Benediction Online

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Finding Inner Sight

Star Light Star Bright wallpaper

We just heard another gospel reading in the Great Questions of Lent series. Before we think about the questions in this story of the man who was blind from birth, let’s think about blindness for a moment. Was the man-born-blind the only one who couldn’t see?

No.  It seems that his neighbors were blind too – they couldn’t identify him because they had always seen him as the blind man, and now he wasn’t blind, so it couldn’t be him, could it?

The Pharisees were blind too. They couldn’t see the unconditional love of God expressed in Jesus. They just saw a man whom they already hated doing an act of healing which had the effect of making him even more popular with the people. And not only that, but instead of healing in his usual way by declaring the person healed, Jesus had taken earth mixed with saliva and applied it to the blind man’s eyes. Not an unusual act for a healer, but this was on the Sabbath and to knead bread or make mortar, or indeed to mix anything on the Sabbath was against the law. Jesus was deliberately breaking the Pharisees’ Sabbath rules. That was all they could see – a man who was a troublemaker who flaunted the rules and a man whom everyone loved, except them.

Just as the blind man’s neighbors couldn’t see him as anything more than a blind man, the Pharisees couldn’t see Jesus as anything more than a sinner.

So, to the questions; What questions are asked in this reading? And what questions does it raise for you?

I think the big question that this gospel raises for me is what don’t I see? Where am I blind? Who don’t I recognize because I’ve put them in a box and I don’t see the things about them that don’t fit in that box? I suspect that just like the neighbors and the Pharisees there are times when I am so sure I know what’s going on that I miss the reality completely. Or I only see on the surface when the Holy Spirit is busy doing her thing on a totally different level.

Jacques Lusseyran, a blind French resistance fighter wrote about his experience in a memoir called And There Was Light. After he was blinded in a playground scuffle when he was seven, he had an unexpected experience[1]
“The only way I can describe that experience is in clear and direct words,” he wrote. “I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there.”
Its source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread out over the world. I had only to receive it. It was unavoidably there. It was all there, and I found again its movements and shades, that is, its colors, which I had loved so passionately a few weeks before.
This was something entirely new, you understand, all the more so since it contradicted everything that those who have eyes believe. The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.

“Since becoming blind, I have paid more attention to a thousand things,” Lusseyran wrote. One of his greatest discoveries was how the light he saw changed with his inner condition. When he was sad or afraid the light decreased at once. Sometimes it went out altogether, leaving him deeply and truly blind. When he was joyful and attentive it returned as strong as ever. He learned very quickly that the best way to see the inner light and remain in its presence was to love.

I think this is vitally important. Our inner light, our ability to see clearly, depends on our inner condition. When we are anxious, depressed, bitter, judgmental, our inner light dims until it is difficult for us to see and we become blind. The cultivation of serenity is also the cultivation of our ability to see clearly.

When I’m feeling depressed about something, having a friend say “Cheer up! Be positive” is extremely annoying. And that’s not what I’m saying here. I’m talking about cultivating a long-term, underlying serenity, a deep trust in God’s all-encompassing love, so that when the sadness and depression hits you know that it isn’t all there is, you know that it is a feeling which will pass but that God’s love and the force of love in the world are solid, and dependable.

When I am expecting to have a difficult conversation, I tend to rehearse it in my mind in advance and think of all the things I want to say and all the defenses against the angry things I think the other person is going to say. But if I go into the conversation like that I find that I can completely miss a true connection. I become blind to the person I am meeting with and what they are really feeling because I’ve got it all worked out before they even open their mouth. In order to truly see, I have to let all my preplanning go and ask for God’s presence to guide me. The more I can let go of my pre-conceptions and be open to the other and to the Holy Spirit in the moment the more I can truly see the beloved child of God with whom I’m talking, and the more I can see places we can connect rather than the things that divide us.

Neuroscientists are discovering more about the brain all the time. One of the things that’s becoming evident is that learning to cultivate positive feelings rather than negative ones actually changes us at a cellular level and increases our body’s immune response.[2] As the blind Frenchman Lusseyran discovered, the best way to see the inner light and remain in its presence is to love, and that includes loving not just God, not just one’s neighbor, but oneself.

Love is expressed not just in the big things; the times of deep sharing or of extreme need but in the everyday courtesies and the gentleness of allowing each other to grow and to blossom without criticism or blaming. The more we can approach ourselves and others with serenity, respect and gentleness, the more clearly we will see.

Yet Jesus said to the Pharisees, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, `We see,' your sin remains." So is Jesus saying we should seek to be blind? No, I think he is commenting on their self-importance. The Pharisees were not known for their humility.

When we are full of ourselves and our own right-ness then we do not truly have space for others or for God. Part of cultivating serenity is developing a humility which knows that I am not the be-all and end-all, which knows that I am not always right or always in charge: the world does not rotate around me. In many ways I am blind, and so I must depend upon the Holy Spirit for guidance and for sight.

So like the man-born-blind, we are dependent upon God for our sight, but also like the man-born-blind we get to participate in our healing. We don’t have to wash in the pool of Siloam; we get to cultivate serenity, gentleness and love.

[1] This excerpt is from Barbara Brown Taylor's new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. © 2014 Barbara Brown Taylor. My thanks to Donna Ross for drawing this to my attention.
[2] The Little Things, Barbara Fredrickson, Psychotherapy Networker, March/April 2014 p 61. See also

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Come Out and Keep the Water Flowing

John 4:5-42

Last week we listened in on Jesus’ conversation with a powerful man, the rabbi Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night so that he wouldn’t be seen talking to the rabble-rousing troublemaker. Today we hear Jesus in another conversation, but with someone completely different. The unnamed woman by the well is an outcast in more ways than one. She has three strikes against her.

To start with, she was a woman in a rigidly patriarchal society. It certainly wasn’t considered appropriate for a good Jewish teacher to be talking to a woman by himself. The disciples, we read, were astonished when they came back with food and found the two of them deep in conversation. But by now they knew Jesus well enough to keep their opinions to themselves.

Secondly, she was a Samaritan. There was bad blood between Jews and Samaritans; they didn’t speak. It was partly a religious thing and partly a political thing - their feud was similar to the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland or perhaps the Muslims and the Christians in northern and southern Nigeria. The reasons for the feud go deep but are almost inexplicable except when expressed in terms of religious conflict. Could God be truly worshipped on the hillsides of Samaria as the Samaritans maintained, or was the Jerusalem temple the only place of true worship, as the Jews believed? About the time of Jesus’ birth, some Samaritans had profaned the temple by scattering the bones of dead people in the sanctuary. Such acts, like the destruction of ancient Buddhist statues by the Taliban a few years ago, are not quickly forgotten. The woman herself asks, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?"

And thirdly she was a social outcast among her own people. Women had to be part of a household with a patriarch. A woman living alone would have had no way to support herself. We don’t know what happened to this woman’s  husbands – whether they each tragically died or whether they abandoned her – and how she came to be living with a man who was not her husband, nor it seems her son. She came to the well in the heat of the day – at about noon – which is not a good time to be carrying water. Presumably she came then in order to avoid the other women of the village.

This woman didn’t seek out Jesus. She didn’t know he was a great teacher or healer. He was just a man at a well, asking for water. And in that liminal space outside normal society they had a conversation which resonates through the centuries. In that conversation Jesus came out to her. This is the only time before the trial when Jesus says that he is indeed the Messiah. For the Samaritans the Messiah was not seen so much as a political and revolutionary leader but as a great teacher, so it maybe that this was one place where he could use that term without fomenting insurgency.
Last week Donna talked about the questions of Lent. For Nicodemus the big question was how to receive the Spirit – how to be born again. What are the questions you hear being asked in this conversation? And what questions does it raise for you?

The woman at the well was so impressed and excited by Jesus that she went back to the city, and though she was hardly a community leader she brought people out to meet him and at their request he stayed for two days when originally he had just been travelling though the area returning to Galilee from Jerusalem. The big question for me is how do we let people know that there is living water to be found in Christ and in Christ’s body, the church?

Christianity has gotten a bad name, and we need to get the word out that the spiritual connection which so many people long for, is freely available. We need to get the word out not because we want more people in church on a Sunday morning, though that’s always wonderful, but because it’s what the world needs and because living water becomes stagnant if it doesn’t keep moving. Changing the image, we are fed by doing God’s will and we know from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus that God’s will is that all will turn to him. We are the body of Christ, we are God with flesh on in our community. It is part of our task to witness to God’s love wherever we are.

Fred Phelps, the hateful anti-gay crusader died this week. I trust he will find a nice surprise waiting for him in death, hopefully one with lots of rainbow flags. He has become a cultural laughing stock but that is because he is a caricature of what many people think Christians are – purveyors of God’s judgment and anger. We know a different God – we know a God whose justice rolls down like water and whose righteousness is an everflowing stream (Amos 5:24). That is the God that people need to hear about; the loving God whose heart is always open, who longs to welcome all beings into the reign of God.

The main reason that the tide is turning for gay and lesbian people in this country is because one after another we came out. One after another we took the risk to tell friends and family that we are gay. It was always a risk. It often still is. The percentage of gay, lesbian and trans people among homeless youth is much higher than you might expect. We still get thrown out for being queer. It is a risk. But coming out is a risk that we have to take in order to be truly who God made us to be.

Jesus came out to the Samaritan woman, and it was a blessing to her. Coming out is a risk that the Body of Christ needs to take if we are to be truly who God made us to be and to be a blessing to our community. Living water has to be shared, it cannot be stored because then it becomes flat; living water is like a fountain welling up inside us – and it has to go somewhere. If your supply of living water seems more like a trickle than a geyser there are two questions to consider: are you fully open to the source? Or are you damming the flow?

So these are the questions I leave with you this week, in addition to those that we discussed earlier:
Are you fully open to the Spirit, the source of living water?
Are you damming the water, holding it and making it still water, by not daring to share it?