March 22, 2020 – “Prone to Wander: Worship ‘Normal'” by Rev. Cody Sandahl

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Lay Reader = John 9:1-12

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

8The 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?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He 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.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

Introduction

We are continuing our Lenten series looking at the ways we are prone to wander away from God and how Jesus points us back in the right direction. And this is our second week of video worship. Last week, Pastor Carol shared how worship can be in unexpected places and with unexpected people. This week we are looking at how Jesus upended people’s expectations of “normal.”

Now this is a difficult topic for me, because “normal” is a word that has rarely been applied to me. I’m more familiar with “odd,” or “strange,” or “weird.” Although my mom says I’m “special.” But as odd or strange as you might think I am today, you can’t even fathom how “not normal” I was in high school. I am very glad that my wife did not meet me when I was in high school. I don’t think she would’ve liked me. So it was God’s grace that we didn’t meet until after college.

All of this is just to say that I’m not entirely sure what “normal” is. I’ve never been normal. I’ve heard of normal, but it’s more of a rumor to me than a reality.

But I can tell you what the religious leaders in our text today thought was normal, and what they thought was strange. And I can tell you what Jesus’ disciples thought was normal and what they thought was strange.

We started the story in our first reading today. We heard how Jesus’ disciples wondered whose sin caused this man’s blindness – that was part of their definition of normal. And we heard how Jesus made mud with his spit and healed the man’s eyes. Can we all agree – that’s not normal? Yeah. Gross. And now we’ll pick up the story again as the man is brought in front of the religious leaders.

John 9:13-38

13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then 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.” 16Some 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. 17So 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.” 18The 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 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but 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.” 22His 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. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24So 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.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He 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?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Suffering

“What did I do to deserve this?”

That’s a pretty common question when we’re suffering, right? “What did I do to deserve this?” Maybe some of us have been wondering that over the past week. Maybe some of you will be thinking it this week. It’s a very common question.

But that question makes some assumptions about the universe. These are the same assumptions the disciples had when they asked Jesus in our first text today, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In other words, “What did HE do to deserve this?” Or since he was blind from birth, “What did HIS PARENTS do to deserve this?”

The assumption here, which is the same assumption we make when we ask, “What did I do to deserve this?” – the assumption is that bad things do not happen to good people. The assumption is that bad things happen because someone did something bad. The assumption is that the universe in general or God in particular is vengeful. You mess up? You get what’s coming to you!

That’s the assumption. But is it a valid assumption? Is our God vengeful? If you mess up, do you get what’s coming to you? Did you do something to deserve this? Did this blind man’s parents do something to deserve this?

Well Jesus gave his answer in our first text today. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” So we see that Jesus has a different set of assumptions. This man did not do something to deserve this. This man’s parents did not do something to deserve this. God is not vengeful in this way.

Instead, Jesus assumes that God’s glory can shine through any circumstance. God’s glory can shine through any situation. God’s glory can shine through suffering. That’s a very different assumption.

Jesus assumes that God can be found, doing good things, even in the midst of suffering that wasn’t deserved. Think about that assumption. God can be found…doing good things…even in the midst of suffering that wasn’t deserved.

“Normal”

But that wasn’t the assumption of the religious leaders in our text. This was a sabbath day, which in Jewish culture meant there were rules to be followed. Work was not supposed to be done on the Sabbath. In fact, over time a system had developed whereby 39 categories of work were prohibited.

For a contemporary example, manipulating electrical switches is now considered “work” for orthodox Jews. So what if you live in a high-rise apartment building and you have to take the elevator up thirty-nine floors. Climbing that many stairs would be work. Pressing the buttons on the elevator would count as work. Both would be violating the Sabbath.

So elevator companies created the Sabbath elevator. It runs on an automatic pattern to every floor without requiring pressing the buttons. So an orthodox Jew can get on the elevator and keep riding it until it reaches the correct floor before getting off. No electrical switches? No work! Who cares if you had to ride an elevator that stopped on 38 floors before reaching yours?!?

I share that only to show the level of detail that Jewish culture and Jewish law have about the Sabbath. So for Jesus to heal someone on the sabbath was very abnormal. It was downright strange. Even stranger than me in high school.

So when this formerly blind man came before the Pharisees, they didn’t celebrate his healing. No, they asked him, “How did it happen?” And they kept at this! They attacked his parents! They attacked the man! They accused him of being a sinner while they were righteously perfect! And they cast him out of the community! All because the healing wasn’t done in the “normal” way on the “normal” days.

The religious leaders in our text today assumed that God could only be found in the “normal” ways. In the “normal” places. In the approved forms. God can only be found after these seven forms have been filled out properly. And you better cross your T’s and dot your I’s!

But do you remember Jesus’ assumption? Jesus assumed that God can be found, doing good things, even in the midst of suffering that wasn’t deserved. And that means God can be found, doing good things, anywhere.

Seeing God Now

Let me share with you some of the ways I have been seeing God, doing good things, even in the midst of incredible disruption.

One example starts somewhere around the year 1997. I can’t remember exactly, but around that year I started thinking about what spiritual formation might look like using this new tool called “The Internet.” I was fourteen at the time, and I had started working with a designer to create websites for businesses. So I started a concept called “VR Church.” That stood for “Virtual Reality Church.” It sounds stupid now, but it was catchy at the time.

In the twenty-three years since that initial foray into digital faith formation, I have tried many different models. I have run pilot groups. I have examined the successful online churches. And around Christmas I received a stirring from the Holy Spirit to pick up that idea again.

For the last three months or so, I have been making notes about faith formation over the Internet without meeting in person. And so when we had to cancel worship services last week, I had a grab bag of ideas which I had already contemplated deeply.

I see God doing good things in that long preparation and that heads-up I received back around Christmas. God was with me there, even though I didn’t know we would need it this soon.

I have heard from many of you that you miss seeing each other. You miss your Bible study group. You miss choir. You miss worship! Video worship isn’t “normal!”

But I believe God has already been present, doing good things, even over a video. I heard at least one person who felt like Pastor Carol’s video sermon last week was speaking directly to them. God was with us.

I have heard from several of you who were feeling down, and you felt uplifted by the video worship even though it was very different from “normal.” God was with us.

I heard how the Shabby Sheep women’s group have been checking to see if anyone needs shopping help. Relationships have continued on the phone. A couple of the leaders asked me to train them on video conferencing so that the group might continue meeting digitally. That immediate response, that immediate compassion – God is with us.

Right now we’re working on getting teams to reach out to those who are most isolated and most lonely. A weekly phone check-in for support isn’t “normal” connection like visiting someone in person. But God will be there, doing good things, in a weekly phone call.

It’s pretty easy to notice what’s not normal right now. It’s pretty easy to notice what’s wrong right now. It’s pretty easy to notice our complaints, our inconveniences, and indeed our true sufferings. Those are easy to notice.

But rather than spending our attention on those easy “abnormal” observations, I encourage you to try to notice where God is present, doing good things, even in the abnormal, the strange, and in suffering that is not deserved. Jesus assumes God will be present, doing good things, in the midst of the abnormal. Where do you see God present, doing good things?

In fact, here’s something you can do this week to respond. Think of someone in your life, someone from this church, someone in your neighborhood, who might be feeling isolated or lonely or exhausted or depressed. Call them. Share with them where you see God doing good things. Ask them what good things God is doing around them. Be the relational presence over the phone that you can’t be in-person. Your phone call might BE the good thing that God is doing.

Maybe, maybe, we can put the emPHAsis on a different sylLAble. Instead of spouting in bitterness, “What did I do to deserve this?” maybe we can wonder in thanksgiving for God’s goodness, “What did I do to deserve THIS?” Amen.

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