March 26, 2017: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
Apparently those who decide the Revised Common Lectionary feel that part of our Lenten discipline is to stand to listen to passages from the Gospel of John that go on for an eternity. I would have like to have cut this one short, as I did last week, but there was no really good way to do that without missing some of the fruit of the message. This will happen again next week, so remember to wear comfy shoes.
Now, before we get too deep into the sermon, I just want to linger a bit in our gradual hymn (that’s the one we just sang before and after the gospel). “I Want To Walk As A Child Of The Light” is a fav of mine, and heard in Episcopal Churches a lot since its inclusion in our now, quite old, Hymnal 1982. And while the melody is beautiful, it is the words that really strike my heart. You know, so often we sing hymns in church without ever really paying attention to what we are singing. As Bill Davies, our Music Director extraordinaire, pointed out in an article in one of our newsletters, hymns are chosen each week based on the lectionary (the scriptural readings), or the season, or the particular day (like Pentecost, Trinity, or Easter Sundays), and also for tempo and mood at different points of the service. This hymn is most definitely in this service for a reason – because this hymn speaks to the message of our readings today. This was the first line:
“I want to walk as a child of the light. I want to follow Jesus. God set the stars to give light to the world. The star of my life is Jesus.” And now the refrain “In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”
If this sounds somewhat familiar, you only need to look at the reading from Ephesians today, where the author is saying “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… for everything that becomes visible is light…. “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Or the short version – “Live as children of light.”
Now, when I see that, I want to grab my trusty Harry Potter wand [Mother Diana pulls out a wand and waves it] and say “Lumos!” [the light on the end of the wand illuminates] If you aren’t a Harry Potter fan…well really – seriously? Why aren’t you? Anyway, lumos is the spell to turn on lights. But, I think maybe I may not really need the wand. Nox! [the light on the wand is extinguished, and Mother Diana puts it away]
Let’s look back (in a much shorter way) on the gospel text, because, as always, there is so much there for us to consider in the context of what is going on in our country and the world today, and what we are called to if we want to walk as a child of the light.
Now, there are seven scenes in this story – and like our gospel readings of the past several weeks – the one with Nicodemus (or Nick at Night as I like to call him), and the one with the Samaritan woman at the well – this one also involves someone who encounters Jesus either by his own choosing, like Nick, or when they meet Jesus as he is traveling, like the woman at the well and our blind man. Now, this is one of those odd moments when even a man is not given a name. That happens a lot to women in the bible, but not usually to men. But we quickly see why here.
Like women who are often thought of in some ways as an object, so naming is not required, so too this man with his blindness – it is, for those around him, all they see about him. In fact, when he is given his sight, they don’t recognize him. His entire identity was wrapped up in his disability. Sadly, this isn’t something restricted to the first century writers of this gospel – today it would be the black man, the gay woman, the trans teen, the republican, the democrat, the Muslim, the Jew, the Christian, the woman in the wheelchair, the autistic kid, and yes, the blind man.
But back to the story…and let’s give this man a name like we did with the Samaritan woman. Let’s call him Elior, a Hebrew name which means “my God is my light.” Now, Jesus is “on the road again,” walking with his disciples, when they see Elior, who has been blind from birth. Right away, his disciples are absolutely clueless. The first thing they want to do is try to figure out who to blame for it. “Rabbi – who sinned…that he was born blind?” Now, here is where we get really off track, and we need to do some scholarly work here to redeem Jesus’ answer, because the way in which this passage has been translated through the centuries is not only bad, but isn’t in keeping with who Jesus is, and what he was teaching. So, before we go any further, we need to right the ship.
When translating ancient languages like Greek and Hebrew, we need to remember that punctuation was not present. We split up sentences as best we could, and verse numbering didn’t appear until about the 16th century. So, in response to the question about who was to blame for the blind man’s condition, Jesus says this in our NRSV translation: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Yikes! You mean God would do that just to prove a point? That brings up a whole boatload of theological issues, not to mention not being in keeping with who Jesus was in other parts of the gospels. Granted, the understanding of disability in the Ancient Near East is consistent with the question the disciples asked – someone ticked off God.
But we should know, and I think all of you know, that God loves us, and like a good parent, would never harm us. Crap just happens in this human life of ours. Unfortunately, there are to this day people who do not get this. In fact, one of the commentators I regularly listen to on a podcast is a seminary professor, Rolf Jacobson who lost his legs to cancer when he was a teenager. He jokes that his favorite hymn is “Stand up! Stand up for Jesus!” Anyway, I kid you not, he tells the story in response to this text that somebody in his congregation once said to his mother “Don’t you feel guilty that you didn’t feed your family the right diet that your son got cancer.” And he also tells the story about a student with a deformed arm, and a person in her church saying that her dad must have sinned for her to be born that way. Honestly people – if God really worked that way, I wouldn’t be a priest. That is the most absurd thing in the world. We are children of God, who loves us beyond measure. Would anyone expect a loving parent to intentionally harm their child? NO! Of course not.
The issue with this verse is with the punctuation. Another way to translate this would be: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” [Period – this is where the sentence should end – the part about born blind is not in the original Greek] So, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But, in order that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” See what a proper translation, and better punctuation can do. This is why we have to have the Oxford comma…but, as usual, I digress.
Folks, he wasn’t born blind because of any wrong committed, nor was his sight given to teach others. Even though things sometimes happen that we wish were different – we can, if we are open to seeing it, find God in the works that come out of it – not that crap happens so that God can do stuff.
So, now that we have that nonsense put aside, let’s get a cliff notes version of this story: Jesus heals the Elior, who after returning from the pool Jesus told him to wash in, goes back to his ‘hood, and the folks are like “Elior?” “That’s not Elior – Elior is blind.” “No, seriously, I think it’s him, right?” My guess, they are saying it right in front of him, like he isn’t even there – something we often do to people who we identify only by a label, right?
Anyway, they bring the temple authorities, the Pharisees, to Elior – I mean…they are people of God – they’ll be able to figure this out. They asked him what happened. Elior says “Well, a guy came up, slapped some mud in my eyes, sent me for a bath, and BAM! I could see!” “Yeah…right, tell us what REALLY happened.” They not only don’t believe him (after all, nothing good can happen on the Sabbath – no seriously, it was against the law), they’re like “Who are you really?” So, they get his mom and dad. His parents are thinking…oh yeah, this is gonna get us kicked out of the synagogue, so they punt – “he’s an adult, ask him.” They then get Elior back (honestly, it’s like a keystone cop scene) and ask him again what happened. At this point, Elior is getting a bit annoyed and snarky, and responds “You want to hear this again – why? Are you thinking of joining his fan club?” This, as you can imagine, did NOT go over very well – and they kicked him out.
Jesus hears about it, and goes and finds him. He becomes a disciple, and Jesus makes it clear that it is those who will not see that are truly blind. Once again overturning expectations…Nick, the Pharisee almost got it, but couldn’t quite get there, but the Samaritan woman, the outsider, saw Jesus for who he was. And here again, those who others turn to for insight, are the very ones who cannot see, but the one who does, was the one who didn’t.
Got that? That’s the thing…when it comes to Jesus, nothing is ever what you think it will be. And here is something else you need to know…
Remember that bit about the poor translation? Remember that Jesus in either translation was saying that we will see God revealed in this blind man? Well, guess what. Every single one of you are all Elior, our blind man. No, you may not be blind, (though Rick can surely say otherwise, right Rick?), but all of us are born to reveal God!
Right now in the world, especially here in our own country, most folks want to act like the disciples and Pharisees in this gospel – they want to blame somebody for things that they don’t like or that scare them. This person is bad, that person broke the law. I mean, if the community who wrote this gospel were writing it today, I think the Pharisees would have been replaced by Congress. I can see it now…
“Elior, you can’t get your sight restored – you don’t have the money, and you don’t have insurance, because we took that away, so you must be making this up.” “No, really I saw this guy Jesús, and…” “Wait, what was that name?” “Jesús” “Run a background check on that guy…yup, figures – he’s undocumented…get him deported.”
Helen Keller once said, “The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight, but has no vision” Well Helen, it would seem that the world is full of that right now. And that is why God needs us to be the children of light that we are, because the world is full of people with no vision.
Jesus is calling us to see what is right before us – the Christ in our midst. Or, as the second verse of that hymn put it – “the brightness of God – Clear sun of righteousness, shining on our path, and showing us the way to [God.]” We encounter him here, and most especially in the same way Elior and Sophia (our Samaritan woman) did – out in the world, walking into the places of the forgotten.
The writer of Ephesians reminds us “Once you were darkness, but now in Christ you are light… Live as children of light.” Jesus is our light…and we need to walk as children of light – be that light in the world – because there are so many who are in the darkness of poverty, of oppression, of loneliness, of discrimination, of depression, of addiction…and they are living on the margins – the margins to which we, and the governmental Pharisees of our day have pushed them. But things are changing.
People are taking to the streets in record numbers. People are standing up, being counted, and letting their light shine. They are making it clear that because something is legal doesn’t make it just (remember Jesus was breaking the law of his time healing Elior). They are making it clear that everyone deserves to be able to be healed, regardless of what insurance authorities or governments might think. They are making it clear that no one can live free while others are imprisoned in chains of poverty, oppression, violence, and bigotry.
And you know what? It is making a difference. It always does when we shine a light in darkness – when we live into who we are as children of God – children of light.
Today let us close this sermon out singing once more the first verse of our gradual hymn, remembering always that you were born to be a child of the light – a light to a world – a light meant to reveal God.
No wand required.
“I want to walk as a child of the light. I want to follow Jesus. God set the stars to give light to the world. The star of my life is Jesus. In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”
For the audio from the 10:30am sermon, click here: