The Fourth Sunday of Lent: March 30, 2014
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Believe it or not, we are on the downhill side of Lent now – it always seems to me that the Fourth Sunday in Lent marks the inevitability of Holy Week. The Church fathers and mothers thought so too – they marked this Sunday as Laetare Sunday – that term is taken from an Introit at Mass, “Laetare Jerusalem” (or “O be joyful, Jerusalem”). This Sunday is also known as Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, Mid-Lent Sunday, and Rose Sunday (because the golden rose sent by the popes to Catholic sovereigns was blessed on this Sunday). Traditionally, it was a little window to relax Lenten disciplines, a day of hope as Easter is in sight.[i] So, happy Laetare Sunday.
Today’s gospel reading is a rich one. There is so much to contemplate, so much that a preacher might explore. We could talk about what it means to be blind; or the question of miracles; or how we all really see each other; or even about the major themes of the gospel of John. It’s a little bit difficult to know where to go.
But there is one small phrase in the gospel that piques my interest; four little words: “I do not know.” Perhaps this simple statement is a key to unlock God’s message for us in this story.
Speaking of story, the readings in this week’s lectionary are all great occasions for storytelling. The passage from First Samuel reads like a fairy tale: the prophet goes looking for the one that God will anoint, and goes through all of the sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite trying to find the one that’s just right. He doesn’t have a slipper to try on would be kings, so instead Samuel looks to God to tell him which one it is. He sees seven sons, none of whom are shown by God to be the anointed, before he asks if there are any more sons. “Well, there is one more,” says the father, “but I’m sure he’s not who you’re looking for.”
Still, the youngest son is called, and when David arrives, the Lord reveals to Samuel that this is indeed the one to be anointed. What a delightfully rich story!
Then we have the 23rd Psalm. This fairly short poem is one cherished by many. Its words are so evocative—whenever I hear it, my mind conjures up pastoral images. These are stained glass images from my past; I remember particularly a window from a childhood church that depicted a shepherd and his sheep in a beautiful green setting. In our Wednesday evening Bible study this past week we talked about the comfort provided by these words, so familiar that we almost don’t hear them. We must reclaim them and hear them anew, thinking about what God might be telling us now in this beautiful, familiar song.
No question, this is a lectionary week filled with opportunities for a preacher. But I find myself called to the story of the healing of the blind man. Actually, that’s probably not a very good way to refer to the passage, because the actual miracle, or sign, as John calls it, takes very little air time. The story is really about the reactions of people around the man, and, of course, about what all of this says about Jesus.
And it is striking that, after Jesus heals the blind man, one by one, everyone else in his life seems to fail him. First, we hear that the community members don’t recognize the man when he comes back to them with sight. They don’t believe that he could have been so transformed. It seems that the writer wants us to realize that the community identified him by his disability. They are blind to the possibility of transformation.
Then the religious authorities fail him. They are so caught up in trying to make Jesus into a bad guy (they say, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath”), that they can’t see the wonder that he performs. They think the man must be lying, because these actions by Jesus are simply not within their understanding. They can’t see the miracle, because they are sure it is impossible. It seems that holding to their preconceived notions is more important to them than the possibility of God’s activity in their midst.
And finally, the man’s parents fail him too. They allow their fear to overshadow the joy they should have felt at their son’s gaining of sight. They are too scared to see what has happened. I imagine that this hurt the man most of all; if his parents couldn’t be happy for him, who would be?
So the man who was blind seems to be alone in the story. And his response over and over is laced with those words he says directly on two occasions: I do not know. He is not a religious scholar; he is not a scientist or a doctor (or whomever was their 1st century equivalent); all he knows is what happened: He was blind, but through the actions of this man, he can see.
It seems that, while everyone around him is worried about the how and why of this event, or about the consequences of actually acknowledging what has happened, the man who has his sight restored is focused on the event itself – and the wonder of it. He not only has eyes that see, but a heart that sees as well. And it is less important to him to know the whys and hows, than to acknowledge the wonder of what has happened, and to think about what this particular event reveals about God.
For the man whose sight was restored by Jesus, I think his focus is also on living his new life. While everyone around him is focused on the past, or on the event itself, he is ready to move forward. He understands that what has happened to him finds its origin in God, and it seems to be enough for him to offer thanksgiving to God—and then, we presume, go about learning to live with the gift of sight.
So often we get caught up in the wrong things. Our own vision is clouded by questions that might have little real meaning for our lives. This murky vision is one of the hang-ups of theology in our modern age. In our post-enlightenment, scientific age, we are sure that there is an explanation for everything. I think that one byproduct of the era of scientific discovery is that we have become so focused on the why and how, that we sometimes don’t lose sight of what has actually occurred.
When faced with the ups and downs of our lives, “I don’t know” may sometimes ring as a hollow response—but perhaps that is the response that will best allow us to get on with our lives. Recently I have been in ongoing conversation with a St. Michael’s parishioners who has been coping with cancer for over a year. Rather than struggle to fight against her grave diagnosis, she has instead chosen to focus on creating the best quality of life she can right now.
When I have asked her about that decision to go the road of palliative care rather than aggressive treatment, she explains that she simply doesn’t want to spend all of the rest of her life and energy fighting. I think that, for her, aggressive treatment would be draining, and would give more attention than she wants to the struggle. Instead, she is working to harness as much of her energy as she can, and enjoy whatever time remains.
I think that for her, a focus on fighting her terminal illness would only lead to a preoccupation with the cancer and with the struggle to find an answer to the why of her situation. To focus instead on palliative care is to say, “I don’t know” and leave it there.
Please do not misunderstand me—every situation is different, and there are many, many times when I am sure that fighting against a frightening medical diagnosis, or some other injustice that comes upon us, is the right course. But sometimes we can become so focused on trying to understand what is happening that life goes by us. And sometimes we become frightened and paralyzed by the huge events in our lives.
Theologian Deborah Kapp uses the metaphor of light that is so important in the gospel of John to unpack the meaning of the different reactions we witness in this story. She says,
“Sometimes when the sun is really bright, or when an artificial light is intense, we need to squint or shut our eyes. The brightness seems dangerous to us, and the reflex is automatic. Metaphorically we see this human reaction unfolding in John 9: the light of the world shines bright, and the community, the Pharisees, and the man’s family shut their eyes in self-defense. That is the intuitive thing to do, right?
“Wrong. In this text, everything is counterintuitive. The light of the world is in our midst, and we need not shut our eyes. In fact, the best thing to do is to open our eyes, wide. We will not be blinded by the light. We will be saved.”[ii]
When faced with trying to understand the big events in our own lives, both good and bad, may we have the courage to accept them as they are—to accept “I do not know,” and instead to face into the light in our lives as found in the sure knowledge of the wonder of God the creator, the grace of God the Son, and the blessing of God the Holy Spirit. Amen.