Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Fourth Sunday of Lent at St. Paul's, Gardner

Today my itinerant ministry takes me to St. Paul's Church in Gardner, a parish served by the Rev. Bill Hobbs. Today's Gospel reading comes from the ninth chapter of the Fourth Gospel, and can be found here. Below is my sermon manuscript for this midway point in the Lenten journey.

"Rabbi, who sinned here? This man or his parents?"

In one form or another, human beings have been asking this very question throughout history.  Why did this happen? What could have been done to prevent it? Whose fault is it?

In the midst of life’s unfairness it is people of faith who need to find an answer to such questions. It is not atheists who ask why God has done something. So notice that the question doesn’t come from the crowds or even from the scribes and Pharisees. The question is posed by Jesus’ disciples—by those who have left everything to follow him. Like Job, they are committed people of faith who want to understand the problem of human suffering. Why was this man born blind? Why was that woman down the street not cured of her cancer when we all prayed so hard, for so long? Why was my child diagnosed with cystic fibrosis? Why did that earthquake strike where and when it did? Who sinned?

If you do not hear not another word of this sermon, then I pray that at least you will hear me out on this and that it will be enough for this fourth Sunday of Lent: this is one of those very rare instances where Jesus does not answer a question with a question. He responds clearly and directly. Who sinned here?  Neither this man, nor his parents sinned. Jesus rejects the notion that disease is some kind of punishment for sin. So why was this man born blind? We don’t know. All that we can say is that in this man’s healing, God’s glory is revealed—if we have eyes to see. And this, of course, is the intended irony: that having fully functional optic nerves does not always mean we can see what is right before our very eyes.

The healing itself occurs in a fairly straightforward matter: Jesus spits on the ground, makes a little mud pie from the sand and his saliva, spreads that mud on the guy’s eyes, and then tells him to go wash it off. The man carefully follows the instructions. God’s grace is so amazing that this man who was blind, now sees.

But the healing story quickly is left behind, and what we have to unpack is this conflict over the practice of keeping the Sabbath holy. As you know, Sabbath-keeping is on God’s “top ten list.” In this case, we’re talking about the accepted societal practices around keeping the Sabbath holy. The healing itself gives way to a scandal and ultimately a criminal investigation. One can only imagine if CNN and Fox News had been around how this scandal would have unfolded with a twenty-four hour news cycle.

No one wants to believe that this is the same guy; produce a birth certificate, they insist! “I’m the man,” he insists. And they keep asking him, “but how did this happen?” Notice his frustration, and how just as we sometimes see on cable news, his voice gets lost in the midst of all the shouting. Notice how his parents get dragged in and interviewed. It’s a real feeding frenzy, and the guy’s whole life is disrupted as Jesus becomes the real story.

It’s easy to caricature the Pharisees and then dismiss them. This guy was blind from birth. There is no reason that Jesus couldn’t wait a few hours, is there – I mean just until the end of the Sabbath, without ruffling any feathers? It would have saved so much trouble! Their legitimate concern is the classic slippery slope argument: if you start healing on the Sabbath, then before you know it you’ll make other allowances for work—just a few hours on the weekend to catch up on email, And before you know it the malls will be open and hockey and soccer and dance lessons will all want their piece of the Sabbath too. If we dismiss the Pharisees concerns we miss what is in fact going on in this text. If we dismiss the Pharisees concerns too quickly then we have no right to criticize all those Sunday morning activities that impact on church attendance. Seriously.

So it’s important to get this: Jesus is pushing their buttons. He wants to rock that boat. He is saying that doing the work of the Kingdom takes precedence over everything else—even the Torah. Jesus is reminding people that the Sabbath is given for humans in order to make life more abundant—not so that humans can become slaves to it.

The issue here becomes this escalating conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities. The punch-line of the story comes at the end, when Jesus says that he comes into the world so that those who are blind may see, and those who see become blind. What a statement! And then the Pharisees fall right into the trap: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Well, of course they are! They are blinded by their certitude, blinded by their smugness, blinded by their religious piety. They are blind to what Jesus is doing—in real people’s lives—because they insist on keeping their worldviews and their theologies intact.

Who do you trust for your information?  And how do any of us find the truth in a society with so much misinformation and so much  spin?  Who do you trust? What if I get my news from MSNB and you get yours from Fox News? Will we even be able to trust the facts? We literally inhabit different worlds that tend to re-affirm what we already believe and in the process, very often demonizing the “other” side.  
In Michael Crichton’s novel, State of Fear, one of his characters speaks these words from which the book takes its title:

We imagine we live in different nations—France, Germany, Japan, the U.S.—in fact we inhabit the same state, the State of Fear….I’m telling you this is the way modern society works—by the constant creation of fear. And there is no countervailing force. There is no system of checks and balances, no restraint on the perpetual promotion of fear after fear after fear…          

Fear destroys trust—and where there is no trust there is no communication. And without communication, community becomes impossible. So we are left fighting about foreign policy or how to improve public education or how Obamacare is working or about human sexuality, without even an ability to agree on the facts. And in the midst of all the pushing and shoving and shouting we find this state of fear more and more normative.

Now what strikes me so much about the Bible is not only that the angels are always showing up and telling people to “fear not”—someone has said that they show up 365 times in the Bible to say it so that we can hear it every day, one day at a time—but also that the Bible itself offers us an alternative source of information. We make the bold claim as Christians that it conveys the Word of God—that it conveys truth that shatters all of our ideologies. We claim that it offers each generation a reliable and credible witness—a trustworthy account of reality that shapes us and forms us to live in the world as friends of Jesus.

So I would tell that character in Crichton’s novel who says that there are no checks and balances and no restraint on the perpetual promotion of fear after fear after fear that the living Word-made-flesh is a real “countervailing force”—because Jesus calls together a community of people who look to a higher authority. That doesn’t mean we will all agree or that we will easily find common ground. But it does mean that we refuse to give up hope. It means we put our trust a higher authority.

In today’s gospel reading there are a whole lot of competing agendas. While it’s easy for Christians to caricature and scapegoat the Pharisees, the truth is that they are sincere people trying to keep the faith. Their sin, however, is in their certitude. They already know the right answer, and they are blind to everything that contradicts what they already see with such certainty. In their vigilance to keep Sabbath holy, they are blind to the transformation that is unfolding before their very eyes. They are afraid, and that fear blinds them to the truth.

So today’s gospel reading is only initially about the healing of a blind man. In the end, this gospel reading is about exposing certitude—especially religious certitude—for what it is: a form of idolatry. When we are absolutely certain that we have it all down and that we grasp the whole truth and that we have a clear command of all the right information and that our perspective is “pure”—it is precisely then that we may be most blind to what is unfolding right before our very eyes. We are not blind, are we?

As a parish priest, sometimes when I had to preach a hard sermon on Christian community, and I’d call people to love one another or not to gossip or to focus on the stuff that really matters I was always amazed when sometimes the very worst offenders would meet me at the door and say, “I’m so glad you preached that sermon. They really needed to hear that!” And I would just shake my head; denial is not just a river in Egypt, is it. They? Always I have tried to preach the sermon I need to hear as good news and then by God’s grace to preach it until I believe it, and then to try to live it. Anyone who wants to come along is welcome – let those with eyes see and those with ears hear!

As I read it, this Gospel reading is a call to humility. This season of Lent began with dust and the reminder that we humans are formed of the humus—and to the good earth we shall return. We are not God and we have no God’s-eye view of the world—not even when we are quoting from the Bible. Only God sees the whole. Only God sees things for what they really and truly are.

What we see is shaped by our age, our gender, our experience, our education—shaped by the lenses we look through, and always darkly. But when we can let go of all of our certitude for long enough to look and listen, then we put ourselves in a place where we have a chance, at least, of being able to see Christ more clearly and then to follow more nearly and ultimately to love more dearly. When we confess our blindness, we can pray to God to help us to see. That, I think, is the great paradox and the great gift of Christian community because others help us to see what we cannot see on our own.

What we need perhaps more than anything else in Christian communities—in congregations like this one and across a diocese like ours—is that ability to look and to listen and a willingness to encounter others and be changed in the process of hearing their truths and insights and perspectives, even when (and especially when) they contradict our own. In a society that feels like a “state of fear,” we pause and ask God for help, for inquiring and discerning hearts, and above all for a spirit to know and to love God. That doesn’t make life easy. It just makes it possible. 

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