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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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

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.

 

“Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 15
Micah 6:1-8

Psalm 15

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?


This passage from Micah is a curious one.  Micah paints this picture of God in court.  God has a controversy with the chosen people.  And the mountains and hills, the foundations of the earth, are hearing the case.

In this case, God asks the people, “What have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you?  Answer me!”  And then God goes on to list time after time in which God delivered and rescued the people.  All along, God had instructed the people to remember their history, to tell the stories, to keep God’s saving acts at the forefront of their common memory.  But in all likelihood, they haven’t been doing this, for God has to lead them, story by story, through a remembering of God’s generous and saving acts.

I hear this exchange, and I cannot help but hear it like the conversation of a parent & child.

In my wife’s parent’s home, if you use the restroom (which inevitably you’ll have to at some point), you will see an array of inspiring poetry and anecdotes pinned to the wall directly in front of you.  And they all hail the mother:  the mother who provides, the mother who sacrifices, the mother who loves unconditionally, the mother who is always there…  On and on you read accolades to a mother’s love!

And can you guess who put them there?

Yes, her mother!  😊

In this courtroom scene painted by Isaiah, God’s frustration with the people, reminds me of a mother who is simply put out with the entitlement, lack of gratitude, and forgetfulness of her children.  After all, she has provided, she has been there, she has rescued, she has had mercy, she has had compassion, she has given and given and given…  Yet still her children want more.  Still her child feels slighted.  Still her child is irritable when asked to do something for the family…

Can you imagine the scenario?

God has rescued, saved, provided, showed compassion, taught, healed, guided the people.  And yet, they are weary.  Yet, they have a chip on their shoulder.

And so the listing begins.  From a child’s perspective, this could be what they’d call “guilt-tripping,” but the Mother, the Father, they start to list all the ways they’ve poured themselves out for this child (much like those must-reads on the bathroom wall at Incy’s childhood home).  And even this feels like a concession because what had God instructed them to do?  To REMEMBER the deeds of the Lord, to write them on their doorposts, to tell them to their children, to erect monuments to remind the people of God’s love and salvation.  AND YET STILL, GOD is having to remind the people of all the ways they have been blessed.  GOD.

Can you sense the irritation?  Can you sense the long-suffering of the parent?

God has rescued time after time.  God has delivered.  God has guided.  God has provided…

And yet, it is never enough.

Never enough.

Does that ring a bell?

And then the flavor in the courtroom changes.  For the first time, we hear from the people.  And they say:

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Again, in this I hear the plea of a child, “What can I do that will ever be enough?  Will this be enough for you?  Will this?”  And the child lists thing after thing…to the extreme.  It’s not, “Will a ram be enough for you, God?” but “Will thousands of rams be enough for you?”

And what are children doing when they talk in these extremes?  What are we doing when we talk like this to our parents?

We are actually making a statement about how picky they are, how demanding they are, how difficult they are, how impossible they are!

So I am not sure whether the people are actually feeling remorseful at this point, or if they are simply complaining back to their heavenly parent, defending their actions with the complaint that God is too picky and impossible.  And maybe it’s a mixture, as most things are.  Perhaps they feel a bit guilty but defensive, as it feels impossible to meet God’s expectations.

And this is where God boils it down for them. 

Yes, God has taken the firstborn of sinners in the past.  God did that in Egypt when the Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go out of slavery…

Yes, God has instructed the people to bring sacrifices:  the fruit of their fields and flocks.

But what God is truly wanting is

Justice,

Kindness, &

Humility. 

Justice.       Kindness.       Humility. 

And isn’t this what most parents are wanting too? 

Do what’s right.

Be respectful and kind.

And don’t start thinking more highly of yourself than you ought.  We all make mistakes….

So brilliant about this instruction is it’s mercy:  injustice is never okay, but we all go there from time to time, so be kind, make it right, and stay humble.

Since none of us will ever completely and fully do justice, we need humility to keep us open for correction, for repentance, for growth.

THAT is what is pleasing to God. 

My grandfather was a minister as well.  And while he was passionate and articulate, he also embodied many of the societal sins of his day.  He would not allow his wife to study alongside him, though she very much wanted to.  He wouldn’t allow her to speak in church.  He required her to eat just as much as him, which wreaked havoc on her body, and he was a harsh man to live with.  But as he aged, he kept on growing.  He was passionate in his beliefs, but at some point he knew better than to think he knew it all, and so he held even his most beliefs up to the light.  And over time, God was shaping and molding him, polishing the beauty in him and sluffing away the evils, making him a much kinder and more open person to know.

When I was young, we were all afraid of him.  But in his final years, we could talk with him.  And he would share what God was teaching him – that women too were preaching, full of the Spirit, for example.  And in the end, he gave me his entire library.

It is never enough to get everything right. 

It is never enough to be resolute and passionate. 

We always need humility. 

…Because God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and God’s ways are higher than our ways.

God is giving the people a touchstone.

God is giving the people a way.

No they will not get it right all the time, but they are to try.

They are to try because it absolutely matters that we do what’s right, what is just.

But knowing that they will not always get it right, kindness and humility are a must.

The whole package.

Are we…

DOING justice?

LOVING kindness?

And WALKING humbly with our God?

Like a loving and understanding parent, our God knows we are made of dust.  God knows we are both full of beauty and harm.  And so God has given us this guide.

May we,

In our homes,

In our families,

In our workplaces,

In our schools,

In our neighborhoods,

Behind the wheel,

In our society,

In our political life,

In our hearts,….

DO justice, LOVE kindness, and WALK humbly with our God.