Saturday, March 28, 2009

Voila! Claro! Bleito! I See!!!

Lent 4.2008.St. Matthew’s, Las Vegas
The blind man in today’s Gospel lesson
is one of my favorite characters in the Bible.
If the American Academy of Religion gave out Oscars,
I’d nominate him for best supporting actor.

I am grateful to him for giving us the immortal line
in the hymn, Amazing Grace,
“I once was . . . blind but now I see.”

But before we get on to the important things
about this story,
I want to just dig beneath the English translation
to recover some of the color
in the way our blind man talks.

We translate his words as “I once was blind but now I see”
or in the more recent translations,
“I once was blind but now I can see.”
But in the Greek, that last clause is just one word – bleito.
I once was blind. Now: bleito.

It’s a word with sharpness of insight,
like the French Voila’ or the Spanish Claro.
The blind man’s word doesn’t mean quite the same thing
as Voila or Claro – but it has that feeling.

I once was helpless. Now voila.
I once didn’t have a clue. Now claro.
I once was blind. Now bleito.

It’s a pithy statement shot out in the middle of an argument.
The religious authorities didn’t like it one little bit
that Jesus had restored the man’s sight.
They were smart theologians and scholars.
And they thought charismatic healing was just hocus pocus
done by charlatans to fool the hicks in Galilee.

Now Jesus had apparently healed someone in the city.
Something had to be wrong with this picture.
So they interrogated the man’s parents
to find out if he had really been blind at all.

Then they interrogated the man himself,
and when they didn’t like his answers on the facts,
they challenged him with undeniable religious truths.
“We know this Jesus is a sinner,
so how can you claim he has restored your sight?
Just answer us that.”

And the man replied.
“You say he is a sinner.
I don’t know whether he is a sinner or not.
All I know is I was blind. Now bleito.”

Do you see what I like about this guy?
He is so Zen. So simple. No interpretation. No fuss.
He has spent his entire life in darkness,
so he is used to not knowing things.
He knows what he knows, and beyond that
he doesn’t speculate.
He doesn’t argue that Jesus must be the son of God,
or the Incarnation of the 2nd person of the Trinity.
He is no theologian.
He is just someone who was blind and now he sees.

The first thing we see here is that grace is just that.
It’s grace. It isn’t something we have to earn
by believing anything in particular,
not even believing in Jesus.
The blind man didn’t believe any special doctrines.
Grace just happens.
And if we have to grace to see the facts,
we will see grace.

We may not be able to explain it,
but we will see it.
We will see that there is beauty and goodness
happening all around us,
and that we didn’t make it happen.
We didn’t conjure the sun to rise with our positive thinking.
We didn’t make the flowers bloom with our sound doctrines.
We didn’t make the river flow with our moral living.

Creation is gift. Life is gift.
Healing, beauty, and goodness are all gift.
We can’t explain it, but we can acknowledge it.
When we acknowledge that so much is just gift,
we can relax and open our hands to receive more of it.

The second thing we see in this story
is that faith doesn’t begin with doctrines.
They come later and sometimes they can help,
but they can get in the way too.
The religious authorities in our Gospel lesson had doctrines
that made what they were seeing impossible.
So they could not believe what they saw.

There is a Sufi story about a joker sage named Mullah Nazradin.
One day a neighbor came to borrow Mullah Nazradin’s donkey
to haul some goods across the village.
Nazradin said, “I am sorry friend,
I but I have already loaned my donkey
to my cousin in the next village.”

“Ok,” the neighbor said, but as he walked away
he heard braying in the back yard.
Curious, he went around to the back and voila, bleito, claro,
there was the donkey.
So he went back to the door and said,
“Mullah Nazradin, what is this?
You said you had loaned your donkey
to your cousin in the next village.
But I hear your donkey braying in the back yard.”

Nazradin answered indignantly,
Well then who are you going to believe?
me or a stupid donkey?”

In our tradition, there are many virtues,
but the mother of all virtues is the simple honesty
of seeing things as they are
unfiltered through fixed concepts.
Faith and wisdom both begin
In the courage to see things as they are
and speak the truth about what we see.

The final thing we need to see in our story
is that seeing the truth, especially telling the truth,
can stir things up.
In our families, in our jobs, in our churches,
wherever we organize ourselves into groups,
the groups adopt certain ways of seeing things.
This person is just a hot head; that person is a saint.
Worship must always go exactly according to this pattern.
A certain hymn must be sung on this Sunday each year.
People of this race are always a certain way.
People of one religion are always greedy
while people of another religion are always violent.

We have accepted beliefs about ourselves
and about each other that we dare not question.
We dare not question them because loyalty to the group
means living in the group think box.

But living in a group think box of fixed concepts
is a form of blindness.
We cannot see the simple truth of things as they are
because we are wearing blinders of prejudice
and unquestioned beliefs.

In this story, Jesus takes the man’s blinders off.
He gives him sight, simple sight.
And he accepts it. “Bleito,” he says. No interpretation.

In the 15th Century, church leaders refused to look
through Galileo’s telescope for fear
they would see something contrary to the accepted beliefs
of the time.
They had not gotten the point of today’s story.
Nothing that is true is foreign to Christ.

Jesus invites us to look at things as they are.
Look first. Interpret later if you must.
But don’t let anyone’s prior interpretation stop you
from looking life in the face.

So what do we see today in this story?
First we see that life is a gift.
We don’t conjure it up with the right actions or thoughts.
It’s just there to be accepted and usually enjoyed.

Second, we see that living the truth begins
with daring to see things as they are.

Finally, we see that facing the truth isn’t easy
because the social system around us
pressures us to see things their way,
not to see things as they are.

It takes courage and determination to see the truth,
to speak the truth, and to live the truth.
Living in the group think box is safer.
It’s easier.
But the joy and spender of reality
are always outside the box,
like the stars the men of old refused to see
through Galileo’s telescope.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Christ With No Hands

Easter 7c.2008.Holy Spirit
The Easter story concludes with the Ascension of Our Lord.
On the Sunday after Ascension, we read the prayer
Jesus said for us as he was preparing to say goodbye.
He prayed,
“Now I am no longer in the world
But they are in the world . . . .”

This is hardly anyone’s favorite Bible story.
It leaves us feeling abandoned, bereft.
Ordinary life already has enough loss in it.
We want our religion to save us from that feeling,
not drive it home with the image of Jesus
going to his Father while we are left “in the world.”

But the good news of the Gospel is that whatever Jesus does,
he does for us.
Jesus was born for us, died for us, rose for us,
and now he ascends into heaven for us.

When Jesus says goodbye,
he hands over his mission to us.
All the healing, reconciling, forgiving, and loving,
all that he did in his earthly ministry,
he hands on to us.
He passes the torch and says,
“It’s your turn. Now you run with it.”

There is always a part of us that just wants to be taken care of.
And God does take care of us.
But God also challenges us to grow up.
That is often hard. It can be painful.

It is like physical rehabilitation after surgery.
We need the nurse to take care of us for awhile,
but there comes a point when, in order to get strong,
we have to get of bed and work.
It takes courage. It takes determination.

Salvation is like that.
It starts with God accepting us as we are.
But, as the saying goes,
“God love us the way we are,
but because he loves us,
he doesn’t leave us this way.”

Salvation is more than being forgiven.
Salvation is being transformed.
Salvation is growing in grace,
developing the strength of character
we see in Jesus.

Salvation is a process of becoming more compassionate,
more just, more courageous,
more serene in the face of adversity.
Jesus showed us what it looks like when a human being
lives in a godly way.
But he doesn’t live a godly life so we don’t have to.
He does it to show us what we can and must do.
He shows us what we are intended to be.

At first, we come to the Church with our wounds
and our spiritual needs.
It right that we do that.
Where else should we go?
At first, we just take in the care of the church’s ministers.
We are like patients lying in bed after surgery
being cared for by the nurse.

But we will not fully recover until we get out of bed.
In fact, if we stay in bed too long,
we just get weaker and weaker.
To get back to life,
we have to get on with the hard work of rehabilitation.
That is where the real healing happens.

St. Francis of Assisi prayed to move from the first stage of faith,
the stage trying to get his needs met,
to move on to a more mature faith.
After he prayed to become an instrument of the Lord’s peace,
he went on,
“Grant that I may seek
not so much to be understood as to understand;
not so much to be consoled to console;
not so much to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we truly receive;
it is in pardoning, that we ourselves are pardoned;
and it is in dying we are born to eternal life.”

Salvation buds like a flower in early Spring
when we discover that we are loved.
It blossoms when we learn to love.

Our faith journey begins when we receive
the ministry of the Church
It matures when we become the ministers of the Church.
It matures when we turn our attention from what we need
to what others need and to what we can offer.

There was a village in Italy that had a beautiful statue
of Jesus in the town square.
It was Jesus in a classic pose, his hands extended
in loving invitation.
The people loved that statue
because it made them feel cared for.
During World War II, the statue was demolished by bombs.

After the War, when the rebuilding began,
first thing this village did was hire experts
to restore the statue.
They had gathered the pieces and saved them for this day.

After months of work and thousands of dollars,
the statue of Jesus was good as new,
except for one thing.
They could not find the original hands.

The restoration workers said
they could make new hands.
And the people considered it.
But after much prayer and reflection,
they decided to leave the statue as it was
– the arms extended, but with no hands.
Instead of restoring the hands,
they put a plaque on the base it the statue.
It was a quotation from St. Theresa of Avila. It said:
“In this world, Christ has no hands but our hands.”//

In life we experience loss.
We lose people we love.
We lose the comfort of our world as it changes
year by year.
It is right and natural that we grieve that.
No one wants to feel abandoned.

But the Gospel story shows us what to do with that.
We trust that nothing good and beautiful and right
is lost forever.
Jesus is not lost forever.
He is waiting for us.
No one we love is lost forever.
They are waiting for us at the side of Jesus.
And they are there, alive in God,
bequeathing all that was best about them to us,
so that we can become as they were, as they still are.

We will be with them again in the Resurrection,
but for now, or challenge
is to do for each other
what someone once did for us.
Our challenge is to become the hands of Christ.

St. Theresa’s best friend was St. John of the Cross.
He said,
“Where there is no love, put love,
and there you will find love.”//
It is a wonderful thing to have been loved.
But it comes to nothing unless we take that experience
and, instead of trying to get it again over and over,
to grow in our capacity to love.
It is good to be beloved. It is better to be the lover.

That’s the second stage of salvation,
becoming the lover, becoming the servant,
becoming the minister,
becoming the hands of Christ.
And when we have matured in this live-changing,
soul-shaping faith,
we will discover more joy
than we had imagined possible.