Fourth Sunday in Lent

Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent, Sunday, March 26 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
1 Sam 16:1-13; Ps 23; Eph 5:8-14; Jn 9:1-41

There’s a bit of an ambiguity about most of the healing miracles in the Gospels. Insofar as each one of us needs healing, each one of us is somehow broken and suffering and desiring to be brought to wholeness, they can speak to us universally. But for those whose lives are marked by disability as our society defines and creates it, the stories can be troubling, as if healing of particular conditions is a requirement for healing of the soul, as if it is necessary to be made “normal” in order to be acceptable.

Now, some people would certainly prefer to be healed of particular disabilities, but the fact is that for most, this will not happen in this lifetime, and a theology which is preoccupied with physical healing as the necessary outcome of faith will leave far too many people feeling as if they have failed themselves or the people they love. Healing comes in many forms, and cures for the illnesses of body and brain are by no means the only kinds of healing which matter.

And then there are those for whom a condition which is called disability is also a deep part of identity—so to be “healed” of that is not what is wanted, would in fact be an erasure of the person. Some of you may have seen videos produced recently for World Down Syndrome Day, in which people with Down Syndrome argue against the idea that they have “special needs”, pointing out that their needs are the basic human needs for community, work, support, and love, and that they just want to be treated as the particular people they are, rather than as some kind of pathologized deviation from an imaginary norm, or people who need any more “healing” than all the rest of us do. If we are not careful, many of the healing miracles can lead us away from that truth, allow the continuing marginalization of people with certain kinds of difference, enforce the sense that difference must be corrected for full inclusion in humankind to be possible. It’s the same edging away from challenge that is operating in our reading from First Samuel, where Samuel, having learned that the tallest guy is not necessarily the best king, chooses the youngest son from Jesse’s family—but not before the narrative assures us that he was super good-looking, and therefore acceptably royal after all.

But the story of man born blind is different from the other healing miracles, and leaves the challenge of difference far more open. John’s gospel always uses the miraculous not simply as a method of demonstrating power, but to uncover meanings which go far beyond the incident itself. And this story begins with Jesus rejecting his society’s understanding of the meaning of disability, that is, that it is a sign of inherent wrong, or, in the language of the time, a punishment for sin, whether the sin of the individual or of his parents. No, he says, it is not about that at all. This is not a story of sin but of glory. This man is blind so that the God’s works might be revealed in him.

The conventional reading has been that God’s works are revealed in Jesus’s healing of the man. But that’s a reading which comes from the perspective of those with reasonably functional bodies and brains, people who are at least able to pass as “normal”, and want to go on doing so, people to whom divergence is inherently frightening. The man is healed of his blindness, it’s true. But this is so small a part of the story that it seems almost incidental. Far more narrative time is spent on the conflicts between this man and the society around him, and his own insistence that he knows what has happened to him, that he has had a profound encounter with holiness, with the Holy One, and no one else is going to tell him how he’s supposed to interpret that. It’s the story of a man stubbornly, and at some risk, insisting that he knows his own experience, that he will not be made afraid or well-behaved, that he will speak his truth no matter what. And I think it is in this that the works of God are revealed in him—in a man, cast out by everyone else, who encounters the Incarnate Word and recognizes what that means, who knows his truth and tells it, and pledges his life to that truth.

Indeed, this man, suddenly offered the chance of full social integration by the restoration of his sight, ultimately turns it down, of his own free choice. He is driven not only back to the margin but out of his community, because he will not lie or prevaricate or be polite or safe. The society which had sent him to beg at the side of the road is not, finally, a society whose vicious games he will choose to play. He is an interesting, and I believe deliberate, contrast to the man healed at the pool of Bethesda, who uses his new ability to walk in order to run straight to the authorities and try to turn Jesus in. This man will not take his healing as an opportunity to move onto the side of the winners and collaborate with social wrong. He will persist in being who he is, and saying what he knows to be true.

I do not mean to say that there is no place for community interpretation of individual revelation. Individual revelation, individual experience, is dodgy stuff, and we do believe, as Anglicans, that the community learns together how to interpret experience, as we learn together how to read scripture. But within that community, those who have been marginalized, those who have been judged to be less valuable, those who have borne the weight of suffering, must have priority in telling their stories, must be allowed to name their own truths, without the powerful and privileged jumping in to tell them what really happened, what they really mean.

So, as our church leaders said this week in an open letter to Senator Lynn Beyak, “It is Indigenous people who have the authority to tell the story [of the residential schools]. It is our duty to receive that story and allow it to change us.” It is our duty to receive the stories told to us by LGBTQ Christians. It is our duty, both as church and society, to hear the truths spoken by Black Lives Matter, by the groups organzing now against Islamophobia, and to be changed. These voices are speaking out of deep experiences of pain and encounter and healing, and they must be heard. For the healing of each one of us is tied up together, and until we are all whole, none of us is well.

And we ourselves must find the same courage that was found by the man born blind, to tell our own stories, to speak of our own hurt and our own healing, the action of grace that reaches into our greatest weakness and changes everything, the voice which calls us up from the side of the road into the centre of God’s life; and, as well, the responsibility which comes with healing, the stringent vocation of truth and love. We must speak of these things as we know them, each particular one of us, knowing that our stories will probably not be well received, that we may end up as marginal as we ever were or much more so—and yet quite differently, because we stand on the margins not alone, but with the one who came to be there with us, God in flesh, Emmanuel.

We stumble towards this, very few of us as brave as that blind man, and it is not a clean process. This miracle is messy, it’s all spit and mud, it is very different from Jesus’s usual pattern of healing with a simple word or touch. For this healing, he gets down, literally, into the dirt, his hands in the messiness of human life. He reaches into our mistakes and our exclusions and our cruelties, and like the creating God of Genesis, he draws out of this mud the shape of humanity. Breakable, flawed, weak and dependent, creatures of need and dust, creatures of glory. It is this process that is always working within us, if we allow it, dirt on our failing eyes, ash on our mortal foreheads, the hands of God on our faces; we are always being made a new creation, and called into the work of making all things new.