Bishop Michael Rinehart


Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, April 5, 2020 – Passion/Palm Sunday

Passion/Palm Sunday – April 5, 2020

Sovereign God, you have established your rule in the human heart through the servanthood of Jesus Christ. By your Spirit, keep us in the joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord and with their lives praise him as Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Processional Psalm and Gospel

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 – Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter… Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 21:1-11 – Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, on a donkey.

Isaiah 50:4-9a – Game face: I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting… therefore I have set my face like flint…

Psalm 31:9-16– In you, O Lord, I take refuge. Let me never be put to shame. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.

Philippians 2:5-11 – Christ hymn: Have this mind, that was in Christ, who didn’t count on his equality with God, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, and becoming obedient, even to death on a cross.

Matthew 26:14 – 27:66 The Passion. Judas’ betrayal. Peter’s denial. Pilate. Barabbas. Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.


Matthew 27:11-54  The Passion. Pilate. Barabbas. Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.

Palm Procession and Philippians in a Public Pandemic

Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being.
Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility.
The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation. ~ Saint Augustine

Well this is certainly going to be an utterly unique Palm Sunday in every single one of our lives. In the church as I served, Palm Sunday was sometimes the third highest attendance of the year, after Easter and Christmas. It may still be, at least virtually.

We usually begin outside, sometimes with a fire burning. Worshippers have palms that they wave as we shout, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!“ We read the professional gospel about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, then process into the church singing All Glory Laud and Honor. Six stanzas may be a bit much for online worship. Are there other Hosanna songs your people know and love?

Call and response is a bit weird in online worship, but it might bring the comfort of familiarity. A bulletin could be emailed out in advance, or slides could be shown on the livestream for people to follow. What about those who are not online, or who live in areas with slow Wi-Fi, where a livestream will be glitchy? Can you Zoom and invite them to call in on their phones?

The liturgy is found on page 622 of the ELW Leaders’ Edition, including a blessing of the Palms. You’ve probably already ordered them. If they come, why not bless them anyway? They can be made available once this current crisis abates.

The service continues with the prayer of the day,

As we now enter into the contemplation of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and meditate on the salvation of the world through his sufferings, death, burial and resurrection, let us pray.

Sovereign God, you have established your rule in the human heart through the servanthood of Jesus Christ. By your Spirit keep us in the joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord and with their lives praise him as Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

The lessons follow.

Isaiah 50: Game Face

The Hebrew Bible text is Isaiah 50:4-9a, about the abuse the suffering servant is to endure. In Isaiah, Israel is the servant, God’s servant, called to be a blessing to its own people, and a light to the nations/the Gentiles. Israel will not be great because of their power and glory, but because of their humble servanthood.

In chapter 50, part of Second Isaiah, coming out of the Babylonian Captivity, Israel, the Suffering Servant speaks. “I have been given the tongue of a teacher.” Is suffering not our teacher? Do we not learn by our mistakes, our failures, and our shortcomings? The Suffering Servant is not arrogant, but now a listener, a learner. “God has opened my ear.”

“I gave my back to those who struck me… I did not hide my face from those who insulted and spit on me.” One lesson in humility can go a long way. There is nothing like being thrown into the dog house to teach us humility. “Therefore, I have set my face like flint.” Everybody plays the fool, sometime. No exception to the rule.

The Suffering Servant is humbled, yet able to see God’s deliverance. There is hope. “He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.” Paul echoes something similar in Romans 8. “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

Certainly, in these difficult days of disease and quarantine, we can appreciate these words of humiliation and hope.

Philippians 2: The Christ Hymn

Paul’s Christ Hymn in Philippians 2 is read on Palm Sunday in all three years of the lectionary. This is for a good reason. This passage is central to Paul’s understanding of Christ and the gospel.

One of my favorite books is Michael J. Gorman’s, Inhabiting the Cruciform God. The book is subtitled, Kenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology.

Gorman calls Philippians 2 Paul’s “Master Story.” Hear this ancient hymn, perhaps one of the first Christian hymns. Imagine the first Christians singing it in worship:



Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

These might be words for us today, with all that is going on. Rephrased:

Have the mind of Christ
who didn’t cash in on his divine status
but emptied himself
taking on the role of a servant to all
even to his death on the cross

He humbled himself, therefore God exalted him
giving him a name above all names
so every knee shall bow, every tongue confess
in heaven and on earth and under the earth
Jesus reigns, to God’s glory

Humility is the character of Christ, and therefore, also the character of God. Christ reveals the true, though often hidden truth about God: humility. And if this is so, it is the character of those in Christ. To follow Christ, for Paul is to live in humility. It is to empty ourselves.

We are certainly having to empty ourselves these days, for the sake of others, especially the most vulnerable. As I’m writing (on March 20), I feel fine. In not in a risk group. I’d like to be out and about. Even if I got the virus, statistically, I’d get over it. But I could be a carrier, and put others at risk.

Bishop’s Associate for Mission Chris Markert said this week,

If we are to have the same mind as Christ, then we  “empty ourselves” and become like servants to one another, especially the most vulnerable. That is why we’ve locked ourselves in during this pandemic. It’s why we practice social distancing, not to protect ourselves, but to protect others… it is also why we don’t panic-buy, keeping others from getting what they need.

Lord of Life in The Woodlands member and synod bookkeeper Beth Vu said we also,

Think of others interests, looking out for those that might need assistance.  A neighbor knocked on my mother’s door seeing if there was anything they could do for her.

Beyond our appointed text, verse 14 goes on to say, “Do all things without grumbling or complaining.” That may be a taller order. 

Although Christ was in the form of God, he did not count on it but emptied himself.

Paul does this a lot:

  • In 2 Cor. 8:9, Although Christ was rich, he became not rich, but (so that) by his poverty we become “rich.”
  • In Rom 15:1-3, Although they are “strong” they must not please themselves, but humble themselves and put up with the scruples of the “weak” so that the body might be built up.
  • In 1 Thess. 2:6-8, Although Paul’s status as apostle allowed him to make demands, he did not, but rather he was gentle.
  • In 1 Cor. 9:1-23. Although Paul has the apostolic privilege to have a wife and get paid for his his work, he does not exercise this privilege, but (v. 12) endures these sacrifices for the sake of the gospel.

Paul doing what he sees Christ doing.

Jesus expresses his very divinity in “downward mobility.” The Roman “cursus honorum,” a lifelong, upward mobility, from slavery, to peasant, to aristocrat, to divinity (like Caesar). Jesus instead practices downward mobility, from equality with God, down the ladder to slavery, then even to public humiliation by death on a cross.

Christ’s self-emptying is not a termination of his deity; it is the fullest expression of it. Christ reveals the kindness and humility of God.

The Triumphal Entry

Zechariah 9:9 says,

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

The donkey is actually the mount of royalty arriving in peace (Genesis 49:11, Judges 5:5, 10:4). Royalty arrives on a horse if at war. This Jesus is royalty, but he is the Prince of Peace, and he is arriving in peace, not as a conquering hero. This king practices humility, as Paul also expresses in Philippians 2.

If we, the church, could learn this kind of humility, it would capture the world’s attention. It could be our greatest form of evangelism, living lives of humility. As someone has said, your life is the greatest sermon you will preach. Jesus showed his greatness through lowliness, his power through humility. The lesson for me this Palm Sunday is humbleness.

In times of great difficulty, the church has an opportunity to demonstrate humility, kindness and sacrificial love. When the chips are down, we see the true character of the individual. This is an opportunity to witness to the love of Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a random for many.

Care Act COVID-19 Relief for Churches

Here are a few articles to get started as we absorb this 1,400-page legislation.

This act has multiple provisions for churches and church employees:

Unemployment insurance for laid off church employees. Under the CARES Act, those normally not eligible (including church employees) can collect unemployment benefits if they are laid off.

The Paycheck Protection provisions allow small businesses, which include churches and other non-profits to apply for loans which can convert to grants.


Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, March 29, 2020 – Lent 5A

Lent 5A – March 29, 2020

Ezekiel 37:1-14 – The Valley of the Dry Bones. I am going to bring you up from your graves, my people. 

Psalm 130 Out of the depths I cry to you. 

Romans 8:6-11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

John 11:1-45 – The Raising of Lazarus


And you, most kind and gentle death
Waiting to hush our final breath
Oh, praise Him! Alleluia! 

You lead to heav’n the child of God
Where Christ our Lord the way has trod.
Oh, praise Him! Oh, praise Him!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

St. Francis

Another long gospel reading, with a million sermons that could be preached. This is where we have been this Lent:

March 1, 2020 – The Temptation of Christ
March 8, 2020 – John 3 – Nicodemus (physical/spiritual rebirth)
March 15, 2020 – John 4 – The Woman at the Well (physical/spiritual thirst/water)
March 22, 2020 – John 9 – The Man Born Blind (physical/spiritual blindness)
March 29, 2020 – John 11 – The Raising of Lazarus

So now what are we to make of John 11 – The raising of Lazarus?

Permit me some random exegetical musings and then a playful look at art.

My favorite commentary on the Gospel of John is by C. K. Barrett, a volume bequeathed to me by my father, and published in 1958, the year he entered the seminary in Columbus Ohio. A lot of research has been done in the last 50 years, but this work holds enduring insights for me.

For example, Barrett points out that it is unlikely that John had access to the Gospel of Luke, written decades before John, but there are some striking similarities, even if not. John and Luke are the only two gospels that mention the sisters Mary and Martha. Both mention Lazarus. Consider the relationship of Luke’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus to this story.

In Luke’s parable, the rich man begs Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool his tongue. When this is not possible, the rich man begs Abraham to send someone to warn his family. Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets.” The rich man replies, “But if someone rises from the dead they will believe.” In the final scene, Abraham says, “Even if someone rises from the dead they will not believe.

In John’s story, Lazarus does in fact come back from the dead. It’s hard to imagine these stories are not connected somehow. Considering this, it is hard to believe John had no access to Luke’s parable.

Barrett also points out that there are resurrection stories in the synoptic Gospels as well (Mark 5:21–43; Matthew 9:18–26; Luke 8:40–56; Luke 7:11–16). Still, there is no parallel to this story in the synoptic tradition.

I find it encouraging that Barrett writes (p. 117), even in 1958,

It is evident that it was not John’s intention to write a work of scientific history. Such works were extremely scarce in antiquity, and we have seen that John’s interests were theological rather than chronological. Moreover, his treatment of the only source (Mark) we can isolate with any confidence from his gospel is very free; there is no reason to think that he followed other sources more closely. He did not hesitate to repress, revise, rewrite, or rearrange. On the other hand, there is no sufficient evidence for the view that John freely created narrative material for allegorical purposes. His narratives are for the most part simple, and the details generally remain unallegorized.

Barrett continues,

It was of supreme importance to him that there was a Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died in Palestine, even though to give an accurate outline of the outstanding events in the career of this person was no part of his purpose. He sought to draw out, using in part the form and style of narrative… the true meaning of the life and death of the one whom he believed to be the Son of God, a being from beyond history. It was for this interpretation of the focal point of all history, not for accurate historical data, that we must look in John. Yet at every point history underlies what John wrote. The reader is reminded of ancient Egyptian figure drawing…

I often try to describe the Gospels as works of art. When one looks at a Rembrandt, one can ask the question “is this historically accurate?” The answer is difficult. Yes, the event actually took place. But did the people look like that? Were they dressed like that? Were they standing precisely there? Did it happen with Renaissance landscapes in the background? No. The Gospels, like art, are interpretations, with a very mild nod to history.

This is to say, Barrett would suggest, the story in John 11 is an important theological statement about who Jesus is and a foreshadowing of the resurrection of the dead, in the life to come. Jesus is life. Jesus is the resurrection, both now and in the coming kingdom.

Barrett seems uninterested in debating the historicity of the event. Here are his words: “What is the historical value of the story? This question depends mainly on the view taken of the sources and purpose of the gospel. It is of course possible to take an a priori view of miracle which rules out the possibility of such an event as this. If such an a priori view is taken there is clearly no further room for argument, and it is not within the province of this commentary to discuss the philosophical aspects of miracle.”

Back to the story. Jesus loves Lazarus and his sister Mary (one of the seven Marys mentioned in the gospels) and his sister Martha. They live in Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem. Some have suggested that Lazarus (not John) was the disciple whom Jesus loved, because of this passage. The story of Mary (sitting the feet of Jesus) and Martha (working) is Luke, not John. But the personalities of the characters in the these stories seem consistent in both gospels: Martha, taking center stage, wracked with grief complains that if Jesus had been on time, none of this would have happened in the first place. The voice of grief.

This is the only place in which this story is recounted. Jesus pushes Martha. “I am the resurrection and the life.” This passage is read at most funerals. “Do you believe this?” Martha’s confessional response should be right up there with Peter’s: “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” This is every bit as striking as Peter’s confession.

Lazarus’ resurrection was penultimate. It is not the final word. In fact, all healing of any kind is penultimate. Here’s what I mean. Lazarus may have been raised from the dead, but then he died again, right? I mean, unless he’s still roaming around somewhere, he had to die again. I’m not sure I relish the idea of dying twice. Lazarus’ story is a prefiguring of the resurrection of the dead to eternal life. A final resurrection. This is what we celebrate.

Since we have spoken as the Gospels as art, I would like to consider art as gospel. Let us allow the world’s great artists to tell this story, a story that has been captured in art more than most gospel stories.

This first is from the year 1304, by Giotto di Botone (1267-1337). It’s at the Arena Chapel in


Nearly 160 years later, Nicolas Fromen (1425-1486) did this piece, below, on wood. It’s part of a triptych. Bodone painted this to keep his father (who had committed usury) out of purgatory.


Note the artist painted himself in the upper left hand corner of the picture. Froment has painted himself into a corner. Notice also he’s the only one looking at you.

Eerie how the artist stares out at us through the portals of time. Lazarus is up in this picture, but he’s not looking so good. Perhaps like the guy in The Mummy. He’s been dead several days. I don’t look so good after a night’s sleep.

Mary and Martha are in the lower left, weeping. People to the outside of the crowd are probably Froment’s contemporaries. One (upper right?) may be his patron.

Note the disciple to Jesus’ left is reading a book. This work is 1461. The printing press was invented in 1450. Interesting that Froment paints people in contemporary outfits, using the new technology of the day. It would be like painting a Raising of Lazarus today and having someone reading from an iPhone, in blue jeans.

I love how the Renaissance artists painted the Bible stories into their day and age: scenery, architecture, clothing. I wish artists did more of this today. Our desire to portray things as closely as possible in their original context is good, but we’ve also lost something: imagining these things in our day and age.

Here’s one by Dutch artist Geertgen tot Sint Jans. It’s a Northern Renaissance classic. He painted this when he was 20 years old, around 1480. It’s been in the Louvre for over 100 years. Note Mary and Martha to the lower right, and the Pharisees at the upper left.

Looking at this close up reveals quite a few peculiarities. What’s that above Mary’s head? You might not be able to make it out here. You can find it online and view as closely as you wish, all of these pieces of art simply by typing the artist’s name. It is fun to show them on a large screen in powerpoint at an adult ed forum. Here’s Geerten up close. It’s public domain:




This next one is by Benozzo Gozzoli, ca. 1497. (I love his name.) Luther was 14 when this was painted. Gozzoli died shortly after painting it. He also painted himself into one of of his works, but not this one (see Procession of the Magi). Besides having a totally cool name, Gozzoli painted a LOT of Bible passages. Look at the little people in the lower left. This is a curiosity of Renaissance art I’ve never fully understood. Mary and Martha are on the lower left. The disciples have halos.

I have to admit, one of the things that bothers me most is the fact that Jesus in these depictions seems so emotionless. It strikes me that one of the important parts of this passage is the fact that Jesus wept. A very divine Jesus in John’s high christology still weeps at the death of Lazarus. Our hope of the resurrection does not exempt us from deep feelings of grief.

This next is a Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio from 1609. His use of light is incredible. The light emerges from somewhere behind Jesus. The new Baroque (1600-1750) realism.

Note that the light picks up the detail of Jesus’ hand, which looks conspicuously like Michelangelo’s hand of God, for obvious reasons.

Or is he trying to make it look Adam’s hand? Probably not. God’s right hand. Adam’s left. In either case, it appears Lazarus is not so sure about wanting to return to this earthly life, as his hand seems to be up in protest.



This Rembrandt is from 1630. Finally, a little emotion on Jesus’ face.

Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet’s Raising of Lazarus (1706) is rather busy. Everyone seems to be shocked, even Jesus.


The Lazarus Raising by Gustav Dore (1865) is part of a long series of Dore’s work on John’s gospel: It’s black and white, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out where the light is coming from.

Van Gogh (1890) starts getting a bit abstract:








But nothing beats the 20th century for abstract. This piece by William Congdon was produced in 1961:

So which of these is historically accurate? Which of them are true? None of them. All of them.

This story is clearly a foreshadowing of the resurrection. It is a message of hope, and a message about who this Jesus is, and what his ministry means. There is more to life than meets the eye. God is working life in the midst of death. This Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

St. Paul Davenport, 1988-1994

I was privileged to serve my first call in this remarkable congregation, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa. It was there Susan and I bought our first house, on W, 29th Street, just north of Vanderveer Park, so I could walk through the park to work. It was there our son John was born. It was there I worked as youth pastor with grade school youth, junior high conformation, senior high ministry and Camp Shalom. A kind and gracious staff maximized my assets and minimized my deficits (as much as they could anyway). I couldn’t have asked for a better first call.

I honestly don’t know who took which photos, to it will be hard to give credit where credit is due.


ELCA Youth Gathering: Rejoice in the Lord Always in San Antonio

Having just graduated from seminary, I accepted a call to St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa. In our small gathering group were Amy Aufdengarten, Betsy Batcher, David Fisk, David Hatfield, Beth Kusatz, Jeff Lindmark, Clint Schnekloth, Sara Welty and others??


Ice Cream Social 1989

St. Paul Halloween Party (I took a little heat for cross-dressing…)

Valerie and Hans Schnekloth:


1990 Flooding

Camp Shalom 1990

Ice Cream Social 1990

Matt and GJ at some rockin’ youth event



Administrator Clark Aron’s 2nd floor corner office in the church house:

Mary Hahn with her state-of-the-art Macintosh.

Our church housekeeper Lois, a child of the congregations, served St. Paul for many, many years.

My cluttered 3rd floor office suite, with the fabulous window and view. 🙂

Choir Tour 1991

In June 1991 I ran my first marathon, Grandma’s in Dubuque. (I didn’t win.)

Camp Shalom 1991

The Bix 7

ELCA Youth Gathering: Called to Freedom in Dallas

After some growth, a larger group of youth at this gathering. ELCA pastor Clint Schnekloth, in our youth group, wrote a devotion for the gathering.

Confirmation 1991

Confirmation always took place in the fall of the 9th grade year.


Fall Confirmation 1992

Row 1 (L-R)

  • Anna Goodwin
  • Pastor Mike Rinehart
  • Pastor Don Harding
  • Director of Music Larry Petersen
  • Director of Communications Mary (Hahn) Miller

Row 2 (L-R)

  • Lois Boeh
  • Administrator Clark Arons
  • Marge Irwin
  • Senior Pastor Bill Waxenberg
  • Senior Pastor’s Secretary Pat Megown
  • Carla Aufdengarten
  • Holly Arp

Row 3 (L-R, standing)

  • Evalie Grothusen
  • Pastor Ron
  • Brian
  • Matt Spencer
  • Pastor Bob Hurty


Camp Shalom 1993


Camp Shalom 1994

ELCA Youth Gathering: 2B Alive at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta

On the Bus with John on my lap:

Going away party the youth threw when I accepted the call to North Carolina.

See also

Prayer for this Coronavirus Pandemic

Prayer for a Pandemic

May we who are merely inconvenienced

Remember those whose lives are at stake.

May we who have no risk factors

Remember those most vulnerable.

May we who have the luxury of working from home

Remember those who must choose between preserving their health or making their rent.

May we who have the flexibility to care for our children when their schools close

Remember those who have no options.

May we who have to cancel our trips

Remember those that have no safe place to go.

May we who are losing our margin money in the tumult of the economic market

Remember those who have no margin at all.

May we who settle in for a quarantine at home

Remember those who have no home.

As fear grips our country,

Let us choose love.

During this time when we cannot physically wrap our arms around each other,

let us yet find ways to be the loving embrace of God to our neighbors.


A Prayer by Kerry Weber, America (Jesuit Review)

Jesus Christ, you traveled through towns and villages “curing every disease and illness.” At your command, the sick were made well. Come to our aid now, in the midst of the global spread of the coronavirus, that we may experience your healing love.

Heal those who are sick with the virus. May they regain their strength and health through quality medical care.

Heal us from our fear, which prevents nations from working together and neighbors from helping one another.

Heal us from our pride, which can make us claim invulnerability to a disease that knows no borders.

Jesus Christ, healer of all, stay by our side in this time of uncertainty and sorrow.

Be with those who have died from the virus. May they be at rest with you in your eternal peace.

Be with the families of those who are sick or have died. As they worry and grieve, defend them from illness and despair. May they know your peace.

Be with the doctors, nurses, researchers and all medical professionals who seek to heal and help those affected and who put themselves at risk in the process. May they know your protection and peace.

Be with the leaders of all nations. Give them the foresight to act with charity and true concern for the well-being of the people they are meant to serve. Give them the wisdom to invest in long-term solutions that will help prepare for or prevent future outbreaks. May they know your peace, as they work together to achieve it on earth.

Whether we are home or abroad, surrounded by many people suffering from this illness or only a few, Jesus Christ, stay with us as we endure and mourn, persist and prepare. In place of our anxiety, give us your peace.

Jesus Christ, heal us.

Spiritual Blindness

Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, March 22, 2020 – Lent 4A

Lent 4A – March 22, 2020

1 Samuel 16:1-13 Humans look on the outward appearance, but God looks upon the heart.

Psalm 23 The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.

Ephesians 5:8-14 Live as children of the light. Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.

John 9:1-41 – Healing of the Man Born Blind


Amazing Grace (I was blind, but now I see…)

Be Thou My Vision

Psalm 23: Shepherd Me O God, The King of Love My Shepherd Is

Spiritually Blind

This story comes off as a kind of comedy. It’s long. Consider having a group rehearse it and read it:

Shared Reading of John 9:

For another angle on this text, read this article I wrote back in 2011 after the Japanese earthquake: “Is the Earthquake God’s Judgment on Japan?”

There are so many subtle themes in this multidimensional text. Let’s consider the story in five scenes. Any one of them could be a sermon.

Scene 1: It’s dangerous always drawing a direct connection between suffering and sin. 

Who sinned?

It’s a quandary. If he’s blind from birth, and if the people in Jesus’ day considered disabilities are the result of sin, then who did the sinning? Did he sin before he was born? Or did his parents sin, and he’s paying for it? In short, what caused his blindness?

For more on antiquity’s belief that outward physical appearance and handicaps were a sign of inward spiritual issues, and how Jesus counters this, see Mikeal Parson’s Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity.  

Before you laugh, consider the number of children born with AIDS. People always wonder: who sinned that this child was born with AIDS? Before you judge the mother, consider the woman who has AIDS not because of their promiscuity, but because of her spouse’s indiscretions. We move so quickly to placing blame, rather than applying compassion.

Sadly, some disasters are the result of sin. It’s not an entirely unreasonable question. A bus catches fire because a manufacturer cut corners. But what about the person with cancer? Must have been something they ate. The person hit by a car? Must have been walking in the wrong place. We can’t seem to get past the idea of karma: If something bad happened to you, it must be something that you did. The truth is, however, sometimes bad things happen and no one is at fault.

Also consider the Final Solution in WWII. The Nazis felt they could develop a Master Race by exterminating all those with handicaps, diseases, homosexual orientation, and, of course, the Jewish people. There is an insidious view of sickness here that makes some clean, and some unclean. Who sinned?

Jesus seems to discount this explanation. Blaming the victim won’t wash. Suffering is to be met with compassion, not judgment.

Spit and mud. Jesus uses spit in Mark 7:32 and 8:23 as well. We may be seeing through a window into Jesus’ healing style. Using spit was not uncommon among ancient healers. The mud conjures for me God making Adam out of the dust in Genesis. John’s Jesus is one with the Author of Life in Genesis.

There are also themes of sin and baptism. We too are sinners from our birth. We too are called to wash in the pool of Siloam, the waters of baptism.

Scene 2: Compassion and the law.
In verses 13-17 we are informed that Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath. So, the religious leaders, more concerned with dogged adherence to the law than compassion for the blind man, bring the man in for interrogation. Their legalism blinds them to the Gospel: the beautiful thing that God is doing in the world.

What happened?

He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see.  

This man is not from God. He doesn’t observe the Sabbath. 

But if he’s not from God, how can he perform such signs?

What do you say about him?

He is a prophet.

This is an unauthorized healing. Jesus does not have the permission or authority to heal. No one should break the law in such a flagrant way. Luke’s Jesus says, “If one of you has a child or a donkey that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on the sabbath day?” (Luke 4:5) Compassion is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:10, Galatians 5:14)

Scene 3: Triangulation and exclusion

Enter mommy and daddy. In verses 18-23 the Pharisees, who suspect the whole thing is a hoax, bring in the parents.

Is this your son, who was born blind? 


How does he now see? 

Dunno. Ask him. He is of age. He can speak for himself. (Snark)

They said this because they were afraid: Anyone who confessed Jesus as messiah would be put out of the synagogue.

Kicked out of the synagogue.

This is not like getting kicked out of a club. This is getting kicked out of ones most central community.

See also 12:42, “Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue…”

And 16:2, “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.”

There seems to be a theme here. Some suggest that this was something that John’s church was experiencing: the exclusion of Christian Jews from the Synagogue. These 2nd century Christians resonated with Jesus’ sayings about exclusion.

The list of those who are not welcome in the Temple or Synagogue was staggering. Gentiles, women, the blind, lame, deaf, mute, lepers, anyone unclean. Exclusion became a way to cut people off from community. The law gave the privileged power over others. It is precisely toward these unwelcome outcasts and sinners that Jesus directs his ministry.

To whom is your ministry directed? Who is welcome? Who is unwelcome, explicitly or implicitly? Who are the objects of your compassion? Your judgment?

Scene 4: Who is this Jesus?

In verses 24-34 the investigation continues, preparing us for the punch of the text. The man is grilled again.

This Jesus is a sinner.

I don’t know about that. I just know he healed me. I was blind, but now I see. (Seems like an obvious cue to sing Amazing Grace.)

What did he do to you?

I already told you. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to be his disciples? (More snark/sarcasm.)

You are his disciple. We are Moses’ disciples. We don’t know who this upstart is or where he comes from.

This is an amazing thing. You don’t know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. You say God doesn’t listen to sinners, so…

You were born in sin, and you would educate us? And they drove him out. 

Of course they did.

The blind man’s witness may be the most effective. Rather than a creedal formula, and a doctrinal response, we can say: “I don’t really know about all of that, all I know is that he healed me.”

How has God healed you? Where have you seen Christ’s healing presence in your community?

Scene 5: Beware of spiritual blindness.

Two weeks ago Jesus began talking with Nicodemus about being reborn. Nicodemus thought he was talking about a physical rebirth, but Jesus was actually talking about a spiritual rebirth.

Last week Jesus spoke with the woman at the well about water from the well to quench  thirst. She thought he was talking about physical thirst, but Jesus was actually talking about spiritual thirst.

This week our story is about blindness. Lest we think the story is about physical blindness, Jesus is probably talking about spiritual blindness.

Scene 5. Verses 35-41 deliver the punch.

Jesus heard that they drove out the man born blind. In character, Jesus seeks him out.

Do you believe in the Son of Man?

Who is he? 

C’est moi.

I believe.

I came so that the blind might see, and those who see become blind.

Pharisees: What? Are you calling us blind?

Jesus: Well, if the shoe fits…

If you were blind, you would have no sin, but since you say, “We see” your sin remains.

The Pharisees believe the man’s blindness is an indictment – proof he is a sinner. His blindness is God’s judgment. Therefore, they treat all those with disabilities as being out of favor with God. Jesus does the opposite. Jesus does not view the man’s blindness as judgment, but rather a malady for which we should have compassion. Jesus tells the Pharisees, in essence, you are the blind ones here. If you were physically blind, you would have no sin. But because you think you see, your hypocrisy indicts you.

The Pharisees think the man is blind. But for Jesus, it is the Pharisees who are blind. Spiritually blind.

The real sin, the ultimate blindness, is self-righteousness. Hypocrisy blinds us to the spiritual life. The Pharisees believe that the blind man is a sinner, or perhaps his parents. The blind/outcast/unwelcome man is not the sinner in Jesus’ eyes, but those who judge. This mirrors Matthew 7. Self-righteousness becomes the plank in our eyes, blinding us.

The irony is, the more we try to be good (not a bad thing) the greater the danger of feeling morally superior, which is perhaps the greatest sin of all. A smarter person could come up with an equation for this.

I can only turn to mercy. Grace. Forgiveness. Hope. Compassion. This defines us as Lutherans. While many religions, and various other denominations, define Christianity as a kind of moral contest, the gospel is about God’s love for us in spite of our brokenness.

In practical terms, it comes down to doing the opposite of the world. The world says, mercy for me; judgment for you. The opposite of that is to have very, very high standards for me, and radical grace and compassion for you, and others. This is what Jesus does throughout the gospels.

Don’t worry about the speck in your neighbor’s eye. Work on the log in your own.

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