Pursued By Grace: The God Who Will Not Let Us Go

1 Samuel 16:1-13 16The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. 6When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

Psalm 23 1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

3he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

4Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Ephesians 5:8-14 8For once you were in the void, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11Take no part in the unfruitful works of emptiness, but instead expose them. 12For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

John 9:1-41 9As 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 neighbours 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.” 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. 39Jesus 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.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

Good morning, St. Matthew!

We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.

And so we pray.

Holy Lord, there are moments when we are very aware of the journey, when we become completely aware that you truly can’t put your foot in the same river twice, when two roads are diverging in a wood and we are choosing which one to take, knowing that we are committing to a new journey with each step. Today the road that St Matthew and I have travelled together that has led through pandemic, through questioning, through love and care and concern and service – is diverging and we will take separate journeys after today. As we make these new journeys Lord, I ask that we both be able to see the Spirit at work in our travels and to feel your arms around us as we live into the plans you have for us. Thy will be done, Lord and give us peace as we live that will.  Amen.

Well, today is an unexpected day in our journey together – not unanticipated; we knew there was an ending coming – but in the way the Spirit works at times, we have arrived here earlier than we had planned. Certainly early than I had prepared for! But that is the life of faith – prayers are raised and, just we kinda get comfortable with the status quo of asking and waiting, an answer comes that actually changes that status quo and we are left blinking, at least for a little while unsure if a. it’s real and b. if it’s truly what we wanted.

In our Gospel this morning, we have the recounting of a miracle; a man blind from birth has his sight restored. Now hold this image for a moment. This isn’t someone who has difficulty seeing, or who has lost their sight – this man we are told has never seen. So what did it mean in the ancient world for a child to be born sightless? It was believed that nothing was random, that everything happened as cause and effect. There’s nothing wrong with that per se – but it led to the ancients making some very flawed judgements based on mistaken observations. Shortly we will be celebrating Easter and, of course, folks will talk about the Easter Bunny and eggs. Bunnies are known to be prolific breeders of life and the egg was an early symbol of the Resurrection story, so these images of life that will not be stopped, even if hidden, make sense that they would be brought into the Easter story. But to combine them? How did THAT story happen? Because folks would see a rabbit start from the undergrowth, and when they would look, they’d find a nest with eggs. Now because they didn’t see the mama bird, but had seen the rabbit – they would put two and two together and get 5. The theory was called “spontaneous generation” and it led a lot of very smart people to say some very dumb things – like bunny eggs were real.

And letting go of that theory was a long, and somewhat painful, journey. The scientists had to do something scientists hate to do – to admit that they were wrong, that they had started their calculations based on erroneous assumptions. They were not happy to lay down those assumptions, and they fought it – it took literally until the 19th century and about fifteen revolutions of thought and conscience until the work of Louis Pasteur broke through the establishment thinking and proved the theory to be wrong. But Pasteur took a lot of hits for making this breakthrough. As I said, nobody really likes being proven wrong.

In the habit of adding two and two and getting five, the religious folk back in the day had assumed that any physical affliction was due, not to a misfiring gene, but as a punishment for wrong behaviour. And I am sad to say there are still some who believe that fallacy – that a limitation is actually a divine punishment. Who hasn’t heard – or said – “you must have really ticked God off to deserve that”? But that is not how God works! It IS how the world often believe it works; a tit for tat, what goes around comes around. But God most emphatically does not. God continually works the stand point of grace – of choosing to see their creation at its best, rather than waiting to smash us at our worst. God is the one who walks us through valleys and feeds us in the presence of our enemies, not giving us what they think we deserve but instead anointing our heads with oil. We didn’t earn that – we simply are gifted with it because God loves us so much. God created us not to punish us, or play some kind of sadistic gotcha game – God created us out of love to be loved. Paul speaks of the love as light – that just like a plant that will turn to the light because it’s in its very DNA to do so, we who have encountered the light of God cannot help but turn to it.

As believers, we are asked to make all our observations of the world bringing the light of God’s love to reveal the truth around us. In that light, God shows us that the people around us are our neighbours, our kin, part of a common body. We aren’t to look at any part of our body with disdain – but with care. We are called to love even the parts that challenge us, that we can’t understand. Does anybody know why we still have an appendix? If that decides to blow up, is anyone dumb enough to name it as a punishment of God? No, it’s a thing that happens and a thing that we ask God to sustain in – even in the Lord’s prayer, Jesus gave us the words “deliver us from evil” or “sustain us in the time of trial”. But nowhere is the evil or the trial guaranteed not to happen. So when the disciples ask – “who sinned to create the punishment of blindness, the kid or his folks?” they are starting from a flawed premise. The question isn’t about the origin of the blindness or how sin might or might not have played a role – the real Divine story is how God will use this trial to reveal their love and grace.

In the oh so familiar words of the 23rd Psalm, we read: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…”   “Follow” is a sort of a pale translation for the word, radaf. It literally means to hunt someone down. The NetBible Translator’s Notes explains this seeming paradox.

The use of רָדַף (radaf, “pursue, chase”) with טוֹב וָחֶסֶד (tov vakhesed, “goodness and faithfulness”) as subject is ironic. This is the only place in the entire OT where either of these nouns appears as the subject of this verb רָדַף (radaf, “pursue”). This verb is often used to describe the hostile actions of enemies. One might expect the psalmist’s enemies to chase [them], but ironically God’s “goodness and faithfulness” … pursue [the psalmist] instead. The word “pursue” is used outside of its normal context in an ironic manner and creates a unique, but pleasant word picture of God’s favour (or a kind God) “chasing down” the one whom [God] loves.

In the world where God is hunting us down – who will win? Like I spoke about with the kids in playing hide and seek, God “cheats” outrageously! No-one is going to be allowed to hide – God will pursue them, find them, and love the socks off them no matter what! And God invites those who are brought into the community of faith to share that same love and grace.

Imagine how different the world becomes if our approach isn’t based on trying to guess who deserves to be punished, or keeping some kind of cosmic score, or living in terror of not keeping the scales in balance – but instead we spend our time figuring out how to get people into the light of God’s love, if we looked for how the pains and struggles in our lives can be transformed into healing. How does the world change when we look at each other and at our struggles not as folks to be judged or punished but as  opportunities for God’s grace to be manifest? If I look at the blind man and ask not what sin brought you here, but how can I help make God manifest in your life?

How can I help make God manifest in your life? For the last two and half years, I have brought this question to my ministry here at St. Matthew. It is in our nature that in an ending such as this, we want to ask “Who sinned?” “Who screwed up?” “Who’s to blame?”  “Where’s the sin that brought us here?” I will own that I have sinned, that I have fallen sort of the glory of God and not done all that I might have done in the way that would have been the best. Mea culpa, St. Matthew – I crave your forgiveness for where I failed you as a leader. There are many answers as to who sinned. But that’s not the question I want to leave you with; rather, I want to challenge you to ask the question, “Where is the grace of God to be found in this moment?” and “How does this moment of ending create a new beginning?”  The sermon this morning is slightly shorter, not because I don’t have things to say; if I shared with you all that is in my heart, we’d be here til noon. But I want to pass the baton on to you. It will be your challenge now as the story of St. Matthew unfolds, and our paths diverge, to ask and answer for yourselves, “How can we make God manifest in the life of this beloved community?” I am breathless to see how your story unfolds, to watch how God meets you in the valley, pursues you and anoints you.