Friday, March 7, 2008

Seeing the Light

Readings for 4 Lent mentioned in this sermon:
Ephesians 5: 8-14
John 9:1-41

I am using in this sermon a concept of the “social program” of Jesus that I met in John Dominic Crossan’s and Jonathan L. Reed’s book In Search of Paul, and am also indebted to Martin Smith, whose book A Season for the Spirit feeds me, each Lent.

A man blind from birth. Think of that: he has had to depend on his other senses, to navigate life. Until we have to do without the full sight of an eye for a while, how can we imagine the extent to which we depend on sight as we move through each day, and especially as we move through the night.

This man has learned to feel his way, to reach out with hands and feet to tell him where he is. He has learned to listen far more acutely than most of his neighbors. His sense of smell has shown him many times what’s happening around him.

Likely, he has depended on a stout walking stick to reclaim balance when he loses it, to use as a sensor ahead of him, tapping his way. I imagine him counting on those who treated him humanely to take him by the hand and lead him through those moments and places that had changed—a military barricade blocking a familiar crossing, the marketplace reconfigured for a festival.

Dependence is a key word in describing his life. He is a beggar. We aren’t told that until a quarter of the way into his story. But that’s because everyone hearing his story in early times would know that a blind man begs.

Notice about this story what you may have noticed about last Sunday’s equally lengthy Gospel: that so much airtime is given to a story, to the full and even prolonged story of one person’s recovery, the recovery (in both cases) of a person right at the bottom of the socio-economic heap, a Samaritan woman married five times going on six, and a beggar who is blind. A whole bloody chapter! I can recall just one Gospel story that is longer than either of these, and that’s the one we will read on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the story of Christ’s Passion.

So can it be that these long stories also testify to the Passion of Christ? Did our ancestors in the first and second centuries keep these stories because in them they saw clear-shining that light of the world, Jesus, and heard without doubt the heartbeat of his mission, the mission that brought him right into the noose knotted for him by men who could not stand his rocking the boat of church and state?

Jesus’s primary objective was not to resist imperial Rome and upend a rigid and self-preoccupied church. Those rockings of the boat were the collateral damage (though we have learned to call them collateral blessings) of his primary purpose: to take the dream of global justice and put flesh upon its bones at the local, ordinary, everyday level, and not just there and then, but here and now, by penetrating our eyeballs with the sights, and piercing our eardrums with the sounds, of recovery, healing, and to make clear that his love alive in us will make us unafraid to love just as boldly as he loves, across all borders of class and race, sex and creed, wellness and illness, freedom and bondage.

We get part of the picture when we see Good Friday caused by the words Jesus spoke in public squares. The other part, and I believe the bigger part, is his public embrace of the poor. That this appealing and persuasive preacher chose to spend his mealtimes with the rough refuse of the social order—isn’t that what the wealthy and privileged often think of the service sector, especially the night shift, and certainly the prostitutes—this they found subversive, not just that he enjoyed eating with them, but that he would use those mealtimes to teach the same radical equality among people that he would then show while on the road.

Neither the politicians nor the priests knew how to value this social program of Jesus. From the plight of the poor in America 2008, neither does our society know how to value his purpose. From the preoccupations of the Church, we could judge, neither do we Christians.

Sight is restored to a man born blind. I remember Oliver Sacks telling the story of a rare success in surgery, repairing the eyes of a man who had been born blind. At first, this man just drank up life, bowled-over by finally seeing all that he had seen only by his ability to imagine. Then, weeks or months later, he was so overwhelmed that even with his ability to see restored, he stopped seeing. Was it that what he actually saw failed to correspond to the reality he had built within his mind? Or that his dependence on his other senses was so thrown out of balance that he couldn’t cope with the overload? Or that his imagination couldn’t recognize a future? While I don’t recall the full story, I believe his whole health unraveled, at the end—not a Hollywood ending. One that suggests that we might want to take this story one level deeper than its surface.

Isn’t there a being-born-blind that happens to many of us in the western nations, who have no sense of our relative wealth in a world burdened with poverty, until we cross the borders of our insulated lives and come up against the mud and saliva of another world, and receive new sight, insight, as a gift of the Christ who is at-home on that side of the border as he is on this?

Isn’t there a being-born-blind that makes us see the faults and weaknesses of others more critically than we assess our own? And isn’t there a critical not-seeing the relentless lovingkindness of God who wants to forgive offences and build mercy in each of us? We slip into projecting onto others those faults and failings we can’t face in ourselves. We humans perfect the art of spitting at those we scorn. We need our spit to fall into God’s dust. We need humility to kneel, to go down into the earth, stir the mud of our conflicts into a poultice that we apply to our own eyes, to see through our own issues, through to what matters.

“For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.”

These long Lenten Gospels urge us to seek light. More than our wintering instincts, making us long for spring and nudging us to move our clocks ahead an hour next weekend…

The light we seek will be kindled at sundown, Easter Eve.

Its flame will light the great Paschal candle that will lead us into this darkened church in procession to its resting place at the altar, as three times along the way we stop to hear sung, “The Light of Christ!” And respond, “Thanks be to God!”

Then, one by one, our little lights are lit from that great light, wordlessly re-enacting what happens when God’s astonishing love for us in Jesus Christ meets our readiness to be open.