(With help from Willimon's Pulpit Resource)
Methodist Bishop William Willimon tells a story about a pastor-theologian friend of his whose furnace broke down. Someone came in to fix it and gave it a clean bill of health. But it was not in good order as things turned out.
One Saturday night in January, this fellow said he awoke early and tried to get out of bed. But he couldn’t get fully awake. He thought he was simply tired from the night before, so he went back to sleep. He awoke later, and in a stupor, looked at the alarm clock. It was almost noon! He tried to get up out of bed. His head was throbbing, and he couldn’t move. He couldn’t get up. So he fell back to bed.
At that moment he saw a small child, a little girl, cute, dressed in white.
“How did you get in here?” he heard himself ask. “What is a child doing in my house?”
The little girl gestured toward him, pointing him toward the door. She said something to him like “You must get up and get out, or you will never get out.”
He struggled out of bed at her urging, crawled through the bedroom door and out of the house, collapsing on the front steps. The child was gone.
Heating experts were called. The house was full of carbon monoxide.
Now, as I said, the fellow is a pastor and theologian. He is not given to flights of fancy. He told Willimon, “I think that ‘child’ in my room was an angel. I think God sent her to me to warn me.”
Willimon was skeptical. But he kept his skepticism to himself. He told his friend to be careful to whom he told his story!
“All I know is,” his friend said, “a few more minutes and I’d have been dead.”
I share Willimon’s skepticism. Obvious questions arise: Entire families have been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning, why would God single out this one man for protection? If God can save a pastor from dying a peaceful, sleepy but premature death, then why couldn’t God stop four bullets directed at four young RCMP officers who were serving the common good? Why would God rescue some and not others?
Also, the angel angle. Biblically, angel appearances were met with fear and trembling. Cute little girls don’t usually strike terror into the heart. Popular religion is rife with angels. But do they really point to God or have they become an object of worship in themselves? Do angels still appear?
But while others endure tragedies that have scarred them, this man escaped death. And he has an incredible story to tell.
I’m sure folks who knew the blind man had the same questions after he was healed.
Jesus meets this blind man who has been blind from birth. With some spit and dust Jesus heals him. Praise be to God! A man who was blind can now see.
But not so fast. A controversy breaks out. Was this man really healed? How was he healed? If Jesus healed him, what does that say about Jesus?
Fortunately, a bunch of pastors appear on the scene to help sort things out, religiously speaking.
“Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind?” they ask. Like lots of religious people, they want to place blame. They want to talk about sin. They want to beat this guy with a theological stick.
Jesus doesn’t play that game. He just heals the man.
The neighbours can’t believe it. Isn’t this the same blind man who once had to beg to survive?
The pastors alert the bishop who strikes a committee to investigate.
“All I know,” the man tells the committee, “is that this man put stuff on my eyes and now I can see.”
Though the man is standing right in front of them, the committee can’t reach a conclusion. They subpoena the man’s parents.
“Is this your son?” they ask.
“It looks like our son, but we don’t want to get into any trouble. We have no idea how he got his sight back. If you want to know ask him,” his parents reply.
They call Jesus back in and say, “This Jesus doesn’t have a medical license. He’s not on the clergy roster. He shouldn’t be playing around with things he knows nothing about.”
The bewildered and annoyed formerly blind man says, “I don’t know a lot about all that big theological stuff. I don’t have a lot of fancy words. The only thing I know is that a few days ago I was blind and now I can see. If you want to know how all this works ask Jesus.”
It’s not that I don’t value theology. A quick glance at my library will tell you how much I appreciate theological discourse. But I’ve learned to see the line between theology and faith. Theology is important. But some of the most unloving people I’ve met have been most rabid theological pit-bulls.
Lutherans are famous for this. Lutherans love correct doctrine. Often at the expense of people.
In my first year doctrine class at seminary, I was a real jerk. There was nothing I loved more than jumping on my classmates for any theological error.
At one class, a woman presented a paper that I thought was just terrible. So I did my best to make sure she knew why I thought her paper was terrible.
She broke down and cried. The class turned and glared at me. I began to sweat. Even more than usual. I hadn’t noticed that she was wearing black that day or that she was off to a funeral of a close friend who had recently died. Her paper was a theological discourse on grief born out of her friend’s death.
Paul’s words taunted me, “If you understand all mysteries and have all knowledge but have not love, you are nothing.”
Looking back I wonder if the best theological response I could have given was to wrap my arms around her and give her room to cry.
Sure, her paper was awful. But I think that Jesus was more interested in her wounded heart than her incorrect doctrine.
Author Brennan Manning tells the story of a recent convert to Jesus who was approached by an unbelieving friend.
“So you have been converted to Christ?”
“Then you must know a great deal about him. Tell me, what country was he born in?”
“I don’t know.”
“What was his age when he died?”
“I don’t know.”
“How many sermons did he preach?”
“I don’t know.”
“You certainly know very little for a man who claims to be converted to Christ.”
“You’re right. I’m ashamed at how little I know about him. But this much I know: Three years ago I was a drunkard. I was in debt. My family was falling to pieces; they dreaded the sight of me. But now I’ve given up drink. We are out of debt. Ours is a happy home. My children eagerly await my return home each evening. All this Christ has done for me. This much I know of Christ.”
Despite all the books on my shelf. Even though I have the accumulated wisdom of the saints at my finger tips. I still don’t know how all this works. I don’t know why some people get healed and others don’t.
I just know that some people have extraordinary stories to tell. Whether it’s an angel rescuing someone from a carbon monoxide filled house, a drunk whose life was put back together, or a blind man receiving sight, God leaves tracks, clues for us to find. But when we piece them together we still don’t get the whole picture. God is God. We are not.
Is that good news? Maybe not for those who need God wrapped up in a tight little box.
But for those of us who would rather be saved then be correct; for those of us who rather be healed than brilliant; those of us who rather be loving rather than clever; maybe it’s all the news we need. Amen.