The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, best known for his statement that ‘God is dead, from my perspective, seems to exhibit a loathing of of two things, women and religion, specifically Christianity. In regard to his view was of religion, primarily Christianity, he said that it seeks to keep people down, to control the masses.
Nietzsche’s basic premise about religion is that it was invented by weak men who wanted to make even weaker the strong, the warriors, this was done by adapting morals so the warriors, those who had power, could be made weak primarily through guilt and fear.
Karl Marx, another German Philosopher, also found religion deplorable, in his case his vitriol was aimed at all religion, as well as the very idea of religion. He is famous for saying, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of social conditions in which the spirit is excluded. It is the opium of the people.”
Quite frankly, much of the time, I would have to agree with both of these men. It is often true that religion, actually the institutions of religion and not faith itself, work in conjunction with rulers and politicians, that can be guilty of controlling the masses and demeaning the individual.
This is the setting in which our focus passage for today takes place. It is the setting in which we see Jesus teach about life…..life that begins with the now and goes forever. TheZoé, the life, that Jesus soon calls himself.
During Jesus’ day, the religious institution was in cahoots with the Roman government in order to keep control. Even though both sides despised each other, they recognized the value of working together, at least until they achieved their own goals. They recognized the value of partnering and using each other. With a little, sometimes a lot, of compromise of beliefs and principals, the religious establishment was, and often still is, able to work with earthly powers to achieve, often misguided agendas and goals. With a similar release of certain held values, the government was, and is, able to work with the religious institutions to use them as well.
So, on this day, the day in which Jesus healed a blind man, a day that ordinarily would have been a day of celebration for the formerly blind man and his family, a day that just happened to be the Sabbath, a designated day of rest, a day that religious leaders strictly defined the boundaries of work and rest for each man and woman, a day that the politicians relinquished economic gain in order to maintain control, became a day that greatly threatened the delicate and fragile collusion that was holding on by a thread between the religious institution and the political system.
The institutional establishment began its work and undertook a quick investigation. First questioning the validity of the blindness of the man, did he have any weaknesses that could be leveraged against him. Then, after an initial questioning of the man, they moved on to harassing his parents. When this did not help, they returned to the man.
This second interaction with the man elicited a classic response from the leaders and an honest, yet gutsy, response from the man:
So for the second time they called in the man who had been blind and told him, “God should get the glory for this, because we know this man Jesus is a sinner.”
“I don’t know whether he is a sinner,” the man replied. “But I know this: I was blind, and now I can see!”
“But what did he do?” they asked. “How did he heal you?”
“Look!” the man exclaimed. “I told you once. Didn’t you listen? Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?”
Then they cursed him and said, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses! We know God spoke to Moses, but we don’t even know where this man comes from.”
“Why, that’s very strange!” the man replied. “He healed my eyes, and yet you don’t know where he comes from? We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but he is ready to hear those who worship him and do his will. Ever since the world began, no one has been able to open the eyes of someone born blind. If this man were not from God, he couldn’t have done it.”
“You were born a total sinner!” they answered. “Are you trying to teach us?” And they threw him out of the synagogue.
The leaders tried to discredit him, they attempted to intimidate him, they sought to harass his family, they attacked his spirituality, and finally, where there was nothing left to do, they just threw him out. The indisputable fact remained – the man was blind before and now he was not.
This blind man, who had been rejected and dismissed all of his life due to his blindness, was now being rejected in a new way because he could now see. Life was different, he could see, it wasn’t about seeing with his eyes, it was now about seeing life with his heart. He was blind, now he could see. Even with his eyes closed, he could now see life because he had met life.
Jesus found the man, and speaks of sheep, sheep pens, sheep in the pasture, shepherds, gates, gate keepers, thieves, and bandits, and finally, about recognizing a voice.
The listeners, those who followed Jesus expressed that they still did not understand his figurative language, so, Jesus clarified. It was now that he taught lesson number three – Peace, Presence, and Now Life. Jesus is Life.Zoe, life that is now and life that is eternal – all the same life.
Let’s look at the nuts and bolts of Jesus’ explanation.
First, let’s look at who Jesus was speaking to?
Jesus was not speaking to those who are entrenched in sin nor was he addressing the religious leaders – he was speaking to his followers. Jesus is talking to us, over 2,000 years later.
Second, what is Jesus basic message?
Jesus was a speaking of life, Zoe. He says that he came because there would be judgement and he came to save us from that judgement. He came to give us life and is full and abundant.
Jesus’ word ‘saved’, is sózó in the greek, goes beyond our limited understanding of ‘being saved’. Sózó is much larger meaning healing, to be made whole, to be delivered or protected, to preserve, and even ‘to merely do well’. It is referring to now and then. For Jesus, and his followers, everyday is the new day of beginning of eternity. He desired that our life would be interpreted differently than the earthly values but instead through those things that do not fade or lose their value. He was leading us to live beyond what we have and do not have.
Eugene Petersen described the words of Jesus in this way, ‘ I came so you can have real and eternal life, more and better life than you ever dreamed of.”
Jesus said, Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.
This imagery of the pasture and the pen is that abundance. An existence of peace, in the protection of the pen, and an abundance as in the pasture. We are free to come and go as both, pasture and pen, are the abundant life
We have a tornado shelter that we have opened up to our neighbors. We have non Oklahoman neighbors who are petrified of tornadoes and are the first to show up. We also have a lady next door who is a life long Okie and a life long healthy respecter of the tornadoes. She will bake brownies earlier in the day of a tornado and then bring them to the shelter when it is time. We will then join in the protection of the shelter, our pen, with the fear, brownies, and abundance. It is a choice, it is a protection, and it is all part of the abundance.
This is the pen, no guarantees that it will be how or what we want but it is what we need.
Third, who are the thieves and bandits?
Jesus is using this teaching time to warn the people of their greatest danger. An institution that was originally formed from sincere faith. A faith that taught the most important thing is to love God and to love everyone else. A faith that led Jesus to reveal his distaste for the collusion of the politicians and the religious leaders when he entered the temple. A faith that was true and sincere as opposed to institution who used people in order to achieve their own agenda.
Jesus was not speaking about the adulterers or the prostitutes, not about those who may take our possession, those who abuse us or dismiss us, not the heathen, not the worshippers of idols and false god, not the racists, not the haters, not any of the people, vocations, cultures, religions, or any of the others that we point to as dangerous and suspicious. The thieves and bandits were the very institutions that we are taught to trust.
Nietzsche has another interesting quote, ‘in truth there was only one Christian, and he died on a cross.”
It is our responsibility to always realize that religious leaders, politicians, or any institution can never be given carte blanche, we must alway be honest in our critique of them. Our full trust can only be on the Christian – Christ.
Lastly, how are we to respond?
The interesting thing about this explanation of Jesus’ figurative speech is that is is a message to us. It is not really a warning to beware, but, instead, we are called to very real and concrete response.
Know the voice of God.
The onus is on us. It is our responsibility to be able to differentiate between truth and lies, between the shepherd and the bandits, between love and abuse. We must know the difference between the things of life and the things of death. Know God. Know Life
Following the ascension of Jesus, and after Pentecost, the church began. The people were not set on starting an institution but they had an intense passion to Know the Voice of God. They broke bread with each other, spent time learning from the eyewitnesses, the apostles, about Christ, Giving what they had, and providing for those that had need. This was a natural reaction to the desire to Know God’s Voice. To know what was about life and what was about life.
On Tuesday morning of this week, at 12:18 am, Mary Shertenlieb finished the Boston Marathon over thirteen hours after she began.Mary had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia five years before and had endured intense treatment suffering two relapses.Around mile fifteen of the marathon, health concerns required that she return home with her husband.There, she recouped, took a shower and returned to the marathon to finish miles later. At the finish line on Boston’s Boylston Street stood fans cheering for this, the final runner of the marathon, who had shown them how to run and how to finish.It was not the way she imagined the marathon to go, or even the day she expected to finish, but she did run and she did finish.
A Marathon for the Kids
As I dropped Andrea off at school on Monday, it was weird.She was back after two weeks away due to the teacher walk out.She was ready to be back with, and for, her kids but with a new disillusioned attitude and no remaining hints of political naivety.
It was easy for Andrea, and her professional peers, to feel like the previous weeks had been a complete waste.Ten days gathering in the sun, standing in the Capitol and sitting in legislators’ offices often being treated disrespectfully and unimportant.They stood on the Capitol grounds as our governor seemed to find every reason to be elsewhere and the Secretary of Education managed to belittle and diminish the entire effort from the isolation of her D.C. office.
It had also been a hopeful ten days, teachers bonding, receiving unforgettable support from parents and our communities, even witnessing an amazing outpouring of encouragement from outside of the state.
Then it seemed to be over; over with basically no progress to be seen.
The teachers had received a pay raise prior to the walkout but felt they could not settle on a note, even though warranted, of self interest.They stayed out of the classrooms because they knew that their students deserved better. They deserved to have enough educated and certified teachers – not classes of thirty-four kids packed in an inadequately sized room; they deserved a space where there were enough chairs and desks and to not have to sit in folding chairs borrowed from a local church; they deserved up-to-date textbooks and basic supplies not purchased from their teacher’s limited personal income.They deserved so much more.
Decades ago, Oklahoma decided that public education was not important.Evangelicals talked about God being ‘taken out of the schools’ while, at the same time, the very hard working and caring teachers hid in the pews praying, and hurting, for their students.Politicians realized that reducing taxes was a reelection coup and that the ‘unGodly’ schools were an easy target of budgetary reduction.ProLife became the holy label while the birthed children, along with their education, healthcare, mental health, shelter and food, carelessly became the casualty.
The truth was, and is, that God remained in the schools because the most vulnerable of those created in his image had been abandoned.Abandoned by those tasked with being a light to the world.
On Monday, as their one success, their raises, was being targeted, the teachers returned to the classrooms anyway.They returned to prepare their students for required exams and to the very real future that is tough, if not impossible, without adequate knowledge. A truth that even Christ himself addressed. The teachers returned thinking that they had failed those very students.
They had not failed.
Author Anne Lamott writes that Change is not a sprint but a marathon. Our teachers began a marathon. They, battered and abused, passed the baton on to others so that they could get back to their beloved kids.
On the Sunday in the middle of the walkout I shared with my congregation that I had truly experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit while on the capitol grounds the previous week. Even though we doubtfully feel it, it is still there and all over the state.The Spirit is in classrooms, it is in the homes, it will be with the voters prompting them in the upcoming elections.The Spirit will be everywhere that children are clamoring to climb up on the lap of Jesus. Everywhere that Jesus is saying, “let the little children come unto me!”
The Spirit will continue to be in our state.In our churches, in our homes, and in our classrooms. Anywhere we are willing to accept, listen and follow, the Spirit will be there.
It’s not over, it is a marathon.We still have a ways to go.
My Marathon Experience
Almost twenty years ago I dropped my oldest child off at Monroe Elementary for a typical day of first grade. I did not know that day would set me off on a marathon.As he shut the door of the van, I could not help but notice, as my tiny first grader ran in, there were may unrecognized adults exiting the doors of the school.He had to squeeze through them to get to the building and to his classroom.
I soon saw the “Vote Here” signs which brought clarity. Our school was a polling station and that these unknown adults were wandering throughout the school after having voted.While I loved the idea of my kids witnessing democracy in action, I also knew that we live in a world which is not always so idealistic and sometimes very bad persons take advantage of very positive idealistic situations.
This unexpected morning experience set me on personal marathon that would take twenty years. I spoke to the principal about this influx of unknown adults venturing throughout the building, she sent me to the School Administration who sent me to the County Election Board.The Election Board sent me on a mission to find a better place for the voting.I ended up at a Mormon Church who agreed to host the voting.I victoriously returned to the Election Board who informed me that this would be an unacceptable location since the election workers could not drink coffee or smoke at the church building. Not yet willing to give up I went to the election workers who unanimously agreed to abstain from any forbidden vices for voting days.A return visit to the Election Board led to the revelation that my solution was an unacceptable and would not be implemented.My final journey was to my mailbox where I found a letter from the Election Board telling me to leave them alone.
I had failed. I quit the marathon. Kind of….
As a result of my efforts, the principal asked me to begin a program for dads at our school called WatchDogs. It was the first WatchDog program in the city and the state. An amazing group of dads in our school took a day off of work each month to patrol the halls and help where needed. Dads that had never regularly been in the school before were now integral parts of the day to day operations.Their children were proud to have them there and the dads were engaging with their own children in a manner they had never done before. Dads provided security, but more importantly became acquainted with the peers of their children, the teachers and staff of the school, and found that they could be a part of this all important essential element of their community.The program is now all over our city and state.
Sometimes our marathon take us to places, and makes things happen, that were never in our planned running route.
I also continued my call for more school security and a plethora of areas of concerns.One of these areas was to campaign to have the school playground off limits during school hours.It alarmed me to watch as complete strangers were permitted to walk across the campus, through the middle of children, during recess.I was told that the school was not allowed to restrict such access to members of the community.
A couple of months ago, twenty years after I began my marathon, I received a new voter ID card, it was for a new location.Our public schools have reconfigured all buildings for increased security and voting does not fit into the increased security plan.
On an evening walk, I then cut through the playground of Monroe Elementary.There I saw a sign that restricted access to the playground during school hours.I took a picture, stood and stared, and realized that I had crossed a finish line.
As I thought about all it took to get that sign I began to think of all the others who were part of my marathon, a list that included my own mother.I attended this same elementary school and would walk to school each day.One year, homeowners of a house on a busy street which was part of my walk, planted new grass and restricted pedestrians from walking on their lawn. This meant children like me, on our way to school, would be walking on the heavily traveled street.My mom, possibly the original safety marathon runner, went and had a very frustrating talk with the homeowners.They refused to budge on their restrictions and she refused to quit the marathon. She called the city and did anything else that might lead to an acceptable solution.Facing defeat at every turn, she revisited the owners of the house several times, who eventually worked with my mom to come up with a safe solution.She raised her arms in victory and ran under the finish banner and then passed the baton on to someone else which eventually came to me.
A Call to the Marathon
Teachers, your time has not been wasted.You have run the toughest part of the marathon.Raise your arms out to pass on the baton.Pass it to the parents who are now at the capitol, to the voters who will soon cast their ballots for change, to all the other Oklahomans who care about the children, and to those who echo the words of Christ as he said, “Let them come to me!”
It is not about quitting but rather about enlarging the marathon, including others to run with the baton.
To the rest of us, look for the marathon that God has waiting for you. I can’t say what your marathon will be but I can say that it will be about God’s created and His creation. It will be about those created in His image which widens the possibilities to everyone everywhere. It will be about being a demonstration of the actions and life of Christ much more than the words of a preacher.It will be about love.
Our marathon is what John talks about as Walking in the Light and then later in I John refers to it as Abiding. The Apostle Paul call it a race. It is about life, led to reveal God’s love and to live smack dab in the middle of the life Christ has called us to.
Around dusk, I ventured up the street to our neighbor’s house. They are on vacation and we have been taking care of their lizard, fish, plants, mail, and newspapers. We go up twice a day to feed the fish, water, collect newspapers and mail, and turn on/off the lizard’s lamp. The lizard still has crickets hopping around so there is no need to feed him (or her, we don’t know) until he cleans his seven-day-old plate. We love these neighbors. I have known the husband since seventh-grade, but have really only had consistent interaction with him over the course of our decade in the neighborhood. The recent interaction has made me wish I had branched out from my own group of friends in high school. We love the way they live, the way they raise their kids, the way they have integrated their two different faiths, and the way they make you feel very important with every engagement.
Across the street from them is a retired couple who are also wonderful. They are Jewish. The husband grew up as the son of a Rabbi. There is a reason I mention their faith. It is pertinent and not just my attempt to convince you that I am open-minded. In all of my adult years, they are the only neighbors who have ever brought us homemade – and decorated – Christmas cookies. They frequently ask me about our church and our kids. They are genuinely interested.
Across the street from us are recent transplants from Britain. They are very kind and respectful and join us in our skepticism of the local television weatherpersons when it comes tornado season. They take refuge in our tornado shelter and, together, we attempt to estimate which of the broadcasters’ rants need to be taken seriously. They are very smart. He is a physics professor at the local university. Regardless of actual intellect, however, all they have to do is begin speaking with their British accents and we automatically give them credit for great wisdom and discernment. It is like having sat in the living room with Maggie Smith at Highclere Castle wondering for weeks afterwards if you were insulted or complimented.
On one side of our house, we have a neighbor with a huge soccer goal cemented in the front yard. When we initially moved into our house, they invited our soccer-playing children over to use the net anytime. I have always appreciated the eye-catching net for use as a landmark when giving directions to our house. I don’t think the previous owner of our house liked the net, or these neighbors. She repeatedly called the police when they attempted to cut the limbs from her old and gigantic tree which were resting on their vehicles. The police would inform her that the neighbors were permitted to cut the limbs which were stretching over their property, but she continued to call and complain anyway. During the first year living in our home, a devastating ice storm toppled that entire tree, causing a section of the trunk to fall and strategically land on three of their cars. No insurance covered the damage – ours nor theirs. They never complained to us and have always been beyond gracious.
On our other side is a retired widow who has taught us the meaning of tenacity and determination. She is always there to express concern and offer help. She has admitted that one of her chief goals in life is to make me look bad, her strategy is to spend every day either re-mowing or perfecting her already perfect lawn. Andrea, and the kids, often ask, “Why can’t our lawn look like that?” as we pull into our garage. When the other trunk of our tree fell onto our roof, this neighbor climbed the ladder to our steep, and icy, roof to help me place a tarp over the holes caused by the fallen tree.
We are very blessed.
I often fail to recognize and appreciate the blessings we have on our street. I often fail to look around and pay attention. I often neglect to fathom these and so many other next door blessings. I often let every nature of meaningless and trivial distractions keep me from seeing what is right in front of my eyes.
I am determined to pay better attention, I’m determined to see those blessings right next door….beginning today.
Later this morning I will wake up to see a fifty-five year old man in the mirror. Actually I probably won’t really see the fifty-five year old man since the fifty-four year old man lost his glasses tonight. Andrea says that she wishes she had a penny for all the times I have lost my glasses. If we did have a penny for each loss we would have the kids’ college paid for in pennies (this is especially true if you add in the times I have lost my billfold, my keys, and the reason I went into the kitchen). Tonight she also shared that she is impressed with how patient I am, she explained that she would lose it if she lost things as often as I do. Not sure that was actually a compliment.
As the fifty-four year old man, minus his glasses, went to turn the lights off in the kitchen I put something in my mouth from the counter that was not chocolate. I was expecting chocolate but without the advantage of sight I will never know what the strange taste was (very different than fifteen years ago when I was changing a diaper and put something I thought was chocolate in my mouth…tonight was a distinctly different non-chocolate taste and experience). So in the morning, the fifty-five year old will be looking at the mirror without his glasses not knowing who is staring back at him or what that faint odd, non-chocolate taste is in his mouth.
Earlier this evening my daughters offered to take me out to lunch for my birthday but withdrew the offer when I revealed that we may be interrupted by the guy who needs to fix our fence. Our fence fell down in the tornado three years ago, I have kept it standing with everything but duct tape. My wife also offered to take me out to dinner before we realized we will have to go late in the evening since my youngest son has a doctor appointment to figure out why he is having kidney pains again. This will put us looking at the menu as my second child, my oldest daughter, arrives home from college for her Friday, six am wrist surgery. Finally, as I was about to retire to bed, without my glasses and still with the non-chocolate taste in my mouth, I answered a call from my oldest son, who is also away at college, informing me that the doctor said his flag football rib injury is only a bruise. I was unaware he was on a flag football team.
Tomorrow I am sure I will get many birthday greetings, including those on Facebook which will make me regret not remembering to do the same back to all those wonderful friends on their birthdays. However, I don’t really expect to feel very different, except for the inability to read or recognize faces. It will be a regular day like any other. A day when I will laugh at the stories from my wife’s day, rejoice at my kids victories as well as their funny stories, worry about everyone’s health and concerns, check my bank account repeatedly, learn things I should have already known or have been previously been told, consider the things that are left to accomplish, try to remember to rest in the Lord, and wonder if I need to go order new glasses.
Oh, and try to remember that just because something looks like chocolate is not reason enough to put it into my mouth.