March 26, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
John 9:1-12, 13, 24-41
Remembering How We Have Changed
“Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” This is a promise our church and many churches announce out loud. It’s a good promise and it’s one we’re always working toward. But one way in which many churches find this claim getting put to the test is when it comes to welcoming a person who is listed on the sex offender registry.
Now, please know. In the time I have been at Church of Peace, this issue has not come up. It might have long ago and it probably will come up for us some day. I have been part of a congregation that has dealt with this question of how to welcome a person on the registry and while also ensuring that children are safe. From my participation in clergy groups, I can tell you it is increasingly common for churches to wrestle with this question. You can see why it’s challenging.
We know that children have been hurt by adults in churches; children have been hurt by leaders of churches. You can see why a person would ask, “Is it really a good idea to let someone on the sex offender registry into the building?” It has been said: Someone who harms once could harm again. It has been said: People are reliably themselves. Maya Angelou put it like this: “When someone shows you who they really are, believe them the first time.”
I have a colleague who recently discovered that her church’s insurance policy (which is not the one we have) includes a clause that will not cover the church if they are aware of a person on the sex offender registry and that person re-offends.
Given all these warnings, and especially given the severity of the risk, it could be tempting to take an extreme position. Let’s follow in the way of the schools and apartment complexes and many other institutions and say if you’re on the registry, sorry, you can’t come in here. We’d need to amend that welcome statement.
Except. The problem with this plan is that the church is different from these other institutions. At the heart of our Christian identity lives the promise that people can change. God can change people. Even them. Even us.
The people on the sex offender registry are made into outcasts by our society. God is especially concerned for those who are outcasts. God is especially concerned for those who are vulnerable, for those who have been hurt, for those who have been punished.
As church leaders, we’re discovering it’s not so easy to take an extreme position. We cannot afford to be naive and pretend that this issue doesn’t exist. We also cannot afford to ban people on the registry thereby teaching our children that if you get in trouble one day, don’t plan to come back here.
So what we’re doing is working in the middle. We’re developing covenants with individuals on the registry to ensure they are not in the building unaccompanied, they they will never be alone with kids, that they will be warmly welcomed to our table. In between the extreme positions, there is this, risky, muddy middle. This is the place of turning. This is where you’ll see the promise come true, the promise that God is still forgiving and creating, still making us new.
Our scripture this morning comes from the Gospel of John, and you’ll notice, the writer of this Gospel loves pairs of opposites. Light and Darkness. Seeing and being blind. Outsiders and Insiders. Day and Night. It’s so tempting to try to get things sorted into their right side.
But actually, what happens in the Gospel is the opposites spill into each other. The outsiders get welcomed in; the insiders get kicked out. Day turns into night which turns into day. It’s the turning that matters. Watch for the turning; that’s where you’ll find God at work.
Upon narrowly escaping getting stoned to death, Jesus and his disciples walk by a man who was born blind. Now in the ancient world, it was believed, wrongly, that blindness resulted from sin. So the disciples ask, whose fault is it that he’s blind? And Jesus tells them, “It’s nobody’s fault.” Without getting the blind man’s consent or even introducing himself, Jesus spits on the ground and smears spit and mud on this man’s eyes. He tells the man to go and wash in the pool of Siloam, and the blind man tries it! He becomes able to see.
What happens next is my favorite part in this whole chapter. The man’s neighbors aren’t sure who he is. As though being able to see changes his appearance! As though he looks different because now he can look differently! Or they don’t recognize him because he used to be a beggar. Now he’s not asking for money, and who really looks at the people who are asking for money…
What I love is that the neighbors can’t decide. They are genuinely perplexed even though he keeps telling them,“Look, I’m the same guy who used to sit and beg!” “Really? Maybe you are. I can’t quite tell. I’m not quite sure.” And see those people are standing on holy ground.
The next section of our story encompasses two legal hearings which were conducted by the Pharisees and by “the Jews,” but please understand, everybody in this story is Jewish. The writer means a particular group of Jewish leaders. In the first hearing, the Pharisees become divided; some of them think Jesus must be from God since he has the power to restore the sight of the blind man; others say Jesus could not be from God since he did this on the sabbath. Even though they’ve interrogated the newly seeing man, still, they can’t quite tell. They’re not quite sure.
They try again, this time interrogating his parents, but that’s no use. So the newly-seeing man is hauled before them again. “Okay, so we’re pretty sure the man who did this to you is a sinner. What we don’t know is how he pulled it off. What do you think?” The newly seeing man finally loses it. “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Maybe you want to be his disciple?” Well, this starts a fight and they throw him out of the synagogue.
Now that would ring a bell for the first hearers of the Gospel of John. They were dealing with the threat of getting kicked out of the synagogue. Who’s in and who’s out. This has always been our struggle.
When Jesus hears that the man got thrown out, he goes and finds him. Jesus asks the man, “Do you believe in the Human One?” Wait. Did he mean to ask, “Do you believe in God?” That would make more sense… Here the opposites spill into each other. Believing in humanity pours into believing in God. The man says, “Um, I might believe in him. Who is he?” “He’s the one speaking to you. You’re looking at him!” says our savior. “O Lord, I believe.” Now I see.
Turns out, it’s not about choosing sides. It never was. It’s about that place where a man who was born blind begins to see, then sees even more clearly —where the seeing people start to question their vision and become more blind. In this place of turning, the holiness of Christ pours into his humanity and his humanness becomes more holy. This is the place. (Here, you could even sing a classic Christian hymn set to the tune of a song lamenting certain events that happened in a brothel…) Hear the opposites spill into each other; it’s the middle of the miracle.
Today we’re continuing our Lenten series on remembering. At first glance, it might seem like the purpose of remembering is to preserve the past, to rehearse the tender, creased traditions. It seems like we remember what happened so we can keep things the same, and there is truth in this idea. But when we actually start remembering things together, what becomes apparent is how much things have changed, how much we have changed. I am not my twenty-six year old self. Being twenty-six was fine, but now I’m married. I’m a pastor. I have a different name. I don’t have the same dreams I had then.
And it’s one thing to see this transformation happening in our own lives. It’s another thing to have to explain it to everybody else. I mean if you’re part of a family or a community who expects you to always be exactly how you’ve been, that’s a pretty impossible expectation to meet. What we need is a community that expects us to change, made of people who will sit down next to us when we wonder who we’ve become.
Now that I’ve gotten sober, who am I?
Now that I’ve become a father, who am I?
Now that my husband has died, how can I keep going?
Well, with us. You can keep going with us. If you change your name, we will call you by your new name.
Imagine if churches could become communities who support the people who are deep in the throes of change. (Because who among us is not changing?) Imagine if we embraced this commitment as the gift we have to offer in a world that is all too impatient with this middle place. Look, anybody can go off by themselves and believe in Jesus. But when a person tries doing that and discovers that it changes them, who is going to be there to love them through this? The church is not just for those who choose a side at either extreme. We’re here for the ones who are caught up in the conflict and the confusion, the healing and the grief. And we are not afraid of this God-made, God-blessed mud.
And so it is, these days churches are wrestling with the question of how to protect our most vulnerable members while also welcoming people who are listed on the sex offender registry. Please understand. This question is not our problem; it is our purpose.
If you are losing your vision. If you are just beginning to see. If you can’t quite tell, if you’re not quite sure, you are welcome here. The world needs this welcome. Look at us and you’ll see, God is changing people. It keeps happening right here. Amen.