Sunday, March 19, 2023


The blind man in today’s Gospel is one of my favorite Bible characters. I’d give him the Oscar for best supporting actor in a New Testament role. He gave us the hymn verse, “I once was . . . blind but now I see.”That isn’t quite what he said though. Not wrong -- but the feeling’s not right.We translate his words as “I see.” But in the original Greek, it’s just one word – Vlepo. “I once was blind. Now: vlepo.”


It’s emphatic like the French Voila, the Spanish Claro, or the Italian Presto. Once I couldn’t find it. Now voila. Once I didn’t have a clue. Now claro. Once I was stuck. Now presto.Once I was blind. Now vlepo. It’s a crisp, emphatic rejoinder.


The Pharisees didn’t like it one bit that Jesus restored this man’s sight. They knew such healing was just hocus pocus to fool rural hicks in Galilee. Now Jesus had healed someone in the city. To add insult to injury, he did it on the Sabbath.  Well that wasn’t right. So they confronted the man with an undeniable religious truth. We know this Jesus is a sinner, so how can he have restored your sight? Just answer us that.”He replied. “You say he is a sinner. I don’t know whether he’s a sinner or not. All I know is I was blind. Now vlepo.”

You see what I like about this guy? It’s such a Zen thing to say, He physically sees while the Pharisees remain spiritually blind. So, how is it that this man could see but they couldn’t? There’s a clue in the singular and plural subjects of the sentences in our Gospel. The Pharisees (plural) speak 10 times – always, every time -- in one voice. I hear their voices in unison like the chorus in a Greek drama. Whether or not they literally spoke in unison, they all said the same thing always in lockstep because they thought in lockstep.  They say, “We know . . ..” They’re stuck in group think mentality.


As John Heywood said in 1546 and Ray Stevens sang in 1970, “There is none so blind as he who will not see.” Like the churchmen who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope for fear they might see something different from Church teachings, our Pharisees are afraid to look outside the box of what “we know” – “how we do things.” The only people in this story who speak for themselves (first person singular) are Jesus and the man he healed. 


Group think is a cataract obscuring insight into ourselves, each other, and the world. We all live in groups and every group --  political parties, churches, families, poker clubs – all of them have their dogmas and their heresies.They all try to think alike.


We need community. We become ourselves through relationships. We need to sing together, pray together, serve the world together.Community is good. But it can easily slip into group think conformity. Unless we keep enough self to think our own thoughts, feel our own feelings, pray our own prayers, we have nothing to bring to the community table--  be it church, family, friends, whatever. Without individual identity, we melt into a human glob.


The difference between community and group think conformity is just this: Community is built on love; group think is built on anxiety. Anxiety wants to control life, pin it down with certainties and rules. Then we want a group to assure us we’re right.The group think veil hangs from a rod of anxiety.


Our secular critics accuse Christianity of religious group think.There’s some truth in that.  Christians are fallible human beings. The Church is a fallible community. Anxiety distorts religion into everyone sticking to the same opinions, rituals, and customs. That’s religious group think. No argument.


But group think isn’t faith. In fact it’s the opposite of faith. It’s fear. It’s anxiously trying to tie life down with rigid rules. Faith on the other hand rachets down our anxiety by trusting Reality with an open heart.


When the disciples were afraid during a storm at sea,Jesus said, “Why are you afraid? O ye of little faith?” His most repeated commandment was “Do not be afraid.” The Bible says, “Do not be afraid” 365 times – once for each day of the year. John writes, “God is love,” and, “There is no room for fear in love.”


Faith isn’t afraid because it knows that so much is just gift. Jesus said,  “Have no fear little flock.It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom -- not reward you with the Kingdom – “give you the Kingdom.”  We don’t make the sun rise, the flowers bloom, or the rivers flow. We don’t paint the shadows of bare branches on the winter snow.  We don’t have to control things by what we think and what we do. Mary Oliver wrote:

I don’t know . . .  what . . . prayer is.
I do know . . . how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed . . ..


Faith relaxes our minds and opens our hearts to receive these gifts.  


We don’t get free from group think by some heroic act of defiance. We don’t rebel against our communities. We need them. It’s faith that sets us free from group think. We get free by exercising faith.


One faith exercise is to notice situations we are trying to control --  then just step back and make space for the gift.We might give up fretting for Lent. We might “kneel down in the grass to be idle and blessed.” Then look around and see.

Post-Script. Quite a few people told me how much they apperciated this sermon.

They cited specific points that struck them. They asked me how to spell words I had used. But I got more people saying they could not hear it. We had tried multiple sound amplification technique and I used the best. Sound checks proved that it was working perfectly. Nonetheless, I asked people siting in different parts of the building if they could hear. They said they heard the sound check perfectly clearly. But many people could not hear the sermon. I was completely perplexed. I then reread the text and came to a suspicion the problem might not be acoustic but spiritual. 

Friday, March 3, 2023


 On Ash Wednesday we talk about sin and death together. So what’s the connection? It isn’t that sin causes death. Death is the price tag for having a life to begin with.The connection is that we don’t want to think about either one. Ernest Becker's Pulitzer Prize winning book,  The Denial of Death, says, to a greater or lesser extent  we all pretend we aren’t mortal – like the Paul Simon lyric: “and so I’ll continue to continue to pretend my life will never end. . ..”No surprise there. 

But Becker goes on to show convincingly that denial of death is the psychological root  of all sorts of regrettable behaviors and our refusal to own up to them. In Christian parlance, to the extent we deny our death, we deny our sin.I once heard several people furiously denying they were racist though no one had said they were.In Georgia we used to say, “It’s the hit dog hollers.”

People accuse religion of shoring up our denial.They say it’s a pie in the sky fantasy for hiding from hard truths.Often, they’re right. Many Ash Wednesday sermons will caution people not to think about anything unpleasant. Some priests use cute variations on the imposition ashes. More than once I’ve heard: “Remember that ‘You are stardust. You are golden.’” 

There’s plenty of escapist religion.But St. Augustine, defined “sin” as precisely this kind of escapism. Sin is disengagement. Sin is denial. Religion can be sin.In Isaiah’s day, people were jumping through religious hoops so they could bypass the hard stuff.But God wasn’t impressed. He said, “On the day of your fasting . .  . you exploit yourworkers.Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife. . .”

He had no use for petty pieties like giving up coffee, candy, or Face Book for 40 days – as if that makes us ok. He thought we had real issues to deal with – especially each other. 

Feel good religion, self-help books, and video games are all escape routes for fleeing  from the common life of family, church, and civic engagement.  Smoke and mirrors religion won’t cut it.  

God says, “Let’s get real.” This is real. We’re awash in unspoken grief that life doesn’t meet our expectations. We’re lonely. Sometimes we’re angry. Often, we’re afraid. We aren’t who we want to be, so we’re ashamed. Sooner or later, we’re going to die. It adds up to a load of unacknowledged grief we act out in unfortunate ways. That leave us with a rucksack of unacknowledged guilt. 

Theologian Luke Bretherton says we avoid guilt andgriefin two ways: denial and projection. Denial pushes our guilt, grief, and shame down below our awareness, but they don’t go away. They fester.So we project our negative feelings on scapegoats -- human screens for  the parts of ourselves we refuse to own.I’m not selfish – not manipulative – not judgmental. I’m not angry and I’ll fight the man who says I am. I don’t have the psychological baggage that afflicts everyone else. Not me. It’s the immigrants, the gays, the homeless.

Jesus said a Pharisee and a Tax Collector went up topray:“The Pharisee stood apart and prayed,‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week (and tithe).’” 

But the Tax Collector prayed, “God have mercy on me a sinner.”He didn’t escape. He didn’t project. He owned his moral failures. It was the Tax Collector who went home justified.

If we want a Lenten discipline, let’s try this one: Withdraw our projections. The road to personal wholeness begins when we withdraw our projections. Jesus’ word for personal wholeness was “salvation.”Whoever we’re demonizing, give it up – at least for 40 days. Instead of giving up chocolate, give up a grudge. Maybe it’s someone in our family, church, or neighborhood. Maybe it’s someone we disagree with over politics. A rational disagreement is good. A principled stance is good. But passionate animosity is ineffective and fueled by projection. 

This Lent let’s withdraw our projections and look inside. When we stop blaming others and acknowledge our own sin and mortality, two things become possible:

First, we can see someone else as, in Robert Burns’ words,“my poor earthbound companion and fellow mortal. “ 

Second, we can do some serious soul-searching, cultivating a healthy self-awareness.We may find some stuff that isn’t pretty. But we may also discover the capacity to forgive ourselves for being human. We don’t have to beat ourselves up. Beating ourselves up misses the point.The point is to acknowledge our faults with Christ-like compassion. Maybe start with just one. Acknowledge one fault and forgive yourself.  Then forgive someone else.

If we practice the gentle art of self-forgiveness, we can forgive our “poor earthbound companion(s) and fellow mortal(s).” We may even forgive life for disappointing us long enough to actually live it.  Wouldn’t that be an Easter! Wouldn’t that be a Resurrection!