4th Sunday of Lent: 1 Sam 16:1-13; Ps 23; Eph 5:8-14; Jn 9:1-41
March 19, 2023
Good Morning, St. Aidans.
As many of you know I’m discerning a call to the deaconate. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be your guest preacher today.
For several summers before the pandemic, Barbara and Riven and I would drive up to see plays in Ashland, Oregon. We’d see a mix of contemporary plays and Shakespeare, and I particularly enjoyed hearing all the words and phrases that pop up in Shakespeare’s plays that have found a home in our daily speech. This morning's readings have a similar richness of language to me, and a bit of musical richness as well.
Psalm 23 brings comforting and familiar assurances that God provides us with rest, with plenty, and with protection from whatever horrors the world and its valleys of the shadow of death may bring to us. Whenever I read it, I hear the lovely Bobby McFerrin version of this song which we have occasionally sung at Saint Aidans.
I also hear music in the Gospel reading this morning, particularly with the phrase "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." Reverend Gary Davis, a guitarist and song-writer who was without sight from infancy, wrote a tune inspired by that familiar phrase. There are other songs based on those words, including one that our family listens to when the Christmas CDs are hauled out every year, but it was a wonderfully jaunty version of Davis’ tune done by Jorma Kaukonen that settled in my ears while reading today's Gospel from John.
The story has Jesus and his disciples meeting a man who was sightless from birth. The disciples leap right to the conclusion that this condition had been brought on him through sin. The question that interested them, and the one they posed to Jesus, was whose sin took away his sight – that of the man or of his parents? He was sightless from birth so he couldn’t have done anything to deserve it, but could the parents’ sins be visited upon their child? They start with the assumption that it was someone’s personal failing that the man could not see and then get stuck in a weird chicken-or-egg puzzle because of this false assumption. It feels like quite a human reaction.
We look for the cause of misfortune in others for many reasons, but often it is out of fear. I think we, like the disciples, seek assurance that this will not happen to us perhaps because we are afraid that it might. This may be particularly true of the loss of sight. As children we may be told (and as parents we may have said) not to do something or you’ll “go blind”. Even though we may suspect this was as likely as “going left-handed” or “growing a second head”, we internalize these cautions. I confess that I was inordinately proud of having good eyesight for years, and somewhere deep down I think I attributed it to always having a good reading light.
Now, it wasn’t for want of a good reading light that this man was sightless. And, as Jesus tells the disciples, it wasn’t because of sin.
I recently read the book "Blindness", by the Portuguese Nobel-prize-winning author Jose Saramago. Set in an unnamed city in a nameless country, the novel starts with a man sitting in his car waiting for the light to change. Suddenly he is unable to see – or rather, the only thing he sees is whiteness. The light has turned green, the cars are honking at him to move, and he cannot drive. Others are soon afflicted with this form of blindness. Out of fear that it is contagious, the government orders those who have it into an asylum. The story follows the man in the car and others as they build a community that survives the "valley of the shadow of death" that is the asylum and returns to a world where everyone is now sightless. Sight eventually returns (sorry, spoiler), but what got my attention was that the author made no attempt to explain what caused people to lose their sight to begin with. There is no Cordyceps fungus taking over the world like in the current TV series “The Last of Us”, no suggestion of personal sins or failings – it just happened, then it went away, end of story. And I found it to be a pretty great story, in part because, there was no judgement – moral or otherwise - of the people who were affected by this shared calamity.
As in the novel, the cause of the man’s sightlessness is of no concern. Jesus tells the disciples that the purpose of the man's condition is so that God’s works may be revealed through him. He also tells the disciples, and us, that we must do God’s works while it is day and adds that night is coming when no-one can work. To drive the point home he adds words that the Reverend Gary Davis paraphrased slightly when he set them to music, “Just as long as I’m in this world, I am the light of the world”. Although delivered almost as a throwaway line, it must have given the disciples pause – what will happen to that light when Jesus is no longer in the world? And, coupled with the “night is coming when no-one can work” line, it sounds pretty ominous. Were they, and us, to be cast into darkness when Jesus is no longer with them?
In the previous chapter, John 8:12, Jesus tells us that he is the light, and whoever follows him will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life. Jesus has been teaching them, and us, all along that they and we will carry the light into the world. By doing so we will keep this night of darkness at bay.
Paul’s epistle offers us some instructions here. Paul tells the Ephesians to live as children of light, to try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord, to expose the works of darkness to light so that they may become visible and thereby be transformed into light. In this way, by carrying out God’s works, we ourselves become part of the light of the world, just as Jesus does in John’s Gospel by bringing sight to the man they meet along their way. Paul ends the verse with another familiar phrase that became a musical inspiration for Bach, “Sleeper, awake ! Rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you.”
But back to the man who is still without sight. Jesus is getting ready to perform God’s work and it goes pretty quickly – a little spit, a little mud, a little dip in a pool and the man can see.
In fact, all of that business has gone pretty quickly – the questions about whose fault the blindness is, the talk about the light of the world, and the miracle of sight all happen in seven verses.
But then the neighbors get involved and the trouble starts. They question the formerly sightless man about how it could possibly happen that he now sees, and he gives them a short and simple answer. That only worries them further, so they haul him off to the Pharisees who ask the same questions and get the same calm answer. The Pharisees are thrown into confusion - how can the man who did this be from God, since he sinned by working on the Sabbath? But how can a miracle such as this be performed by one who sins? It’s kind of like the chicken-and-egg situation the disciples found themselves in earlier.
Clearly more proof is needed so the Pharisees call in the parents. Yes, they say, he's been without sight from birth. No, we don't know how it is he now sees. Better ask him. Back they go to this poor guy who must have been rejoicing in having sight but is probably getting pretty worried about where all of this is heading. He tries the simplest of explanations - "I was blind, now I see". It also doesn’t work so, perhaps exasperated, he exclaims over the miraculous thing that happened to him and resorts to sarcasm, asking the Pharisees “Do you also want to become his disciples?” At this the Pharisees lose all patience and fall back to the same assumption the disciples started the story with - that the man was born in sin and so can have nothing to teach them about miracles - and they drive him out of the synagogue. After Jesus reveals himself to the now-sighted man he asks if he believes him to be the Son of Man, which the man does. That done Jesus drives his point home. He tells the Pharisees that, like the man, if they themselves were sightless they would not have sin. But because they have sight and still refuse to see God's work being done right in front of them they still sin.
The theme of being open to seeing God’s work in the world is also present in this morning’s reading from Samuel, although here it is more a matter of seeing God’s preferred path. In Samuel we hear a lot of back-and-forth discussion as Samuel, guided by God, must anoint the next king of Israel. He calls together Jesse and his sons to find which one the Lord has chosen. Those gathered, including Samuel, see the physical attributes of seven of Jesse’s sons and pick favorites on that basis, but God speaks to Samuel to remind him that the Lord does not see as mortals see, but sees into the heart. The choice is David, the eighth and youngest of the bunch. He was seen as such an unlikely a choice to become king that he was left with the chore of tending the sheep while all of this was going on.
These readings remind us that God’s work is always present in the world, and that it is up to us to see it and be guided by it. In these stories, God’s work is made visible to those who have eyes to see it and ears to hear it.
This is very much like the process of discernment Saint Aidan’s is now doing through our work with Vital and Thriving. From the timeline post-it notes exercise we did last year through the listening team’s gathering of people’s reflections to the cottage meetings that are now underway, we are invited to see God’s work in what we as a community have done before, to raise up those ministries that sustain us now and to see God’s preferences for the ministries that will sustain us in the future.
Like the disciples, we are invited to look beyond our assumptions about what is in front of us to see the miracles that can occur. Like Samuel we are called to look at the heart of our community and recognize gifts we already have in places we might not expect to see them. And through all of this we are being called to brighten our flame and bring new light into our parish, our neighborhood and this world. May we all be open to seeing God’s light, wherever it may be found. Amen.