet, even now, in the midst of this tragedy, the followers of Jesus Christ, both black and white, look to place blame and to see an enemy in others, rather than demonstrate mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.  For the church, this case cannot be about who is right or who is wrong.  A wedge has been driven between two groups who already saw the other as the enemy.  Instead of arguing over who was in the right, we must find ways to avoid this sort of violence that kills young men and women every day in Sanford, Florida, New York, Washington D.C., and all across our nation.  We must find ways to teach the things that Jesus commanded us to teach.  We must show mercy to people we’ve never met, share what we have with people who can’t do anything in return, help people who aren’t like us, people who don’t like us, and even people that we consider to be our enemies.  We are called to be agents of healing instead of division.  We must love our enemies, do good to those who persecute us, and yes, we must love our neighbors.
Each one of us can make the world a better place if only we would, “Go and do likewise.”

No, Mr. Oswalt, We Are Not All Good


    After the bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon, Patton Oswalt (from television sitcom the King of Queens) wrote a Facebook post that was quickly recopied and reposted around the world.  He said,
 “The good outnumber you, and we always will.” 
    This is a wonderful sentiment because Oswalt has already noticed that many people were running toward the explosion and not away from it.  People were not afraid as much as they were motivated to help those who had been hurt.  Finding this spirit and attitude in the American people is noteworthy and worthwhile.  I’m proud that we are not easily intimidated.  But after thinking about this, I realized that there was something bothering me.  Over time, I realized that ‘something’ was this: The good may outnumber the bad, but evil is never as far away as we would hope.
    I don’t mean to say that every human being is evil, but most of us are not as good as we like to imagine ourselves.  As hundreds of law enforcement officers were hunting down the bomber who was hiding in a boat stored in someone’s back yard, Patton Oswalt declares that most of us are good.  But are we?  After the bomber’s photograph had been discovered on surveillance tapes and distributed all around the world, what if he had been discovered sitting in a neighborhood bar or in some other public place?  I don’t mean, what would happen if the police discovered him, I mean, what would have happened if you or I were sitting at our neighborhood watering hole watching television and realized that the guy sitting next to us was the bomber we just saw on the news?
    Today, more than a month after the bombing, the chances are good that we would detain him until the police could arrive.  However, if he had been discovered in a public place the day after the bombing, it may well have been to coroner that came to get him instead of the police.
    Last month when Amanda Berry and the other girls were discovered in Cleveland, their rescuer, Charles Ramsey said something like, ‘It’s a good thing I didn’t know what he was doing next door or I would have gone over there with a baseball bat and it would be me the police were taking to jail.’
    I am a teacher of mercy, grace and forgiveness but if someone were to rape or murder a member of my family, they would probably be safer with the police.  That wouldn’t be the most Christian reaction, but I’m not sure how well I could control myself under those circumstances.
    Don’t get me wrong.  I’m just as inspired as you are by police, firefighters and others who run toward danger instead of away from it.  I’m glad that there are good people in the world who will rush to help a neighbor and that we come together as communities to help one another.
All I’m saying is this: We are not all good. 
There is darkness inside every one of us.
More often than not, the distance between good and evil is not nearly as great as we think.