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“Open, Empty, Humble”

Katherine Todd
John 9:24-41
Luke 1:26-38

John 9:24-41

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.

 

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

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For nothing will be impossible with God.

The angel Gabriel comes to Mary, and tells her crazy, wonderful, wild, and impossible things.  Few encounters are so entirely world-altering as this news would be to Mary’s entire life.  She will give birth to a child, who will be great and will reign on the throne of David…forever.

None of this message could be true.

Could it?

She, a virgin, pregnant?  Giving birth?
The child, with God – quite literally – as his father??
This child a King?
…to reign on the throne of Israel?
…forever??

Mary is being asked to believe in impossible things.
Mary is being asked to trust, beyond the boundaries of her mind and all her life experience.

 

What we view as possible is changing all the time.

I remember thinking as a child that the next invention would be a phone where you can see people as you speak.  And voila!  We have that and soooo much more!

Had you told the apostle Paul that you could communicate with peoples on the other side of the world, in minutes, or that you could go there in a day, he would have thought you mad.  It was impossible.

Flying was impossible…until it wasn’t.
Talking across miles was impossible…until it wasn’t.
Broadcasting your video to the world was impossible…until it wasn’t.
Making a video was impossible……..until it wasn’t.

Who are WE to say what IS and ISN’T possible?!?

 

All we have are the boundaries of our own experience, the limits of our understanding, the borders of our imagination and vision.  Thus, every time we pass judgement, we are incorrect.  We simply cannot perceive all that is or can be.

So when GOD says something, we do well to listen. 
When GOD guides our steps, we do well to follow.
When God makes a promise,
speaks a word,
makes a move,
you can believe it.  You can count on it.  You can build your house on it; it is solid.

 

The difficulty then is in the hearing.  Do we believe God still speaks at all?  If so, do we believe we have the capacity to hear God?  And if we hear God, who might rightly interpret what we hear?

So many questions – all understandable, all legit.

And yet Mary, with the faith of a child, accepts this word of Gabriel as from God. 
Mary, with the faith of a child, believes what she cannot see or understand.
Mary, with the faith of a child, opens herself – her mind, her heart, her body, and her entire life – to the will of God.

 

Can you imagine?

Quite often it is precisely because we’re so grown up that we cannot believe.
Most often, we grow to trust our own experiences more.
We learn things and therefore think we see and understand.
And what does scripture say about those who think they can see?  That they in fact are blind.  But about those who know they are blind, they can see!

Whatever our training and education,
Whatever our degrees and certifications,
Whatever our history and experience,
Whatever our vision and foresight,
WE cannot grasp the Truth.  We cannot capture the Way.  We cannot contain Life.

We
do not have
the capacity
to
behold
God. 

 

Children know this.
They are open.
They are curious.
They are humble.

Mary knew this
as she suspended her own understanding and imagination and experience
in order to make room for GOD. 

And so it is that Mary makes room for Christ. 

 

It isn’t about her decorating a baby room, buying baby insurance, diapers, or formula.
She makes room for Christ
by humbling herself.

In humbling herself, Mary makes room for the possibility of Christ. 

 

It can be tempting to compare ourselves to one another and then think better of ourselves when we “come out on top.”  It can be easy to look at the evening news and think, “I’m glad I’m not a person like THAT.”  We are always better at something, relative to someone else.

And this can woo us into an inflated sense of ego.

We might look around us in church and think, “I come more often than so & so” or “If only so & so would do things my way” or “wow, look at that sin!”  But in this case too, we are seduced into thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought.

Any measurements we take of ourselves should be relative to God.
Do we know what God knows?
Have we experienced what God has experienced?
Who among us has made what God has made?
Who among us sees what God can see?

And if we come out lacking, we have every reason to humble ourselves, to lift the veils of our egos, and make ourselves open like an empty glass.

Are we empty, like a dry and ready sponge, to make room for Christ?
Are we open, like a covid-time social calendar, to make room for Christ?
Are we ready, like well-aged wine, having soaked ourselves in the yeast that is Christ?

Do we accept the twists and turns, as the ocean accepts all rivers?
Do we hunger, like a baby bird waiting for its mother?
Do we trust, like a child – gleefully squealing as his father throws him high into the air, begging him to do it “Again!”

 

May we be as Mary – open, accepting, obedient, humble –
for this is how we ready ourselves.
In acknowledging that we cannot see,
God gives us eyes to see,
…eyes
to BEhold
and BEheld
by Jesus Christ, Emmanuel!

 

In these words of Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) let us quiet our hearts and minds, praying together.

I keep projecting my present condition onto the future.  If I feel dark, the future looks dark; if I feel bright, the future looks bright.  But who am I to know what life will be like for me tomorrow, next week, next year, or ten years from now?  Even more, who am I to know who you will be for me in the year ahead?  O Lord, I will not bind you with my own limited and limiting ideas and feelings.  You can do so many things with me, things that might seem totally impossible to me.  I want at least to remain open to the free movement of your Spirit in my life. …O Lord, let me remain free to let you come whenever and however you desire.  Amen.

 

 

PRAYERS                                                         [Hildegard of Bingen, Germany (1098-1179)]

Holy Spirit – giving life to all life, moving all creatures, root of all things, washing them clean, wiping out their mistakes, healing their wounds – you are our true life:  luminous, wonderful, awaking the heart from its ancient sleep.

[George Appleton, England (1902-1993)]

Give me a candle of the Spirit, O God, as I go down into the deeps of my being.  Show me the hidden things, the creatures of my dreams, the storehouse of forgotten memories and hurts.  Take me down to the spring of life and tell me my nature and my name.  Give me freedom to grow, so that I may become that self, the seed of which you planted in me at my making.  Out of the deeps I cry to you, O God.

 

“Pleasures Forevermore”

Rev. Katherine Todd
John 20:19-31
Psalm 16

 

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

Psalm 16

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.”

As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble,
in whom is all my delight.

Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;
their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
or take their names upon my lips.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.


 

This Psalm is rich.

The Psalmist confesses that God is his chosen portion, his sustenance, the one who holds his lot.  I like this because it speaks to the choice God gives us and to the responsibility we have to choose.  The Psalmist reports that in choosing God, he has effectively surrendered his sustenance and his lot in life, to God.  This is a supreme measure of trust, truly a surrendering, to have God take control over the outcomes of our lives.

Then the Psalmist acknowledges the blessings in his life – how the boundary lines for his life have fallen in pleasant and good places.

I find this confession of gratitude particularly moving because we generally have a harder time truly seeing the gifts we have inherited and those God has given.  I’ve found that this season of quarantine has accented for me the blessings in my life.  I have others, with whom I can eat and watch a movie.  I have folks I can hug and kiss.  I am not alone.  I have folks I worry about – which means I have folks I care deeply about in this life.  I am more acutely mindful of just how blessed I am by those paid the least in our society, the trash collectors, the grocery workers, those who make toilet paper, and those who run around warehouses fulfilling our online orders…  I am aware of how much more space I have to quarantine than many, if not most, in our world have.  Only a year ago and this quarantine would have rendered 4 people wedged in a two-bedroom apartment.  And for how many would even that be a luxury?

 

I am grateful to still seem well.  I am grateful to not have lost anyone dear to this dreadful virus.  I am grateful for private transportation – for the chance to get out without feeling vulnerable to a multitude of other people’s germs.  I am grateful that my work doesn’t require me to put myself and my family at risk on a day to day basis.

I am grateful.  But without a crisis to highlight how fortunate we are, do we actually stop long enough to ponder the ways our lives have been built on the shoulders of others; the ways our parents set us up for success; the benefits we enjoyed of education, connection, and experience?  My own experience is that my laments and complaints quite often steal the lion’s share of my attention.  So this Psalmist’s awareness of his blessings in life is quite notable.

 

Then the Psalmist describes his communication with God.  He says God counsels him, that his own heart guides him in the night, and that God is always before him.  With God at his side, he is secure, he is confident, he is stable and steadfast.

And this my friends, is a feeling quite scarce these days.
How many of us feel confident and secure?

The test of this for me has been grocery shopping.  Every day I learn something new, a new way to protect myself, new best practices and strategies, and every day I find myself wishing I’d known more and done better, earlier.  Each time I go to the store, I find myself winding up tight, like a coil compressed and ready to unleash.  The anxiety and discomfort of my mind manifesting in physical tension, pain, and exhaustion.

But this Psalmist writes that because he has God ever with him, before him and guiding him, that his heart is glad, his soul rejoices, and even his body rests secure.  His body rests secure.  How I am yearning for that!

 

It would seem that…

Living life with God taking the reigns and controlling the outcomes…
Living a life in which God counsels us, staying ever before us,…
Living a life of seeing and giving thanks for the blessings undergirding our lives…
This is a life the Psalmist finds life-giving, joyful, and secure.

And isn’t this what we all yearn for?  Life.  Joy.  Security? 

 

The Psalmist is secure in trusting that God does not give up on him but shows him the path of life.

I remember once, decades ago, as a staff member at Camp Hanover, how one of the lifeguards was gathered with friends in staff lounge, cutting up and shooting the breeze.  A fellow lifeguard, new to the role, came in to ask a question about lights, and instead of showing her how to do it, he withheld information needed for her to succeed and rather made fun of her as soon as she left.  I was taken aback.  But isn’t it true that quite often we are more comfortable judging and despising one another, than in helping one another and pointing one another in the right direction?

Our God did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through God.  And here, long before Christ came to walk the earth among us and work his saving acts, this Psalmist understood the heart of God:  he understood that God shows us the way, so that we might be blessed and be a blessing.  God shows us the ways that lead to life, so that we might have life and live it to the fullest!  Thanks be to God!!!

The Psalmist has experience to show him that in God’s presence is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. 

 

Do we have these experiences?
Have we tried and tested our faith? 

Have we pushed back on traditional teaching to challenge those things that make no sense to us – perhaps that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, or that we must lose our lives in order to find it?

Jesus said many things that folks found it very hard to swallow.  And if we are being honest, we will too.  But until we raise up our doubts and test our faith, we cannot be transformed by our God.  Until we experience God’s timely word, God’s saving arm, God’s perfect provision, God’s answers to our doubts…our confession of faith is often mere ritual.

 

Do you want to be someone who can honestly say that your mind is at peace and that your body rests secure?

Do you want to be someone who experiences fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore?

Do you want to entrust the outcomes of your life to the only One who truly sees, the master-gardener, the virtuoso Artist of your life?

 

Until we, like Thomas, question the things we do not understand, until we exercise our muscles of faith – following wherever God leads, until we let go the reigns of our lives and entrust all that matters to our Lord God, we will never know the awesome power and salvation of our God.

When Thomas doubted, it must have been hard.  He was alone in his disbelief.  And that uncomfortable position lasted for a full week.  But God met him.  God showed up for him.  God answered him!

 

As we navigate the new landscapes of our changing realities,
As we work and move and shop differently,
As we wrestle in isolation and quarantine,

May we like Thomas squarely face our demons, our questions, our doubts, our desires and hot anger.

May we bring our full selves before the living God, in honesty and truth.

And may we experience God-with-us in new, transformative ways

So that we too may joyfully confess with the Psalmist,

That with our God is life and peace and security

Gratitude, joy, and pleasures forevermore!