Sermon preached by Peter D. Thompson, Seminarian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 30, 2014
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord to thee.
Take our moments and our days
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
Plato famously likened the quest for truth to the process of emerging from a deep cave. In the cave, Plato suggests, we are under the impression that we can perceive the world accurately, but we are actually trapped prisoners who can see only a mere reflection of the real world. Once we finally become aware of the light that exists beyond the cave, the full truth of that reality will initially be too bright for us to bear. We will resist leaving the comfort of the cave and shield our eyes. But eventually we will leave, our eyes will adjust to the light, and the truth will become clear to us. Communicating with those who have not yet come in contact with the light will be difficult, but at least we will know for ourselves what we have discovered to be true, and in time we will be able to share it with others.
Our Gospel reading for today is another tale of coming into contact with the truth slowly and gradually. The man at the center of the long story we just heard was blind from the time he was born until the day Jesus suddenly healed him. In receiving his sight, the blind man instantaneously acquires the ability to perceive a new dimension of reality that he could not perceive before. But it takes him a while to adjust to the new truths he can now see. All along, he knows that he has been healed of his blindness, but he is initially unclear as to who healed him and how. At first, he tells his neighbors that “a man named Jesus” put mud in his eyes and told him to go and wash. When he is taken to be questioned by the Pharisees, the blind man raises his esteem of Jesus: no longer is Jesus just a “man;” now he is a “prophet.” Towards the end of his exchange with the Pharisees, the blind man declares that Jesus is “from God” and has opened his eyes, something never before heard of “since the world began.” Only after Jesus appears to the blind man a second time can the blind man tell Jesus that he believes in him as the “Son of Man.”
As we can tell simply from the length of this morning’s Gospel reading, the blind man takes quite some time to fully comprehend the truth about Jesus. He may be able to see immediately after washing his eyes, but acknowledging completely the bright light of Jesus’ identity is something more complicated. By gradually coming to terms with who Jesus is, the blind man discovers that truth is not a one-time revelation communicated from on high, but a slow process of discernment and dialogue, requiring all the patience and earnestness he possesses.
Surely you know this from your own experience. How often have you, like the blind man, suspected something was true, but taken a while to fully adjust to it? Or how often have you thought something was true only to be convinced, with the slow workings of time, that it was not? Truth is often too bright and piercing to be accepted when we first notice it, so we need to take time to figure out what the truth really is. If you think standing for the entire Gospel reading this morning required patience, think about how much patience the truth requires in the actual living of our lives.
One of the things that makes it difficult to determine and accept the truth is that as human beings we too often find ourselves aligned in opposition to it. The truth can disrupt our settled lives, and so we resist it. In John, the Pharisees have trouble recognizing the true identity of Jesus because doing so would require them to rethink what they believe and reshape how they live. To admit that a man who healed on the Sabbath came from God would be to question the beliefs about the law that were so intrinsic to who they were as Pharisees.
We learn through Jesus’ healing of the blind man that God’s priorities are often different from the priorities of human beings. The Pharisees care about adhering to a certain interpretation of the law, but Jesus finds the healing of a blind man to be more important. The disparity between divine goals and human goals is also stressed in our reading from the first book of Samuel, in which we hear that God “does not see as mortals see.” Whereas humans focus on the “outward appearance” of a person, God prioritizes the “heart.” As a result, God picks as the new king of Israel not the oldest and strongest of Jesse’s sons, but the youngest and least valued. Samuel’s anointing of David as king illustrates how God can reverse all human expectations.
Pursuing the truth necessitates being willing to choose God’s way over the human way and to suffer the difficulty of going against the status quo. The blind man must steadfastly resist the Pharisees’ spirited efforts to discount Jesus. In anointing David, Samuel not only has to disregard popular notions of what makes a good leader, but also has to risk his own personal safety in challenging the kingship of Saul, the king whom David would eventually succeed. Testifying to and acting on God’s truth is by no means easy.
But to ignore the truth is to forfeit the full promise of life. The letter to the Ephesians makes clear how important it is to “live in the light.” The darkness, where shameful and secret things happen, results in nothing good, but the light, which makes everything visible, leads to the holiness of God. Given this, who would choose the darkness? Who would not choose to become visible and live—transparently and openly—in the light?
In her new book City of God, San Francisco Episcopalian Sara Miles writes of what it was like to take Ash Wednesday to the streets. One of the things that most surprised her about imposing ashes in public was that people so often thanked her for delivering what was really a sobering message of mortality. In telling people to remember that they were dust, Miles was essentially telling them that they would die. The positive response Miles received to this reminder astonished her. “Why would you say thank you when a stranger tells you that you’re going to die?” she wonders, before providing her own answer: “because the truth is a blessing.” The people Miles encountered were thankful for being told that they would die because they were thankful that someone told them the truth.
Our lives can at times be filled with an incredible amount of superficiality. We gaze and gossip as celebrities flood the Red Carpet in the latest fashions. We learn to say just the right thing to impress at cocktail parties or job interviews. We obsessively count Facebook likes and meticulously manage our online dating profiles. What if in the midst of all of this posturing and chatter we dared to say something real? What if we mustered the courage to speak the truth to each other and maybe even to ourselves?
But before we anoint ourselves prophets and go out into the world to preach the truth, let’s remember that the truth is no straightforward, easily discernible thing. A definite way to ensure that you are far from the truth is to go around claiming that you have it, and Jesus makes very clear to the Pharisees that it is their certainty that blinds them and prevents them from seeing the truth. If we are indeed committed to the truth, we should be ready to accept the ambiguity and complexity of which life—and thus truth—is composed. We must be comfortable correcting ourselves and being corrected by others. Truth is not something we can capture and use as a weapon for our own agendas; instead, it is a light that we are all journeying towards and deciphering together. That journey is a challenge, for sure, but also an opportunity. And such a tremendous blessing.