- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2008

The following are excerpts from a sermon delivered March 2 at Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes by the Rev. Lane John Davenport:

Last week, the New York Times reported on its front page about an extensive new survey of the religious affiliations of Americans. It found that about 44 percent of adults have changed their religious affiliation or discontinued their connection to religion, meaning that there’s a rising fluidity and diversity in our religious affiliations. More and more people lack any formal religious association.

However, this does not mean Americans are becoming less religious — only that they are significantly less likely to be part of a religious community.

Christianity is profoundly communal. God calls individuals into community; He brings us together to worship; He sends us out with one another in mission. In the crises of life, the formal religious groups, if they are any good at all, are there to offer consolation and help — something one cannot count on when isolated.

We can’t be Christians on our own terms. We need the prayers, the accountability and the nurture of a community.

Since the first Christians who held all their property in common, for the common good, distributing according to need, Christians have tried to embody this ideal of community. The point has been to build strong, deep relationships between people where there’s trust and openness and mercy and charity. That’s the beginning of healing and wholeness, of belonging and growth, of seeing and learning.

Being human, Christians have at times failed dramatically in trying to develop healthy, holy communities. Then our churches often have features like the blind man’s community in today’s Gospel (1 Samuel, 16:1-13; Ephesians, 5:8-14; John 9:1-41). Its dysfunction is staggering. The community strongly relies upon its religion and draws its identity from its religion, but the effect of its religious life is to keep God away.

Jesus gave sight to a man blind from his birth. The Pharisees don’t see God at work. Rather, they see a violation of religious tradition; they see a threat to the stability and order of the community; they see the prospect of uncertainty and confusion. They have little tolerance for these things, even though our personal experience and even though the stories of Scripture show us that often when God comes into our lives things get jostled, things become unstable, confused. The values, behaviors and attitudes of the Pharisees are too rigid, too smug, to see God at work.

We might recognize that, sooner or later, spiritual blindness like this happens to every person and every religious community. Part of the value of today’s Gospel, especially in Lent, is to challenge ourselves with questions like: How are we being spiritually blind in our world?

Jesus shared the traditional ideals of the Pharisees, but he questioned whether this community was living up to these ideals. The Pharisees say Jesus is breaking tradition, their ancient, revered Sabbath laws. Yet the way Jesus gives sight to the blind man expresses and honors their tradition. By mixing his spittle with the dusty ground, Jesus made mud, clay. It mimics the Genesis creation story when God formed Adam out of the dust. Jesus is renewing the man’s eyes.

The real conflict here is not between the healed man and the Pharisees, not even between Jesus and the Pharisees, but between the Pharisees’ reality and their ideals. As with all of us, there’s a gap between what they profess and their circumstances.

The miracle of the blind man receiving his sight reveals the gap between the Pharisees’ self-perception as holy, dedicated to God, and the reality of their separation from God. The Pharisees don’t recognize it. It’s hard for us, individually and corporately, to see that gap in our lives. We’d prefer to avoid seeing the gap between our espoused values and where we are. When we listen to the story, we feel joy for the man who receives his sight. We assume it’s a happy occasion. I think it is, but it also would be accompanied with some pain and loss, the need for significant adjustments. A blind man suddenly receiving his sight would have been confused, disoriented, unsettled. He’d have to learn to live a whole new way. It’s more than being able to give up begging and get a job; it’s more than having the possibility of having a family and a home; it’s more than having new social responsibilities. He’d have to change radically the way he thinks, the way he relates to people, the way he understands himself.

But even more challenging, his community would have to adjust to this work of God in their midst. They certainly didn’t express any joy about the blind man receiving sight; they didn’t celebrate it. Rather, they were hostile to Him. If they acknowledged it as a work of God, they would have to be open to learning and they would have to adjust. They’d have to be open to learning new things first about themselves, second about Jesus, third about the healed man, and fourth about God.

First, they’d have to recognize the gap between their values and their reality. They’d have to grapple with their rigidity and be open to hard questions. This would require humility and contrition.

Second, if Jesus gave sight to the blind man, it would indicate His close relationship with God. That would force the community to adapt its understanding of Jesus and reform its relationship with God. It was easier simply to write Jesus off as a sinner.

Third, they believed that the man’s blindness was due to his sin, that suffering was due to sin. This traditional belief would have to evolve. It’s the same sub-Christian belief that victims of natural disasters, like the Indian Ocean tsunami or Katrina, deserved it.

None of us could ever be worthy of receiving our sight from God. Sight, like hearing, like any ability, like anything we have, or like friends, or like waking up in the morning — all of these are gifts from God. Everything is a gift, and we don’t deserve any gifts we receive from God. Grace is free. That’s the fourth thing they would have to learn. God’s grace is not carefully doled out to the deserving, but rather God offers His grace extravagantly, wantonly, promiscuously.

The good news is that God extends grace to everyone, even those who don’t know Him. The man who was blind didn’t know Jesus. He regarded Him as simply a man, nothing special. After he receives sight, however, the Pharisees interrogated him, and he had the courage to call Jesus a ‘prophet.’ The Pharisees, of course, object and cast him out of the synagogue. He’s ostracized for witnessing to what Jesus has done for him.

The man continues to seek God, to ask questions and reflect upon what’s happening to him. At the end of the story, he confesses that Jesus is Lord, and he worships Him. He sees not only with his eyes. His openness to learning means that he now sees the truth. He’s learning to live a whole new way. That’s what every Christian is learning to do.

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