Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church
P. O. Box 961690
Riverdale, Georgia 30296
(770) 997-7117 (770) 997-3312
Jeffrey M. Halenza, Pastor
I hope this finds you all well! Attached is the sermon I was going to preach this Sunday, along with the prayers we were to pray. I have also attached “A Prayer to Help Us through These Days”.
We are also looking at ways of “live streaming” sermons and prayers if we cannot hold services for a while. In the meantime, let me know if sending out written sermons and prayers is helpful.
Pastor Flanigan and myself will stay in regular touch with the congregation and offer whatever help we can. Please let us know if there are situations or particular needs we may not be aware of.
You are in our prayers and I hope we can soon resume gathering for worship and greeting one another without worrying about “Social Distancing”!
God Be With You,
Sermon The Reverend Jeffrey M. Halenza
March 22, 2020 Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church
John 9:1-41 Fourth Sunday in Lent
As Jesus walked 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?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “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.
For years my wife Kitty worked downtown. Before MARTA extended rail service to the airport, she would often ride the bus to and from work. I would drop her off at the stop at Flat Shoals and Old National in the morning and pick her up at the same stop in the evening. One afternoon she called and said that she wasn’t feeling well and asked if I could pick her up early. She would meet me, she said, at 3:30 in front of the Winn-Dixie instead of at the bus stop. That would be a better place to wait, she thought, if the bus was ahead of schedule. I said that would be fine. But as I was preparing to leave the office to meet her, the telephone rang and by the time I could graciously conclude the conversation I was running late. I raced down Old National, sped through the parking lot, and pulled up in front of Winn-Dixie hoping she wouldn’t be too upset. But she wasn’t there. At first, I was worried. Had she become too ill to ride the bus? Did she miss the bus? Then I thought that maybe she forgot where we were to meet and was standing at the bus stop. So I drove there. But she wasn’t there either. So I drove back through the parking lot to the front of the store. She still wasn’t there. Then I started to get mad. I’ll bet she went into the store, I thought. Why would she do that if she wasn’t feeling well? She’s probably stuck in line, I fumed. Suddenly, the car door on the passenger side was flung open and there stood Kitty, huffing and puffing. “Why... (huff)... didn’t... (puff)... you... (huff)... stop?!” she demanded. “What do you mean?” I demanded. And she said, “You looked right at me and kept going. I’ve been chasing you all over this parking lot!” And I said, “What in the world are you talking about?” And she said, “I was waiting at the Amoco station on the corner where you always turn into the parking lot. You were late, so I walked over there to look for you. You drove in, looked right at me, and kept going. I’ve been chasing you ever since!” And I said, “But I didn’t see you.” And she said, “Yes you did.” And I said, “But you weren’t where you were supposed to be. You were supposed to be here!” And she said, “But you saw me!” And I said, “I did not see you.” And she said... and I said... and she said... Well, maybe it would be best not to get into what she said and what I said. Even though I had looked right at her, I literally did not see her standing there. Because, well, I didn’t expect to see her there.
And that’s what our Gospel Reading for today is all about.
Seeing and yet not seeing.
Having 20/2O vision and yet being as blind as a bat to what’s right there before our eyes.
Really, it’s a story that hits close to home.
Because it’s a story about illness and disease and doubt and healing, a story filled with people questioning.
And the story can help us with such things.
By helping us understand that there is a difference between religion and faith.
And by helping us to see.
Think about the story.
Jesus and the disciples come across a man blind from birth. Immediately the disciples ask, “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” But where did that come from? Why in the world would the disciples ask such a thing?
Well, the question came from their religion. The disciples were good Jews, as was Jesus, and the Judaism of Jesus’ day taught that illness or disability was God’s punishment for sin – the sin of the person himself or the sin of the parents. Such punishment, this teaching went, was a form of chastisement which, if the person bore it graciously, could lead to later rewards. It was a belief that explained why things happened without questioning God’s love and righteousness. God was not being cruel in sending illness or disability upon someone, the belief held, because obviously the person deserved it – it was the person’s own fault, or his parent’s fault. God was actually being quite loving in that the punishment was meant to correct a person and thus save him. That was part of the belief system of the disciples – their religion. And so they asked who sinned.
Sound familiar? It should, because many of us carry similar beliefs within us. “Why is God punishing me?” we ask. And that question comes out of our religion, our beliefs about God. We want to understand why certain things happen. We want answers, explanations. And somewhere along the line we have been taught that the answer must be us, something we have done, that we deserve it. And even though we often really can’t buy that, still, we want answers or explanations so bad that we’ll blame ourselves anyway. Or blame others. Either way, we feel strangely comforted, because at least we can make sense of things and feel that we have some control over what happens. That’s what we want: a reason. And religion supplies one.
So like the disciples we believe there is a connection between what we have done and illnesses that strike.
But Jesus said no.
There is no connection between sin and illness – it is not God’s punishment. Period.
What Jesus did say was that the man was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him. But that sounds like Jesus was saying that God caused him to be born blind so that God could use him at a later date to make a point. And that would seem more cruel than God punishing the man. The idea that God would lay such a terrible thing on someone just to score a few points in a debate years down the line seems horrible.
So what did Jesus mean? That God could work through the man’s blindness. Jesus was not saying that God caused the man’s blindness. He was saying that even in the man’s blindness God’s power could work to help the man and others truly see.
Jesus wasn’t giving an answer or reason, but trying to open the disciples’ eyes to the presence and power of God in a very unlikely place.
It’s the difference between religion and faith.
Religion asks: Why is God punishing me?
Faith asks: How is God working in what is happening in order to bring life and hope?
Religion looks for explanations.
Faith looks for the presence of God.
Religion needs answers to thrive and holds fast to its explanations.
Faith lives without answers and holds fast to God.
And there’s another difference between religion and faith.
Religion sees God only where it expects to see God; faith is open to seeing God everywhere and in everything.
It’s the difference between the Pharisees and the man born blind.
The Pharisees were mainly concerned with what was not of God according to their religion. That’s what religion does: it spends most of its time and energy looking for and pointing out who is not from God, what is not of God, where God is not. Religion’s main preoccupation seems to be to protect itself and its beliefs, even protect God. So the Pharisees questioned whether the man ever really was blind, interrogated him and his parents, looked for all the reasons why his healing was not God’s doing and Jesus was not from God. Because they had already determined, on the basis of their beliefs, that Jesus couldn’t be from God and thus the healing couldn’t be of God. According to their beliefs, Jesus was a sinner - he violated the sabbath, didn’t follow their rituals, didn’t respect their rules. Besides, he was of questionable origin. He didn’t fit in their system and thus they couldn’t see God at work in him.
The blind man couldn’t have cared less about all of that. He didn’t know if Jesus was a sinner or not, didn’t even know who Jesus was. All he knew was that something wonderful and powerful happened to him, and he was willing to believe that it was of God. And that is what faith says: “All I know is that something happened.” And faith is willing to believe that the strength that came, the love that came, the healing that came, the peace or hope that came was from God, that God’s power and presence was at work.
Religion needs to make sure it is right before believing; faith believes before it knows whether it is right or not.
Believes because all we know is that something wonderful or powerful happened.
A Lutheran pastor has told of the time one of the pillars of the church he was serving stopped by his office to tell him that he had been “born again.” “You’ve been what!” the pastor exclaimed. The man said that he had visited his brother-in-law’s church the previous week and something – he wasn’t sure what – happened and he’d been born again. And the pastor blurted out, “You can’t be born again – you’re a Lutheran! You’re the president of the congregation!” And the pastor says that as the man stood there brimming with joy, he sulked. Then he comments that spiritual renewal is wonderful, but we prefer it to be within our own acceptable tradition so that it doesn’t disturb our understanding of God.
That’s religion’s reaction.
If it’s not the way we believe, then it’s not of God, religion says.
Faith says, “Who knows?”
Religion is certain of everything. It’s a closed system. It closes out everything that violates its understanding of God. And often it closes out God and Jesus and the surprising ways of God. Often it causes us to go blind to God who is right there before our eyes.
Faith is never certain of God, never certain where God might or might not be found or what God can or cannot do.
So faith remains open – faith looks for what is right before our eyes.
But how does this help us with illness and all the rest?
By helping us to ask Where more than Why.
By helping us to live without answers and live rather in the presence of God.
But how God is at work in what happens to each of us I cannot say – each of us can only answer that for ourselves.
What I can say is what others have seen of God. I can tell you that some have discovered how truly precious each day is and they have lived more in a few months than in their entire lives. I can tell you that some may not have been healed physically but healed in a far deeper way – the memories and guilts and old wounds healed. I can tell you that some have grown closer to family and friends and have come to know love like never before. I can tell you that some have realized that significance matters more than success and have started to live that way. I can tell you some have experienced the love of God like never before and have come to love God like never before.
And yes, I can also tell you about the angers and despair and frustration and confusion and hard questioning and doubts. But what I can also tell you is that what finally gave peace was not an explanation but a presence, discovering the presence of God in the last place you’d expect.
The very place the cross of Christ tells us to look: in bewilderment and confusion, even in pain and suffering and death.
What faith will see is the God who can work hope and life in and through all things.
And what faith will trust is that somehow in the power of God all shall be well.
Or to put it another way.
Religion drives right past God because it thinks it knows where God is.
Faith keeps its eyes open and sees God in unexpected places and opens the door to God and the life God can work out of all that happens.
Prayer of the Day
Pastor: The Lord be with you.
People: And also with you.
Pastor: Let us pray.
O Lord our God, sometimes we believe that you must be punishing us or something because of what happens. Sometimes we wonder what we have done to deserve what happens to us. At such times, O Lord, grace us with the faith that sees that you are not like that, the faith that sees you present with us to help and heal and raise us up to new hope and life, the faith that trusts your love in all things.
Prayers of Intercession
Pastor: O Lord our God, truly you are like a shepherd to us, a shepherd who cares for us and will guard and guide us through all things. Help us to see that and to trust ourselves to your care, to trust that truly you are our Good Shepherd and Great Friend. Lord, in you mercy,
People: hear our prayer.
Pastor: O Lord, we have so much and yet still we often feel empty, bored, so terribly lost. Shepherd us unto seeing that in your care we will never be in want, that never will we lack what we need most, which is your presence, your peace, your love and strength to manage all things. Lord, in you mercy,
People: hear our prayer.
Pastor: And on those days, O Lord, when we are played out and prayed out, worn to a frazzle, lead us to a still place, help us to stop and remember what matters most. And restore our weary spirits and revive us with new hope and joy. Lord, in you mercy,
People: hear our prayer.
Pastor: And shepherd us, O Lord, along right paths. Shepherd us in our work and at home, shepherd us in our choices and actions. And shepherd the children as they grow and parents too. And this nation, O Lord. Shepherd us all along the paths that lead to life and becoming the people you call us to be and we so want to be. Lord, in you mercy,
People: hear our prayer.
Pastor: And shepherd those, O Lord, who walk through the valley of illness and disease, death and grief. Help them not to be afraid. Grant them the peace of knowing that you are with them. Especially do we pray for those in our country and around the world stricken with the corona-virus. And we pray too for Carolyn Herche, Michelle Bryant, Ralph Turner, Barbara Hellwig, Harold Finney, Linda Keyser, Justin Markham, Martha Ratzman, Kay Douma, Judy Cable, Annette Flanigan, Ryland Jones, Joanne McGee, Sharon Allison, Barbara Gordin, Walt Sternke, Bill Dixon, George Pringle, Carl Berkobin, Sandy Tiedemann, Genelda Clinton, Eleanor Gibson, Sarah Fields, Kristi Gordin, Winifred Pernell, and Roberta Lecour. And for all those relatives and friends so dear to us. Lord, in you mercy,
People: hear our prayer.
Pastor: O Lord, you prepare a table before us, you throw a party for us, and the guest list includes friends and enemies alike. You invite us to sit down and battle no longer. You anoint us with forgiveness and fill us to overflowing with gladness. Help us to rise up from your table and be people who forgive and give life and help others overflow with gladness — to be shepherds ourselves, especially to those who are hungry and homeless, all who hurt and need our care. Lord, in you mercy,
People: hear our prayer.
Pastor: And shepherd this earth unto peace, O Lord! Lord, in you mercy,
People: hear our prayer.
Pastor: And now, O Lord, we pray our most personal prayers and listen for the word you speak to us, knowing that you are our Good Shepherd and Great Friend...
Pastor: Lord, in you mercy,
People: hear our prayer.
Pastor: O Lord, when we go back into the day, let your goodness and mercy accompany us in our work or retirement, in every moment of the day. Grace our days with laughter. Grant us the faith that trusts that all shall be well and that through all things you shall shepherd us home.
A Prayer to Help Us through These Days
O Lord, you are our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble,
we are not to fear
even though the earth should change
and the mountains tremble
with its tumult.
O Lord, be our help now!
Because we are in trouble,
much is changing,
the very ground beneath our feet feels like
it is shaking,
so tumultuous the times,
and the truth is
we do fear.
And so give us
to trust that you are with us
and will see us through it all,
to manage whatever comes,
and sense enough
to listen only to the voices
of those who actually know
what they’re talking about
and do what we should to protect others and ourselves.
O Lord, lift us in hope;
return kindness to our land;
move us to forget ourselves enough
to be there in whatever way we can
for the elderly who are isolated and
for those struggling financially;
grace our days,
especially these days,
and help us
to hold fast to your love,
the love that casts out
and to believe,
believe that all shall be well.