Here in church, at least, we talk about Lent as a season for some good old-fashioned self-imposed discipline. What pleasure are you giving up or what extra work toward amendment of life are you taking on? The metaphor of spiritual journey is often invoked. This year the appointed gospel texts for the Sundays of Lent are primarily from John’s Gospel. They are longer than usual, as we’ve just heard—a full 41 verses this morning. And the stories themselves are leading us on a journey. Jesus is trying to move us from darkness to light, blindness to sight, and death to life. We’re invited to be born again with the promise of living water for the road ahead. It’s a journey that promises fresh vision and transformed life. What does it all mean?
Well let’s take a few minutes on this fourth Sunday of Lent to review the stops we’ve made, the stories we’ve heard, and the people we’ve met. If you haven’t been in church the past few weeks, all the better to go back and catch a sense of what Jesus is up to in these stories and the Good news he’s inviting us into—if only we will open our hearts to his gift of amazing grace.
Lent always begins with an account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. While the bible stories actually have Jesus going out away from the crowds for 40 days, I suspect most of us experience the wilderness right in the midst of our frenetic over-scheduled lives. But our temptations are the same as those that confronted Jesus. The lure of power and the hording of resources to serve mostly our own desires rather than the needs of others is the age old temptation that has been haunting us since Adam and Eve ate the apple. It keeps us from communion with one another, and thus from God. Jesus rejected these age-old death-dealing promises of the world, even though they are always presented as life-giving. Instead he accepted the transforming gift of the Spirit, and he invites us to do the same.
That’s exactly what he was trying to talk to Nicodemus about, whom we met on the second Sunday of Lent. Jesus told him he needed to be re-born in the Spirit. Nicodemus’s literal religious mind couldn’t quite get wrapped around how a grown person could re-enter the mother’s womb to be born again. Of course, that was not what Jesus meant. Nicodemus was all bound up in carefully defined religious and social categories that protected him rather than propel him out as a witness of God’s love in the world. Jesus was offering Nicodemus—and us- new life in him. It’s a life that will lead to the fullness of who God intends us to be. It’s freely given, and not the result of our over-functioning ways. It will free us from the wilderness and dislocation of our lives. And it will likely take us into unexplored regions of grace beyond where we could ever imagine.
A huge part of being re-born in the spirit is that the walls we erect to keep us one from another and the power we cling to that keeps God’s family in a state of haves and have-nots or “us” verses “them” begins to not make sense anymore. Being re-born in the Spirit promises living water and courage to move out beyond our divisions. That is exactly what last Sunday’s encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well was all about. She was a Samaritan, an outsider, a member of an unacceptable group in the mainline religious establishment of Jesus’ world.
By offering her living water he was breaking down the social and religious barriers of his day and proclaiming that God’s grace extends to all. He invites us to do the same. More often than not, is a daring, challenging, but liberating ride with Jesus.
Then this morning we find ourselves enmeshed in this controversy about Jesus and a blind man. From what we know, this man was living as a beggar and was treated as yet one more outcast. Thank God attitudes about such disabilities have changed since Jesus day. Many physically blind people live full and rich lives. Helen Keller is buried in this Cathedral. She lived a visionary life.
Nonetheless, most of us are gifted with physical sight. And so the blindness in today’s gospel is a metaphor—just like living water and rebirth were in the previous weeks lessons. In this case, it is about the need to be cured from our spiritual blindness. Jesus offers sight to the blind man while the religious leaders and the crowd are unable to see the work of God in their midst. Just like Nicodemus, they are blinded by their rigid religious and social categories and their need to control God’s graciousness as a means of holding on to power for themselves.
The disciples ask Jesus about the cause of the blind man’s situation. Who sinned, this man’s parents or him? We can identify with their inquiry. When something tragic happens we almost instinctively ask, “Why did this happen?” or “Why did God allow this to happen?” “If God is all loving, how could this be?” “What did I do to deserve this?” I once sat through a Saturday night in a hospital with a sobbing mother who had just lost her son in a car accident. With understandable disbelief, panic, and rage in her voice she kept asking over and over why God would let this happen.
Jesus understands the disciples—and our—desire for explanation, but he gently doesn’t go there. The blind man’s blindness isn’t about who sinned and the teenager’s death was not caused somehow by God’s negligence. Rather he says this tragedy offers opportunity for God’s amazing grace to shine through in the world. Perhaps you’ve had an experience, something life changing—tragic or joyful—that forever altered your vision of the world and deepened your relationship with God.
So with a loving touch Jesus heals the blind man. But instead of celebration breaking out all around, controversy ensues. The religious leaders want to know who in the world Jesus thinks he is to do such a thing, particularly on the Sabbath. Such activity is against the law. Last week Jesus was hanging out with a Samaritan woman, now this! The religious leaders call the man’s parents for questioning. Rather than being able to rejoice with their son, they are no fearful of being thrown out of church because this healing has not taken place within the confines of acceptable practice. The authorities confront the newly sighted man about Jesus being a sinner, and thus claim him unqualified to perform such a miracle. The man says, “Listen, I don’t know whether he is a sinner or not. What I do know is that I was blind, I was touched by Jesus and now I see.”
We might ask who is now blind in this drama? The powers that be are so busy trying to hold on to control and authority and are so caught up in their religious law that they are blind to the working of the Spirit right before their very eyes. Rather than embracing God’s amazing grace, they are threatened by it and fearful of it.
Now many of us are indeed nourished by organized church. I’m going to assume that’s why some of you are here this morning. As a priest I’m committed to a religious institution, the Episcopal Church with all its blessings and failings, its ritual (that I happen to love), its doctrine and discipline. Surely there is a place for all of this. Without it our thinking and practice become sloppy and our community lacks cohesion. It’s just that we need to be humble about the certainty contained in all of our church rules and doctrine. They are always a reflection on our experience and that of our forbearers, but not a straight-jacket for limiting God’s work. God’s revelation continues afresh in the world. And in all of the stories in these Lenten Gospel texts we see Jesus manifesting the uncontainable winds of the Spirit.
While most of us are not born physically blind, we too easily become blinded by the categories we erect to keep us one from another or the clutter we build up around us that keeps out God’s light. Like Nicodemus, we can’t imagine re-birth. But Jesus invites us out of our safe spaces to embrace God’s entire kingdom. When we accept that invitation then we really begin to see.
American poet Bonnie Thurston who was in residence at the Cathedral College this past week captures a sense of our blindness in her poem, “Lost in Wonder”:
“You are the awakening, you wait by the roadside but do not know, cannot see, the eyes of your heart being darkened, blinded by the tinsel and neon to the star which has risen in the east and points the way toward dawn. Visible across the vast expanse of eternity, you can glimpse it even here. But you must close your inner eye to this world’s false twinkling, and step outside your little self into the shining darkness of world without end.”
Several years ago I participated in a work pilgrimage with a group of parishioners. We spent ten days helping build a school in an impoverished village in Honduras. As plans would have it, a week later I was on vacation in France with a seminary friend. We got off the train in Monaco and spent a few hours at an outdoor café watching the comings and goings at Monte Carlo. The juxtaposition of the poverty of one Saturday afternoon up against the opulence of another Saturday afternoon just a week apart was jarring. The disparity within our human family and our fear—including mine—to see it, embrace it and work for a greater sense of God’s justice in the world hardens our hearts and blinds us to the transforming power of God’s spirit in the world.
During this Lenten journey, Jesus invites us to be born again and he offers the grace to accept his invitation. He offers living water for the journey. It’s a journey that leads us from darkness to light, from blindness to sight, from death to life. Peter Gomes, the chaplain at Harvard says, “To be born again is to enter afresh into the process of spiritual growth. It is to wipe the slate clean. In other words, you don’t always have to be what you have become. This is an offer you cannot afford to refuse.”
If you think restoring sight to those of us who are blind is something. Just wait until next week when Jesus will raise his friend Lazarus from the dead. And once again, he’ll make that same offer to us as well. Stay tuned!