This sermon was preached by the Rev. Nancy A.G. Vogele on Sunday, March 26, 2017, the Fourth Sunday in Lent. The gospel reading was John 9:1-39.
Open to Change
[Play the “Question game” (from Drew Carey’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Show).]
We don’t just ask questions to ask more questions, though, do we? We ask questions because we are seeking answers.
About 10 or 12 years ago, I needed some answers. I was experiencing a lot of headaches. At first I ignored them or took a couple of aspirin, but when they kept reoccurring, I decided to ask my doctor about it. She ordered a series of tests but they showed nothing physically wrong so she suggested I go see someone with a lot of experience treating people with headaches that were caused by non-biological reasons.
This person was really helpful. She asked me a bunch of questions to help me unpack all the possible reasons for the headaches based on how I was living my life: Was I getting exercise? Was I stressed? What was the pace of my life? How was my diet?
She also taught me about “automatic thinking” – viewing something in a non-reflexive way – and how that related to my headaches. I still have one of her worksheets that lists “questions to challenge automatic thoughts.” Here are a few:
– Is there any alternative way of looking at this situation?
– How would someone else think about the situation?
– What are the advantages and disadvantages of thinking this way?
The biggest take away from her was to ask questions in an open, curious way. This gave me new insight into my headaches, which, in turn, helped diminish them greatly.
Our quality of life, our perception of reality, our ability to see a situation clearly depends on the questions we ask. Ask a good question, and you pave the way to finding a good answer.
Guess how many questions people asked in this morning’s Gospel lesson? 16! It’s like they were playing the “Question Game.”
The disciples ask Jesus “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus’ response indicates that they weren’t asking the right question. In fact, a lot of the questions people asked in the Gospel lesson today and the way they asked them, didn’t leave much room for open ended exploration.
Immediately after Jesus healed a man born blind, the whole town was buzzing with the news and the townspeople questioned the man about what happened – questioned even if this was the same guy who had been blind. Then the Pharisees proceeded to ask him all sorts of questions: How were your eyes opened? Where is the man who did this to you? What do you say about him?
No one asked him, “Wow! What’s it like to see?” or “How does it feel?” No one rejoiced with him and said, “Praise be to God!” They were too busy asking him accusing questions.
Here’s a guy who is seeing for the first time in his life. It’s the first time he’s seen his mother and father…the first time he’s seen his own hands or a smile or the gleam in someone’s eye. And yet, no one rejoiced with him.
The Pharisees even called for his parents and asked them a series of accusing questions, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ The parents were understandably leery of the Pharisees and so they said to ask their son, not them.
And since Jesus had done this on the Sabbath – a day of rest when no “work” was to be done, the Pharisees called Jesus a sinner. And yet, they kept asking the man questions about this Jesus. So many that the man asked them a question: “Do you also want to become his disciples?”
They got so mad at him that they threw him out of the synagogue.
So I have a question: What is going on?
It can be very threatening when our cherished ways of doing things get changed or when our long held views are challenged. It doesn’t feel good. And when we feel threatened or anxious, we tend to ask defensive questions that don’t help us see the situation as fully as we could.
The religious authorities were threatened by Jesus’ actions and this man’s new found hutzpah – their whole understanding of reality and their place in it was threatened. And they didn’t like it.
God moves in unpredictable and new ways and we don’t like it either.
We like things to be predictable, orderly, safe. And we like to stay in control so that things are as comfortable for us as we can possibly make them.
But God did not send Jesus into the world for things to be comfortable. God sent his Son that we may have life – and that’s definitely not always comfortable.
And this is how Jesus gave himself – by not being bound by etiquette or rules or other people’s opinions but by going to all the places of death and darkness and calling forth life and light.
Someone told me once that when he was in college, he took an exam (I think it was a philosophy exam) that almost everyone failed. One of the questions that the professor asked was simply, “Why?” That’s it: “Why?” Most everyone gave long and intricate answers. And all of them failed. There was only one student who got an “A.” To the question, “Why?” this student wrote, “Why not?”
God is inviting us to ask new questions and to listen with a “beginner’s mind” – an open mind – to what we hear.
Remember those questions that I learned from the person helping me with my headaches? What if we started asking them in the context of our life as individuals and as a church?
When addressing a problem or when confronted with an issue we just don’t know the answer to, what if we asked:
- Do I have all the information I need to make a clear and accurate assessment of the situation?
- Is there any alternative way of looking at this situation?
- How would someone else think about the situation? Someone new to the church. Or someone not at all involved in a faith community. Someone much younger than I am. Someone older than I am. How might someone else think about the situation?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of thinking or doing things this way? Are there advantages to do things differently?
- Where do I see God already at work?
Former ELCA Presiding Bishop, Mark Hanson, wrote a little book in 2002 called, Faithful Yet Changing. In it he wrote,
“The Lutheran church began as a reforming movement in the Roman Catholic Church. Luther did not set out to establish a new church, but to reform the existing church for the sake of the gospel, contending that the church must be semper reformanda, always reforming. We believe that the church is always being re-formed by the Holy Spirit working through the gospel. How do we live out that dynamic vision – both as individuals and as a church?
It would be tragic [he continues] if the Lutheran church, born as an agent of change, were to resist change. We need to be open to change – not for the sake of change, but for the gospel and the work that God is calling us to do in the world.” (p. 63)
Semper reformanda – always reforming – always being re-formed by the Holy Spirit.
God is always reforming – always doing something new – always breathing new life into what feels dead.
May we have the faith to trust this. And with this faith may we ask questions that open us up to all sorts of new possibilities, new understandings, new appreciations, and new experiences in our relationship with God, with each other, and with ourselves. May it be so. Amen.