Sunday, March 26, 2017

We aren't blind, are we?

This morning, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, I am at St. Michael's Church in Worcester. My sermon manuscript follows: 

Good morning St. Michael’s! It’s been a while, and you should know that at the end of this week I’ll be heading off for a three-month sabbatical, during which time I won’t be preaching anywhere again until July 2. So today and since I love you, you all get a bonus: two sermons for the price of one! The first one is short and straightforward, the second one is longer and more complex. Ready?

Here is sermon one: Rabbi, who sinned here? This man or his parents? In one form or another, human beings have been asking this question throughout history. Even when we know in our heads that this isn’t quite the right question, there is some part of us that assumes life is supposed to be orderly and predictable and make sense. We sometimes forget that God is still ordering the chaos of this world. So when something goes wrong with our bodies or an automobile traveling too fast over black ice or when someone is diagnosed with cancer, we want cause-and-effect answers to the very difficult question of human suffering. Who is at fault here? Why was this man blind? Who is to blame?

Notice that this question doesn’t come from the crowds, but from Jesus’ own disciples. It’s posed by those who have left all things behind to follow him. Like Job before them, they are committed people of faith. And there ought to be a reward for leaving all to follow Jesus, don’t you think? A reward for showing up in church every Sunday morning or volunteering for Marie’s Mission or at Laundry Love. It is people of faith, not atheists, who want to know where God is in the midst of human suffering. Atheists assume that “bad stuff” happens even to good people. It’s people of faith who ask why bad things happen to good people.  Why was this man born blind?  

This is one of those very rare cases where Jesus does not answer a question with a question and that’s worth paying attention to because Jesus always answers questions with questions. It’s totally his very favorite and preferred pedagogical style. So when he’s asked who sinned, this man or his parents, we should notice that he responds clearly and directly: neither this man nor his parents sinned. Jesus rejects the notion that disease is a punishment for sin. Why was this man born blind? We don’t know. But it’s not because of his sin nor his parents’ sin. That much we can settle.

What we can say beyond that is that in this man’s healing, God’s glory is revealed for those who have eyes to see. 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 the man to go wash it off. He does so. God’s grace is so amazing that this man, who once was blind, now sees. End of sermon one.

This leads to sermon number two, however, because the healing story is quickly left behind and what we now have to unpack is the conflict over the practice of how to keep the Sabbath holy. I don’t know what your practice is here at St. Michael’s but in some places, including the parish I served for fifteen years, we recited the Decalogue at the beginning of the liturgy during the Sundays of Lent. There, as you will remember, we are reminded that Sabbath-keeping is on God’s “Top Ten list.”

One of the challenges with the Ten Commandments, however, from the time when the Israelites were busy making a golden calf even as Moses was still on the mountain, to the time of Jesus and right up to today, the question remains. How do you enforce them? What should the punishment be for coveting your neighbor’s new Audi? If someone isn’t worshipping the Lord their God with all their heart and mind and soul, should they go directly to jail and not pass go and not collect $200? Be stoned?

Sometimes when people talk about the Ten Commandments and then insist the world would be a better place if everybody just did that, I wonder if they’ve actually ever read them. Yes, the world would be a better place with less stealing and murder, for sure. But most of the commandments are not meant for civil law; they are practices for people of faith. And they are impossible to keep perfectly. What would it look like to keep the Sabbath holy? A return to blue laws? Well, don’t forget that for Jews (and therefore for Jesus and his family and his friends) the Sabbath began when the sun went down on Friday night and ended when it went down on Saturday night. It means no soccer games on Saturday – not Sunday! What should be the accepted norms around keeping the Sabbath holy? It turns out that’s not a simple question and that’s what’s precisely what’s at stake in today’s Gospel reading.

The poor guy who was blind and now sees finds himself at the center of a media storm and ultimately a criminal investigation. One can only imagine if cable news had been around how this scandal would have unfolded with a twenty-four hour news cycle. As it is, we get to see that even without modern technology; Middle Eastern villages in the first-century do just fine at passing along the big story of the day. No one wants to believe this guy who now sees is the one they’ve all known to be blind from birth. “I’m the man,” he insists. And they keep asking him, “but how did this happen?” Notice his frustration as his voice gets lost. Notice how his parents get dragged in and interviewed by Wolf Blitzer. Notice that the guy’s whole life is disrupted as Jesus becomes the story.

This guy was blind from birth. Why couldn’t Jesus wait just a few hours until the end of the Sabbath to quietly work this healing within the system and without ruffling any feathers? The Pharisees’ are a bit like people who work in the Bishop’s Office – people like me – people with legitimate concerns for best practices and encouraging their constituents to color within the lines. If you start healing on the Sabbath, then before you know it you’ll make other allowances for work; just a few hours here and there on the weekend to catch up. And before you know it the malls will be open and hockey and soccer and dance lessons and all the rest will want the Sabbath and it will not stand a chance and before you know it, it will be no more. Right? So don’t be too dismissive of the Pharisees. It’s not that they are legalistic; it’s that they see where this thing might be heading…

If we dismiss the Pharisees concerns out of hand, we miss the larger point. This is not a spirit-of-the-law Jesus versus legalistic Pharisees although I know many of us were taught to read the story that way. Rather, this is an ongoing conversation among faithful Jewish people about how to practice their faith and also how to build community. And Sabbath-keeping is right at the heart of the Decalogue. And Jesus knows that. The Ten Commandments aren’t just about not murdering or stealing. They are about keeping God and only God, the jealous God, at the center of our lives and making space for that God in the midst of each and every day but especially for one holy day of each week. The Big Ten are about love of neighbor as well as God and that means all of them: Samaritans and Ethiopian eunuchs and Mexican immigrants and Muslim neighbors.. 

So here’s the thing: Jesus is pushing buttons in this text and we should not miss that. We have become overly enamored with “meek and mild” Jesus, but the Jesus in this text and in much of the gospel narrative seems to enjoy rocking the boat. He is saying that doing the work of the Kingdom takes precedence over everything else, even Sabbath rest. Jesus is reminding us that anything can become an idol: the Sabbath, our preferred liturgical style, our church building, our denomination, even the Bible itself. Even our families. These things are all good, but they are given to us to make life more abundant, not so that humans can become slaves to those things. Only God gets to be God. Our job is to love God back and to show that we mean it by loving our neighbors. All of them.   

So the punchline comes at the end, when Jesus says that he comes to judge the world so that those who are blind may see and those who see become blind. What a statement! And then the religious leaders fall right into the trap: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Well, of course they are! Religious people (including you and me!) are always in danger of being blinded by our certitude, by our smugness, by our tidy ideologies on both the left and on the right. Sometimes we, in the name of Jesus, have blinders on about what Jesus is doing in real people’s lives.

So how do we find the truth in a society with so much misinformation and so much “spin?” Who do you trust when you try to distinguish between real news and fake news: PBS or MSNBC or CNN or Fox? We literally inhabit different worlds, different “bubbles” that tend to re-affirm what we already believe, and in the process we too often end up demonizing the other side. It’s taken us a long time to get there but that seems to be where we are.

A decade ago, I read a novel by Michael Crichton called State of Fear. I enjoyed the story. While I also had some challenges with the premise of the novel, there is a quote in there that I felt was a keeper, and so I wrote it down and I’ve kept it around all these years and it seems even truer today than it was when the novel was published in 2004. One of the characters in State of Fear says this:

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, communication fails. And without communication, community becomes impossible. So we are left fighting 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 “normal.”  

In the Bible, the angels are always showing up and telling people to “fear not.” But even more than that, the Bible itself actually does offer 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, that it is good news. Trustworthy news. 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 and followers of Jesus. So when we ask with Pilate the question we’ll revisit in Holy Week: “what is truth?” we have an answer: Jesus, the Incarnate Word to whom the Scriptures point – He is the Way, the Truth, the Life.

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 in fact the “Word of God” is a lively and real and hopeful countervailing force, because it calls together a community of people with different perspectives who look to a higher authority. That doesn’t mean we will all agree or that we will easily find common ground on any given Sunday. But it does mean that we refuse to give up hope. It does mean that we look to a higher authority than PBS or CNN or MSNBC or FOX.

In today’s gospel reading there are a whole lot of competing agendas and that is sadly all too familiar to us. While it would be easy for us as Christians to caricature and scapegoat the Pharisees, the truth is that they are sincere people trying to keep the faith. We are they. Their sin is the same one that we and all people of faith are always in danger of falling into: in our certitude we think we know and see all that there is to see. And that blinds us to other stories, and other truths. And other people.  
Today’s gospel reading is only initially about the healing of a blind man, which is why you get two sermons and not just one today. In fact, the healing of the blind man becomes a way of exposing the idolatry of religious certitude, of the kind of faith that makes us blind.

So Lent is as good a time as any to remember this: we come here to worship God alone. 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, to what God is up to. We’re not blind, are we?

At the very least, this story is about calling us to humility and deeper trust in the living God. This holy season of Lent began with dust, and with the reminder that we are formed of the humus and to that humus 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 things for what they really and truly are. God knows even our own hearts better than we do. Let us pray:  

Holy God, help us to see your hand at work in the world around us, and to see our neighbor as a gift from you. Help us to keep the Sabbath holy even as we remember that it and all of our religious traditions are made for us, not the other way around. Help us to look and to listen and to be open, and to live no longer in a state of fear, but trusting only in your mercy and goodness. In so doing, show us the way to make community possible and ultimately to see Christ more clearly, to follow more nearly, and to love more dearly, all the way to the empty tomb. Amen.

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