Monday, February 13, 2012

Blind to Grace - Kurt Nelson

Blind to Grace
Kurt Nelson, 2.12.12
Rollins Chapel
John 9: 1-40

I suspect many of us here
could offer a reasonable definition of “Grace”
At least, those of us who were subject to as much
youth religious education as I.
“The undeserved, unearned love of God.”
“A divine gift,
Not gained through any works of our own.”
Some of us might even have Ephesians 2:8,
seared into our memories.
"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God."
We know of grace.
We’ve likely heard it before,
and we’ll hear it again.

No doubt there are those in the world,
who haven’t heard this idea.
Those who associate the Christian faith,
with judgment,
or legalism.
With that strange pridefulness,
that comes from “being saved.”
If you know any such people,
I would really encourage you to invite them to chapel.
But most of us here,
I think we know,
at least on some level,
about grace.
If you’ve heard me speak before,
you’ve almost certainly heard me say it before.
Because I really only have one sermon in my head.

And grace, I hope
 seeps into us,
bit by bit.
That bold and simple idea,
that our faith is built,
on nothing less that the free grace of God.
We can’t hear it enough.

And yet, we struggle,
do we not?
I do, certainly.
Struggle to believe that love can be unconditional.
Struggle to believe that the most important thing in life,
is not built on my talent,
or my effort,
or my goodness.
But on love, freely given.
And struggle to respond in kind.
Struggle to live as if Grace were true.

Because, I think,
no matter how many times we hear this word of Grace spoken,
we still have that nagging voice in the recesses of our mind,
saying, when good things happen,
“What did I do to deserve this?”
Like Maria in the Sound of Music,
upon falling in love with Captain Von Trapp,
and learning that he loves her too,
“Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
Perhaps I had a miserable youth…
but somewhere in my youth, or childhood,
I must have done something good.”

(My good friend Emily Scott, the Founder of St Lydia's dinner church seared this image into my head.  You can read her sermon here.)

That seems to me the human condition,
quite simply put.
I don’t know what it was,
but I must have done something
to deserve this.

I my own life,
that song might sound a little different.
More like,
"I had a pretty healthy childhood,
And here is a list of good things I have done recently,
to deserve this.”

Of course much of our life enforces this.
If we study well,
we will get better grades.
If we practice hard,
we will succeed at sport.
If we’re kind to others,
we are likely to build more relationships.
This is, it would seem,
the natural order of things.
It makes sense.
It’s understandable.
Simple cause and effect.
But, of course,
it can cut deeper.

Wondering what we did to deserve good,
is only a small step
from expecting good to happen,
because we are so good.
And these are but a small step,
from seeing the same in bad things in life.
Wondering if everything isn’t a lesson.
Or a punishment.
Well deserved and
Meant to teach us humility.
And at that point,
 we’re a few small steps,
from claiming that such events must be purposeful.
declaring that earthquakes are punishments,
for the sins of a culture.
Thus we go from the Sound of Music
to Pat Robertson,
in a few small steps.
And if we’re being perfectly honest,
we probably all fall on that very human,
slippery slope
much of the time.

And thus our question becomes clear:
Why, if we can define Grace.
If we understand that God loves us freely
and wonderfully,
is it so hard to live as if it were true?

And that’s what brought me to the foot of this passage,
from the 9th chapter of the Gospel of John.
I’ve never really cared for it much.
I think it’s gross when Jesus spits on the ground,
and rubs the man’s eyes with mud.
And it troubles me that blindness would be used,
for the glory of God.
Clearly it’s a step up from thinking of all sickness,
all disability as sin.
But it just seems  a little mean to me.
And I’m never quite ready to swallow the
“all for the glory of God” line.

I have vivid memories of reenacting this scene,
during my summer as a bible camp counselor.
Each week, as kids arrived,
we would portray the “highlights”
of Jesus’ career as we walked the kids around camp.
Healing, telling people not to stone,
not to sin,
crucifying, resurrecting.
And whenever I was tapped to play Jesus.
I spat on the ground,
And rubbed dirt on some unfortunate counselor's eyes.
Thinking, all the while,
aren’t there better, more important stories to tell?

But here it is, in front of us.
Because, this week, it spoke to me,
as I pondered how to introduce our mini-series on grace.

Because, of course,
John was a smart writer.
A late writer,
not recording word for word history,
but weaving a taut theological tale of eternity made flesh.
Written, as Chapter 20 says,
that we might believe.
John’s Gospel,
perhaps more than any other biblical book,
was written with the reader in mind.
dare I say,
with us in mind.
Meant to evoke in us deep questions and ponderings.
Meant to offer us
this man Jesus,
as one worthy of our faith, our trust, and our hope.
And chapter 9 tells a very human and very important story,
not about a man in 1st century Palestine who was born blind,
but, I think,
about our own blindness
to the message of God, love, and grace.
The Pharisees take center stage,
in this story.
Pious.  Holy.  Legalistic men.
Asking all the wrong questions.
Who healed you?
How did he do it?
Aren’t you a sinner?
firmly and humanly in the midst of that slippery slope
from Maria to Pat Robertson
And if we can’t see ourselves there in them,
then either you’re a far better person than I,
or you’re not quite paying attention.

Surely some part of me can empathize with them.
They want to get to the root of this guy Jesus.
And his purported miracles.
He’s not pure.
He’s not holy in a traditional sense.
He’s not set apart.
He eats with the wrong people,
and heals on the wrong day.
He speaks in complicated ways that are difficult to parse,
and he convicts the authorities of the day.
And so they wonder,
who did this?
where did he come from?
how did he do it?
aren’t you a sinner?
how does this add up?
Why did he heal on the Sabbath?
And finally,
tragically, and honestly,
Surely we are not blind, are we?

And that question,
in the face of love incarnate,
is, I think,
the heart of it.
Meant to resonate with our own inability to accept love,
our own blindness to grace.
Surely we who profess to follow Christ,
are not blind to this central message of Grace, are we?
Certainly we don’t seek to name people as sinner,
and not sinner.
Certainly we don’t uphold some sort of cosmic score card,
naming naughty or nice,
saved or unsaved.
Surely we wouldn’t call into question peoples’ authority,
or motivation.
Surely we would not judge.
Surely we’re not blind to grace?
But, of course, we are.
We are the blind man.
Left in the dark,
not by virtue of some grave sin of ours
or our parents.
But that the word of saving grace might reach us,
and the glory of God’s love might be known.
We are the Pharisees,
with those hardened hearts.
Asking all the wrong questions,
keeping the cosmic tally,
just in case God forgets to.

Blind to that simple idea,
of unconditional love,
and freely given grace.

But the good news for today,
is that grace is still there.
And like the mud made from spit,
Grace often enters us at our dirtier times.
The proverbial spit-mud of our lives.
The parts we try our best to hide from everyone else.
The sad, angry parts of us.
The parts that don’t feel worthy of love.
The parts where all we can do,
when we can finally accept it,
is let love wash over us.
Pulling at the weak, gritty bits of us.
And daring us to believe that we might still be loved.

Reminding us that gratitude,
not guilt,
is the best way to start living.
Thus the simple trick,
as we’ve often discussed,
becomes really believing it.
And living as if it were true.

Grace calls learn how to love,
and be loved better.
And make no mistake,
it is a process.

As Martin Luther said,
we are born anew each day,
just as full of that gritty, messy sinfulness.
And just as much justified,
by the free, unmerited love of God.

And we wonder,
today and all days,
how can we live into that grace?
How we can escape that slippery slope,
of Maria and Pat Robertson.
How we can be open to
That free gift of God’s love,
which is not only the last word,
but the first word.
Even when we struggle to see it.


  1. Ahh, great read, your piece on grace, on this eve of Valentines Day. Let unconditional love shine on us all and may we be generous in passing it along. Thanks, Kurt!

  2. Another great one, Kurt; thanks for sharing! The question of "how can we live into that grace?" resonates with the call from my youth to "live our love for Jesus."