Rev. Heather Blais
In today’s gospel lesson, we encounter a community struggling with their own fear and anxiety as they face the unimaginable.
While out walking, Jesus observed a blind man. What question was burning on the disciples’ hearts, you ask? They wanted to know whether God caused the man to be blind because of his own sinfulness, or whether it was a consequence of his parents' sinfulness.
This question is rooted in fear. It assumes:
If we follow God and do everything just right, we will be okay.
If we choose ourselves over God and neighbor, there will be dire consequences.
Maybe even, eternal consequences.
This fear is the driving force behind the words and actions of nearly everyone in this story: from the disciples, to the religious leaders, the former blind man’s neighbors and parents.
However, Jesus does not get sucked into the whirlpool of fear, and instead reframes the question for the disciples. In The Message translation, Jesus said,
“You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”
Jesus then spat on the ground, mixing saliva with dirt to make a thick mud. Jesus then scoops the mud into his hands and approaches the blind man. Spreading the mud over the blind man’s eyes, Jesus instructs him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam.
Then the unimaginable happened. The man who was once blind could now see.
His neighbors and religious leaders met this news with shock, fear, and anxiety. They were indignant that someone would break the laws surrounding the Sabbath, even to heal (because, come on, why couldn’t it wait a day?)
Yet what we know from witnessing the interrogation of the former blind man in today’s gospel, is that he regains much more than just his physical sight. The former blind man has encountered the Son of God, and it has awoken a much wider, a much more hopeful sense of God’s love and purpose in the world.
This story is not about who has sinned, and who is righteous. Nor is it about who has broken the law, and who has kept it. It is not even about who is to blame. This story is about Jesus calling us to wake up.
We are so attached to the fear, anxiety, scarcity and anger that is familiar. Our culture begs us to embrace this way of being. Yet when we choose to follow Jesus, we are choosing to be light in the world. We are choosing to be part of Jesus’ movement; to be a beacon of hope and love in an uncertain world. It is a calling that will lead to our transformation again, and again, and again. The kind of transformation that will turn our lives upside down and right back up. Just as it did for the blind man.
Much like the folks we encounter in today’s gospel lesson, we too are a community struggling with our own fear and anxiety as we face the unimaginable. None of us has ever lived through a global pandemic before. When we stare at it in the face, it is completely overwhelming. We are grappling with our grief, somersaulting from denial to anger, to bargaining, to depression, to acceptance; and often beginning the cycle all over again the next day.
We are beginning to grieve the missed birthday parties, book groups, Sunday brunches, art shows, concerts, anniversary celebrations, and weddings. Our hearts ache when we let ourselves fully feel the physical absence of our best friends, children, grandchildren, siblings, neighbors, and fellow church goers. This is particularly acute if you live alone.
We are now throwing our boundaries out the window as we juggle any variety of hats all at once: an employee who works from home, parent, teacher, caregiver, housekeeper, and more. Some are unsure if they still have a job, or whether there is enough money to pay the bills. The most marginalized members of our wider community find the resources they count on are closing left and right.
We are also grieving the traditions of our communal worship, the anticipation of journeying through holy week together, and the overwhelming joy of the empty tomb at Easter. We are postponing funerals, and we are facing the reality that there will be loss of life in our wider community as a result of COVID-19.
It is devastating. And it is crucial that we acknowledge and feel each of these feelings fully.
There is so much we do not know about what the days ahead will look like.
Let me tell you what we do know.
Today, we are all the blind man. Jesus has spat in the dirt, made mud, and holds us as he spreads the mud over the eyes of our hearts. Together, as the Church, we wash in the pool of Siloam, and the eyes of our hearts are opened. Church, we will continue to energetically embrace Jesus’ call to be the beacon of light, hope, and love of God in this world. We will keep being the Church virtually, for as long as it takes. We are in this together. Dear ones, we have long known that we are better together.
May the God which passeth all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, this day, and every day. Amen.
Understandably, Nicodemus was more confused than ever. He asks: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4).
Maybe Nicodemus’ questions are literal, but given he is a high-ranking Pharisee, I would hope it is safe to assume this guy is pretty smart. I think the question he is really asking lay underneath: Why in the world would we want to be born anew?
The culture that Jesus and Nicodemus are immersed in is one that places a high value on the wisdom that comes with age. Why would anyone want to give up a lifetime of wisdom to begin anew? To give up the earned respect and perceived power from a lifetime of living, would be to risk that maybe we had actually gotten some things about the kingdom of God wrong.
How often do we wish we could tell our younger selves something important we have learned later in life? Or how often do we actually acknowledge that we got something wrong? I imagine we all know at least a few highly functioning adults who will go to incredible lengths to avoid admitting they might actually have been wrong about something. Why in the world would anyone want to be born anew if they had to sacrifice the power, the respect, the wisdom of a long life?
Since the “you” Jesus uses in today’s gospel is plural, we know his answers to Nicodemus are not just directed at him. They are directed at anyone curious about the kingdom of God, both then, and now. Jesus is telling us that if we want to see the kingdom of God, if we want to even begin to grasp some aspect of heavenly things, we have to start over. And not just once. Rather we meet our faith anew every morning. Again and again, our whole life long.
It is a little bit like our vision. Many of us at one point had 20/20 vision, but instead of our eyesight improving with age, with the accumulated experience of sight, we often see less well, and things become blurry. We need glasses to make things clear and crisp again. Following and understanding God does not get easier with time and age, unless we are willing to be born anew. Then we will see our faith through new eyes every single day. In other words, Jesus is asking us to go to the optometrist and spring for a pair of glasses.
Because crazy things will happen with the correct prescription; with a faith that is new every morning. We will look outside and we will begin to see how God is inviting us to steer the brokenness of creation back towards God’s desire for creation.
It’s when we notice that, maybe we were actually wrong to deny climate change.
Maybe, we were wrong to treat brown and black people as less than white people.
Maybe, we were wrong about assuming a woman’s place is in the home.
Maybe, we were wrong to believe gender and sexual orientation are a checkbox, instead of a spectrum.
Maybe, we were wrong to believe the only way God could save the world was to murder his only Son.
Maybe, we have been wrong about a lot of things.
What are we not even clued into that we are wrong about today?
If we do not look to God anew with fresh eyes we may miss God altogether.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). The Son of God is trying to get our attention, trying to help us wake up. How fresh and new are the eyes of our faith? Is it time for some new glasses?May God open the eyes of our hearts, this day and everyday. Amen.
Rev. Heather J. Blais
The gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is always taken from a brief section of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins by offering the crowd a general principle: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
Jesus then goes on to explore three particular applications of this principle: giving money, praying, and fasting. At first glance, the general idea is that when you make a financial gift, pray, or fast, to do so quietly and humbly. Yet when has Jesus ever been so binary in his approach? Rather, Jesus tends to ask us open ended questions, forcing us to go deeper if we dare remain present to his questions.
I think underneath this general principle Jesus is offering us an unasked question: What motivates our actions?
Jesus is inviting us to stop and examine our actions. To ask ourselves: Why am I doing this?
As followers of Jesus, the core of our motivation must always be Love. Love of the stranger, love of our enemy, love of neighbor, love of community, love of family, love of friends, love and care of self. Because as the great prophet Michael Currey once said, “If it’s not about Love, it’s not about God.”
Yet the work of objective self examination is hard. It requires that we take time and space to simply be with God.
This is one reason that Jake Braithwaites, of the Jesuit Society of Jesus, recently wrote a blog titled, A Not-So-Radical Proposal for Your Lenten Season: Do Nothing.
“I’m really interested in the way technology has warped our relationships with our true selves. I’m talking about the selves that show up when we’re all alone, in front of God, no masks. Because we’re liable to be “on” at all times, we rarely take a moment to be still. We’re loathe to take a moment to know God and to let God know us.”
We all know from personal experience that life seems to be getting busier and busier, if not in our own lives, in the lives of those around us.
Braithwaites acknowledges the cost to this pace of life.
He writes: “In the midst of a lot of life-giving things, I had barely a moment to rest, to slow down, to be still. And I felt it. When the rare slow moment came I would be overwhelmed by the range of emotions that might overtake me: wounds I’d let fester; exhaustion I’d ignored; difficult moments I’d refused to process. Where had all this been hiding? Had it been here all along?”
Things began to shift for Braithwaites during a work trip abroad, where he convinced his boss to let him stay a few days longer. During his time away, he began to take long walks, and that is where the shifting started for him.
He writes, “I didn’t solve everything in my strolling, but I started to notice some patterns. I was finally able to hear God’s voice because the noise was turned down. I couldn’t block it out with the distractions–parties and drinking and social media and to-do lists and podcasts and music and movies and shows and idle fretting about work—that were my preferred methods. Instead, I just had to be present to exactly what I was feeling at each moment. If I was sad, I just had to be sad for a bit. If I was excited, I just got to experience it rather than try to share it on an online profile. If I was worried, I lived through the worry instead of numbing it.”
Braithwaites goes on to suggest we try something radically different this Lent. Maybe instead of adding this or taking away that we instead simply do nothing. What would it look like if for the next forty days you carved out space and time to simply do nothing?
What if it turns out that doing nothing, simply being with God and noticing that God is with you, was the most important thing you could do for yourself, those you love, the Church, and the world? Would that be enough to grant you permission to take that time? What might begin to shift in you if you have space and time with God? How might it shift the motivations behind your actions? This Lent, I invite you to simply be. Amen.
A few weeks ago, we remembered Jesus’ baptism and the truth we affirm at baptism. Which is that no matter what other labels might be assigned to us, none matters more than our identity as a beloved child of God. Simply put, each and every one of us, whether we like it or not is a beloved child of God. I imagine we are all pretty self-aware of our own imperfections, which is maybe why this truth is so beautiful and humbling. It might be difficult to swallow; to accept our belovedness in spite of our brokenness. Yet in the eyes of our God it is an unchangeable truth.
Which is all well and good, until Jesus starts giving his Sermon on the Mount. Where he has the audacity to tell us not only what we are to God, but who we are to one another and the world. Jesus tells us:
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
At this moment we are not just being told that we are loved; now we are being told our lives have a meaning and a purpose. “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot” (Matthew 5:13).
Salt is pretty important--it preserves, enhances, and flavors food. Similarly, light has a way of making a path clear for the one who holds the lamp and anyone nearby. Our salt and light is about being the unconditional love of God in the world.
If we lose our saltiness and light, if we forget we are beloved, how can we possibly fully convey the unconditional love of our God?
Sometimes, the stuff happening in our lives makes it hard to be the salt and light.
How can we be the light when we feel anger pulsating through our bodies?
How can we be the salt when our depression prevents us from being with people?
How are we supposed to be the salt and the light, when we feel rather like broken glass scattered all over the floor?
Sometimes it is not so much the stuff in our own lives, but the events in the wider community and world that make it difficult to be the salt and light. How can we be the light when there aren’t any safe spaces for a homeless couple to spend the night? How can we be the salt when our nation holds Latina women in a half time show to higher standards than the president?
I imagine this teaching makes at least a few of us squirm. Because Jesus is telling us to stay in touch with the truth at the core of our belovedness. When we know we are beloved, we will help spread that salt and light. We will want to help others feel the unconditional love and hope of God. In other words, knowing we are beloved will change the way we live our lives in the world. Whereas if we forget our saltiness or hide our light under a bushel basket, we are losing touch with the fact that we are beloved.
This teaching that Jesus is trying to convey to the crowd and to us, is the ultimate beauty of the parental love we receive from God. Just as we will always be beloved, we will always be the salt and the light at our core. There are days, or maybe weeks and years, when we are disconnected from the fullness of this truth--yet the truth endures.
Nadia Boltz-Weber in her book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, describes a moment when she was so angry on a Sunday morning, that she had to ask a kind, caring, and pregnant parishioner to pray for her before she could go and lead worship. It was the saltiness, the unconditional love, of this pregnant woman, as she prayed for Nadia, that helped her reconnect with her own saltiness.
Do you ever feel like you’ve lost your saltiness? One way to reconnect with our own saltiness is to share our hurts and troubles with one another. Whether it’s over a cup of coffee in the safety and warmth of a friend’s home, or at the healing prayer stations that are available on second Sundays after worship. Unburden yourself and be prayed for. It may just reconnect you with your own saltiness.
Last week, a couple of folks from James and Andrew shared that when they encounter grumpy and difficult people, they determine to make those people smile and laugh. Not necessarily in that one particular moment, this is a long haul endeavor. Taking this path, is a conscious choice on their part to be the light to others. And when they finally do make the grumpy person smile or laugh, they have helped that person reconnect with their own light.
Do you ever feel like you’ve lost touch with your light? What might it be like to be determined to make another smile or laugh, or to go out of your way to be kind to someone? Often in helping others to see the light within themselves, we reconnect with God’s light within us.
Jesus is turning our world upside down and right side up again because God wants us to understand that each and every person is beloved, salty, and full of light.
You are a beloved child of God.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
And nothing can change that. Amen.
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