Sermons come from everywhere. They come from magazine articles and television shows and they most certainly come from the very mouth of God because some sermons just write themselves and I can barely remember the process let alone the words that I used once the sermon is done. I wish that happened more often than it does but the Spirit goes where it will.
There’s a joke about how many points your sermon has to have. At one time the prevailing wisdom was that you should have three points, that they should be organized in a straight line and they should each highlight a particular aspect of the Gospel message for that morning. While I was in Seminary one of my preaching professors would espouse the wisdom of there being four “turns” he called them, four transitions that brought you from story to scripture to interpretation to conclusion.
Apparently Debbie’s grandfather, a preaching professor from another era and a personal mentor of mine from beyond the veil of the grave, was sure that you darned sure better have one point if you were going to bother walking to the pulpit.
I wish I were that organized. Some Sundays, you may have noticed, I seem to wander around a little bit, I sometimes go off and tell a story and only when we get to the end does it become clear where I was going in the first place and hopefully, you come along on the entire journey because it really only makes sense once you get to the end, at least I hope it makes sense once you get to the end.
The thing is, these are the words of eternal life. “Lord to whom shall we go?” Jesus is asked, “you have the words of eternal life.” It is the fulfillment of my call to communicate that word with as much authenticity, as much passion, as much of the love for that very word and the Christ behind them as I feel on any single day and if it does not come across that i am passionately in love with Jesus and the word he has given me, then it might be time for me to find something else to do with my time.
So, as is the case a lot of the time, I see the whole process as a recipe, a mixture put together. I love to cook and so the metaphor has a lot of power for me, it is not a process of just adding in the thing you like, the things that make you happy; a chocolate raspberry steak with bourbon doesn’t sound good to anybody except the star chefs on television who can’t seem to help themselves mashing things up that do not belong together.
You have to measure the tastes, weigh the options, stir gently or the sermon will break like a custard cooked a little too hot.
If I were to pick out of thin air a criticism of some of the preaching that you hear on television or in churches these days it would be that some of them are all too suffused with gospel messages, and others are strictly, tightly wound communications of what the Law demands of people. Neither one is satisfying to the task of building up the faithful, they tilt too far to one side or the other and solid, predictable consistency is not the key, so far as I am concerned at least.
But the whole of our lives are like that these days, it seems. We spend, or are told to spend, a lot of our time gathering to us the things that make us happy and shunning all of the things that make us unhappy, spoiling ourselves with surround-sound, high-def, tailor-made, environments that filter out the noise and the messiness of the world around us, the world God has given us, including the noise and the messiness.
A diet of only cake, a faith life with nothing but fluffy and treacly-sweet Gospel, the words of eternal life and the love and grace of God will rot your teeth, or your motivation, your sense of responsibility for your fellow man, for the world around you. You can easily imagine a world in which nothing but the gospel was preached, nothing but the word stripped of the majesty of God, stripped of the justice of God, peeling the image of God down to nothing more than a big glowing bundle of indulgent love in the sky. You can easily imagine it because it is the church world we live in these days.
You can get soft pretty quick. You start taking the forgiveness of God for granted when you are never reminded what you are being forgiven for, the reality and presence of sin. You don’t want to talk about it, but it is the truth and if you ever find yourself taking some gift of God for granted, you have wandered from the path and need to come back home.
Likewise, if you hear nothing but the ever-present Law, the ever accusing Law, the justice of God and God’s demand for your righteousness, that will have an effect on you as well. The recently passed Fred Phelps seemed to preach only that end of the message, that side of the Word of God and how did it affect those who followed his lead?
You have to blend them together, season lightly with a couple of stories from the real world, from the news, and serve hot.
It is in the mixture of things that we find the workings of God, not just in the highs or the lows, the mountaintops or the bellies of the whale that we find God. We sometimes seem to forget that God is in the earthquake as well as in the sunny spring afternoon; that God abides at the end of things and not just as their beginning.
God is present in death as much as in life. We forget that sometimes, thinking the death is at one end of the spectrum and birth at the other in and in the middle you have life.
But in each and every second of each and every day of your life, awake and asleep, about three million of your cells die and about three million more and made to replace them. We are all the time dying and all the time being reborn, not just in terms of our cells, not just in our bodies, but also in our faith, in our spirit, in how we go about living.
Each day we die a little, no matter how much we want to deny it, how much we’d like to ignore it. We choose death when we seek only our own good and deny the call to be servants. We die a little when we do not hear the words that challenge our beliefs and try to teach us what God has in mind for us. We embrace death when we think that we can make our faith work for someone else just because we say so, trusting in the force of our words and not the word of God.
And each day Christ makes us alive. Each day we are forgiven, each day we are reborn.
While it might seem that it would be better to only have the one and not the other, like eating only cake that is unlikely to work out well for us. Look at the world we live in, with our staunch denial of death, our striving to stay young, stay alive, shop at Forever 21 which given my observations of the clientele ought to be called “Clearly forty-seven.” We do not grow old gracefully; in fact, we try to deny that we are growing old at all, that death is always with us, sticking close.
But that never, ever works out, does it? Everyone here will die, everyone we know will die, everything we see will fall, entropy wins and that is the world God has given us.
That is the world that God has given us. Death as well as life, Law as well as Gospel, broccoli as well as doughnuts.
When Jesus finds the man born blind he steps into a place where the Law is all that people can see, all that they can hear in their ears when they listen for the voice of God. “Who sinned that this man was born blind” is the question Jesus has to answer here and in that question is the Law. There are actions and there are consequences and that is the way that the world works, when you sin, there is punishment, who bears the punishment is the only thing under dispute.
Even once the man is healed by Jesus the only thing on the minds of those all around is the Law, whether it is right to heal on the Sabbath, who does this man think he is? If he heals on the Sabbath, He is a sinner, and therefore he cannot be from God. Those are the rules, everyone knows that.
It sounds cut and dried and that kind of thing has an appeal for folks. If you know the rules you know where you are, not just in relation to the rules but also in relation to God. All of the Pharisees know the Law and they know where they are in relation to all of the people that they encounter every day and where they find themselves is above them. And they like it that way. When you are the judge, the interpreter of the Law everyone must answer to you and so your judgment is important, God’s relationship to everyone is up to you according to the Law and so you preach the Law and only the Law.
But imagine living like that. Imagine the scrutiny, the suspicion, the incessant barking of the Law, pointing to everything that you are doing wrong, everything that everyone else is doing wrong constantly surrounded by the knowledge of how far the gap is between you and your God.
Into that picture Jesus decides on a different recipe, mixing in grace, the knowledge that following the words of scripture is not the same as understanding them, understanding that Grace is all throughout the Law as well, that the Law itself is meant to be a blessing to people, God’s message of love to God’s creation. Sure there is sin in the world, but the shaking of the finger in judgment is not the only response, the recipe can be richer than that, better than that, better for the whole creation.
It takes the Law to show you where your errors lie. That is important, it is right and salutary to know that God is God and you are not; that is truth; that is honesty; that is the beginning of maturity. But if you stay there you do not get all that God has in store for you.
It takes the grace of God to remind you that God’s story is one of love and of hope and of a future that includes you. It is the story of healing and resurrection, of unmerited grace. It cuts through the bitterness of the Law with a hint of sweet, balancing the Word of God and making it the whole truth.
If you deny death and work against it, pretending it will not come to you and that God wants only life; it will drive you to your knees when it does come, you will not see it on the horizon and you will not be able to find God’s healing in it.
If you see that God has woven death into life itself, intertwining them in a dance that life gets to lead most of the time, and death only gets to lead once. You need them both to understand everything that God has given you, the true length and breadth of God’s generosity. Death teaches us to value life, life teaches us to value death.
So it is with the Gospel this morning. Jesus teaches the Pharisees to value the grace of God and not just the Law of God, that they are not enemies but partners. The Law says not to work on the Sabbath and that is a good thing, it is good for you to take a Sabbath time to find you relationship with god and to nurture it. But when you make that so rigid that mercy, something God treasures; or generosity, something else God treasures have no place in that Sabbath time you have closed the door on what God has in store for you, blinding yourself to half of God’s will.
As death informs how we live, so grace informs how we see the Law. It is not the enemy of grace, just as death is not the enemy of life; they are sides of the same coin, facets of the same gem.
When the Pharisees speak of blindness it is blindness to this truth that Jesus answers them with. If you have only the Law, if that is all that you can see then condemnation is all you will find, lex semper accusat, the Law always accuses. You will be blind to the grace that God is pouring out all around you.
Jesus gives us the sight to see this while pointing out the blindness of those who will only see the law. If they were blind to the law they would have no sin, but since the law is all that they will see, they are lost in their sin.
Death and life, law and gospel. We live in the balance between them. We cannot do this with only one, we need them in partnership or we are getting only half of what God has intended for us, and God wants us to have it all.