Sunday, April 03, 2011

Seeing Clearly

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, April 3, 2011. The lectionary readings are 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14 , and John 9:1-41 .

Many of you are familiar with St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century woman who was part mystic, part nun and part religious reformer, but she was also a real person with real feelings and emotions. She rode all over Spain in a horse and wagon, founding convents and confronting local authorities, and did it all with a bad back that gave her almost constant pain. She said her prayers, but her prayers were honest. At one point tired, feeling defeated and stuck in the mud, she is reported to have shaken her fist at heaven and said simply, “God, if this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them.”

Sometimes it’s lonely being a Christian. The life of faith can feel that way sometimes. We wonder why it’s so hard. We wonder why things don’t come easier. We might even wonder what the use of believing in God is, since we (as well as others) suffer, are met with challenge, and face illness and death. Other Christians do dumb things and sometimes we’re asked to explain or defend them: non-Christians love to bring up the crusades, or problems in the Roman Catholic Church, or the crazy preacher in Florida who can do nothing better with his time than burn the holy books of other religions. And while we are responsible only for what WE know, and what WE see, we wonder, “Why can’t every Sunday be Rose Sunday, ‘Laetare,’ filled with rejoicing and life and joy?” Why can’t life be filled with roses?

But we know that every Sunday is not Rose Sunday, and some days seem more to be filled with weeds than blossoms. But we’re not alone in getting cut by thorns as we reach for roses. We’re not alone, in the history of faith, with our struggles. Lovers of God have dealt with this from early on.

The church that first heard Saint John’s Gospel knew something about pain and rejection. John warns them, “They will persecute you,” (15:20). “They will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God,” John says. (16:2)

In today’s Gospel we hear about a man who is healed. It’s similar to another story in John’s Gospel in which another man is also healed, and he is told to take up his pallet and walk. In both stories, the healed person gets into trouble. Neither person was initially asking for help. They weren’t asking for healing. They certainly weren’t asking to be put on the radar of the religious authorities and be made the center of attention for their scrutiny. But that’s what happens and they’re left to try to explain the mystery of God’s ways.

I use the term, “religious authorities” with some intention, so maybe I’ll say a word about this. Sometimes people say the Gospel of John is anti-Semitic because, over and over again it talks about “the Jews.” “The Jews” did not believe that the man born blind had received his sight. People fear “the Jews,” and it’s “the Jews” who are putting people out of the synagogue. But when the Gospel of John says “the Jews” he doesn’t mean the whole people, or even the whole religious people. He means the Jewish authorities, the religious leaders, leaders who (in his day and in many other times become self-obsessed and lose a sense of belonging to God). The Jewish people, many of whom followed Jesus, had very little to say in the matter.

In today’s Gospel and in many other places, the religious authorities miss the point of what’s going on right before their eyes. They become caught up with when the healing is done, how it is done, who sinned and who is paying for that sin… They are blind to what God is doing and blind to how God is healing. It’s the seeing, who are blind.

But the “blind man,” sees. And our scriptures today invite us to see.

In the first lesson the prophet Samuel goes in search of a new king. The sons of Jesse are paraded in front of him, but none of them measures up, though each might initially look like a potential king. But it’s the one who’s out keeping the sheep, David, who is called. Samuel stops, looks and prays. And Samuel sees.

The Gospel about the man born blind is read on this Fourth Sunday in Lent, as we move with Jesus into Jerusalem. With Jesus, we attempt to sort out the various voices and appearances, the things that clutter up our vision and get in the way. And with the blind man who receives his sight, we are invited to stop, look, pray and see.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day can’t see because of several things blocking their sight.
They don’t think it’s possible to see healing from Jesus.
They don’t expect to see anything new.
They have firm ideas about what they might see, and so they’re not able to see anything different.

Some years ago, I was visiting Jerusalem with a group from my seminary. On one morning, we had some time by ourselves, and so I went back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with the intention of simply hanging out for a while. I thought I could maybe find a quiet place somewhere in that holy space and simply absorb some of the spirit. I found a seat in an empty chapel and began praying. At one point, I opened my eyes and realized a couple of older, Orthodox nuns were had come in and were sitting near me. Then a few more people came in. And then I began to hear a tremendous racket. A verger was leading a procession right into this chapel—the verger had a great big pole and was smacking it on the floor as this long procession of monks and priests and other important-looking people walked right into the chapel where I was—where I was now trapped. I couldn’t go out the door I had come in, since there was a parade of people coming in. And yet I couldn’t see any other exit. There I sat, this tall guy wearing a bright red shirt and khakis, in the midst of this sea of black clothing, incense and worship in another language.

And yet, I felt invisible. It was as thought no one even saw me. My presence there was so odd, so unexpected, so unreal as compared with what they ordinarily encountered in that space, that there was an aspect of invisibility to me. I leaned over to a woman near me and asked her, “Excuse me, how might I get out?” She ignored me. Then I asked louder, and it was as though I had broken some kind of spell. She looked at me with a look of absolute horror, but seemed to understand my question, and pointed to a the iconostasis, the screen covered with icons, and I so I got up and headed that way, saw a door and made my escape.

I wonder how often that happens in other ways in my life? How often am I blinded to what might be right before me because I don’t expect something new, or don’t quite recognize something that has changed, or perhaps don’t slow down long enough in what I’m doing to notice what is before me?

The religious leaders missed the work of God right before their eyes. But with eyes of faith, the blind man regained his sight, and many who followed Jesus had their eyes opened to the possibilities and promises of God.

Even though every day doesn’t contain roses, and even though the healing of our own ailments may come more slowly than we might hope, the loving power of Christ is to heal and to help, and he offers us his love this day.

May the love of Jesus Christ open our eyes to the depths of God’s love and the ways in which we might be a part of God’s healing in the world.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.


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