Seeing With New Eyes – A Homecoming Celebration

Sorry for taking the week off.  It was an unexpected gift from our congregation after the fire that damaged most of our home.  We had to spend so much time recovering from that event that preparation for Sunday was difficult and instead one of our friends said, “Don’t worry about the sermon – we’ll handle that for you.”  It was truly a blessing as Pat and my wife Cassie came up and bravely gave their testimonies to the congregation.  Truly powerful.

This week’s sermon is both a celebration of past ministry at First UMC in Dinuba, but also a look into our future as our congregation of wonderful people faces the stark reality of a financial crisis.  It is through that lens that we come to our celebration on Sunday morning. 

Me posing at the front of First Church
Me posing at the front of First Church
From L to R: Jim Garrison, me, Bob Collins, and Ron Greilich - all former pastors of First UMC
From L to R: Jim Garrison, me, Bob Collins, and Ron Greilich – all former pastors of First UMC

Good morning!  For those of you don’t know me, I’m Craig Yoshihara.

I’m currently the pastor here at First United Methodist Church in Dinuba.  It’s an honor to be part of the rich legacy of this church that has done so much in its 123 years.  It’s a treat to listen to the stories and the history of what has happened inside and outside these walls in all that time.  Stories about the Little Church and the Little Ministers; how seriously those who were given that honor carried out their responsibilities.  Tales about MYF and the impact it made on the lives of the youth who participated.  Two of them even became pastors in the United Methodist Church and one of them is a missionary in Singapore!  Everything from Dave’s Cave to the Fisher Room to the ringing of the bells are all a part of the amazing tapestry that makes up the ministry we do together in this place.  It’s obvious from all of the stories there are caring, loving people who have walked and continue to walk through these halls.  When I look at the organ up here, I don’t just see an organ, but I imagine Verne Clifton sitting there as he did for 50 years, even though I never had the pleasure of meeting him.  When I look up at the banners on the wall on either side of the altar, I see Elaine Jadoon and Barbara Mohler stitch by stitch putting these massive, beautiful pieces of art together as their way of giving something to God.  So many people in this church have added in some way to God’s Kingdom.  And at one time that created a lot of excitement. First UMC was the place to be on a Sunday morning.  Routinely, this sanctuary would be filled with people.  Over 200 each week would sit in these pews.  But today we get barely over a tenth of that and I know it’s made some of our faithful begin to doubt and ask the question, “What did we do wrong?”  It’s hard for our folks who have been here for 30, 40, even 50 years or more to remember how packed this place used to be and not have that thought trickle across their mind every now and then.  “What did we do wrong?”

But maybe that isn’t the right question.

This morning, we’re going to hear a story from John, one of Jesus’ apostles, who tells us about a man they encounter who was born blind.  If you want to follow along this morning in your Bibles or you have a Bible app on your phone, go ahead and find John 9 beginning with verse 1.  John 9:1.  When things don’t go as we expect or as we would like, we often ask ourselves this question, “What did we do wrong?”  Maybe in part because we hope to absolve ourselves from blame.  Maybe in part because we hope we can change things if we can find out the answer.  But sometimes we spend so much time trying to answer this question that we barely ask if that will help us solve the problem, or even if there is a problem to begin with.  We don’t take the time to explore if we even have the right question.  And that is what Jesus explores in this account of the man born blind.

As he went along (Jesus), he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

Who sinned?

It was and still is a very common belief that when things go wrong, it’s because either God is punishing us or because God needs to teach us something – that somehow God is the ultimate cause of our suffering.  We read passages like Exodus 34:7 which says that God, “…does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” and we think that when we see something not as we expect it to be, as the disciples did, that someone must have done something wrong to cause it.  That’s why the disciples ask the question, “Who sinned?”  That’s why we are tempted to ask the same thing when it comes to the dwindling away of our congregation, “Who sinned?”  But Jesus answers in a way that makes them reform the question.  He tells them that nobody sinned, “…but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  Which again might lead us to believe that God is the cause of this man’s suffering.  But instead, listen to this interpretation from The Message’s reading of this passage.

Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.

You’re asking the wrong question.

Jesus tells us in plain language that we’re asking the wrong question.  Instead of looking for someone to blame, Jesus tells us to look for God in every situation.  The question we should be asking is “Where is God even in this?”  Where is God even in this?  When we ask ourselves this question, we begin to free our mind to think about things differently.  Instead of looking for what we did wrong, which if we did anything wrong is already in the past, we can focus on what we can do right.  Instead of looking at what we did wrong, we can focus on we can do right.  Where is God leading us now?  It turns what looks like punishment into an opportunity.  It turns lemons into lemonade.  As trite as that saying is, there is truth to it.  Our perceptions of the world dictate the kind of world we live in, but our perceptions are just that – up to us.  Did you know that pessimists often have a more realistic view of the world than optimists?  It’s true.  Pessimists have a more realistic view and have more realistic expectations than optimists.  But it’s the optimist who gets it done despite the expectations.  Pessimists have more realistic expectations, but optimists get it done despite the expectations.  Which one will you choose to be?

When Cassie and I first started attending Sunday School together, we heard a story.

It was about a couple who recently lost their child.  I can’t think of anything more horrible or difficult than that – to lose your child.  And this couple was having a really hard time with it.  They began asking the normal questions like “Why?”  And “What did we do wrong?”  They began to doubt God and God’s goodness and who could blame them?   What kind of loving God kills a young child?  They came to a turning point that some people never come back from and instead of blaming God or denouncing God they began to ask what good could come of this?  Not in an accusatory way but in an honest way.  What good can come from this tragedy?  And they decided they would dedicate themselves to helping other families get through this tragedy as they did.  They would go together and speak about how this tragedy affected their lives and how their faith helped them to heal, and now they help others to heal as well.  Did God kill their child so they would dedicate their lives to helping others?  No.  But even in this tragedy, God helped them overcome it and transformed it into something else.

It’s part of the character of God – to transform the unredeemable into the redeemed.

Nothing says that more clearly than the resurrection of Christ.  Only God could turn that tragedy into something glorious.  Only God could transform betrayal into salvation. God is in the transforming business.  He takes the worst that humanity has to offer and can use it in a way to bring people to him.  He was able to take Christ’s violent death on the cross, the betrayal of his chosen people, and use it to become the very means of salvation.  Paul expresses it accurately when he writes in his letter to the Romans, “God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).”  So the question we need to ask when we are in a situation that seems unredeemable is “Where is God in this?”  When we begin looking for ways that God can transform the situation into something that can be used for the benefit of the people of God our eyes will finally be open to where God is leading us.

As a friend of mine said, we are on a journey to discover and discern God’s best idea for us.

And for our church that could mean any number of things.  Perhaps God is asking us to rethink the way we do ministry in this place?  Perhaps God is challenging us to let go of our preconceived notions of church and embrace something different?  Perhaps God is pointing us to join with our brothers and sisters at Palm Church so that together we can do more ministry than either of us could do apart?  There are so many possibilities, but we can’t even begin to explore them until we are ready to be transformed by God’s grace and love.  We have to be willing to let God lead us into the future, no matter what that future may be, no matter if it’s the kind of future we expect for ourselves.  And we begin to do that when we let go of trying to figure what went wrong and embrace instead what it is we can do right.  What path would lead us to do God’s will?

The congregation during Homecoming
The congregation during Homecoming
Enjoying a great meal together
Enjoying a great meal together

If the route we feel God is leading us to is to close our doors that does not mean we failed.

How could you look at all the amazing things this church and all of its people have done for 123 years and call it a failure?  We might say as Paul did that we’ve fought the good fight, we’ve finished the race, we kept the faith.  But it would be hard to say that we were a failure.  Could there have been things we might have done better?  Of course.  But that doesn’t mean we failed.  Think of the numerous people who have been inspired in their faith because they came to this place.  Think of the many ways the people of this church have contributed to the community.  Think of the ways in which we continue to grow together in faith and you can see that we have not failed.  It might simply be time for a change.  And if that change means giving up this physical building we call the church that doesn’t change the fact that the true church we belong to, the gathering of God’s community with all those who believe, continues on.  We can look at our 123 years not as a failure that there were not two more or 52 more or 102 more, but instead we can look at it as a triumph of 123 years in ministry.  They say that the average life span of a church is about 70 years.[1]  If that’s true, we’ve exceeded that number by a lot and we have a lot to show for it.  And there’s no telling if God is finished with us yet.  I want to challenge you to pray about where God is leading us and be as open as possible to new and exciting opportunities that might be awaiting us.  Whether that means joining our friends at Palm Church or finding ways to give so that we can continue in ministry in this place or even other options none of us have thought of yet, pray about those options as we move forward.  In fact, as we close this morning, let us pray together.  If you would bow your heads with me please.

Gracious and loving God, you and you alone know where you wish to lead us.  Give us the wisdom to discern what path that might take us.  Give us the courage to follow that path.  And help us to be comforted that no matter where the future leads, you are there with us.  So many wonderful memories are contained within these walls.  So many people have been changed by the ministry that has occurred here.  But the memories we have and the people who have been changed were not changed because of this building, but because of the people inside it who, now as they did then, seek to lead lives that would honor Christ.  And no matter where you guide us, whether it’s here or elsewhere, we will never stop being your people.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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