I Once Was Blind but Now…
How many times have we sung the words to the hymn Amazing Grace, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see”? We will be singing this song next week at our Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan service. I imagine the man in this morning’s Gospel story bursting into song with these words when Jesus resorted his sight. After he has been healed, the religious authorities want to know how this could be and all the man who has no clue as to how he has been healed can reply is, “I once was blind, but now I see.”
We might associate Amazing Grace with the bagpipes, but the melody was originally African tribal music. After a career in the Royal Navy, the writer of these famous words, John Newton, became a slave trader. In March, 1748, the ship on which he was on crossing the Atlantic ran into a terrible storm and waves battered the ship. Newton watched as one of his shipmates was washed overboard. He lashed himself to one of the masts and was to survive. He said the eleven hours of the storm forced him to rethink his entire life in the light of God’s grace, love and mercy. He realized how wrong it was to trade in human lives, and ended up becoming an Anglican priest. Later, reflecting upon his experience, he penned these words which tie God’s grace to the granting of spiritual sight.
This morning we baptized a child. In days gone by, people believed that a child had to be baptized to guarantee their salvation. The Church’s rules reflect this. Normally it is an ordained minister who baptizes the child; however, at the hospital, when the death of a child, or anyone, for that matter, is immanent, anybody can baptize them. Today, we believe that God’s love and grace is far more encompassing than just to those who have been baptized in the Christian faith. So, rather than being some sort of afterlife insurance, what is baptism? Janet Wolf, the minister of Hobson Methodist Church in Tennessee tells a story:
“Years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to Hobson Methodist Church. This was a church that was described as having PhD’s, street workers and everyone in-between. Fayette lived with mental illness and lupus and without a home. She joined the new member class. They had a conversation about baptism in the class. It was described as ‘this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone.’ This especially grabbed Fayette’s imagination. Janet tells of how, during the class, Fayette would ask again and again, ‘And when I’m baptized, I am…?’ The class learned to respond, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she’d say, and then everyone could go back to their discussion. The day of Fayette’s baptism came. Fayette went under, came up and cried, ‘And now I am…?’ And everyone said: ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced all around the fellowship hall.”
Baptism is the holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone. One of the things that we believe when we receive a sacrament in the Church is that God’s grace comes to us. God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy are poured out beyond our wildest imaginings. Now, Charlie doesn’t need forgiveness and mercy, but his baptism reminds the rest of us that we are in need of forgiveness and mercy. The sacraments are always an occasion for us to be reminded that no matter what we have done we are still loved by God.
This has an immense impact upon us here in this Church, and in every United Church and in the Church as a whole across the nation. A number of years ago, I served a congregation in Charlottetown PEI which had its roots dating back to the earliest Scottish settlers in the 1820’s. Nearly a couple of hundred years ago, before you could receive bread and wine at communion, the elders had to be assured that you were in right relationship with God. You received a small metal token which you presented at church before being served the elements. This was called, “fencing the table.” One day, in that congregation, a man went to take the sacrament without the elders’ approval. He refused to back down. The elders acted as bouncers and he was ejected from the Church.
Today, instead of fencing the altar, instead of building walls that divide, we are open to all. Every time we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we say words of invitation. In my former congregation, we often used these words composed by one of our members:
“We come to the communion table to take bread and wine in hope. The table itself symbolizes our hope. For here all are treated equally and none turned away. This is not the table of culture. It is not the table of politics. It is not even the table of religion, narrowly defined. It is the table of faith. And all are welcome here. Conservatives are welcome here. And Liberals. And New Democrats or Greens. And the not particularly political. Straight people are welcome here. And gay and lesbian people. And bisexual or transgender people. And questioning or searching people. Older people are welcome here. And young people. And adolescents, the middle-aged, and people who do not like to tell their age. Traditional Christian people are welcome here. And so are non-traditional ones. Doubters are welcome at this table and skeptics. And theists and atheists and agnostics and those who are still working it out. People of other faiths are welcome here. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, and others. Anyone on a spiritual search who wishes to come in peace is welcome. Poor and working class people are welcome here. And middle class people and wealthy people. Because this is the table of faith. Liberal faith. Open faith. Inclusive faith. Progressive faith. So all are welcome here. And for just a moment, for just the time we are together, this table stands in the middle of the wilderness as a place where we all might gather to remember that we really are sisters and brothers. This is our hope.”
I think this statement is the test of whether we have the type of community that Jesus envisioned his followers would become.
I have a friend who is a Roman Catholic Priest and he specializes in Church Laws. He has worked in the Vatican for several years. Over the years, we have done some travelling together, so we know each other fairly well. One day I asked him what he would do, being a Roman Catholic priest, if he knew, I, a Protestant minister, came forth to receive the sacrament from him. Without batting an eye, he explained, “Michael, the Roman Catholic Church is a hierarchy of rules and regulations, some are more important than others. Yes, there is a rule that I cannot serve a Protestant, however there is also another more important law that the peace must always be kept at the mass. Who knows, if you came forward to receive the mass whether, you, being a crazy protestant, might do something to disturb the service. So I would serve you.” We have seen in Pope Francis a recognition of the extreme diversity of faith and sexuality in God’s creation.
God’s grace comes to us in a profound way this morning as we are reminded in baptism of God’s all-encompassing love for all peoples. The religious people in our story this morning were quite good at building walls as to who was in and who was out; whom they would associate with and whom they would exclude. The authors who wrote the Jesus stories as they appear in our Bible envisioned their readers associating themselves with one or more of the various characters. I am not physically blind, so I don’t really relate to the blind man despite needing a bit of emotional or spiritual healing every now and then. But I do realize that I can be like the Pharisees, building walls rather than bridges. It is rather easy to distance ourselves from those who don’t follow our rules. Then Jesus is there, saying that the rules don’t matter. Every now and then there is someone who comes along and stands in our midst who doesn’t play by our United Church rules. They haven’t picked up on the fact that all churches have a code of appropriate behaviour. They stand up in our midst and say, “I had a vision.” Or, “God came and changed my life!” Or, “God healed me!” Sometimes, in the church, we don’t even encourage enthusiasm. There’s the blind man, standing before the religious leaders. They are questioning him. All the blind man can say is, “I don’t care how it happened or that it happened on the Sabbath. I know nothing about your theology. All I care about is that I can see.”
God’s grace is for everyone. Not just Charlie. Not just his parents. Not just for the folks at St. David’s. God’s grace is for all. You are going to go out into the world. Jesus sends out his disciples in the Scriptures with the same mission that God is sending you out with this morning. “Go out there and baptise in my name.” Go out there and live as people who truly believe in God’s grace for all. Go out there believing that everyone is a child of God.
The United Church of Christ, our sister church south of the border, has said that the greatest challenge facing the church today is basically the fact that while we might say we believe God’s grace is for all, we don’t walk the talk. We don’t live as if we believe everyone is equal. Think of it. This very week, you are going to come across people who might seem different to you. The Filipino caregiver who has left her children back in the Philippines with her mother so that she might come to Canada and work and send back most of her earnings so they can eat and get medical care and go to school. The young barista from Central America who has left behind all that he knew five years ago and was smuggled from Mexico into the United States and then into Canada. His parents encouraged him to leave because there was no future for him at home. That middle-aged man who spent several years in a refugee camp in Hungry after fleeing war-torn Kosovo waiting to be settled in any country that would take him and his family. The young woman in the hijab who saw her entire village in Syria destroyed. Your co-workers struggling with addiction, spousal abuse, a run-away child. There are people all around us who are carrying very heavy burdens.
As Charlie is baptized today, we are reminded that as people who have received tremendous grace from God, we have responsibility to the people we come across in life to share that grace. It might be as simple as a smile and few kind words. May we go into the world this day, not only recognizing that we are filled with God’s grace, but prepared to share that grace.