Light! Lent 4(A) – March 26, 2017

[RCL] 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

The gospels need to be approached as a sort of unfolding – the unfolding of who Jesus is and what that can mean about who we are called to be. So perhaps it helps to think of a time-lapse video of a flower opening, one petal at a time until the entire flower is open and we can see every detail down to the tiniest specks of pollen on the stamen and anthers. The difference being that the gospels begin by saying just who Jesus is.

John’s gospel begins with the most astonishing claim: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

There are all kinds of things that can be said about this story of The Man Who Was Born Blind: things about sin, about blindness both literal and metaphorical, about miracles, about how societies divide themselves, the barriers we erect for those not just like us and so on. He is an outcast. He is forced by societal norms to live on the margins of society.

Yet, the most fundamental purpose of the story as it works in John’s gospel is to illuminate, if you will, the essence of who Jesus is. The revelation comes from his own mouth: “I Am the light of the world.” John has already told us this “in the beginning.” And we need always to remind ourselves that whenever Jesus utters the words, “I Am,” we are meant to recall that sacred moment of self revelation at the Burning Bush when Moses is being given a task and asks, “Who shall I say sent me?” The voice from the bush replies, “I Am who I Am…you shall say…I Am sent me to you.”(Ex 3:14)

The very first word God utters in creation is, “Light!” Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” This story sheds light on just what that means. And what it means is justice for all people and the need to respect the dignity of every human being.

In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the protagonist is Jean Valjean – who is forever called by his prison number, 24601. A person reduced to a number. The stage version of the story depicts prisoner 24601 as a complex character. Is he just a thief, plain and simple? Is he a victim of an unfair system of justice? Is he a compassionate businessman and mayor? A benevolent step-father? A valiant revolutionary of the Paris Uprising of 1832? A compassionate liberator of his most persistent enemy, Inspector Javert? Or, in his own words, is he “no better and no worse than any other man”?

Just as Hugo attempts to shed light on the complexities of post-Revolutionary France, so the Jesus in John seeks to shed light on all sorts and conditions of humankind – and the artificial and often arbitrary ways in which we treat others – especially others who are not at all like ourselves.

The Man Born Blind is a figure not unlike 24601. That is, like prisoner 24601, the man is cast into a lifetime of darkness – he must be a beggar on the streets. What he says carries no weight.

Even Jesus’ own disciples believe The Man is Blind because of his own or his parents’ sin. Note that the man does not seek to be healed. He is so marginalized that he does not even have a name. Jesus states that he is the light of the world, and as long as he is in the world there is work to do. After Jesus restores the man’s sight, he seeks to shed light on what real sin exists in the world.

For the man is not a victim of his own sin or that of his parents. Rather he is the victim of an entrenched system of fear that declares some people unclean. We watch and we listen as all those people and societal institutions expected to support the Man Born Blind just step away – they recoil, even though now he can see! His parents disown him. The Pharisees chastise him. The neighbors pretend he is not the same man. All those societal systems meant to be a support just collapse, until in a most astonishing moment, the Man Born Blind becomes not only his own advocate, but he defends Jesus against all criticism as now he is lecturing the Pharisees, the doctors of the law of Moses.

He whose being has had no standing whatsoever in the community when the story begins is now the one who is exhorting them, the arbiters of society and religion to “see” -to see the Light of the World – The Word that was with God and is God. Egads, he seems to say, this can be no other than the will and the work of God!

Leave it to people to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. The miracle is not that the man can see. The scandal is not that the Sabbath has been broken. The miracle in one part is the fact that Jesus is the Light of the World that can turn the darkness of blindness and the darkness rejection and persecution of the world into light.

But more than that, this story is meant to demonstrate that we can be people of that light. We can turn darkness into light. Just as Jesus changed the life of the Samaritan woman (John 4) by giving her dignity, by giving her purpose, by giving her a new identity, by asking her to do something for him – give him a drink – so the Man Born Blind is given a new lease on life.

Anyone, the neighbors, his parents, the Pharisees, whomever, could have granted The Man Born Blind more purpose in life, made him a more integral part of the community, rather than writing him off as an outcast. Jesus is the one who says, “There is something you can do for me.” The woman becomes the first evangelist. The Man Born Blind becomes a vocal advocate for God and a defender of Jesus The Light of the World! He now dares to step beyond the barriers the others created for him.

There is something you can do for Jesus. Whatever it is, it will heal you and heal the world.

If the Samaritan Woman at the Well, The Man Born Blind and 24601 can do God’s work so effectively, what are we being called to do? What barriers are we willing to break down so that people like the woman, the man and 24601 can be granted personhood? How can we become advocates for inclusion rather than exclusion?

Looking at the world in which we live, there is not much time given to us to ask such questions. Lent means to be such a time. Once Easter arrives, though, it is time to follow the examples of The Man Born Blind and the Samaritan Woman. We too can be people of the Light, of Jesus the Light of the World.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Kirk Kubicek, who was ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, and has served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, Kubicek spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s he was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center and helped lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, Kubicek serves as an interim and provides supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. He is a also a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. He plays guitar and writes music to supplement worship and preaching events. Some of these songs can be seen on youtube at www.www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com. Feel free to contact Kubicek at kkub@aol.com.

Download the sermon for Lent 4(A).

Washing in the life-giving water, 4 Lent (A) – 2014

 March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Lent draws the faithful – sometimes kicking and screaming – to a period of spiritual preparation and renewal in anticipation of the coming jubilance of Eastertide. Throughout the history of the church, candidates for Holy Baptism would often engage in rigorous study, prayer and fasting during Lent. It was also the time when those who had committed “notorious sins” and were separated from the church would reconcile with God and one another in order to be restored to communion in time for Easter. Lent was, and remains, a time in which all Christians are called to reorient themselves from the distractions of sin, apathy and mundaneness, and return to the life-giving will of God.

The Gospel of John calls the faithful to do the same. It stands as a powerful and provocative witness to the fact that in Jesus Christ, God has revealed Godself to the world. John’s gospel begins by calling Jesus, simply but profoundly, “the Word.” In that first chapter, John employs powerful theological phrases in reference to Jesus, calling him the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”

The Gospel of John describes Jesus, not simply as a miracle worker or faith healer, but rather a worker of signs, each pointing beyond itself to a larger truth. Here in Chapter 9, Jesus works a sign by healing a man who was blind from birth. As word of what Jesus did begins to spread, the Pharisees puff their chests, saying, “If Jesus really was from God, he would have known that the law prohibits such actions on the Sabbath.” But in questioning the legality of what Jesus did, the Pharisees miss the larger point. They focus on the action itself, and not the larger truth that the action reveals.

The blind man receiving sight isn’t the point of the story – at least, not entirely. The man’s physical traits are only a part of the larger narrative. What is more to the point, however, is what the blind man’s relationship with Jesus teaches us about our own relationship with Jesus. John Chapter 9 is a sign that calls attention, not to the story’s resolution, but to the ways in which we find ourselves caught up in the midst of the story.

The disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” They assumed, as most people did in those days, that suffering was the result of sinfulness. As the disciples’ question meets our ears, we may find ourselves thinking, not of physical blindness, but of other scourges that plague us. We watch helplessly as the news reports yet another school shooting. We weep as we hear of yet another life cut short by bullying. We feel inexplicable anger at the grim prognosis of a young mother stricken with cancer. “What have we done to deserve this?” we wonder. “Is God punishing us?” we ask. Suddenly, we realize that the disciples’ question is familiar because it is one that we have all asked of God ourselves.

And yet Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question – to our question – is unwavering: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”

Jesus reminds us that the axiom is true, indeed: Sometimes bad things happen to good people. But Jesus goes beyond platitudes: “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus shows the disciples and all of us that, even in the midst of things we cannot understand, God is at work.

And to prove it, Jesus works a sign. He gives the man sight, yes, but he also gives him something much greater. The man couldn’t quite put into words what had happened to him. He didn’t know exactly why it had happened. But he knew the Savior’s voice! And so, when Jesus says to him, “Go, wash,” he does just that. He hears the Savior’s voice, he follows it, and at long last, he sees Jesus. And he cries out, “Lord, I believe!” as he falls down and worships at Jesus’ feet.

This is the story that Jesus invites us into. Who among us has not experienced spiritual blindness in one form or another?

When we put ourselves before others, we are blind.

When we hold grudges and refuse to forgive, we are blind.

When we do what is easy instead of what is right, we are blind.

Blindness affects our communities, as well. Economic, social and political systems turn a blind eye to the poor, the outcast and the marginalized in every corner of the world.

And who among us has not experienced suffering at one point or another? Depression, anxiety, abuse, neglect, broken relationships, illness, lost jobs, fear – the list goes on.

Suffering plagues our communities, too. Natural disasters, mass shootings and national tragedies – none of us is immune.

Of course, there are those who will attempt to lull us into believing that faith not only brings an end to suffering and blindness, but that it also makes our hurts and pains disappear. But the hard truth is that this simply isn’t so. After all, even after the blind man received his sight, he was faced with the rejection of his friends and family. Suffering is painful. Grief is awful – even horrifying at times. But it is an inescapable part of our humanity.

And the powerful and life-giving truth of the gospel is that our suffering and grief will not have the last word. As our souls and bodies desperately cry out for relief, we hear the faint yet clear voice of the risen Christ calling us; reminding us that, through the cross, death and its trappings have been swallowed up in victory. The final word rests, not with suffering and blindness, but with life and peace.

And then we hear the most sublime words imaginable, “Go, wash.” And as the cool and refreshing waters of life wash over us, our eyes and our hearts are opened to behold the living Christ, standing as the chains of death and hell lay broken at his feet. And our voice cries out at last, “Lord! I believe!”

 

— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Ky. (Diocese of Lexington). He earned a BA in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Marshall also serves on the steering committee of Reading Camp, an international non-profit ministry based in the Diocese of Lexington that provides non-traditional summertime learning opportunities to elementary school-aged children who are below grade level in reading.

Be joyful, 4 Lent (A) – 2011

April 3, 2011

1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41 

In many cultures of the world, the first day of April is kept as April Fools’ Day, a day for shenanigans, generalized tomfoolery, and practical jokes played on unsuspecting family members, friends, and co-workers. Most of us have been at one time or another the butt of someone’s silly pranks on this day, perhaps even as recently as this past Friday, and we have probably taken it in stride – even giving as good as we got – all in good fun.

It seems somehow appropriate that at least one day a year should serve to remind us not to take ourselves too seriously. After all, many people in today’s busy world assume the duties and responsibilities of work and family life with a grim determination that seems to leave little room for humor or amusement. What better remedy than a day that dares to poke fun at our self-importance and pretensions?

Oddly, no one is quite sure of the origin of April Fools’ Day – called All Fools’ Day in some places – although theories abound. In the English-speaking world, the day and its inanities are attested at least as far back as Chaucer’s time in the fourteenth century. But similar customs are found throughout the world. April Fools’ Day has not yet made it into the calendar of the church year, though – bearing in mind the current “whole state of Christ’s Church and the world” – its time may be coming. It is not for nothing that Paul unabashedly calls us “fools for Christ.”

In fact, rank foolishness in religious matters goes back at least as far as Hebrew times.

Consider our reading today from First Samuel, a work that, among other things, recounts the history of kingship in ancient Israel. The Lord sends the prophet Samuel in search of a new king – even though Saul is still very much alive and on the throne. Samuel must surely have thought the Lord was joking, pulling a fast one on him. Perhaps he even checked his calendar to assure himself that it was not the first of April. “How can I go?” he asks with trepidation. “If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” Alas, as it turns out, the Lord is not joking. And, off Samuel goes on his implausible search for a new king.

The story and its improbability – call it foolishness if you like – does not end there. Intent on his mission from the Lord, Samuel gets up close and personal with all of Jesse’s fine sons, each in turn passing before his inspection. Any one of them might have made an excellent king for the Lord’s people. Any one of them, that is, except for the youngest, David, whom their father does not even bother to bring before Samuel’s gaze. Too young, Jesse must have thought, too inexperienced and unschooled in the ways of the world, too much dirt under his fingernails. Yet, foolish and silly as it may seem, it is precisely David who is to be king. “Rise and anoint him,” says the Lord without cracking a smile, “This is the one.” No fooling.

It seems our human judgment is all too often imprudently blind to the wisdom of the Lord masquerading at times as human folly. Perhaps we all need to become more mindful of the Lord’s “foolish” ways if we ourselves want to be truly wise.

That seems to be the lesson of today’s gospel account – the story of the man born blind and his healing. But his healing and the return of his sight is not the only wonder in the story. More astonishing still is the inability of the blind man’s neighbors and the Pharisees to recognize the hand of the Lord at work in their very midst. Like a first-century version of Dr. House and his team of medical specialists, they attempt again and again to diagnose the undiagnosable. They go over every possibility and contingency. They visit family and neighbors. They consider each detail of the blind man’s history, symptoms, and healing. Perhaps he was not really blind to begin with, they speculate. Perhaps on the other hand he was “born entirely in sins.” Maybe the return of his sight had something to do with the mud in his eyes or the waters of Siloam in which he bathed. Or maybe not.

But what they refuse to see is the obvious: the plain truth of the Lord’s gracious goodness at work in the lives of his people – specifically in the life of this blind man who asks nothing of Jesus but is nevertheless gratuitously, one might even say foolishly, given his sight simply “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” No questions asked. No demands made. No hidden agenda. Then as now, it seems the Lord loves to astonish us with his “silly” and profligate ways.

The tragedies and trials of today’s world are, of course, not funny. No one would suggest otherwise. Yet even in the midst of great human hardship, the Lord never stops smiling upon us with the “goodness and mercy” of which our Psalm today speaks. Whether manifest in the unlikely flowering of democracy in ancient lands or in the small and unexpected miracles of heroism and rescue found in the midst of immense natural disasters, the Lord’s benevolence and love remain as strong and certain as ever.

In some circles, the Fourth Sunday in Lent – today – is known as Laetare Sunday, a Latin liturgical term that means, “Be joyful.” We might find it odd that, in the middle of our Lenten rigor, we should be encouraged to somehow rejoice. Yet the lesson is clear. For Christians, there is always time and reason to be glad. And to smile.

The Lord has not lost his sense of the miraculous in human life. He has not lost his sense of humor. Neither should we. So lighten up a little already. “Sleeper, awake!” thunders the author of Ephesians in our second reading today, no doubt jolting his hearers – and us – from mirthless complacency and indolence. “Rise from the dead,” he demands, “and Christ will shine on you.” And that, my friends, is no joke.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is, as of April first, the newly appointed chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Mission, in Budapest, Hungary.