A sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost
4 Lent; March 26, 2017
What a fitting Gospel today—a story of healing and illness and miscomprehension and stubbornness. It parallels well where we are, and what we have witnessed this week in health care debate—a situation in this country in which the root of our illness is really exposed. It is one that is not rooted so much in whether or not we want to be healed, but our inability to consider any other option; our inability to hear one another, and to find in that a common ground in which we can move toward wholeness. And it’s a fitting story today on this Fourth Sunday of Lent, a Sunday that is also called Laetare Sunday, which comes from that antiphon sung in the Roman church, Rejoice, Jerusalem. We’ve made it half way through Lent, it’s time to take a breath and now focus on the rest of our journey.
As I was thinking about that, I realized that Lent, thematically and symbolically, is a week. If every Sunday in Lent is a weekday, that means we’re coming into that fourth day, the Thursday of the week, if you will. You know how weird I am. When I was a kid, I loved Thursdays. It wasn’t so much because it was heading to the week-end proper, but because I knew that Sunday was coming. Weird churchy kid! I know that you were one, too. But I was excited. It was also the night that The Waltons came on in my childhood, so it was about family and watching television and that story together. And then Friday was usually a test day, and in grade school it couldn’t have been more of a crucifixion than I would ever know. By Saturday, we were heading to Sunday.
One of the ways to understand John’s Gospel is that it is written in a week fashion also. It follows the days of creation. The story today, according to that view, is the fourth day of creation. If you think of that day in the creation story, it is the day that God dispels light throughout creation. So when we hear these words of Jesus, “I am the Light of the World”, and we hear these metaphors of seeing and blindness, we’re pulled into that day.
The setting for the story today has been going on in John’s Gospel for a couple of chapters. It is the Feast of the Tabernacles, or what we would call booths. It was a harvest festival in Judaism that celebrated all of those images of light, and of water. It was when they moved toward the temple, erecting booths or tents, in which they were brought back in their memory to days of wandering in the Exodus, until they came into the promised land to settle. And from Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, and now this story in Chapter Nine, we are in the same setting. So Jesus, leaving the temple for a time, but still celebrating the Feast, encounters this man born blind. And the disciples ask the question, which is still dear to our hearts today, “Who is it that sinned, the man or his parents?” It followed the Biblical understanding that God cannot be credited with the evil that falls on humankind; that was our own doing. That first sin, the fall of Adam, is our responsibility, and it somehow explains why the world is still in that situation. So they ask, was it this man, maybe this child in the womb had already committed a sin, or was it his parents? Jesus gives us his perspective, and it was quite disturbing to them, and anyone he is going to encounter. Jesus says, neither. This man was born blind so that God’s glory might be revealed in him. Not that God caused him to be blind so God could reveal himself, but God comes to those who the world rejects, and God is revealed in those that we find. We still understand this today. As soon as I get sick, I immediately think, what did I do to bring this on myself? Or when I see someone who is sick and it brings me discomfort, I can’t help but find that “original sin” that says it must be something in their life that they did wrong; oh! they smoked for years; oh! they didn’t eat right; oh! they didn’t exercise. That need that we have to understand the way things are from the way that we experience them or think they ought to be. And Jesus says, no. Consider it a very different way. And so Jesus comes to this man, he spits in the mud and makes clay, and sends the man off to the pool Shiloam, which means sent. The Shiloam pool reflects back to the tabernacles, of collected rainwater, the rainwater that brought around the first fruits and the harvest. Water and light working together makes creation come into fullness, and this man comes back and he can see. This creates a firestorm, especially for the religious authorities who cannot understand this. They begin to question him and interrogate him. Who is the one who did this? And the man says, it is the man Jesus; he did this. And the Pharisees ask him, where is he? And he says, I don’t know.
This whole episode goes on with Jesus in absentsia. He’s on trial, as it were, and he cannot defend himself against the accusations. Over and over the Pharisees attempt to question the man, to bring his parents in, to bring in every kind of witness to validate their point of view and understanding. Something unique happens to this man: he, in essence, is put on trial. But the man says, I am he, the one that Jesus healed. And you hear in that, and you see in the Greek text that same words that Jesus uses, I am the light of the world. This man is all of Adam’s children, all of us. And now, because he has received and understood Jesus, he shares in that unity of Christ, and that reality of God that is about this new creation. That’s not good enough for the Pharisees, so they get rid of him and go to the parents. Then the most horrendous thing happens: the parents, in their fear and anxiety, disown their son. Listen to their words: “We know that this is our son, and we know that he was born blind, but we do not know how he sees. Nor do we know who opened his eyes; we don’t understand it, we don’t know this Jesus. So ask our son—he’s of age”. Then there is this interesting line in John that would be hard to understand if this was really Jesus’s time, because the Jews have been expelling the new Christians out of the synagogue. This didn’t happen until 85 A.D., years after Jesus’s death. But right before the writing of John’s Gospel, you hear the community of John understanding the hostility that’s beginning to come to them from a community of like believers, they thought. And we hear the echo of our community, of the dissension that says this is the way we believe, and those who say this is the way that we know. So the parents say, he’s out there by himself. This man has been abandoned by the Pharisees, his tradition, and now abandoned by his parents. Now he is all alone, and he meets Jesus again. Jesus says to him, “You know how you see. Have you heard of the Son of Man?” And the man responds, “Sir”. Then Jesus moves on, and the man responds, “Lord”. This same word is used, it’s our word Kyrie. Kyrie=sir; Kyrie=Lord. Do you hear the progression that is made in that? The man comes to complete belief and he worships Jesus.
Then, the people who know, those in charge of Mosaic law, interpret that wrongly again, and think that Jesus is talking about them. “We’re not blind. We can see”, and they’re still on this level of sight. Is that the level we want to be on, or do we want to be on the level of this man and of this Lord and of God who says it is possible to stand and participate in a truth and reality that is not the way things appear to be. What is never questioned by the Pharisees in this story, and this is very telling, is the fact of the healing. They don’t doubt that the man is healed. What they doubt, and what they don’t understand is the identity of Jesus, the sent one, just like the water. Because of that, they cannot come to the faith that the man has come to. In the questioning, they ask the man, and he understands them with absolute irony and positive perspective. He asks them, “Do you want to become one of his followers, too?” They become indignant and enraged. And at the end they make a statement that proclaims that they see, but Jesus says, you’re still blind; your sin remains; your sin, your dislocation from God, your inability to offer that relationship to others.
This fourth day in John’s Gospel, this Fourth Sunday in Lent, can we refocus our eyes and begin to move toward that Sabbath, that Easter that we hope will come? A new way of seeing that questions everything we knew before, that allows us to say, Lord, I believe.
Sermon for 11 December 2016
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for You, O God.” Amen.
That famous line from Psalm 42 was not one of our readings for this week, but it expresses perfectly the Advent sentiment. Think not so much in terms of Oregon deer, which get plenty of water, but think of deer in the Palestinian badlands, where rain is rare and the only water comes from springs that bring water down from the mountains. All the land around you is parched; such plants as there are, are hardy, thorny things. You can’t really just stay by the springs because that’s where the predators are. So you have your trails on the steep hillsides and you wander them endlessly looking for the next green plant to munch and trying to stay away from the lions and jackals. Most Israelites didn’t live in the desert, of course, but they saw it from where they lived, and it represented for them the realm of chaos, of demonic powers — the realm of death. In contrast to the land made fertile by God’s grace, the desert was ever visible as a part of the world that resisted the divine gift. Nowadays we see desert and wilderness as places, perhaps, where we find God, and Israel has stories about finding God in the desert, too, but mostly the desert is someplace where God is experienced as absent, a place in need of re-creation, that needs to be made fruitful. What the poet who speaks in Psalm 42 does is makes a connection between that physical condition of unfruitfulness to the spiritual condition of feeling God’s absence.
Now I know as well as you do, or anyone does, that God is never actually absent. Yet there are times, aren’t there, when God’s absence seems almost palpable, when the “God-shaped hole in the human heart” feels like more than mere emptiness. At least that’s how it sometimes feels to me. And yet that emptiness is such an ache, such a longing, that it’s like God is present in that very absence and even by means of it. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” goes the saying, as a ravening thirst increases one’s love for cool water. “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God.”
Advent is a time to feel that absence, to relish it as you relish the feeling of hunger when you smell the afternoon feast cooking on Christmas morning. It’s not just a desire to satisfy your hunger with food; there’s something delicious about the hunger itself, which serves as a sign of the feast to come.
This is the kind of feeling we ought to have as we hear Isaiah’s marvelous poem. Remember that to the ancients of the Middle East, desert symbolized the parts of the world that were in rebellion against God’s tireless efforts to make the world live. The desert was where demonic forces, predatory animals, and uncleanness of all kinds endured. If you got sick, and especially if you were infirm in a way that led to ritual uncleanness, such as being lame or blind or had leprosy, then you were of the desert, whether you lived there or not. But in Isaiah’s vision, God makes the desert fertile and lush, and all those symbols of barrenness are cured. The desert blossoms and becomes as fruitful as the greenest regions in Israel. The sight of the blind and the hearing of the deaf is be restored, those who had been unable to speak now can sing, the lame are able not just to walk but to leap for joy. The waterless wastes overflow with vigor. And no predators endanger anybody. And in the midst of this re-created land, this former desert, this place formerly inhabited by the unclean and demonic, there is now a sacred road that leads to Jerusalem and to the temple of God on Mount Zion there. This is imagery of pilgrimage to the temple. The power of God’s new creation, and of the holy road that leads to God’s presence, is so great that even fools can’t miss it, there is no uncleanness on this road because all uncleanness has been healed by God. The highway leads inexorably to the presence of God, and God’s redeemed people travel that way with joy that is so great as to drive away all sorrow and sighing. Doesn’t this vision of Isaiah just make you want to find that road and walk on it, like a thirsty deer who smells the water from afar? Walk with me through Advent; that’s our holy road and it leads to God’s own Self, who was made a human being like us for our salvation.
What I’d like to invite you to see with me is that the healing that’s needed by the desert, and which God promises, is also needed by us. Because there are things that dry us up, that make us forget who we are created to be, things that get control of us and make us who are called to be children of God into slaves. We are, as the Collect says, “sorely hindered by our sins.” I used to think of God as a stern old man who scowled when anyone smiled. That God wanted to prevent us from sinning mainly because he didn’t want us to have any fun. But the longer I live the clearer it becomes to me that that’s wrong-headed. Sins are the things we do that hinder us from living fully, that make us less than fully human, that deaden our physical and spiritual nerves so that we’re unaware of the world’s marvelousness. If you’re like me then you probably don’t have too much trouble thinking of the sins that dry up your soul, things you’ve neglected to do that you should have done; things you’ve done that you shouldn’t have done. Attitudes that cut you off from God and your neighbor. God promises to make the desert bloom again, to save us from our sins, but here we are still in the midst of them. In Advent, hoping and longing for the salvation of God to be born in us and in the world. In this Advent desert I long for God’s healing grace like a deer thirsting for flowing streams.
This the solution of the powerful riddle about how the loving God is also our judge: When God comes to be our judge, He comes to save us. God’s judgment is not a punishment for failure to be saved; it is the means of God’s salvation. That’s because what God is saving us from, is our sins, the attitudes and actions that shrivel up our hearts and make God’s world a desert. God will save us from those sins, because God is recreating everything into a new, green, fertile heaven and earth. I think myself, using Leonard Cohen’s words, that “every heart to love will come, but like a refugee.” But even if we utterly refused that salvation, God would save the rest of the world that we insisted on destroying. God’s salvation is inevitable, because life and bounty are God's way.
So what do we do while we live in Advent, in this time of expectation as we await the final victory of God? In modern Israel, the desert is increasingly being made fruitful by irrigation. That is, through a combination of human effort and God’s miraculous gift of life. Our individual lives are like that, too. The main way God frees us from our sins is by helping us to stop sinning. It doesn’t do any good to ask God to free us from our sins if we won’t walk in the freedom we’re given. The desert becomes fruitful when we irrigate it. The holy highway leads to the Jerusalem, but it is our legs that have to carry us on it. Our effort is part of the grace that God gives; it’s not good works versus grace, it’s the grace of good works. And so we remind ourselves annually, in this Advent season, to come back to the Source, to watch and pray for the Lord’s return, to do works of justice and mercy and peace. To eat and drink these signs of the banquet which we shall all eat, cured of our diseases, healed from our infirmities, and saved from our sins. This bread and this wine are the very presence of God breaking into our dried and twisted roots of our souls and beginning to irrigate the parched land. Strengthen the weak knees. Break up your fallow ground. Let streams begin to flow in the desert.
“As the deer longs for streams of water, so longs my soul for You, O God.”