Sunday, March 19, 2023

Lent 4-A, 2023: Peace, assurance, Laetare!

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

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen. 

Today is Laetare Sunday. Laetare means “rejoice!” What do we rejoice during Lent? The answer is in our Scripture today.

In the Old Testament reading, we hear a call to wake up, to stop looking back at what was. I know you grieve the loss of it, God says to Samuel, but look, I am sending you a blessing, a leader who will bring you forward into the life I choose for you, a life of peace and abundance, a life so tenderly described for us in the 23rd Psalm.

When we listen prayerfully to this Psalm a deep calm begins to happen in us. Our breathing slows, our faces relax, the knots in our stomachs and chests release. We breathe in - filling ourselves with the grace of God, and we breathe out, releasing all our stress.

Now enveloped in divine peace, we notice that a beautiful table has been set for us, but not just for us. Also present are those who trouble us, but the divine peace within us keeps us from judging or questioning or excluding.

We sit together at tables covered in fresh, white linens. The flames of the candles on the tables dance in the soft breeze but never go out, and on the tables are vases of fragrant flowers and herbs.

Sumptuous food is in the center of each table; and there are goblets of water and wine, already full, at every seat. It’s a family meal where no one is left out of the conversation, and everyone has plenty to eat. Our cups are running over, and joy abounds.

Then, to prove just how much we matter, God anoints our heads with oil - something usually reserved for kings and queens. At that moment, when the oil touches our foreheads, we feel the power of God’s love enter us and course through our bodies like light breaking into darkness. The anointing reveals to us that we have been chosen by God to lead others to this gracious place where all are made one in the family of God.

This inclusiveness in the family of God is what Jesus is demonstrating in today’s gospel from John. The man born blind would have been judged by his village as cursed, his blindness from birth a punishment for sin. Jesus reframes this saying, yes, this man was born blind, but it is you who have judged him as sinful and unworthy, and you who have excluded him from your community. Wake up and see how through him the graciousness of God will be revealed.

Then combining the dust of the earth with the life-giving water of Christ’s own self, Jesus anoints the man and tells him to go and wash in the water called “Sent” (Siloam). As he does this, the man’s sight is restored.

By restoring his sight, Jesus also offers the man a whole new future. He has the potential for a job, a family, and to be restored to his community. His days as a vilified sinner are over - or are they?

The gospel story tells us that his community’s response to his restoration was yet more judgment. His community and their leadership doubted all of it, and eventually cast him out – again! Why? 

At our Bible study a wise parishioner mentioned fear, which reminded me of an old Jewish saying attributed to Rabbi Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidic Judaism, who said: "Fear builds walls to bar the light."* The reason is, the light can be challenging because it reveals truth to us – God’s truth, not a truth we concoct to comfort and affirm ourselves.

There were plenty of stories floating around in that time about miraculous healings where a person's sight had been restored, but this healing is different because this man's sight was created. When Jesus made mud from the dust of the earth (think about Genesis here) and wiped it on the man's eyes, he was doing what only God can do - creating something out of nothing.

This event shook all who witnessed it to the very core of their beliefs. It took them beyond their small, certain concepts about God and salvation, and left them confused and fearful as they tried to work out the conundrum they faced: such a healing could only have happened by the power of God, so Jesus must be from God. But the healing happened on the Sabbath, which violates the law of Moses, which means Jesus is a sinner…

The people eventually went to their religious leaders for an answer, but they also were unable to resolve the conundrum. Instead, the Pharisees shift their focus to reviling the man who was healed. He was, after all, a nobody, a beggar, whose blindness was a sure sign of his sinfulness. How dare this sinful nobody challenge the certainty of their beliefs! So, they drove him out. Problem solved. Except it wasn’t.

Hearing about the man's excommunication, Jesus finds him and asks him: Do you believe in the Son of Man? Probably unsure about any of his beliefs by then, the man asks for help from his healer: Tell me so that I may believe.

Jesus' response to him is so amazing: You (who were blind) have seen him… and the man gets it (spiritually and actually), crying out, Lord, I believe! Suddenly, the one whom the people unjustly excluded is graciously included by God.

The scary part of this story is that last bit, where Jesus proclaims a truth many of us don’t want to hear. For those who are ignorant of God, their blindness is not sin, but for those who profess belief in God, ignoring the way of God is sin. 

Sin is not the bad things we do - those are the evidence of our sin. Sin is a state of separation from the wholeness of God which leads to disharmony with one another.

The blind man’s community judged him as unworthy, a sin later repeated by the Pharisees. Only God can judge, and God’s judgment is always yoked to God’s mercy. As is clear in this story, ours is not.

Breaking community, casting out members of the family of God, is also sin. This is what the Pharisees did by casting out the healed man who had been born blind. The Pharisees and all of us who have received the opportunity to “see” know better than to repeat those sins.

It’s no easier for us in our time, however, than it was for the Pharisees in their time. If you have ever unjustly judged someone or cast them out of your lives (in the absence of abuse), raise your hand… No don’t! It’s a rhetorical question!

I'd like to close with a story about fear, friendship, and faith. Once upon a time, a woman was on a hike
with a group of friends. The place they planned to stop for lunch brought them across the crest of a small mountain peak. Just past the rocky crest, was a clearing where picnic tables allowed hikers to enjoy a magnificent view of the valley below.

As the woman stepped onto the crest, she looked up and saw a rock ledge jutting out into the sky. Suddenly, she lost her sense of where she was. There was nothing for her to hold onto, no wall to lean on, and she found herself paralyzed, confused, and very afraid.

She truly believed that if she tried to take a step, she might fall off the edge of the mountain. Seeing her friend unable to move, another woman in the group took her hand, and spoke to her, gently reminding her to look down at her feet.

Seeing that her feet were safely on the ground, the woman breathed a sigh of relief. Her friend continued to speak to her, asking her to trust her as she led her across the crest to the other side where their lunch was waiting on the picnic tables.

She did. And she said no lunch ever tasted as good, and no vista ever looked as beautiful as that one did that day.

We are children of God and so, we have nothing to fear. God will always provide a hand to lead us and a voice to speak the words that will center and ground us. And God will always lead us to a peaceful place where a table is already set for us.

Then, having been fed, we are sent – because we have seen him, and we believe! As a community of faith, bound together by the love of God in Christ which lives in us, as we live in him, we are assured of God's promises of forgiveness of sin, abundant grace, and steadfast love, so we can move forward together with confidence into whatever future God is leads us to, today. 

Laetare! Rejoice! Amen. 

*Baal Shem Tov, Reprinted from A Treasury of Jewish Quotations, edited by Joseph L. Baron, Jason Aronson, Inc. 

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