Saturday, March 29, 2014

Seeing, Believing


John 9:1-41

            Nowhere in the gospel record is it more clear that things are not what they seem than here in the ninth chapter of John.  Here is a man who was born blind.   He has never seen a thing in his entire life.  It turns out, however, that he sees a good deal more than those who have been seeing any and everything they have wanted to see all their lives.  The sightless one sees; the seeing ones are blind. 

            The story is not so much about a healing as it is about a controversy kicked off by a healing.  The controversy is really about Jesus:  who is he, what is he, and what right does he have to be abrogating God’s laws, like healing on the Sabbath?  Well, it is even more than that.  One of my favorite questions is, “What are we talking about that we are not talking about?”  This is a classic instance of people talking about the Sabbath, for example, when the truth is that the Sabbath’s sacredness is only a slice of what is they are talking about.  What really has people all upset is that nothing Jesus does fits into their ready-made grid of possibilities and permissions. 

            Let’s look at that more closely.   Nothing Jesus does fits into people’s—our—ready-made grid of possibilities and permissions.  I suspect that you might not be ready to agree with that.  Of course, you’ll say, Jesus meets our expectations!  Of course he fits right nicely in our view of the world and reality.  And that is just the problem.  Nothing Jesus does is surprising because most of us already have Jesus figured out.  Even many non-believers, indeed atheists, have their minds made up about who and what Jesus was and was not.  We lose the edginess of a story like this because we assume that if Jesus did it, it must be right.  With such thinking we tame the Good News, tamp down objectionable dimensions of things, make sure that nothing God or Jesus is up to is apt to upset us too much, fix it so that if there really is any radical element in something Jesus said or did, we convince ourselves that he couldn’t actually have meant to be uncomfortable or disturbing.

            If all of this sounds a little grim for a Sunday morning, even in Lent, allow me to explain.  There is something quite astonishing, surprising, disarming about this story, and if we are to hear what eventually we will know as very Good News, we need to shed a few preconceptions and clear our minds to think a bit outside the box.  Play around with this question:  who are you in the story?  Are you the man born blind?  Are you one of his parents?  Are you Jesus?  One of the puzzled onlookers?  One of Jesus’ disciples who might not know quite what to make of the whole firestorm?  Or are you one of the religious leaders who is quite adept at making and keeping and playing by the rules?  True, you might be more than one of these characters; but since you are in fact in a church on a Sunday morning, the chances are raised that you might be one of the religious leaders.  Think for a minute what you would do if I were to come in this morning and, instead of celebrating the Eucharist, decided to have a healing service bringing with me a half dozen or so mentally ill or physically incapacitated people, and took up the whole morning with them instead of getting to the business of worship as we know it.   I would be surprised if no one challenged me.  And if no one did, it is a cinch you would go home and hit the telephones and computers and the parish would be all abuzz about this priest who upset the Sunday morning applecart.  And that is a poor analogy to what Jesus was doing.  He was messing with people’s minds.  He was fiddling with their world-views.  He was overturning the applecart, spilling what was sacred on the ground and letting the most prized ideas just roll right down into the gutter.  He was shining light, the very light that came from himself, into the dark places that people didn’t even know were dark.  Are you beginning to get the picture?

            So if we are going to get the full impact of the gospel, we need to imagine ourselves in the place of these religious leaders who are so thoroughly angry at what Jesus did.  Why?  Because about the best thing imaginable to keep us from really hearing and thus following the Truth is for us to say, “We see.  We are not blind.  We see.  We know what’s what.”  Grace has to be something of a surprise, or it isn’t grace.  And if theology—or faith—is worth anything at all, it must be something that takes us beyond the borders of safety.  That is what Jesus does, and more that that, that is what Jesus is.  He cracks open our views of reality like the force that cracks open a planted seed, so that new life can emerge from us.  And that cannot happen if we are busy protecting ourselves, running no risks, or running scared, defensive of whatever life we are comfortable with.

            This story, you see, is a resurrection story.  It is?  Resurrection is not fundamentally about somebody dying and going to heaven.  It is about life cracking open whatever tomb we are in, life shining in whatever darkness we are in, and giving us sight where we are inly (and perhaps outwardly) blind.  That is why Jesus’ whole life was a resurrection—a trampling down of death, ultimately by death itself, and giving life to those in the tomb—the tomb of whatever sort and dimensions. 

            Do not be mistaken.  Not only does dispensing New Life lead Jesus to the cross, it makes for a good bit of difficulty for those whose blindness he heals.  When the story tells us that they “threw him out” meaning the religious authorities cast out the formerly blind man, it means that they turned him out of the synagogue, or the Temple, since this took place in Jerusalem.  They excommunicated him, in other words.  That makes the scene all the more touching when after being expelled the man encounters Jesus, who asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 

            “Who is he, Sir?  Tell me, that I may believe in him.”

            “You have seen him,” says Jesus.

            “I once was blind, but now I see,” wrote John Newton, slave trader, when he awoke to the enormity of the horrors he was party to.  “You have seen him, and the one who is speaking to you is he.”  That is the nubbin of resurrection.  If we are fortunate to have our blindness healed, enlightenment comes to us when we are sent again and again to the water of New Life in which we first bathe in baptism.  Little by little the mud is washed away and we wake up to realize that this mysterious stranger who has encountered us is none other than the Author of Life.  To believe in him is to give our hearts to him, to fall in love with him, to recognize that there is nothing more wonderful than to give our hearts, our love, our loyalty, our worship to the one who delivers us from the darkness of tomb and death. 

            In Ursula Le Guin’s story The Tombs of Atuan, Tenar was taken as a little six-year-old girl and dedicated to serve the Nameless Ones as priestess in the tombs on the island of Atuan.  She grows accustomed to living in the dark, freely roaming the labyrinth beneath the tombs where these nameless ones live.  Gradually she realizes how much of a captive she is, ironically seeing in the darkness more and more truth about the evil that enslaves her.  Into her life comes Ged, a magician who is searching for part of a sacred ring to complete the half of it he already has.  Tenar debates about whether to kill Ged or not, but finally allows herself to put her hand in his.  She leads him out of the tombs with the other half of his ring, and he leads her out of her dark life into freedom.  You do see, don’t you, that that is the same story as the gospel story you heard today?  Christ enters the world of blindness and darkness where he meets the human soul—you—me—the blind man in Jerusalem—and together we walk hand in hand into the clear light of day.  “Who is he, Sir,” that I might give my heart to him?”  He answers, “I am he.  And you have seen me.”

            If you are looking for a very simple, quantifiable gospel that you can box up like a little take-out meal, all ready to be consumed and enjoyed, this will hardly ring your chimes.  If, on the other hand, on some level you realize that there is more to this venture with Christ than meets the eye—a strange, difficult, even dangerous journey beyond the safe boundaries of conventional religion—then perhaps you get it that this story set in Jerusalem long ago is very much about you.  It means claiming and owning your own ignorance, your blindness, your poverty, your need, realizing that to pretend you can see clearly is to miss the biggest thrill of your life, namely being set free to be once more the little child you were before the forces of blindness overtook you and began to shape you till they squeezed all joy out of your body and all light out of your eyes.  It is your choice.  You can say, “We see,” do nothing more, and live the rest of your life in the illusion that you already have everything you need and know everything that you should know.  Or you can embark on a journey with the one who delivers you from the tombs you may be living in.

            Frankly, it sounds to me as if we have reached the stopping place.  But I am dissatisfied to stop here.  If you are like me, you are wondering how this all works, what it looks like, and perhaps why you should allow your somewhat stable and comfortable world to be disturbed by the entrance of Jesus the Great Adventurer who will send you on strange errands like, “Go to the Pool of Siloam and wash.”  The very point of it all is that we don’t really know—can’t know—how it works (religion is quick to tell us exactly what we must do, but that usually is how we become religious, not necessary how we come to true insight or seeing).  But there is one thing of which we may be very sure.  And that is the trustworthiness of the Guide himself, the healer, the Son of Man, and the God that he embodies.  And that is he is the Light of the World.  He did not and does not come to keep us in the dark or to send us to the dark, but precisely to give us light.  And it is in such things as bathing, eating bread, drinking wine, touching, tasting, kissing, holding, that we little by little come to life in these our bodies, until what we claim and pray is indeed true:  we live in him and he in us. 

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Genesis 12:1-4a
John 3:1-17

                      We shall not cease from exploration
                  And the end of all our exploring
                  Will be to arrive where we started
                  And know the place for the first time.
                                                                                          —T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” in “Four Quartets”

            Our oldest and best stories are about a journey.  The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest story we have and it is about a journey.  Some of our greatest literature takes journey as its theme.  It is almost April, the time when “longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,” as Chaucer said about the journey to Canterbury in his tales.  And Dante, too, takes us on a journey from hell through purgatory and paradise.  So also Dorothy took a journey to Oz, so very similar in symbol to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as Christian heads to the heavenly city. 

            Amidst all the many journeys recounted in the Bible, the one that stands out as perhaps the most mythically powerful, theologically loaded, and intriguingly personal is the journey of Abraham.  We always get a snippet of Abraham’s story on the Second Sunday in Lent.  One of the reasons why is that the story of Abraham’s journey is the first step in God’s creation of a people who will ultimately be the instrument of blessing for the entire human family.  Another reason is that the figurative journey that the Church makes during Lent is, like all journeys, rooted in trust, in faith, in exploration of strange, new territory.   Abraham’s—Abram’s—journey is the pattern of all such journeys. 

            “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to a land that I will show you.”  There is hardly a way to unpack that so that modern American people can possibly understand what a radical, preposterous, scary, perhaps even comical story that is.  The average teenager in our part of the world cannot wait to leave home, though economic realities and the lengthening of adolescence seem to have blunted that impulse in recent times.  In Abram’s day people did not up and leave tribe, kindred, and home routinely, nor did they for a good while after Abram’s day.  This is the first clue that the journey Abram makes is frightfully novel.  It sounds the initial warning bell that your journey in faith will very likely be just as startling, awesome, amazing, fearful, and ultimately transformative as Abram’s was. 

            When Paul and other New Testament writers pick up the Abraham story (incidentally, one of the features of Abraham’s story was a name change from Abram to Abraham, so from here on out, let’s go with Abraham)—when the New Testament writers take up the theme of Abraham’s journey they see in it the model of faith.  For Paul, Abraham is the model of being made righteous—that is to say just, or in a right relationship with God—simply by his faith, his trust—not by keeping the Law, for there was no Law in Abraham’s time.  That was to come later.  Someone once told me that if you are going to depart from your family and tribe and all the people that have a stake in making and keeping you theirs, don’t expect for them to stand and applaud when you leave.  They will take it as an insult and will do everything in their power in all likelihood to keep you exactly as you have been all along.  There are exceptions, of course, but many of us can tell by chapter and verse our own stories of self-differentiation.  When you chose a career that your parents counseled against; when you started dating and ultimately married a person that your family did not approve of; when you came out to your family as gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender; when you identified yourself as belonging to a different belief system or political party; when you left the church of your origin or the faith of your fathers and mothers:  not everyone, of course, but many can attest to the enormous strain (to say the least) that such decisions put on family relations, and sometimes friendships as well.  Leaving the territory in which you were raised, striking out on our own, listening to your inner truth when it patently conflicts with what others define as truth are things so hard that it is sometimes impossible to believe that we can actually be right or justified, so weighty is the resistance that pulls us back into old, familiar orbits.

            So that is what happens when another character comes upon the scene.  He is a man who has embarked, but barely perhaps, on a journey that threatens or promises to take him to a very new and frightening place indeed.  He has been schooled in the ways of his ancestors.  He not only believes the stories, the lore, the symbols, the traditions of his people, he is a teacher of those things.  He has a deep investment in the religious and cultural establishment of his time.  And yet he, like Abraham, hears a voice calling.  His name is Nicodemus, and he comes to Jesus out of darkness and in darkness, saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  That is quite a confession of faith by most standards.  One would think Jesus would congratulate him for getting the point.  But in fact he does not get the point, as the ensuing conversation reveals.  Jesus begins to talk about what is in essence the journey of transformation that Nicodemus apparently knows nothing about.  Anyone who takes the trouble to check Jesus out is probably on some level attracted to his message and challenge; but it is possible, even commonplace, to imagine that Jesus is just another teacher who can be jammed into an already crowded field of models, an already packed pantheon of gods and guides.  Instead, he tells Nicodemus and us that one cannot even see the Kingdom of God without being transformed—born from above as it were.  For that kingdom, or realm, is in fact the destination of a journey, not a synonym for an improved version of whatever life we happen to be living at the moment.  How daring a thought!  You have to start from scratch, be born anew, born from above.  Elsewhere and in other gospels Jesus says, “Except you become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  That is tantamount to saying to all would-be travelers, “Leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house and go to a land that I will show you.” 

            Now it should be obvious that embarking on the journey of faith does not necessarily involve literally relocating, although it might.  It does not necessarily mean switching careers, although it might.  The journey is not defined by setting and scenery, but by plot and destination.  The plot, if you want to call it that, is constantly and always being changed.  Changed we are in all kinds of ways.  We grow.  We do stupid things.  We form opinions and drop them.  We experiment.  We lose our way.  We get back on track.  We encounter dangers, losses, grief, sometimes torments.  But the destination is worth all of that.  For the destination is ironically what we already possess.  You can call it heaven, if by heaven you mean where God is, and that is everywhere.  You can call it life eternal, if by life eternal you mean being totally merged with the life of God.  You can call it the discovery of your deepest Self, if by that you mean the truest, deepest, most honest part of you that you can also call the divine image that you bear.  One of the prayers we pray in the Way of the Cross, which we do regularly on Fridays in Lent, is a collect from the Burial of the Dead, which goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death:  Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake up in your likeness;…”  That is the destination.  And the amazing thing about this journey is that we get a glimpse of the destination every so often along the way.  You can see the outline of the place towards which we are moving when suddenly you come to, say, the top of a hill (a joy, a thrill, a delight, a moment of total bliss, a sudden rush of tears from being deeply moved), and there it is before you.  When my daughter was about 2.5 years old, we were returning from vacation when in the distance we saw the skyline of Charlotte, which was home for us.  I said, “There it is!  Yonder is Charlotte!”  And she replied, “That’s Charlotte?  I’m so ’cited!”  Yes.  We wake up in his likeness, and that likeness starts to form in us even while we are on the road, in the desert, on the sea, or centered in the stillness of our own hearts.

            We have a thousand questions, don’t we, Nicodemus?  How can these things be?  Can a person enter a second time into the womb and be born again? Keep going, Nicodemus.  Let’s get all the questions out, yours and ours.  Will we lose ourselves so much so that we’ll lose our minds?  Will we get to the destination and find out that the Wizard is just a sham pulling levers and masquerading as powerful?  Does the journey really deliver what preachers say it does?  And how can we know before we buy our tickets and sign on? 

            Well, yes.  We have lots of questions.  Probably to have no questions means that you are not on the journey at all.  The point, however, is not the questions we have nor the answers, if there are answers, to those questions.  The point is whether we grow.  We cannot grow without changing, and we cannot change without running some risks.  We cannot move to a land we do not know and not be confused, confounded, even lost and in the shadow of death.  But remember two things.  One is that the journey is one of transformation, not conformation.  “Be not conformed to this world,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “but be transformed, by the renewing of your mind.”  The other is that the ultimate battle has been fought and won.  God loved the world so much that God gave the only-begotten Son, that whoever lives and believes in him might not perish, but have everlasting life.  For God sent not the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”  Done.  Accomplished.  Won.  This journey is not about your working for salvation or your trying to get into heaven as if you had to have a certain number of coupons to get in, or a password, or a pile of points.  It is about being a child:  inquisitive, playful, unabashed, maybe a little wild or shy, but at least relatively uncontaminated by the forces that squeeze you into the social mold, wasting much of your creative juices while you dry out and assume the shape that someone else thinks you ought to have.  There is another way, and it is the way of him who, “though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be seized and hoarded, but emptied himself, and taking the form of a slave, became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”    

            This Son of Man who was lifted on that cross left country and kindred and his father’s house to go to a strange land.  That land is you.  And the journey that is yours is his.  And he is the journey itself, and the journey’s end.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014