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                     of Almelund, Minnesota

         

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Opening Our Eyes to God

Pastor Marla Amborn

Immanuel Lutheran Church

February 11, 2018

John 9:1-41

 

This story about the blind man takes many twists and turns, but the one that catches my attention today is that after he was healed, the man’s friends and neighbors weren’t even sure it was him. They had come to think of him as “the blind man.” They had so identified him with this disability that once the disability was healed, they couldn’t even recognize him.

 

How odd that must have been for this man! People who had known him all his life couldn’t believe it was him. Even after the man’s parents confirmed his identity, the Pharisees sent him away. This was just too big a change for them to accept. They still spoke of him as “the man born blind” or “the man who had been blind.” They didn’t use his name. They couldn’t see him without talking in terms of his past limitations.

 

How often do we do that to ourselves? How often do we define ourselves by our past limitations or our most traumatic life experiences?

 

As a kid I got labeled as “clutzy.” When I was five years old I grew 9 inches in one year. My coordination couldn’t keep up with my quickly growing body. I tripped over my own two feet so much that I lost confidence in my physical ability. My parents became so concerned about this that they enrolled me in a summer ballet class, hoping it would teach me to be graceful. It didn’t work! It only embarrassed me, making me all the more certain that I really was hopelessly clutzy. So, I never went out for any sports. I never really learned to dance. That identify of being “clutzy” has limited me from doing physical things all my life. Thinking of myself as “clutzy” became a self-fulfilling prophesy. When you don’t do physical things because you don’t think you can, you never learn the physical skills to do them. It’s kind of a vicious cycle.

 

My sense is that many of us have some ways we limit ourselves based on our identity or how we think about difficult life experiences. If you have been fired or laid off from a job it can undermine your confidence in seeking a new job. If you have had a major heart break it can make you guard your heart, putting up protective barriers that push potential new loves away.

 

The identity we have of ourselves matters. The way we interpret our stories matters. From time to time it is helpful to take stock of our past – to think through the good the bad, the happy and the sad. Are there some stories about our lives that are holding us back from the hopeful future God has planned for us? Are we holding on to some shame or self-doubt that keeps us stuck? Is there some old part of our identity that we need to let go of to claim our hopeful future as God’s beloved child?

 

In our gospel, most of the people had a hard time accepting that the man who was once blind could now see. But two people embraced his new identity: the man, himself, and Jesus. The man is thrilled by his new-found ability to see. He never thought it would be possible. Through the grace of God, he once was blind but now he sees! A bright new future is open to him.

 

Throughout the story he gains confidence enough to speak up to the Pharisees, even though others are intimidated by them. As he is telling and retelling his story, his eyes open to who Jesus is. At first, he refers to Jesus as “a man called Jesus.” The next time he tells his story he recognized there is something special about this man called Jesus and he calls him “a prophet.” As he is telling his story for the third time he refers to Jesus as “a man from God” because he realizes only God can heal the blind. And finally, when Jesus seeks him out after he has been cast out of the community, the man calls Jesus “Lord” and “worships him.”

 

This man could long for the “familiar old days,” when he was a blind beggar. As hard as it was, at least he was part of the community, and he knew his place. But even with the new hardship of being cast out, he is grateful for his new-found sight and he worships Jesus. His new identity is “follower of Jesus.”  

 

A friend of mine once said “There is probably a good reason that the windshield is so big and the rearview mirror is so small. It is good to look back once in a while, but the key to getting where you need to go is looking forward.”

 

That is good advice for us as individuals and as a congregation. As we have our annual meeting today it is a time to look back on the last year, to think about where we’ve been. And it is also a time to look forward with 2020 vison into the hopeful future God has planned for us.

 

It could be easy to get stuck in an old identity. For example, for many years this congregation has thought of itself has not having many financial resources. There has been a sense that we need to very careful, because we’re not confident we’ll have enough money to pay the bills. But the congregation has always come through. Not only have we paid the bills for the last 131 years, we’ve also helped others outside our walls.

 

I was so impressed by the way we rallied behind the water project for Itonya. Thanks to what we have done, 1,200 people in Itonya will soon have clean drinking water! What a hopeful future that creates for people who have struggled with water-borne illness for many years.

 

At the same time we supported clean water for our companion congregation, we also supported our youth group in going on its mission trip to South Dakota. What a powerful experience for our kids going out as God’s hands and feet in the world! What an impact they made on the lives of others and on their own sense of themselves as God’s people!

 

In the last year we’ve been blessed with financial gifts. Elsie Nord’s bequest has had a powerful impact on our ministry. And we started out this year with a check for $62,500 from the estate of Linda Mae Engstrom. If anyone knows who she is, please let me know. Between these two gifts we have nearly million dollars that has been donated, with more expected from Linda Mae Engstrom’s estate in the coming months. These unexpected gifts give us the ability to support ministry both inside and outside our walls in new and powerful and ways. God is giving us these gifts for a reason and we need to be faithful in making the best use of them. We’ve also established an endowment fund that will help support this ministry into the future. We’re not just some struggling little country church, we are God’s people at Almelund. We are Immanuel – God is with us.

 

God is not only giving us financial resources to support this ministry, God is sending us people – like Momoh to lead music. Like Jason and DeeDee Fredlund to work with the youth. Like Matt and Soua Carlson to lead young adult ministry. God is working through people like Don Noyes and Steve Blomquist to rewire the building so that when we have a big crowd, like we did on the day of David Johnson’s funeral, people all around the building can hear what is happening in the sanctuary. I have to believe God is equipping us for other big events in the future.

 

God is sending us teams of volunteers to teach our little ones and to staff the nursery so that we can be a more welcoming place for families with young children. God has gifted us with deep-seated hospitality and a heart for service. That shows itself in the ways we reach out to our community through events like the Threshing Show and Apple Festival, and the ways we welcome people into our midst.

 

Last week we hosted a group of five churches from the North Conference to consider ways we can support one another in doing shared ministry. Joe Lees, the synod representative, commented “Your congregation sure has a heart for hospitality!” He’s right. That is one of our gifts. We need to claim it and celebrate it and use it in all the ways God sets before us to welcome others into our midst.  

 

I’ve spent time over the last few days at the bedside of Margurite Sellman. I believe she is our oldest member at 97 years old. It doesn’t look like she will make it to her 98th birthday in March. As I think about her and look out on the congregation, there are a lot of empty spots left by faithful people who sat there not so long ago who have died.

 

It is easy to get discouraged when we focus on losses. If we look around and long for the days when there were more people in the pews or more kids in Sunday School, it can keep us from recognizing the powerful ways God is at work among us now.

 

Friday night our youth, several parents, and I went to Mount Zion Jewish Temple in St. Paul to learn about our Jewish roots and worship together. I was so proud of our kids. They were on their best behavior. They asked thoughtful questions. They were respectful. They participated well even though the setting was unfamiliar.

 

Next weekend those youth will be attending a retreat at Luther Point Bible Camp. What a powerful experience that will be! We have contracted with the group “100 White Flags” to lead the weekend and to lead worship here next Sunday. We have 13 kids in Confirmation! This is a dynamic ministry. We need to notice the positive ways God is at work among us now and support it. We can’t let ourselves get stuck in an old image of ourselves that no longer serves us well.

 

For the last several months we have had a Discernment Group meeting every couple of weeks to open our eyes to God at work among us. This group gathers to discern God’s will and to pray for this ministry. There is power in prayer. There is power in gathering together in small groups to pray. Where two or three are gathered, God is in their midst. 

 

Just as Jesus gave sight to the blind man, Jesus opens our eyes to God at work in our midst. Jesus is the light of the world. He brings light into the darkest places. Darkness cannot overcome the light of God. It doesn’t mean we won’t have some struggles along the way. But when we do, we need to remember our identity as God’s beloved children. We also need to claim our identity as Immanuel – God with us.

 

God is with us. God has a hopeful future planned for each of us individually and for us as his people here at Immanuel of Almelund. Let’s walk forward together into God’s light. Amen!