A sermon for March 26, 2017 on John 9: 1-41
May only truth be spoken,
And only truth received. Amen.
“How the hell did this happen?” is a new book by political satirist P.J. O’Rourke, a diehard Republican, who, stranger-than-fiction, endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, announcing that “America is experiencing the most severe outbreak of mass psychosis since the Salem witch trials of 1692.” With “How the hell did this happen?” O’Rourke dives into the pig pile of presidential candidates circa June 2015, and then “eviscerates each frontrunner as he or she emerges from under the rock where they’ve all been living, cover[ing] the dreadful key primaries and candidate debates… and lead[ing] the way into the Beginning of End Times in November.
To listen to the message, click play:
How the Hell Did This Happen? as well as being a great book title, is also a good handle for what’s going on with tonight’s gospel. On the surface, it’s the question everyone’s asking.
As Jamie explained last week, this year’s readings offer a succession of extended, even you might say, long-winded, gospel narratives. Lent 2: Nicodemus under-cover-of-darkness face-to-face with Jesus. Lent 3: Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Lent 4: Jesus’ healing of a man blind from birth. Lent 5: let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
As was the case last week, tonight’s story offers a host of characters: the blind man (“man of mystery and intrigue”), Jesus (“The Light of the World” … your Friend and mine), the disciples (the “Lesser-Wits” … showing promise, but they don’t quite get it.. at least not yet), the Pharisees (the “Dim-Wits” … ain’t got no hope of those guys getting it), and the blind man’s parents (“innocent bystanders”?).
Last week, when it came to the gospel reading, we turned to focus on the gospel reader, only to be jolted back-and-forth. He said, she said. She challenged, he questioned. The whiplash-inducing repartee continues here. Attempt to bring order to the chaos, we might divide the chapter into three sections:
- introduction to the healing (1-5)
- description of the healing (6-7)
- reaction to the healing (8-41)
Anticipating Jesus performing a healing miracle, his disciples, struggling for the proverbial lightbulb to appear over their heads, ask “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Our good friends, the Pharisees, jump on board with menacing determination, all referencing the centuries-old debate. Was it the sins of the parents which produced the suffering of the children, or was it something the man himself did, prenatal sin committed by the fetus.
Speaking as someone who works in healthcare, let alone speaking for any of us struggling with whatever ails us physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually, it’s a debate that’s far from over. Torn ligaments or muscles. Anxiety. Cancer. Addiction. Old-age, middle-age or whatever-our-age aches or pains. How the Hell Did This Happen?
Perhaps channeling Lady Gaga, Jesus seems to come down on the side that this man was simply “born this way…” Maybe that’s what we’re to take as the lesson from tonight’s gospel?
The story continues… Jesus spits on the ground, makes mud with his spit, and cakes the mud on the man’s eyes, saying, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” The man goes, washes as commanded, and comes back… “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.”
It’s a prescription as bizarrely out-of-place to us as it may have been to the man born blind. Or maybe he was so desperate for healing, ready to hitch a ride on anything that came along… Good thing none of us have ever felt like that.
Sending the man to wash in the pool of Siloam recalls the incident from 2 Kings 5, where Naaman the leper is sent by Elisha to bathe in the river Jordan. Too simple, or maybe it might just work. Like water flowing off a duck’s back, or washing clean a blind man’s mud-caked eyes?
For the community into which John’s gospel was proclaimed, the story of the man blind from birth evoked the healing power of water. The man is healed after he washes himself. An act of trusting obedience. Indeed, in the early church, this story was read during the baptism of new converts, and appears in catacomb art most frequently as an illustration of Christian baptism.
As a “once-and-future Baptist” (I don’t want to take any chances with Judgment Day…) I love that allusion to baptism. I believe with every fibre of my being that being baptized into the madness that is the Body of Christ “reframes” who we are, whose we are, and how we engage the world. It even re-purposes the empty chair that “sits” as our Lenten icon.
Did you catch what just happened here? It’s easy enough to miss, if for no other reason than the question “How the hell did this happen?” continues to grab everyone except for Jesus, and except for the man born blind.
Whether with what P.J. O’Rourke describes as the most severe outbreak of mass psychosis since the Salem witch trials, the vote that either did or did not happen on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday, the terror that left dead and injured in the parliamentary estate and London bridge earlier this week or Cincinnati nightclub but a few hours ago, or whatever other “sin” you or I bring to the table on this 4th Sunday in Lent, Jesus invites us to consider not “How the hell did this happen?” … but what… for and with the love of God… are we going to move forward? With this story, as with every chapter and verse of the gospels, “How the hell did this happen?” is not a question Jesus has much time for. And neither should we.
So how do we move forward?
More than 30 years ago, I highlighted a quote in Stanley Hauerwas’ A Community of Character. It remains a touchstone to which I find myself returning again and again and again:
Adventure requires courage to keep us faithful to the struggle,
since by its very nature adventure means that the future is always in doubt.
And just to the extent that the future is in doubt, hope is required,
as there can be no adventure if we despair of our goal.
Such hope does not necessarily take on the form of excessive confidence;
rather it involves the simple willingness to take the first step.
We move forward by taking first steps.
We likewise move forward recognizing, at some point, the enormity of the changes that we are unleashing, and are being unleashed… within us, beyond us and sometimes, even in spite of us. Infinitely more than we can ask or imagine… We’ve heard that somewhere, haven’t we?
When I walked in here on a beautiful fall evening in September 2015, came forward to receive the bread and drink from the cup, and took next steps, I could not have imagined new understandings, and even more, the ways in which I would come to live my understandings of discipleship. Have I got all my questions answered? My soulful restlessness with the journey reconciled? My love/hate relationship with the Church a relic of my past? Not by a long-shot… All healing – what I can name, let alone whatever I might have the courage to allow others to name – wrapped up and fixed with a pretty bow? But still…
June 1990. I arrived in Sept-Iles, QC, a newly-ordained cleric, the first United Church minister to serve that community’s shared Anglican-United Church shared ministry. A graduate of Vancouver School of Theology, a Baptist boy who’d sojourned about in Anglican liturgical waters, I was good-to-go. My liturgical preference The Book of Alternative Services, published 5 years earlier. In more remote locales such as in the Diocese of Quebec, folk were accustomed to The Book of Common Prayer. Responding to the preference of the folk with whom I had been called to break the bread and share the cup, I grew deeply to appreciate its communion liturgy.
The rubrics could not be more clear. When it comes to THE COMMUNION, the priest, taking in both kinds himself, and then proceed to deliver the same … to the people, into their hands, all meekly kneeling.
THE Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee,
preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life:
Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee,
and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.
And the Minister that delivers the Cup shall likewise say:
THE Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee,
preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life:
Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.
Words that embody a rhythmic beauty, a poetic solemnity, a simple, grace-filled promise. What a privilege to say those words. To receive. To partake. To participate. To feed and be fed. To hear those words as we take first steps.
And yet… just once… I’d like to say… or maybe we can hear as a haunting overtone or evocative undercurrent… You might even say that it’s on my priestly bucket list, as I offer bread and cup, to say: “Here’s mud in your eyes!”
In the name of God:
Father-Mother, Son and Spirit. Amen.