11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
Reflection April 2, 2017
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Since so many people were not able to attend worship this past Sunday March 26) because of sickness and travel, I will place in this week’s Advance much of that sermon. The sermon focused on the healing of a man born blind from chapter 9 of John’s Gospel.
When Jesus meets the man born blind, a question arises from the disciples: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” There was a widespread belief at that time that any malady, any deformity, was a punishment from God. The punishment resulted from one’s sins or the sins of one’s ancestors.
(See Numbers 14:18: “The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.” Aside: One should choose one’s parents wisely!)
Jesus answers his disciples by stating: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” This clearly shows that Jesus does not subscribe to the idea that physical maladies were the result of divine punishment. Recall how often Jesus heals people in the Gospels!
And yet do not many of us in our country still cling to a variation of this belief? If you are poor and destitute, it must be your fault. God must somehow be punishing you.
Too many embrace the misguided notion that wealth is a blessing from God. If you are wealthy, God must somehow be rewarding you for your goodness and your faithfulness or the goodness/faithfulness of your ancestors. If you are poor, if you find yourself on the streets, it must be because God is somehow unhappy with you.
Is this belief not rampant in our country? Is this belief not part and parcel of our national psyche? Wealthy people are “favored” by God. The more wealth - the more you are “favored/blessed.” (The real reason the rich young man turns away from Jesus in Mark 10:17-27 is not because he is greedy but because his many possessions was a sign of God’s favor and he could not let go of that sign of God’s favor.)
Given a choice, would not all of us have preferred being born to wealthy parents? Many of us, myself included, were born into poor families - families that struggled financially. Our fault or the fault of our ancestors?
Jesus dispelled this notion. He even heals the man born blind on the Sabbath: something forbidden by the Bible! (See Exodus 31: 14-15: “You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest; whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.”)
Because Jesus “works” on the Sabbath - by making clay with his spittle to place on the blind man’s eyes and also doing the work of healing on the Sabbath, the political and spiritual leadership in Jerusalem are divided over Jesus. (“Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided.” John 9:16)
Is this not the way it has always been? Are we not still deeply divided from one another? Divided by religion, divided by denomination, divided by race, divided by economic position, divided by politics, divided by a plethora of things?
We are also divided, according to Jesus’ own words, by those who see and those who do not. But here’s the thing: we are all blind to some degree or another. I am blind. You are blind. We are - each of us - blind.
One of the most important prayers in the Gospels is found in Luke 18:41: “Lord, that I may see!” This is a prayer we could well pray at least once every day we live!
Jesus is proclaimed throughout John’s Gospel as the light of the world. But this light is not always seen by us. We often close our eyes to the light. We fail to see the light because we don’t truly understand what/who this light really is.
We are blind to the light partially because we cling to unhealthy visions, unhealthy notions, of who God is and how God works among us.
For instance, we imagine that God can be named - that God can be envisioned by our human limitations - that God can be controlled by what we do and what we say.
Let’s ponder again God’s answer from the burning bush when Moses asks for God’s name (see Exodus 3:14). In Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament) the response from God is: ehyeh asher ehyeh. This is a profoundly difficult phrase that is most commonly translated into English as “I am who I am.”
Yet the eminent 20th Century Jewish scholar, Martin Buber, argues strongly that the Hebrew verb is usually mistranslated (and keep always in mind that God’s name is a VERB, not a Noun - this is very important! God is an action - not a thing!) Buber (as recounted in Professor Marcus Borg’s The God We Never Knew) translates the verb, ehyeh as “being present.”
Accordingly, God’s sacred name given to Moses is best translated as “I will be present as I will be present.” God’s name, according to Buber, reflects “that God is a presence ‘who is present in every time and every place.’” God is not a thing. God is a living presence within which the universe and everything contained in that universe exists. Or to put it in the words of our brother Paul: “In God we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
There is only one task I have as pastor of this beloved church: to help each of us experience the light of God; Jesus, the light of this world and the light of every world that is now or ever will be. But we all (myself surely included) have trouble seeing. This is to be expected. Most of us do not have any or many mystical experiences. Let me add an example of a mystical experience from a 20th Century British clergyman and theologian as he was sitting in a third-class train compartment leaving London:
“For a few seconds only, I suppose, the whole compartment was filled with light. This is the only way I know in which to describe the moment … I felt caught up into some tremendous sense of being within a loving, triumphant and shining purpose (presence). I never felt more humble. I never felt more exalted. A most curious, but overwhelming sense possessed me and filled me with ecstasy … All people were shining and glorious beings who in the end would enter incredible joy … An indescribable joy possessed me. All this happened over fifty years ago but even now I can see myself in the corner of that dingy third-class compartment … In a few moments the glory departed – all but one curious, lingering feeling. I loved everybody in that compartment. It sounds silly now, and indeed I blush to write it, but at that moment I think I would have died for any one of the people in that compartment.” (From Borg)
There is no place we can go to flee from God. There is no place - no dark corner - where God’s light and love are missing. As Psalm 138:7-12 rightly proclaims: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol (Hades), you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
The German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (killed by the Nazis during World War II), stated this truth in the book, Letters and Papers from Prison: “God is the Beyond in our Midst.” God cannot be named. Every name falls short. Every image falls short. Every piece of Scripture falls short. Every attempt in every sermon ever preached falls short.
So let me end my tentative words with a hopeful image from the 19th Century British poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush alive with God. Only he who sees takes off his shoes; the rest sit around and pluck blackberries.” Earth is “crammed with heaven” if we only have the eyes to see! Amen.