Lent 4 March 26, 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for March 26, 2017 | Lent IV | John 9:1-41
At first, it seems a simple story: Jesus comes to a blind man, anoints his eyes, and then tells him to wash in a pool. But, then, we hear Jesus say, “I am the light of the world,” and realize there’s much more to this story. I ask you to consider with me five dimensions of the gospel and its significance for our lives today.
First, does God inflict misery on people? “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Of course, resting behind the question is the idea that God punishes people for sin – whatever is meant by sin. But, is that so? Many insurance policies use the term “Act of God” as a way of describing disastrous events over which humans have no control. A flooding river hits your house and kills your cat? Let’s blame God. Earthquakes in the Midwest? They must be an Act of God say some, except for the fact that geologists have discovered that invasive fracking for petroleum produces the earthquakes. A terrible diagnosis with cancer or depression is often met with the question: “Why did God send this upon me or my beloved?” “What did I do to deserve this?” It might be helpful to recognize that we have been created with freedom, albeit a freedom that tends to serve the ego, the self alone, and thus it is appropriate to consider the human capacity to inflict misery on others through action, speech, or complicit silence. Indeed, the earth – a living organism – has also been created in freedom. That is, the earth, other creatures, and our bodies are subject to the freedom that includes the possibility of mutations and disorders. Cancer is not a punishment from God but a mutation that arises out of the creation’s freedom. I wonder: would you prefer freedom with the possibility of suffering or the life of robots who feel nothing but, well, are robots? Indeed, if God is angry about anything – for the God we worship is not all sweet warm love – it is the presence of injustice on earth, injustice that we can, with God’s grace, resist and transform.
Second, Jesus offers free healing. Jesus frequently heals people, drawing them from the isolation produced by illness, by a troubling spirit, into a community of the living. But have you noticed that this form of salvation is always given freely? For when he witnesses suffering, he is eager to alleviate it with mercy and healing. Indeed the ancient world in which he lived counted hundreds of healers, many of whom charged a fee and thus reserved healing for the wealthy. What’s so striking about the healing work of Jesus is that it is mobile – he goes to people from across the socio-economic spectrum – and offers healing without price. My friend, Carol, an Episcopal priest and chair of the social work department at a large Midwestern university informs me that more than half of the state legislatures in our nation are considering cuts to healthcare and health assistance for seniors and the poor -- thus pushing profit-driven hospitals, retirement centers, and nursing homes to eliminate drastically the number of beds reserved for people who rely on government assistance. “What will happen to them?” I ask her. “Oh, they’ll have to move in with family – with inadequate care and inadequate access to medicine. Or --- they’ll be on the street.” Is this the will of God, I ask, does this reflect the healing practice of Jesus: that the most vulnerable among us receive the least amount of mercy and healing?
Third, faith is a living, changing reality. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus ask the healed man. “Yes, Lord,” he says, “I believe.” I wonder if our understanding of faith is substantive, that is, do you imagine that faith is something you and I possess or is it a relationship of trust that can grow or decline? In other words, is faith an object you carry throughout life (a kind of Christian talisman that protects the soul) or is it a living relationship that, like all relationships, grows and matures through conversation (prayer), through listening well to the voice of the other (keeping silence), through patience (slowing down), through questioning – and yes through testing? Did you notice that this healed man is frequently tested? In their confusion, his neighbors think he is someone else even when he keeps saying “No, I’m the one, I’m the one he healed!” Others ask him what he thinks about the one who healed him by working on the Sabbath day of rest. Indeed, by the end he is reviled as a disciple of Jesus. Of course, if the living relationship of faith in Christ is genuine, will it not shape our words and actions, and will not our words and actions actually draw attention to us, for are we not called to speak and act with that which the world cannot give us?
Fourth, Jesus remains a Jew. In a benign manner, John views Pharisees and Jews as questioners of Jesus and, believe me, it never hurts to ask a question. But in other ways, John gives the impression that Pharisees and Jews are enemies of Jesus. But, then, let us remember that the editor or writer we call John is working at the end of the 1st c., some 70 years after Jesus lived: a time in which Jewish followers of Moses and Jewish followers of Jesus are separating from each other in mutual recrimination, in an ugly divorce that has wounded our relationship for close to 2000 years. Thus, John projects the ugly divorce from his time into the time of Jesus some 70 years earlier and gives the wrong impression that Pharisees and Jews are enemies of Jesus: Jesus who is Jewish as are his mother and disciples. If anyone should be named an “enemy” of Jesus, is it not those ardent followers of Jesus who have sponsored centuries of persecution focused on the very people from whom he was born and whose blood flowed through his Jewish veins? What a surprise for some to learn that the divinity of Jesus Christ is indissolubly bound up with his humanity, a humanity that was and is thoroughly Jewish. We benefit no one when we preach, sing, or speak about Jews or Pharisees in a negative manner, when we overlook the violent Empire that executed him. I wonder: in this particular moment, when Jewish communities across the land have become the targets of white supremacist, self-proclaimed “Christian” promoters of hate crimes, should we remain politely silent, our polite middle-class silence a sanctioning of violence perpetrated in the name of the Prince of Peace?
Fifth and finally, what does Jesus ask of us? Today there are many people in our region who have no desire to participate in Christian faith and life: perhaps through ignorance; perhaps for good reasons given that many Christian communities promote divine violence (fire and brimstone), refuse questions and learning, and offer little or no care for the world. Still others follow him at great cost to themselves for they have grasped the cost of discipleship by recognizing that Jesus leads his followers into a world marked by suffering and there asks them to participate in his redemptive work. But there may well be a larger number who have been baptized and claim Jesus as savior but either do not know or are not willing to do what he asks of his followers. And what might that be? Is it not “to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share one’s bread with the hungry, to shelter the homeless poor, to cover the naked, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” What does the Light of the World say concerning our participation in this redemptive work? Your light shall break forth like the dawn and healing shall spring up quickly. Amen, I say: Come quickly, Lord Jesus, and night shall be no more. Amen.
Fr. Samuel Torvend
Associate Priest for Adult Formation