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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

Why did Jesus weep?

It certainly isn’t as famous as John 3:16, but the trivia factor surrounding the shortest sentence in the Bible certainly makes John 11:35 a well known verse.  “Jesus wept.”  It is two words in English.  The Greek, because of the need of a definite article, has three words, but as I re-read the well-worn story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, I find myself wondering why John 11:35 exists at all?  Why did Jesus weep?

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From the very beginning, the story of Lazarus’ death sounds well orchestrated by Jesus.  If I was a less trusting person, looking for holes in the Gospel narrative, I might think that John worked really hard to make this story work into his theological presuppositions.  For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume the details as we have them are correct.  Jesus receives word that his friend, a dear friend, one whom he loved, had fallen ill.  The word used throughout the first few verses is the generic word for illness.  We would have no reason to think that Lazarus was on death’s door other than a) Mary and Martha sent for Jesus and b) Jesus specifically says that the illness doesn’t lead to death, which makes one think that it really could.  Jesus tarries for two more days, until he knows for sure that Lazarus has died.  He does so, by his own admission, so that God’s glory can be revealed and the Son of God can be glorified.  That is to say, Jesus knows what’s about to happen.  He knows that the death of Lazarus is a temporary thing.   He knows that he will bring him back to life.

Upon arriving in Bethany, Jesus gets a guilt trip from both the sisters.  “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  In his first encounter with Martha, Jesus assures her that her brother will live again.  In the repeat performance with Mary, something seems to change.  The crowd that followed Mary weeping and wailing seems to have an impact on Jesus.  It is here, in the midst of the guilt and the sadness that John tells us that Jesus weeps.  Yet, he still knows that he is fixin’ to raise Lazarus from the dead.  He knows that this pain is temporary.  He knows that the glory about to be revealed will forever change his ministry.  So why weep?

I can think of a few reasons why Jesus wept.  First, I suspect the tears began to flow from his empathetic humanity.  He was the pain in his friends Mary and Martha and he shared their sadness.  Jesus was, after all, not some robotic deity who came simply to make a cosmic transaction and buy our salvation (I’m looking at you penal substitutionary atonement).  Instead, Jesus came as Emmanuel, God with us, and experienced the full breadth of human emotion.  Here, in the midst of pain, grief, and guilt, perhaps it all caught up with Jesus and he wept.  Second, I wonder if the tears maybe came from his frustrated divinity.  Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus refuses to perform miracles as a sign of his divinity.  Though he is often asked to prove himself by some sort of holy magic trick, Jesus uses his power to heal sparingly.  He performs signs and wonders for a larger pedagogical purpose and not as some fancy parlor trick.  Yet here, in the details with which John pads this story, it seems that the raising of Lazarus is just such an event.  Everything Jesus does is to ensure that people take note of how impressive a feat this really is.  I can’t help but think that maybe Jesus’ tears come from his frustration that he had do to it this way.  Finally, I imagine that Jesus weeps as he realizes that the end is near.  The raising of Lazarus from the dead will prove to be the final straw in his ongoing theological squabble with the religious powers-that-be in Jerusalem.  In that moment, Jesus felt the full weight of what was coming.  Both his humanity and his divinity wished there was another way, but there, on the outskirts of Bethany, the stark reality came down upon him.  The only way to defeat the corruption of the world was to offer himself as a sacrifice to it.  Only in vulnerability could the cycle of violence be ended.  Only on the cross could he be raised up upon the throne.

Jesus weeping is an important detail in the story of Lazarus.  Indeed, Jesus weeping is a key point in John’s theology.  To brush it aside, as the crowd does, and just assume he is weeping at the death of his friend, is to miss out.  I wonder, what other reasons might there be for the tears of our Lord?

Learning to see – a sermon

You can listen to my sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it below


After four months of being in transition, this week I decided to get back into the routine of life.  No more sleeping in until just before the kids wake up and rushing through the morning, the alarm now goes off at 5am, and thanks to our recent return to Daylight Saving Time, it is still very dark.  In those first moments of the morning, I struggle to stay awake.  It is so dark, the bed is so comfortable, and I really would prefer to just roll over, but at least for this week, I was able to stave off the snooze button.  The hardest part, however, isn’t the waking up, it is those first few seconds while my eyes adjust to whatever light source I introduce.  Usually, it is my iPhone.  After the alarm goes off, I check for overnight messages and then open up the Forward Movement website to read Morning Prayer.  Slowly my eyes adjust to the brightness of the screen.  At first, it is almost painful as my dilated pupils rapidly shrink.  Usually, by the time I have finished reading the Psalm, my eyes are fully adjusted, but it really does take a while.

I can only imagine what it must have been like for the man born blind when he first opened his eyes.  After decades of darkness, never knowing the light of day, suddenly it all came flooding in.  How intense must that first moment of sight been for him?  How excruciating was it as his eyes adjusted to the light for the first time?  How long did it take before he could actually comprehend what he was seeing?  As much as this story is about the miracle of a man born blind being given the ability to see, it also serves as a metaphor for John.  This story is meant to teach us what it means to really see Jesus even as it assures us that it might take some time for the eyes of our heart to adjust.  For John, this story serves as an illustration of what it means to call Jesus the light of the world.  It took the man’s eyes some time to adjust to the newness of the light, and it would take his soul a while to come to see clearly in the light of Christ.  While he is learning to see, everyone around this man were found to be perfectly happy staying blind.

After the man is healed, the questions start, beginning with his neighbors, those who had passed him by for years, but never really saw him.  They had seen his cloak, spread out to receive loose change.  They had seen his rags, barely stitched together.  Some had seen his face and the vastness behind his eyes, but their reactions betray the fact that though they were perfectly capable of sight, they had never really seen him.  The man, on the other hand, continues his journey toward sight.  “Who did this to you?” They asked him.  The man responds, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes… and I received my sight.”  In the initial stages of his spiritual seeing, the man only knows the name of the one who healed him, but as the story unfolds, his soul’s vision will increase.

His neighbors don’t buy his answer, and so they drag him off to the Synagogue where the Pharisees essentially put him on trial for heresy.  Again, he gives the details of his healing.  When pressed about the man called Jesus, the once blind man’s understanding deepens.  No longer able call Jesus simply a man, the eyes of his heart continued to open and he tells them, “He is a prophet.”  Not content to leave it alone, the Pharisees push things further.  They call his parents to testify that he was, in fact, the man born blind.  Afraid of what the Pharisees might do to them, and unwilling to comment on who this Jesus character might actually be, his parents make themselves blind to their own son’s healing.  “Ask him,” they say, “he is of age.”

Again, the man is brought back before the council, and again they ask him for the details of his healing.  How can the details of this story be true, they wonder, for Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, clearly he is a sinner and God doesn’t work through sinners.  So, who healed you, God or this sinner?  The man can clearly see that they are missing the point.  He wonders if maybe they secretly want to be disciples of Jesus.  He assures them that he has no idea how it all happened, but that this Jesus who healed him has to be of God.  As he considers the truth that never before had anyone ever heard of someone blind from birth being healed, his spiritual vision continues to come into focus.

Finally, the Pharisees have had enough.  Their eyes are scrunched closed so tightly that they may never see anything the right way again, and they throw this man out of the Synagogue.  Jesus, having heard about it, tracked him down, and the man born blind was able to see Jesus for the first time.  Here, with physical eyes wide open and spiritual eyes ready to see, he comes to see and to understand fully that Jesus is the Son of Man, one of John’s favorite names for the Messiah, and he becomes the only person in John’s Gospel to worship Jesus.[1]  It was difficult work, coming to see Jesus fully, but the man born blind was blessed in the experience.  His eyes were made open by Jesus, but more than that, his heart became open to God.

I am more and more convinced that learning to see with the eyes of our hearts is the basic work of discipleship.  In Baptism, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit and with it, the spiritual eyes needed to see God’s hand at work in the world.  Over time, by the grace of God, the pupils of our hearts slowly adjust to the light of Christ.  As our spiritual vision comes into focus, we see the hurting and the lost and we care for them.  We see the joyful and the blessed and we rejoice with them.  We see blessings poured out and we give thanks for them.  We see the work of the Kingdom and we join in it.  The process of learning to see the world through the eyes of our hearts is never ending, but with God’s help, every day, our spiritual eyesight can get a little bit better.  As our eyes adjust to the light of Christ, the progress might be slow, even painful at times, but in the end, our eyes will be open and we will be ready to worship Jesus, the light of the world, the Son of God.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=906

Coming into the light

My least favorite part about waking up in the morning is that moment of first light.  Usually, it is my iPhone, ready to offer me the Morning Office from Forward Movement, but sometimes it is the light in the kitchen to feed the dogs or the bathroom to… well that’s somewhat self-explanatory.  That first moment of light can be excruciating as my eyes adjust from full dilation during what has been the darkness of night and to the constriction of what will be the brightness of the day.  I can only imagine what that experience must have been like for the man born blind.  After decades of darkness, how intense was that first experience of light?

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As the story unfolds, John uses this ongoing metaphor of darkness and light to show us how the man’s spiritual pupils had to slowly adjust after his encounter with Jesus.  The adjustment doesn’t seem to happen quite as quickly as that first moment of actual light, but it seems the experience was just as painful as the man searches for meaning.

Immediately, the questions begin.  “Weren’t you the beggar we knew?  Who did this to you?”  The man responds, “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.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”  The crowd near his home doesn’t buy it, and so they drag him off to the Pharisees for what amounts to a heresy trial.  He once again tells the story of the mud and the Pool of Siloam, and when pressed by the Pharisees, “What do you say about him?” the man’s understanding deepens.  He is no longer able to say that Jesus is just “the man called Jesus,” but now he sees him as “a prophet.”

The saga continues as now the man’s parents are brought before the council to give account of this miracle.  Unwilling to comment on who  Jesus might be, they turn the ball back over to their son saying, “ask him, he’s the one who was healed.”  So again, the Pharisees question the man.  He wonders aloud if they want to maybe be his disciples, affirms that he’s not sure how it all happened, but that the man who healed him had to be “from God.”  As he considers the truth that never before had anyone ever heard of someone blind from birth being healed, his spiritual vision continues to come into focus.

Finally, after the man is removed from the Synagogue, he is once again encountered by Jesus.  Here, with physical eyes wide open and spiritual eyes ready to see, he comes to see fully that Jesus is the Son of Man, one of John’s favorite names for the Messiah, and he becomes the only person in John’s Gospel to worship Jesus.  It was difficult work, coming to see Jesus fully, but the man is blessed in the experience.  His eyes are opened, but more than that, his heart is open to God and he becomes a disciple.  Would that our hearts might be made open to see God’s hand at work in the world about us.

On being blind

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Blindness is everywhere I look today (bad pun #1).  On Wednesday mornings, SBC’s preschool has an 8:30 chapel service.  The lesson for this morning was an excerpt of Sunday’s Gospel lesson about the man born blind.  To illustrate that story, the School Director told the story of Fanny Crosby, a prolific poet and hymn writer who became blind at a very young age.  at age 8, Fanny wrote her first poems, which often focused on her condition.  She wrote,

Oh, what a happy soul I am,
although I cannot see!
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.

How many blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t,
To weep and sigh because I’m blind
I cannot, and I won’t! (1)

As I settled in to the office this morning after chapel, I opened today’s Lent Madness match up, which has, of all people, Fanny Crosby! going up against  George Frideric Handel, who was himself blind by the time of his death at age 74.  I’m still debating whether to file a complaint against SBC’s school for creating a bias in today’s Lent Madness voting.

After all of that, I’ve gone back and reread Sunday’s Gospel lesson with fresh eyes (pardon the pun in poor taste) and am noticing the obvious that blindness isn’t about the physical condition of the man who has his sight restored by Jesus, but rather is the ongoing condition of most everyone else in this story.  The blindness of the disciples opens the story.  Seemingly right in front of this man who is blind, and not deaf, they ask Jesus, “What’s with this guy?  Did he sin or his parents?”  It continues with his neighbors, who after his healing, though nothing about his physical appearance has changed, can’t seem to recognize this man who for years they had seen and known as “the man born blind.”  The Pharisees get in on the act, unable to see God’s hand at work in this healing because is happened on the Sabbath and didn’t follow their closely defined idea of how things were supposed to work.  Finally, the man’s own parents seem blind to the fact that in protecting their own hides, they have thrown their own son under the bus.

As the story ends, Jesus confronts the blindness of the Pharisees.  He calls them out for their unwillingness to see and their stubborn rejection of anything that falls outside of the tunnel vision religion they have carefully crafted for their own well being.  This ongoing blindness is the most dangerous, and one that can easily creep into our own faith communities.  It is so easy to see only what we want to.  We can pat ourselves on the back for being such a friendly congregation and never notice how radically unwelcoming that makes us.  We can fret the ongoing decline of membership numbers and not see how God is still using your congregation to deepen relationships, care for the downtrodden, and reach out to those in need.  Blindness goes both ways, we can miss the good and the ill in our midst, but the way of God is the way of sight.  God’s Son came as a light shining in the darkness.  Will we choose to see everything the light has to offer?  Or are we content with the perceived safety of the lingering darkness?

God has a plan

Let me preface what is to follow by saying that I wholeheartedly believe that God has a plan for creation.  Well, maybe more like a dream.  God’s dream for humanity and the earth we were created to care for is a wholeness.  We were designed to be in relationship, perfect relationship with God, with one another, and with the world in which we live.  Every part of God’s plan, which is declared good and perfect in Romans 12, is about fixing those relationships that we have screwed up, repeatedly and ad nauseam.

With that caveat in place, let me now suggest that what we will hear from Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a very dangerous statement.  The story unfolds with Jesus and his disciples happening upon a blind man.  We aren’t sure how they know that he has been blind since birth, but it helps the drama of the story that he was.  Anyway, the disciples, being good students of Judaism, are eager to engage their Rabbi in a theological discussion about his man.  “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  It may seem uncouth, but this line of questioning is perfectly valid in the context of 1st century Judaism.  In fact, those who would stick their head in the sand and say conversations like this don’t happen among 21st century Christians are just fooling themselves.  Jesus’ reply seems to indicate that God’s plan included the blindness of this man, and it is an answer with which I am exceedingly uncomfortable.

The NRSV renders it thusly: “Neither than man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’ works might be reveled in him.”  To my mind, this is the other side of the same coin as Pat Robertson saying Hurricane Katrina happened because of the gay agenda or the Haiti earthquake was the result of the Voodoo religion.  To suggest that God’s plan, that I would remind you is both good and perfect, includes such hardships as hurricanes, earthquakes and a child born blind is to forget the purpose behind God’s plan: the restoration of all relationships.  As is often the case, bad theology stems from bad translation.

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In this week’s WorkingPreacher Commentary, Osvaldo Vena, Profesor de Nuevo Testamento at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, suggests a more straightforward translations of verse three.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me … ”  The man’s blindness isn’t the result of God’s plan, but rather, it is God’s plan to heal him in this moment.  It wasn’t God’s plan to make this man blind so that God could later swoop in and look heroic, but rather Jesus says, it is God’s plan to overcome the broken relationships of this man’s life.  Of course, as the story plays out, it’ll take a lot more healing to fix all of his relationships.  After regaining his sight, he is ostracized by his neighbors, by the religious authorities, and even by his own parents, but with his newfound sight, the man is able to see a way to right relationship with God, which is the first step in right relationship with the rest of God’s creation.

This Sunday, let’s not perpetuate bad theology.  Let’s not suggest that God allows us to suffer, or worse yet, that God makes us suffer, so that God can fix things later.  Instead, let’s share the story of God’s saving grace, God’s perfect love for all of creation, and God’s plan to restore all things to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.

The Power of Water

According to unicef, everyday, nearly 1,000 children die from the lack of clean drinking water.  One thousand children. Every. Single. Day.  That’s a child dying every minute and half.  That’s roughly the population of Tampa, Florida dying every year, due to something as correctable as the lack of clean drinking water.  The human body is 60% water.  The surface of the earth 71% covered by water.  We’ve all seen the videos of why one should never attempt to drive through standing water.

We are well aware of the need for access to clean water in our lives, but I’m guessing that many of us take that access for granted.  I know that I often do.  I’ve never lived in a drought plagued place like California, north Alabama, or Sub-Saharan Africa.  When I turn on the tap, cold, clean water comes out.  It wasn’t until the Student Body President at VTS in 2004-05 mentioned it that I had ever even considered that on a daily basis I have the privilege of using clean drinking water to take a shower.

Two of our lessons for Lent 3 would remind us to not take water for granted.  They are both stories of the power of water, not to sweep away a car in a flood, but to culturally and, more importantly, as a source of life, a gift from God.  At Christ Church this week, we will hear these lessons in the context of a homily from Steve Young, not that one, the Executive Director of Living Waters for the World, Steve Young.  He will share with us the work that his team, of which Christ Church will soon be included, is doing to bring access to clean water to the remotest of places.

Their foundational text is the story of Jesus meeting the woman at Jacob’s Well.  In that story we hear not only that even Jesus needed water, but the power of the well socially, as this woman who had been married several times and was now living with a man who was not her husband, was forced to wait until the heat of midday to draw water.  Jesus turns that hurt right-side up, meeting here there, at noon, and engaging her in conversation.  He turns the concrete reality of water into a spiritual thirst for living water, and shows her and her whole town that thirst is not merely a physical desire, but it is at the core of who we are as created beings.

I’m struck by the power of water today, and I give thanks that I so rarely have to think about my own access to it even as I grieve that so many don’t have access to clean water to drink, let alone to spend 10-15 minutes showing in.

Jesus was Tired

It is hard for me to believe, but it has been more than two years since the candidates for the 4th Bishop of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast took part in the walkabout portion of the discernment process.  Over the course of several days, the candidates traveled around the diocese attending a series of large gatherings in which they were invited to answer questions, many canned, so that we might be able to get to know them a little better.   The folks from St. Paul’s in Foley attended the event in Daphne, which was the fifth and final event in a rugged week for these candidates.  I remember being glad that I was able to attend this final walkabout meeting because I wanted to see how my future bishop might behave at the end of a long week.  “I need a bishop who can take my call at 5pm on a Friday when I’ve just learned the treasurer has been embezzling money,” I told one person.  It was a bit of an exaggeration, but the truth is that the ministry of a bishop means long hours, lots of personal interaction, and the ability to be “on” at the drop of a hat.  All four candidates seemed to handle the situation pretty well, and I left feeling like we would be in good hands with any of them at the helm.

When preaching on Sunday’s Gospel lesson, most preachers will focus on the narrative of Jesus and the woman at the well – with good reason – but this morning, still fighting through the haze of last night’s nighttime cold medicine caplet,  I’m struck by the context that John spells out for his readers.  “Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.”  Jesus was tired out by his journey.  Not only does this detail do the hard work of humanizing Jesus, a noble task in John’s lofty and cosmic Gospel, but it also gives us a lens through which we see the rest of the story.  When Jesus rather curtly demands a drink from the woman at the well, we are more apt, I think, to brush it off because he was tired.  And maybe we read the story of this deep encounter between Jesus and the woman with more awe because of how spot on Jesus seems to be, even in the midst of his exhaustion.

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Just as I needed a bishop who could do the hard work of ministry when s/he was tired, so too I appreciate the Messiah who, though worn out by the journey, is still ready to show love and compassion.  It is dangerous to moralize Jesus’ behavior since we can never actually be like Jesus, but I think this detail is a helpful reminder to all of us who represent Christ in the world that even when we feel like we need to hide away for a while, even when we are tired and ready for a break, even when we would rather do anything else but be around God’s beloved and hurting people, we are called to love, to show compassion, and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ both by our words and through our actions.