Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A: Lent IV (2 March 2008)

John 9:1-38

I Samuel 16:1-13

Not so much lately, but in times past, and for several years running, one of the social outreach ministries of the Martins household has been to serve as a home for pregnant, unwed cats. One of the more conspicuous characteristics of newborn kittens is that they don’t open their eyes for the first couple of weeks of their lives. They are, speaking functionally, born blind. They join together in a pathetic whining mass of fur constantly scrambling to find that special spot on the mama cat’s body from whence they receive nourishment and comfort.

You might think my description is unduly callous. You might want to say, “But they’re so cuuuuute!” Yes, they’re cute. But seeing them as a pathetic whining mass a fur is an important consciousness raiser. It alerts the thoughtful observer to the sobering reality that cats are not the only ones who are born blind. Our eyeballs and our optic nerves are, with a few exceptions, fully functional, but we are blind to those things that really matter. We are blind to that which is of ultimate consequence. We are blind to the meaning of life.

In Christian theology, the source of the blindness has a technical name: it’s called “original sin.” Original sin is a congenital distortion of human nature that drives us to choose short-term gratification over our long-term best interests. It corrupts our powers of rational thought, it invades our emotions like a metastasizing cancer, and it compromises our moral judgment. In short, because of sin, we can’t trust ourselves to see reality accurately. Our vision is distorted. We’re blind.

So when Jesus and his disciples notice a man whom John’s gospel never names but only describes as “blind from birth,” the disciples are partially on-track when they ask Jesus, “Who sinned—this man or his parents—that he should be born blind?” They correctly intuit that sin is somehow connected to tragedies like blindness, but their question is naive. They see the man’s blindness, but they are—yes—blind to their own! Sin—the power of sin, not particular acts of human behavior, but the force of universal sin itself—is the root of all sorts of blindness: moral and spiritual as well as physical. After Jesus heals the man of his physical blindness, the blindness of just about everyone else in the story is revealed with more and more clarity.

The disciples who ask Jesus the naive question about the cause of the man’s blindness have a fuzzy vision of what Jesus’ ministry is about. The townspeople among whom the man grew up, who saw him every day, are suddenly not quite sure they recognize him. The Jewish authorities are so consumed by the details and technicalities of the law that they are blind to the presence of the law-giver himself in their midst. And the man’s own parents are so blinded by their fear of those same authorities that they fail to see the significance of what Jesus had done, not only for their son, but for them. They all saw what Jesus had done—either the act itself or its results—but they were looking for the meaning of that event in all the wrong places.

They’re not alone.

Looking for meaning, looking for significance, in all the wrong places is an activity that is alive and well in these early years of the Third Millennium. Many in our society try to find meaning for their lives in drugs, or violence, or sex, or material acquisitiveness. It’s relatively easy, and more than a little bit tempting, for us proper, law-abiding, church-going citizens to feel a little bit superior toward those poor souls. “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like one of them.” But, alas, it is not only recognized vices that can serve as idols, as spiritual cataracts that blind us to the meaning of God’s movement in our lives. Good and wholesome things are equally efficient at this evil and destructive task. Devotion to work, for example, is a good thing, but it can blind us spiritually. The quest for good health is a worthwhile effort, but an obsession with the health of the body can blind us to disease in the soul. Loyalty to family, community service, and civic responsibility are all wholesome activities, and they can fool us into thinking they are sources of ultimate meaning, reservoirs of deep spiritual satisfaction.

They are not. And if we think they are, we are blind. Just as blind as a litter of kittens howling in a box on the floor of a bedroom closet. Just as blind as the man in John’s gospel. But it is precisely in our identification with than man that we find our salvation. Jesus’ act of healing was far greater than the restoration of his physical eyesight. Before the end of this long story, the man’s spiritual sight had also been restored, and he recognized and acknowledged Jesus’ divinity and worshipped at his feet. Christ lit up his life in every way, and that light enabled the man to see the fullness of truth.

The good news on this mid-Lent Sunday is that that same light is also available to us. It has already been given to us. We already possess it, and when we use it, it is capable of making a startling difference in our lives. Our Old Testament reading today tells the story of the time the prophet Samuel was commanded to find and anoint the next king of Israel. He was led to the household of Jesse, who gathered together the seven oldest of his eight sons. By appearance and disposition, any and all of them seemed like likely candidates. But with his God-given sight, Samuel knew than none of them were the one God had chosen. He had to insist that Jesse call in from the field his youngest son, who wasn’t even yet full grown. By the standards of ordinary human sight, he was the least qualified of all the candidates. But when Samuel saw David, his spiritual sight, illuminated by God, told him immediately that this was the one, and David was anointed king. Jesse and David’s brothers must have been stupefied. But they could not see what Samuel could see.

Many years ago, when I lived in Oregon, I accompanied a friend into a remote mountain area one day to hunt for mushrooms. Now if you put a mushroom in front of me, I’ll recognize it as a mushroom. But if you march me out into the woods, I may, with my normal eyesight, not see many of the mushrooms that are there to be seen. And if I do see one, I sure wouldn’t be able to tell you whether it’s the edible kind or the poisonous kind, let alone what variety it is and how it will behave when you cook it. But my friend not only saw many more mushrooms than I could see; he was able to immediately tell what sort each one was and assess its quality and potential usefulness. He had two things that enabled him to be such a successful mushroom hunter. He had knowledge and he had experience. Now, suppose that, before heading for the hills, my friend had given me a gift, a gift of a field guide to varieties of mushrooms growing in the Oregon coast range. I then might also have claimed as much knowledge as he had. But merely having that gift, that resource of knowledge would not have effectively opened my eyes to the wonderful world of mushrooms! Only by using it, by practicing, by acquiring a fund of experience, could I hope to equal my friend’s mushroom-hunting ability. It’s a simple equation: gift + experience = ability.

Gift + experience = ability.

As the sacramental sign of his healing ministry, Jesus daubed the blind man’s eyes with mud made from the dust of the ground and his own saliva. He then told the man to go wash in a particular pool. The church has always seen in this action a pre-figurement of the sacrament of baptism, with its anointing with oil and dipping in water. If you have been baptized, you have the gift of spiritual sight! It’s in your possession. One of the early euphemisms for baptism was “illumination”, and those who had been baptized were called the “enlightened ones.” The church, by definition, is the community of the baptized, the community of the enlightened ones.

We have the gift of sight, but before we can use it effectively, we must build up that fund of experience. And it’s no great mystery how the necessary experience is acquired. We gain it by being faithful in attendance at the Eucharist, Sunday by Sunday, holy day by holy day. We gain experience by saying our prayers, day in and day out, whether we’re particularly in the mood or not. We gain experience by studying the word of God and the teaching of his church. We gain experience by participating in the community of the church and opening our lives to one another. None of this is complex or erudite or elitist. It’s available to everyone here.

When we who are the enlightened ones begin to practice these fundamental spiritual disciplines, we begin to see things much differently. In fact, we really can’t see at all until we do so. The gift of sight that we received in baptism, combined with the experience of practicing Christian spiritual discipline over time, enables us to see and focus our attention on that which is truly important. The man who had his sight restored learned that knowing and worshiping the divine son of God was the highest end to which he could employ his gift of sight.

You and I are in a position to profit from his example. We have the gift. We have the means of acquiring the necessary experience. That is a powerful formula for anyone who wants to know God intimately. It is a powerful formula for anyone who wants to learn to yield more fully to the lordship of Jesus Christ. It is a powerful formula for anyone who desires to know the will of God for his or her own life. It is a powerful formula for anyone who wants to grow in holiness and righteousness. It is a powerful formula for anyone who wants to be a better steward of all the resources with which he or she has been blessed by God. Open our eyes, lord; we want to see Jesus. Amen.

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