Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 2, 2008
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA
|1 Samuel 16:1-13||Psalm 23|
|Ephesians 5:8-14||John 9:1-41|
Now I See
“One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. “
We’ve just heard one of the seven miracle stories recorded in John’s Gospel. Jesus turns water into wine, he stills the storm, he feeds the five thousand – and, in today’s story, the next-to-last of his seven “signs,” Jesus heals a blind man. The purpose of these “signs,” as John’s Gospel calls them, is not so much to induce amazement as to show who Jesus is.
Today’s “sign” is that Jesus is “the light of the world” [John 8:12, 9:5]. He gives light to a man born blind and he rebukes the spiritual blindness of his adversaries. Jesus is the revelation of God, the light that shines in the darkness. Every detail in this story counts, so it’s worth noticing, for instance, that he tells the man to wash in the pool of Siloam, an image that suggests baptism. In the early Church, baptism was known as “illumination,” for Jesus is the light that illumines us at our baptism and draws us into the life of the Triune God. When Jesus spreads moistened mud on the man’s eyes, the word for ‘spread’ or ‘smeared’ literally means ‘anointed’ – again, a gesture that has been part of baptism ever since the early days of Christianity. The pool is named Siloam, which means “Sent,” just as Jesus was sent by the Father (the Mother) to give us light, and just as we too are sent out after our baptism to give light to the world.
But baptism marks just the beginning of our journey with Jesus. As we go along, we are tested. We wrestle with the big questions and we ourselves are questioned, perhaps by hostile unbelievers and perhaps by life itself, and we must decide and re-decide our faith. That’s what happened to the newly sighted man: his knowledge deepened over time as he came to know who healed him. At first, when he is interrogated by his neighbors, he can only wave his hand and vaguely refer to the “man called Jesus” [John 9:11] – whoever that is. Pressured by the Pharisees, the man now goes further – Jesus is “a prophet” [v. 17], someone with an especially close relationship to God. At the end of the story, after a long series of interrogations and debate, the man finally meets Jesus face to face. He sees him, he knows at last who he is, and he is finally ready to make the great declaration of faith, “Lord, I believe” [v. 38].
You might say that the man has been illumined. And the man stands for you; he stands for me; he stands for humanity itself. God wants to open the eyes of the blind, so that all of us can say, as this man does, “I was blind, but now I see.”
What do we see when our blindness is healed and we live in light? We see our interconnectedness. We move beyond what might be called the ego-self, the sinful, separated self that lives over and against other people, and we discover our larger Self – with a capital S – that lives in loving relationship with God and neighbor and the whole Creation. We live “no longer for ourselves alone,” as we hear in Lent at the Eucharistic Prayer, but for the one who lived and died and rose for us, the one who calls us out of our isolation and into loving connection with each other.
After the first manned space probe sent back photographs of the entire Earth, American poet Archibald MacLeish wrote: “To see the earth as we now see it, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers [and sisters] on that bright loveliness in the unending night, brothers [and sisters] who see now [that we] are truly brothers [and sisters].”
To me that is what it means to live “no longer for ourselves alone.” We take in the fact that the Earth is a whole; we perceive “its bright loveliness” in the darkness of space; we realize that human beings are kin, that we are members of the same family. Seeing a picture of the Earth from space invites us to a make a leap of consciousness, to move beyond the tight little tribal world of the ego-self and to claim our kinship with all humanity and all Creation.
What I’ve just said may sound very grand, but we live out this perception down on the ground, in the nitty-gritty drama of our daily lives. So I will tell you two little stories about seeing the light and living “no longer for ourselves alone.”
Story #1: a few months ago I sat down with some friends to watch “Amazing Grace.” Have you seen it? It’s a movie based on the life of William Wilberforce, the philanthropist who converted to Christianity and led the fight in Parliament to end the slave trade in the British Empire. After decades of struggle, Wilberforce eventually managed to persuade those in power in England not only to end the slave trade, but also – just before he died – to abolish slavery completely.
By the way, do you know who encouraged Wilberforce to take on the powers that be? John Newton, the Anglican priest and former slave-ship captain who saw the light, renounced slavery, and wrote the hymn we’ll soon be singing, “Amazing Grace.” I was blind, but now I see -words for all of us when we suddenly discover that the person or group of people we’ve exploited or demonized or pushed away is actually kin to us, a member of the same human family, equally loved by the God who loves us all.
Well, the next morning one of my friends who had watched the movie fell sick. As she told me later, she found herself crouched miserably over the toilet, and as she emptied the contents of her stomach, she began recalling the slaves who had crossed the ocean in ships, how they had been chained and forced to lie down in rows, crammed into a small space that was constantly lurching as the waves rose and fell.
My friend felt wretched physically, but she went through it in solidarity with the slaves. As her body heaved, she joined her suffering with the slaves’ suffering, imagining herself with them and praying with them and for them. Who’s to say that her prayers didn’t somehow relieve a slave’s suffering years ago? God is not limited by time or space, and an ardent prayer that we offer now can go out in every direction – backwards or forwards in time and to any place around the world. The point of this story is that suffering doesn’t have to isolate us, to cut us off from each other. Mental or physical suffering can easily close us down into our own small worlds, and yet my friend found a way, even on her knees in the bathroom, to stand with other people and to sense her connection with them.
She was suffering in something like the same spirit that Jesus suffered on the cross – with others and for others. She was sick as a dog, but she found, as many others have found, that when we consciously join our pain to the pain of other people, our pain can become a prayer, an expression of love for our neighbor and for God. There is something salvific in that, for through Christ, we participate in our own salvation and the salvation of our neighbor.
So we can stay connected with others even when we’re suffering and feeling pain, even when others feel joy and we do not. You know how sometimes one person’s joy can separate people from each other. Maybe a friend or colleague gets an award or a fancy computer, or lands the perfect job or the perfect partner, or finds the perfect babysitter or the perfect assisted-living arrangement – in short, what we want and don’t have – and we feel envy. We compare ourselves to the other person and feel competitive or unfairly treated. The other person’s joy brings us down – we’re not rejoicing with them, we’re grumbling and distant and alone in our pain.
Here is story #2: I live near the center of Northampton and from a second-floor window I can look through the space between two houses across the street and see a small view of hills. The window faces east, so in the morning I can stand there and catch a glimpse of the sun rising over the Holyoke Range. Every day is different, with its particular changes of colors and clouds, and I treasure that view.
Lo and behold, this winter a developer started building a house that will soon block the view. Intellectually I knew that this new construction was a good thing – it’s good to build in town and to make its population denser so that we can save from development our precious open fields and woods and farmlands – but emotionally I was upset. I was angry, envious, and sad – because that was my view! Someone was taking away my view! Someone else was going to enjoy it – not me! After some inner struggle, what finally turned it around for me was this: I imagined the unknown owners of that new house and in my heart I told them: I give you the view. May the sight of the sun rising over the hills make you as happy as it has made me; may it bring you peace.
And with that prayer suddenly it was I who was happy, I who was at peace. I had given “my” beautiful view to someone I did not know, and that sense of loving connection restored the harmony in my soul. I realized again that we’re all connected to each other, that we all belong to God, that we’re all here to love.
When the eyes of the blind are opened, our respective sorrows and joys no longer divide us from each other. We mourn with those who mourn; we rejoice with those who rejoice; and no one is left out. We live “no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.”
As some of our politicians like to say – “Make no mistake!” The path into light is a difficult path to follow. We need friends to share it with us, a community of support, people who will remind us of who we really are – God’s beloved, united in the love of Christ across our differences. I want to cultivate my own awareness of empathy and generosity, and I ask for your support as I try to do that. I want to support you as you grow in that awareness, too. Together, by the grace of God, we will be able to say with increasing confidence, clarity, and joy – “I was blind, but now I see.”