Learning to see – a sermon

You can listen to my sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it below


After four months of being in transition, this week I decided to get back into the routine of life.  No more sleeping in until just before the kids wake up and rushing through the morning, the alarm now goes off at 5am, and thanks to our recent return to Daylight Saving Time, it is still very dark.  In those first moments of the morning, I struggle to stay awake.  It is so dark, the bed is so comfortable, and I really would prefer to just roll over, but at least for this week, I was able to stave off the snooze button.  The hardest part, however, isn’t the waking up, it is those first few seconds while my eyes adjust to whatever light source I introduce.  Usually, it is my iPhone.  After the alarm goes off, I check for overnight messages and then open up the Forward Movement website to read Morning Prayer.  Slowly my eyes adjust to the brightness of the screen.  At first, it is almost painful as my dilated pupils rapidly shrink.  Usually, by the time I have finished reading the Psalm, my eyes are fully adjusted, but it really does take a while.

I can only imagine what it must have been like for the man born blind when he first opened his eyes.  After decades of darkness, never knowing the light of day, suddenly it all came flooding in.  How intense must that first moment of sight been for him?  How excruciating was it as his eyes adjusted to the light for the first time?  How long did it take before he could actually comprehend what he was seeing?  As much as this story is about the miracle of a man born blind being given the ability to see, it also serves as a metaphor for John.  This story is meant to teach us what it means to really see Jesus even as it assures us that it might take some time for the eyes of our heart to adjust.  For John, this story serves as an illustration of what it means to call Jesus the light of the world.  It took the man’s eyes some time to adjust to the newness of the light, and it would take his soul a while to come to see clearly in the light of Christ.  While he is learning to see, everyone around this man were found to be perfectly happy staying blind.

After the man is healed, the questions start, beginning with his neighbors, those who had passed him by for years, but never really saw him.  They had seen his cloak, spread out to receive loose change.  They had seen his rags, barely stitched together.  Some had seen his face and the vastness behind his eyes, but their reactions betray the fact that though they were perfectly capable of sight, they had never really seen him.  The man, on the other hand, continues his journey toward sight.  “Who did this to you?” They asked him.  The man responds, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes… and I received my sight.”  In the initial stages of his spiritual seeing, the man only knows the name of the one who healed him, but as the story unfolds, his soul’s vision will increase.

His neighbors don’t buy his answer, and so they drag him off to the Synagogue where the Pharisees essentially put him on trial for heresy.  Again, he gives the details of his healing.  When pressed about the man called Jesus, the once blind man’s understanding deepens.  No longer able call Jesus simply a man, the eyes of his heart continued to open and he tells them, “He is a prophet.”  Not content to leave it alone, the Pharisees push things further.  They call his parents to testify that he was, in fact, the man born blind.  Afraid of what the Pharisees might do to them, and unwilling to comment on who this Jesus character might actually be, his parents make themselves blind to their own son’s healing.  “Ask him,” they say, “he is of age.”

Again, the man is brought back before the council, and again they ask him for the details of his healing.  How can the details of this story be true, they wonder, for Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, clearly he is a sinner and God doesn’t work through sinners.  So, who healed you, God or this sinner?  The man can clearly see that they are missing the point.  He wonders if maybe they secretly want to be disciples of Jesus.  He assures them that he has no idea how it all happened, but that this Jesus who healed him has to be of God.  As he considers the truth that never before had anyone ever heard of someone blind from birth being healed, his spiritual vision continues to come into focus.

Finally, the Pharisees have had enough.  Their eyes are scrunched closed so tightly that they may never see anything the right way again, and they throw this man out of the Synagogue.  Jesus, having heard about it, tracked him down, and the man born blind was able to see Jesus for the first time.  Here, with physical eyes wide open and spiritual eyes ready to see, he comes to see and to understand fully that Jesus is the Son of Man, one of John’s favorite names for the Messiah, and he becomes the only person in John’s Gospel to worship Jesus.[1]  It was difficult work, coming to see Jesus fully, but the man born blind was blessed in the experience.  His eyes were made open by Jesus, but more than that, his heart became open to God.

I am more and more convinced that learning to see with the eyes of our hearts is the basic work of discipleship.  In Baptism, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit and with it, the spiritual eyes needed to see God’s hand at work in the world.  Over time, by the grace of God, the pupils of our hearts slowly adjust to the light of Christ.  As our spiritual vision comes into focus, we see the hurting and the lost and we care for them.  We see the joyful and the blessed and we rejoice with them.  We see blessings poured out and we give thanks for them.  We see the work of the Kingdom and we join in it.  The process of learning to see the world through the eyes of our hearts is never ending, but with God’s help, every day, our spiritual eyesight can get a little bit better.  As our eyes adjust to the light of Christ, the progress might be slow, even painful at times, but in the end, our eyes will be open and we will be ready to worship Jesus, the light of the world, the Son of God.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=906

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Coming into the light

My least favorite part about waking up in the morning is that moment of first light.  Usually, it is my iPhone, ready to offer me the Morning Office from Forward Movement, but sometimes it is the light in the kitchen to feed the dogs or the bathroom to… well that’s somewhat self-explanatory.  That first moment of light can be excruciating as my eyes adjust from full dilation during what has been the darkness of night and to the constriction of what will be the brightness of the day.  I can only imagine what that experience must have been like for the man born blind.  After decades of darkness, how intense was that first experience of light?

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As the story unfolds, John uses this ongoing metaphor of darkness and light to show us how the man’s spiritual pupils had to slowly adjust after his encounter with Jesus.  The adjustment doesn’t seem to happen quite as quickly as that first moment of actual light, but it seems the experience was just as painful as the man searches for meaning.

Immediately, the questions begin.  “Weren’t you the beggar we knew?  Who did this to you?”  The man responds, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”  The crowd near his home doesn’t buy it, and so they drag him off to the Pharisees for what amounts to a heresy trial.  He once again tells the story of the mud and the Pool of Siloam, and when pressed by the Pharisees, “What do you say about him?” the man’s understanding deepens.  He is no longer able to say that Jesus is just “the man called Jesus,” but now he sees him as “a prophet.”

The saga continues as now the man’s parents are brought before the council to give account of this miracle.  Unwilling to comment on who  Jesus might be, they turn the ball back over to their son saying, “ask him, he’s the one who was healed.”  So again, the Pharisees question the man.  He wonders aloud if they want to maybe be his disciples, affirms that he’s not sure how it all happened, but that the man who healed him had to be “from God.”  As he considers the truth that never before had anyone ever heard of someone blind from birth being healed, his spiritual vision continues to come into focus.

Finally, after the man is removed from the Synagogue, he is once again encountered by Jesus.  Here, with physical eyes wide open and spiritual eyes ready to see, he comes to see fully that Jesus is the Son of Man, one of John’s favorite names for the Messiah, and he becomes the only person in John’s Gospel to worship Jesus.  It was difficult work, coming to see Jesus fully, but the man is blessed in the experience.  His eyes are opened, but more than that, his heart is open to God and he becomes a disciple.  Would that our hearts might be made open to see God’s hand at work in the world about us.

On being blind

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Blindness is everywhere I look today (bad pun #1).  On Wednesday mornings, SBC’s preschool has an 8:30 chapel service.  The lesson for this morning was an excerpt of Sunday’s Gospel lesson about the man born blind.  To illustrate that story, the School Director told the story of Fanny Crosby, a prolific poet and hymn writer who became blind at a very young age.  at age 8, Fanny wrote her first poems, which often focused on her condition.  She wrote,

Oh, what a happy soul I am,
although I cannot see!
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.

How many blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t,
To weep and sigh because I’m blind
I cannot, and I won’t! (1)

As I settled in to the office this morning after chapel, I opened today’s Lent Madness match up, which has, of all people, Fanny Crosby! going up against  George Frideric Handel, who was himself blind by the time of his death at age 74.  I’m still debating whether to file a complaint against SBC’s school for creating a bias in today’s Lent Madness voting.

After all of that, I’ve gone back and reread Sunday’s Gospel lesson with fresh eyes (pardon the pun in poor taste) and am noticing the obvious that blindness isn’t about the physical condition of the man who has his sight restored by Jesus, but rather is the ongoing condition of most everyone else in this story.  The blindness of the disciples opens the story.  Seemingly right in front of this man who is blind, and not deaf, they ask Jesus, “What’s with this guy?  Did he sin or his parents?”  It continues with his neighbors, who after his healing, though nothing about his physical appearance has changed, can’t seem to recognize this man who for years they had seen and known as “the man born blind.”  The Pharisees get in on the act, unable to see God’s hand at work in this healing because is happened on the Sabbath and didn’t follow their closely defined idea of how things were supposed to work.  Finally, the man’s own parents seem blind to the fact that in protecting their own hides, they have thrown their own son under the bus.

As the story ends, Jesus confronts the blindness of the Pharisees.  He calls them out for their unwillingness to see and their stubborn rejection of anything that falls outside of the tunnel vision religion they have carefully crafted for their own well being.  This ongoing blindness is the most dangerous, and one that can easily creep into our own faith communities.  It is so easy to see only what we want to.  We can pat ourselves on the back for being such a friendly congregation and never notice how radically unwelcoming that makes us.  We can fret the ongoing decline of membership numbers and not see how God is still using your congregation to deepen relationships, care for the downtrodden, and reach out to those in need.  Blindness goes both ways, we can miss the good and the ill in our midst, but the way of God is the way of sight.  God’s Son came as a light shining in the darkness.  Will we choose to see everything the light has to offer?  Or are we content with the perceived safety of the lingering darkness?

God has a plan

Let me preface what is to follow by saying that I wholeheartedly believe that God has a plan for creation.  Well, maybe more like a dream.  God’s dream for humanity and the earth we were created to care for is a wholeness.  We were designed to be in relationship, perfect relationship with God, with one another, and with the world in which we live.  Every part of God’s plan, which is declared good and perfect in Romans 12, is about fixing those relationships that we have screwed up, repeatedly and ad nauseam.

With that caveat in place, let me now suggest that what we will hear from Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a very dangerous statement.  The story unfolds with Jesus and his disciples happening upon a blind man.  We aren’t sure how they know that he has been blind since birth, but it helps the drama of the story that he was.  Anyway, the disciples, being good students of Judaism, are eager to engage their Rabbi in a theological discussion about his man.  “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  It may seem uncouth, but this line of questioning is perfectly valid in the context of 1st century Judaism.  In fact, those who would stick their head in the sand and say conversations like this don’t happen among 21st century Christians are just fooling themselves.  Jesus’ reply seems to indicate that God’s plan included the blindness of this man, and it is an answer with which I am exceedingly uncomfortable.

The NRSV renders it thusly: “Neither than man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’ works might be reveled in him.”  To my mind, this is the other side of the same coin as Pat Robertson saying Hurricane Katrina happened because of the gay agenda or the Haiti earthquake was the result of the Voodoo religion.  To suggest that God’s plan, that I would remind you is both good and perfect, includes such hardships as hurricanes, earthquakes and a child born blind is to forget the purpose behind God’s plan: the restoration of all relationships.  As is often the case, bad theology stems from bad translation.

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In this week’s WorkingPreacher Commentary, Osvaldo Vena, Profesor de Nuevo Testamento at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, suggests a more straightforward translations of verse three.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me … ”  The man’s blindness isn’t the result of God’s plan, but rather, it is God’s plan to heal him in this moment.  It wasn’t God’s plan to make this man blind so that God could later swoop in and look heroic, but rather Jesus says, it is God’s plan to overcome the broken relationships of this man’s life.  Of course, as the story plays out, it’ll take a lot more healing to fix all of his relationships.  After regaining his sight, he is ostracized by his neighbors, by the religious authorities, and even by his own parents, but with his newfound sight, the man is able to see a way to right relationship with God, which is the first step in right relationship with the rest of God’s creation.

This Sunday, let’s not perpetuate bad theology.  Let’s not suggest that God allows us to suffer, or worse yet, that God makes us suffer, so that God can fix things later.  Instead, let’s share the story of God’s saving grace, God’s perfect love for all of creation, and God’s plan to restore all things to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.

Living in the Light

If I had my druthers, I’d take Paul’s advice to the Church in Ephesus and only read the first three verses of the prescribed lesson from the letter to that same Church.

“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. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” [Full Stop]

After the roller-coaster of a week I’ve had, I’m content to just sit in the light and let God take care of the darkness.  Whether it is the controversy stirred up by World Vision changing their personnel policies to allow for the hiring of employees in same-sex marriages and then 48 hours later, amid outcry from evangelicals and fundraising by progressives, reversing that decision or the mentally unstable, elderly, homeless woman who joyfully got on a bus to Mobile, but whose schizophrenia kept her from taking the last 2 minutes of her 3 hour journey to a shelter, or SBC who has been on a three day sleep strike, there’s been a lot of darkness in my life this week, and I’m refusing to let it win.  I’m resting in the fact that God’s desire is that I focus on what is good and right and true.  I’m confident in John’s assertion that the light of God shines in the darkness and the darkness did not [will not, can not] overcome it.  I’m reminding myself that even if I seek out what is pleasing to the Lord, there are plenty of things that are out of my control that can upset my apple cart.

I’m living as a child of the light this week, despite the darkness, and I know that I’m not alone.  So, despite the fact that it isn’t allowed, I’d still probably consider forgoing Paul’s foray into the darkness in Ephesians this Sunday just so we could all bask in the light of God’s grace.

Theological Straw Men

Fred Phelps, Pat Robinson, Jeremiah Wright, Gene Robinson, Robert Duncan, Marcus Borg, John Spong, Steve Pankey.  All of these men have two things in common.  First, they have declared themselves as followers of the Jesus movement in some way, shape, or form.  Second, they have all been used by their detractors as nothing more than theological straw men, useful only such that they help to prove a point.  Truth be told, each of these men has also been guilty of using others in the same way.  In the post-Twitter world, where almost nothing happens that isn’t public within about 15 minutes and where snark and vitriol are used as currency, it is easy to think that this is a rather recent phenomenon, but the reality is that theological squabbles have utilized straw men from the very beginning.  Think of names like Galileo, Nestorius, Pelagius, and Pope Clement VII.

Even before the Church existed, and long before the Christological debates of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, there were theological debates that utilized straw men to prove one point or another.  A prime example comes in our Gospel lesson for Sunday where Jesus’ own disciples see a blind beggar on the side of the road and use him to start a debate.  As if he isn’t even there, or at the very least, as if he doesn’t have ears to hear and heart to feel, they ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”  From there, he gets used by his neighbors, the crowd, the Jewish leadership, the Pharisees, and to a certain extent, even his own parents, to wage a battle between Sabbath law abiding Jews and this Jesus character.

It is only Jesus who sees the Man Born Blind (MBB) as a human being.  He answers the disciples question, as he stoops down to make mud and heal the man.  When the MBB is ultimately expelled from the Synagogue, Jesus seeks him out and invites him into the Kingdom.  Of course, that’s what Jesus is all about, reminding us of our humanity in a world that would rather label and dismiss us.

An Interesting Qualifying Statement

Another Sunday in Lent, another loooooong Gospel lesson from John that will tempt the preacher to ramble all over the place in an attempt to catch the myriad themes inherent in the story.  While I’m dealing with my visceral reaction to the way the disciples treat the man born blind (MBB) as if he’s just a theological prop to be debated and dissected, I’m choosing to write instead about an interesting qualifying statement made by Jesus.

“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (Jn 9.5)

You’ll recall from the Prologue to John’s Gospel, a text Episcopalians hear read every First Sunday after Christmas, that one of the key components of Jesus’ identity in John is that of light.  In that great cosmic poem, Jesus is described as “life and light” (1.4-5) and “the true light which enlightens everyone” (1.9).  Later, as Jesus continues to be challenged by the Pharisees, he claims for himself the role of light bearer, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (8.12).  Yet here we are, merely a chapter later, it seems like Jesus is claiming that his light can be extinguished.

As we round the halfway point in Lent, having now passed through the awful right of passage known as “Daylight Saving Time” and now on the other side of the vernal equinox, the season seems to be all about growing light, while our feelings will be all about growing darkness as we head toward the noon hour on Good Friday when darkness fell over the whole earth.  So, which is it?  Light or dark?

Truth be told, by now I’ve done what the disciples did to the MBB.  I’ve created a theological straw man to prove a preconceived point.  See, Jesus will die on Good Friday.  It will get dark.  Very dark, but darkness and death will not have the final word.  The light of the world will shine through the resurrected Jesus, and continues to shine through his Body, the Church, even to this day.  Jesus may be ascended to the right hand of the Father, but he hasn’t left the world, he is still very much with us and in us, and his light continues to provide hope in the midst of darkness that threatens us from all sides.  The qualifying statement of Jesus is only a qualifying statement if we don’t believe in the continuity of his message and the holiness of his Church.  If we do believe these things, then the ramifications are clear, as members of Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, we are the light of the world.

Now, to figure out how to be light.  Thankfully, Jesus told us about that just a few weeks ago.