I’ve heard it said that, in the East, “religion” is concerned with wisdom, and in the West, with sight. This morning’s Gospel – the story of Jesus healing the man born blind – is clearly of the West and our concern with sight.
But I don’t want to begin with sight. I want to begin rather with something we all experience, something that has on some level brought us here this morning, that has led us to be Christians, to “walk in the way of the cross” and to hope in resurrection. That something is suffering. And I want to look at suffering from the context of the early Church’s catechumenate, the process whereby candidates were prepared for Baptism. For the most part, this year’s Lenten lectionary is the same lectionary that was used by the early Church during Lent for the preparation of candidates for Baptism at the Easter Vigil. Candidates would have been in the catechumenate two or three years, and these final Sundays offered a final push of preparation for their Baptism. Taken as a whole, these Scriptures present in a nutshell the process of awakening to fuller life, of experiencing “resurrection.” To sum up: The candidates would have gone from being in the “wilderness” and discovering that Jesus had a wilderness experience, too (Lent 1); to being in the dark with Jesus, as was Nicodemus (Lent 2); to being in the light with Jesus, as was the woman at the well (Lent 3); to being able to “see” with the man born blind (today); to experiencing resurrection, as did Lazarus (next week). Continue reading →
Of the many stories of horror, cruelty, and courage to reach us from the Shoah, one in particular, witnessed by the Nobel-Laureate Elie Wiesel at Auschwitz, is especially poignant. It involves the summary execution of a young boy at the notorious death camp. The boy had been caught by a death-camp guard in some minor infraction of camp discipline. After questioning the child to determine his alleged “guilt,” the commandant decided to make an example of the boy to his fellow prisoners. So, he ordered the whole camp to assemble at dawn the next morning to witness the boy’s execution. When the prisoners had been herded into the freezing, snowy yard of the camp, the frightened child was dragged before them, stripped of his clothing, and hung from a makeshift gallows as the entire prisoner population watched in helpless horror. The camp guard who had caught the boy in his petty infraction then turned to a rabbi-prisoner and asked in a sneering voice, “So, rabbi, where is your God now?” The rabbi looked his tormentor in the eye and calmly pointed to the twisting body of the hanging child. “There he is,” the rabbi said, “hanging from your gallows.” Continue reading →
For though the dear humanity of Christ could only suffer once, his goodness would always make him willing to do so — every day if need be. If he were to say that for love of me he would make a new heaven and a new earth, this would be a comparatively simple matter; something he could do every day if he wanted, with no great effort. But for love of me to be willing to die times without number — beyond human capacity to compute — is, to my mind, the greatest gesture our Lord God could make to the human soul. This is his meaning: ‘How could I not, out of love for you, do all I can for you? This would not be difficult, since for love of you I am ready to die often, regardless of the suffering.’
— From Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)
Those who have heard me preach at Trinity know that, from time to time, I will preach, not one sermon, but rather two or even three smaller ones. Today is one of those times, as I wish to say something briefly about two of our readings, and also what we are about to do here this morning in the Blessing of the Animals. (It’s a three sermon morning.)
First, I want to say something about the book of Job, from which we will be hearing this month. In trying to understand Job, it helps to remember that the story of Job is about the timeless question – “Why do the innocent suffer?” Job’s friends, who will shortly enter the story, are in the “you must have done something to deserve this” camp. God is just, they argue, rewarding the righteous but punishing the wicked. “You must have done something to deserve this,” they say. “But I didn’t do anything,” says Job. Continue reading →
Our Lord has declared: ‘In patience you shall possess your souls.’ There is great happiness in possessing one’s soul; the more complete our patience, the more completely will we possess our souls. Remember that our Lord saved us through suffering and patience. Thus it is appropriate that we, for our part, should work out our salvation through sufferings and afflictions, bearing injuries and contradictions with great calm and serenity.
— From an Introduction to the Devout Life by Francis de Sales (1567-1622)
For though the dear humanity of Christ could only suffer once, his goodness would always make him willing to do so – every day if need be. If he were to say that for love of me he would make a new heaven and a new earth, this would be a comparatively simple matter; something he could do every day if he wanted, with no great effort. But for love of me to be willing to die times without number – beyond human capacity to compute – is, to my mind, the greatest gesture our Lord God could make to the human soul. This is his meaning: ‘How could I not, out of love for you, do all I can for you? This would not be difficult, since for love of you I am ready to die often, regardless of the suffering.’
And here I saw that the love which made him suffer is as much greater than his pain as heaven is greater than earth. For his suffering was a noble and most worthy deed worked out by love in time — and his love has no beginning, but is now, and ever shall be. It was because of this love he said, ‘If I could possibly have suffered more, I would have done so.’ I saw Christ’s complete happiness; his happiness would not have been complete if it were at all possible to have done it better.
— From Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)
One of the true joys of working with teenagers and young adults over my thirty-two years of teaching has been their complete unwillingness to tolerate fraud and hypocrisy: they can smell it miles away. This means that when you’re speaking with them—especially about important and ultimate things—they require complete honesty and absolutely no equivocation whatsoever. They seem constitutionally incapable of tolerating evasion, and they will always ask: Why? Young people literally demand to know the truth—“the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” as they say. So, the exchange between the teacher Jesus and his student disciples at Caesarea Philippi in this morning’s Gospel reminded me of many such exchanges between me and my students in the religious-studies classroom. One question leads to another question, until we finally get to the heart of the matter. And things are never what they first appear to be. Nothing should be taken at face value.
Not that there’s ever a “good” week in the news, but this week has been an especially tough week in the news for me. For example, with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev back in the news, and the bungled execution in Oklahoma, I find myself thinking about and being disturbed by capital punishment. After hearing an NPR interview about a single, 24 year-old mother of three in rural New York State, who is essentially trapped in a Catch-22 of poverty – she’d like to go back to school, but doesn’t have the money; if she gets a job, she’d have to pay for child care, and then also lose her food stamp money – I find myself disturbed by the widening divide between rich and poor in our country. I am deeply disturbed, too, by the recent findings of the National Climate Assessment, which report that the mean temperatures in part of the United States have already risen more then 3 degrees since mid-century and which predicts more and more severe floods and droughts. And who couldn’t be disturbed by the searing story in Nigeria of an entire school of girls kidnapped to be sold off into forced marriages or slavery? (Even Al Quaeda could not condone the attack!) As I consider these events, I am reminded of the words of the Psalmist, which still ring true today, over 2,000 years later: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” What is our hope, when we live in such a world?
In a way, the Easter season is a great time to be disturbed. Easter is a great time to be disturbed not only because Easter – celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – reminds us that even though we live in a world filled with death, yet life will have the last word, but also because Easter reminds us that we the Baptized have the capacity to be disturbed. Continue reading →