The Rev. Dr. Smith
To my friend, Dean Baxter, to the other members of the clergy, to all the worship participants, and to all of you friends who have gathered here for this service today. On this day that we observe the celebration of the District of Columbia, I’m honored to be asked to be here to deliver the word on this very special day.
It’s always a privilege to see my friend our Congressperson, Congresswoman Norton, who is with us today. And also the Chairperson of the D.C. Council, Chairperson Linda Cropp, who has already taken part in the service. And so it’s just a privilege and a pleasure. And I also see one of my Trustees from Shiloh, who slipped out, and I didn’t announce at Shiloh that I would be here, but she slipped out and is here, Trustee Ruby Berg, it’s good to see you. And our friend from San Diego, Jennifer Sutters, who is the President of the North America Baptist Women’s Organization. Good to see both of them, as well as to see all of you.
I want to direct our attention to a portion of Scripture that’s just a bit further along in the Gospel of Luke. If we go to the Eighteenth Chapter of Luke’s Gospel, and begin reading at the 35th verse, we find recorded there, “As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. And hearing a multitude going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ And he cried, ‘Jesus, Son of Davis, have mercy on me.’ And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me.’ And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And he said, ‘Lord, let me receive my sight.’ And immediately, he received his sight, and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people when they saw it, gave praise to God.”
Let’s just pause for a moment of prayer.
Lord God, we thank you for this opportunity to share the Gospel. We pray, Lord, that your spirit might move through this place like a mighty rushing wind. May the words of my mouth and the collective meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in they sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Let the people of God say, ‘Amen’.
June 21st was the first day of spring. And for me, one of the special treats of summer is a good, old fashioned picnic. Checkered table cloths, golden fried chicken, potato salad seasoned to perfection, and sweet potato pie that is so good that, as we say in the African America tradition, ‘it will make you want to slap your mama!’ When a picnic is especially highly blessed, sometimes God sends some of nature’s most artistic creations. As though in the midst of these really special picnics, somewhere on the periphery, God just sprinkles the canvas with these little points of light. Butterflies that go flying around in their lilting loveliness so delicately beautiful. What a scene. Makes me think to myself, I can’t wait to get out to a picnic right now!
But at these parties, there are other unwanted guests. They are rude; they are crude, and ill mannered. They come to the picnic without an invitation. They skateboard across the potato salad. They crash dive into the biscuit tray. Like smart bombs, they know how to detect any crack and any crevice, and regardless of how well the food is covered, these unwanted guests always make manage to find a way. They are hairy, fussy, nasty, get on your last nerves—flies. All you been to picnics know that if you have a good old fashioned picnic there’s always going to be some flies hanging around.
Would that all of creation were like butterflies. Knowing your place, only coming in when you’re
invited. But creation, unfortunately, is also filled with these nasty, ugly, buzzing annoyances called flies.
Well, you say, what does that have to do with the text? Well, I’m glad you asked.
According to the text, Jesus was on his way to Jericho, and as he was traveling, a blind man hears the commotion, and the blind man inquires about this disturbance. Well, when the blind man asks what all the fuss about, he is instructed that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. And so this blind man, enterprising sort that he is, sees an opportunity for the restoration of his sight. And this blind man starts crying out, ‘Jesus, Son of Davis, have mercy on me.’ Well as soon as he begins to cry out, the on-lookers start to rebuke him. They say, ‘Man, be quiet.’ The blind man, it seems from reading the text, was getting on their nerves. He was an annoyance. I just suspect that in the minds of some, this blind man was more like a fly than a butterfly. He was an annoyance to this otherwise wonderful gathering.
First, he was a philosophical annoyance. He was a pebble in their theological shoe. He was a burr under their philosophical saddles. He was a blind man in a mostly sighted world. He was disabled and sightless among a mostly seeing population. He did not fill the notion of health and wealth. If he were born blind, and it would be to some improper hygiene or sanitation, it’s not important. What is important is the fact that this man has a disability. Whether he’s sightless from birth, or lost his sight as the result of some bacteriological infection. The fact of the matter is, his disability was for this intellectual community, an annoying problem.
You remember that text where the doctors of the law went to Jesus and they asked about another blind man. And they asked of Jesus that day, ‘Who has sinned? This man or his parents, that the man was born blind?’ And Jesus tried to tell them that it’s not about sin that produces illness. It is about the natural way that life functions. This blind man on the Jericho Road has a problem that we human beings have difficulty with. He is sightless in a world that wants perfection. A world that wants its butterflies all the time and in every way imaginable. This man is more like a fly.
And he’s a beggar. Not only he is sightless, he’s a beggar. He’s a poor blind man. He is amongst those of tens of millions of people who can’t afford health care. And even in our world today, there are some folk who believe is somebody is sick, that somehow there must be some secret sins somewhere. Or if they can’t afford health care, it is not society’s problem. It is their problem.
This blind man is not only sightless, but he’s poor. He’s dirt poor. He is disfigured. He’s disabled, and he’s also without funds. You can’t help but raise the question, as bright and enterprising theologians as you are, you can’t help but raise the question, why does God permit such imperfections in a world that is already poised and ready to raise the issues of God’s very existence. It would seem that if God wants to prove to us that we ought to serve and worship God, the least God could do is to be sure that those who are his servants don’t have to worry with things like disabilities and poverty, and other life’s limitations. You would think, you would think Dean Baxter, that God could have come up with a better way to structure this universe. And indeed, I have often thought to myself, if I were in charge of this place, I could certainly do a much better job than God did in making sure that these little questions and problems don’t always keep coming back to annoy the faithful.
A blind man, in a world that reveres, celebrates wholeness and completeness. But here’s a blind man who is also poor, a tin-cup carrier, in a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps world.
What is the matter with God?
Well, not only is he blind and poor, but he is an audacious beggar. They say, ‘Man, be quiet.’ And the more they tell him to be quiet, the more he cries out, ‘Son of Davis, have mercy on me.’ If he just were more mannerly, maybe he’d be less like a fly. If he just had more social sense. Doesn’t he understand that we have come here to National Cathedral for a worship service, and we don’t need a blind man disrupting things by continuing to yell in the midst of our prayers and our celebrations? Why doesn’t he keep his mouth shut? If he knew his place, then maybe we’d take care of him. If he knew his place, perhaps if he were more like Ray Charles, then we’d get him some fancy dancing girls and a commercial of his own, and he could go around singing ‘You got the right one, baby’. But he just keeps annoying us. He just keeps calling out. He won’t keep his mouth shut.
And here’s the deal. Here’s the real deal. This man seems to assume that he, in spite of his limitations, has the right to define himself. The text says that those who were in the head of line were the ones, who cried out, ‘Be quiet’. Those in the head of line. What is it about folk in front of the line? They already got the best view. Why are the ones in the front of the line in their pin-stripped suits and their vergamo loafers and their beautiful leather attaché cases, as they’re getting on the early train from the suburbs to go to do their investment banking on Wall Street. Why, are they so upset about a blind man who only wants a word with Jesus?
Well, I kind of think that’s really one of the problems with our society.
People with privilege tend to forget that privileges are often inherited, and come on the backs of much sacrifice by ancestors, and that whoever we are and whatever we are, it’s because of the fortunate accident of our birth, if we have privilege, more so than our exceptional and unmatched talents.
Where do we get this notion that those who are the movers and shakers in society are there for only one reason, and that is because of their merit? If this were a purely meritorious society, then members of the Menses Society would be the entirety of Senate and Congress. And the last time I heard a speech on CSPAN, the one I heard surely was not a member of the Menses Society. Those in the front of the line were the ones who told the man to be quiet. They’d come to enjoy their privilege. They’re the ones who are only concerned about one kind of discrimination, and that’s reverse discrimination. They’re the ones who have forgotten that in some cases and in some instances, regardless of their privilege, somebody somewhere has experienced them as some kind of fly, as well.
Oh, those in the front of the line don’t want to admit the fact that they’ve got some fly-status as well.
But what I love about this text is that when they call out to this man, ‘Be quiet’, Jesus refuses to listen to the voices of the powerful, and he cuts down to the level of this disenfranchised poor soul who simply wants an audience in the sunlight. And Jesus says to the man, ‘What would you have me to do?’
Isn’t it marvelous how Jesus handles human problems? Jesus is so different than we are. Now had that been some of us, we would have immediately begun defining the blind man’s necessities. We would have said, ‘Now Mr. Blind Man, we are very sensitive to people who have your problem. And once you learn how to be more mannerly, we will invite you into the National Cathedral. We will occasionally allow you to read Braille on Sunday morning, and if you’re really good, we will create a Blind Man Appreciation Sunday!
But Jesus does not begin defining this man. Jesus says, ‘What would you have me to do?’ Jesus says to the man, ‘You’ve got power. You may be poor, but you’ve got power. You may not have sight, but you have power. You are somebody. You have every right to define yourself, and the rest of us don’t have anything to say about you claiming your own space and your own place. What would you have me to do?’
And the man responds, ‘Lord, I just want to receive my sight. I just want what everybody else seems to have. I just want to see the gleam in the little children’s eyes. I want to behold the crimson streaks at sunset. Early in the morning I want to see the light of the grays in the dawn’s light. I just want to receive my sight. Just once, I’d like to see the gentle waves rolling along the seaside, just one time. I’d like to see the deep browns and greens of the forest. Lord, I don’t want a whole lot. I’m not asking for a pocket full of money. I’m not asking for position or privilege. I just want to receive my sight.’ And Jesus says, ‘You’re faith has already done the job.’ And the man’s sight comes back to him.
Because I was reading the text I couldn’t help but to think one of the reasons why Jesus is so in touch with people the world wants to brand as flies is that Jesus knew something about aspersions being cast, and stereotypes being leveled, and assumptions lobbied. Jesus knew that world. He was accused of being an illegitimate child. He was born in wrenching poverty in an inn with no where for the baby to lay his head. He understood the problems of those men and women who find themselves on the outside of society trying to find a place.
But he also knew that God has crafted and constructed this human species, that there is within us a potential that the world’s definitions cannot take from us.
My colleagues in the District of Columbia share in the fact that we live in a city that is so often beaten up by the national press for all of our so-called ineptitude, our inability, Linda, to run a city government. And for all those aspersions hurled at us, thinly veiled, thinly guised, racism. We know what it’s all about. We experience it all the time.
But I thank God in my ten years of living in the District of Columbia I have come to find in this city, not now official Washington, but un-official Washington, countless numbers of men and women who will not allow anyone to define them other than themselves. Men and women who know there is something in our spirits that no one can take away from us. And I stop by to say to every man, woman and child here today, whether you’re privileged or in that great cadre of unlearned, unlettered, marginally poor persons, that there is potential in every person here. Because, remember what I said a moment ago, there’s a time in which all of us are branded flies in one way or another. All the women here who have ever earned a paycheck, done the same work as a man and gotten less money, it’s because at some point society has put fly-status upon you. You’re all American males, who for all intensive purposes live in a society that in many ways provides advantages that others don’t share, and yet, and still, you also experience some of that same fly status by constantly having people assume that because you are white and male, you must be a bigot and you must be a racist. Those for whom English is not a first language who speak with one accent or another, have had someone somewhere see you as an annoyance at the picnic. Because it requires some effort to listen to you when you’re doing way more than most of us native English-speaking people can do. And that’s handling a second language with some proficiency.
There’s plenty of fly-status to go around here this morning.
So, Dean Baxter, I want to absolve all of you who have ever felt