Sunday, March 30, 2014

eyes wide open

Lent 4, Year A, 2014
St. George’s Chapel

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

Sometimes sermons are difficult to write because there doesn’t seem to be much going on in the passages. This is not the case in today’s readings, particularly in John’s Gospel account. We have here what appears on the surface to be a typical healing story. Jesus sees someone in need, heals them (on the Sabbath day, of course), and the Pharisees get angry. But we’re given more details in this story than in most of the others. 

It is interesting to observe the reactions everyone has to the healing, the vantage point of the blind man through the eyes of the other characters. Jesus sees the man as a gift, a vessel for God’s work of healing and mercy. The disciples see a sinner, or at the very least, the son of sinners. The neighbors see the man as a beggar. The man’s parents, afraid to be kicked out of their community, view their son as an endangerment to their way of life, and essentially disown him. The Pharisees see him as a sinner and a heretic, a nuisance and a threat that must be removed from the “true” believers. All of them are looking at the same person, but everyone has a different opinion of the man’s worth. 

On Friday I had the opportunity to watch the movie Divergent, the screen version of a recent popular young adult trilogy. Much like the Hunger Games series, Divergent tells the story of teens in a dystopian society of the future, in this case in the city formerly known as Chicago. Due to a devastating civil war, society has been reorganized into five social groups, known as factions. Each faction is known by the character trait they most value: Abnegation is known for their selflessness, Erudite for intelligence, Dauntless for bravery, Amity for kindness, and Candor for honesty. Each faction wears certain color clothing, and so everyone can be recognized at a glance. Separation into factions occurs at age 16, when each 16 year-old takes a test that tells them in which faction they best belong. After the test they are faced with a choice: they can go with the faction they tested into or they can choose a different one. The protagonist of the novel/film struggles to find her place within this hyper-organized society; she doesn’t feel that she belongs in any one place in particular; she is different, divergent. At one point her counterpart admits that he wants to be defined by more than just one characteristic, as well. He wants to be kind, selfless, intelligent, honest, and brave. 

The main problem with the society in Divergent and the way the Pharisees interpreted the law in Jesus’ time is that they both put rules and order above people. I’m not saying that rules or order or laws are bad, because rules help keep us safe and help us not to descend into chaos. But for the Pharisees to criticize Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath demonstrates that they consider the Sabbath law to be more important than someone’s life. In all of their arguments with Jesus over work done on the Sabbath, they fail to see that relieving human suffering is more important than following the letter of the law--remember the story of the Good Samaritan? 

Similarly, in Divergent, the leaders attempt to maintain this ordered society because they fear returning to a state of civil war, and so anyone who disturbs the order is considered a threat. Each faction, as a rule, interacts almost exclusively with their own kind, and disregard the rest. All factions are working for the good of the collective society in some way, but they are purposefully isolated in these roles; once they choose a faction, they can never return to their family. Their group becomes their family, and they must be loyal to them, no matter what. The motto is, “faction before blood.” Each faction harbors suspicions of the others, and it is very hard for them to look past their divisions. Regardless of their flaws, everyone buys into the divisions; in their minds the worst possible situation is to become one of the factionless, the people who cannot be compartmentalized, can’t be placed into a single category, and so are left to fend for themselves. 

After the blind man in the Gospel story is healed by Jesus, he no longer fits into the mold others have made of him, either. Some of his neighbors don’t even recognize him when he comes back able to see! Surely his appearance hasn’t changed that much; have the people who live by him, who probably pass him every day, never really looked at him before, only seeing his outstretched arms and not his smile? How can they not even recognize his voice? 

Each one of us is comprised of more than just one characteristic. We aren’t just bad or good; we all have good and bad within us. We all have the ability to be kind, selfless, intelligent, honest, and brave. We also all have the ability to exclude and ignore others. This passage presents an opportunity for self-reflection. What am I known for--how do people see me? How do I see the people around me? Do I only notice his or her most pronounced characteristic? Do I only recognize people by their race or gender or age or disability or economic status? Or do I take the time to know the story behind the person, to truly see them as a rounded character, a living, breathing creation of God?

In the story of the blind man, the man not only regains his sight, the way he views Jesus changes, too. At first he knows Jesus simply as a “man” who happens to have great healing power (John 9:10). Then, as he describes to the Pharisees what happens to him, he comes to the conclusion that Jesus is a “prophet,” for surely only someone who communicates with God can have such power (v. 17). And at the very end of the story, when Jesus approaches the man again, he recognizes Jesus as the “Lord,” and worships him (v. 38). 

Did you notice that after the man is thrown out of the synagogue--out of the community--for supporting Jesus, that Jesus goes looking for him? Jesus comes looking for us, too. When we are celebrating something new or exciting, Jesus is with us. When we are feeling lost, rejected, or excluded, Jesus is with us. When we have a relationship with Jesus, we get a better picture of who God is. We learn that God sees each one of us exactly as we are--with all our gifts and faults and doubts and fears and joys--and God loves every one of us unconditionally. 

The ability to see does not mean that we have clear vision. Thankfully, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). May our eyes be opened to the world around us, and help us to see one another as God sees us. 

“Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see” (“Amazing Grace” by John Newton, 1982 Hymnal 671).

The 5 factions from Divergent

This TedTalk is incredible, and I think fits well with today's Gospel. It's worth watching the whole thing, I promise (she does use a little bit of colorful language; please don't be offended). It will certainly open your eyes--it opened mine!

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