March 22, 2020 – Lent 4

Title:March 22, 2020 – Lent 4

 Lent 4, Year A, March 22, 2020 (full size gallery)

This week was the first day of spring on March 20,  "And Spring arose on the garden fair, Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere; And each flower and herb on Earth’s dark breast rose from the dreams of its wintry rest." — Percy Bysshe Shelley, "The Sensitive Plant"

Spring is about a change in vision. Part of this is the increasing sunlight and warmth returning to the land, this year in fits and starts. The sky has a variety of light based on the clouds. Flowers appear in waves. Animals such as squirrels wake up from their hibernation.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent is "Mothering Sunday" expressed with baking simnel cakes. It is sometimes called refreshment Sunday. This comes from Galatians 4:26 "But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all."

There are several possible origins of this tradition: 

1. A tradition of visiting one’s mother after this particular service. Expecting their families, mothers would bake this cake to serve with tea.

2. Serving girls on estates and in households were allowed this Sunday off to visit their mothers.

3. A family would travel to its ‘Mother Church,’ or parish they were originally from, on this Sunday.

These cakes became popular over time for that occasion midway through Lent, which was a good time to break the fasting a little. Much like the third Sunday of Advent, ‘Stir Up Sunday,’ with its baking tradition. "Simnel" is from the Latin ‘similis,’ as in similar or same, as the cakes were originally made with equal parts of flour and sugar.

But today is also sometimes known as Refreshment Sunday. Rather like the 3rd Sunday of Advent, it’s a day which stands towards the middle of the season of Lent, and traditionally, a certain amount of relaxation of Lent was allowed. 

We’re moving towards the end of Lent. It is helpful to review where we have been over the last 3 weeks. The second Sunday through the fifth has Jesus confronting various characters – a educated Pharisee, a Samaritan Women, a blind man and a man recently deceased. These texts from John are about revelation–the revelation of who Jesus is, the one sent by God, the begotten God, whose offer of life is in his presence and not necessarily delayed until his death.

Except for the beginning and end of the Gospel this week, Jesus is absent in the twists and turn of the plot. Jesus does make himself known in a significant way. It shows the power and glory of Christ and how humans confront it. The blind man gains more than his sight – he gains faith and spiritual maturity.

In today’s readings, we explore this idea of light for the world, dispelling spiritual darkness. In the first reading, Samuel sees beyond outward appearances to choose the least likely son of Jesse to anoint as king. Paul explains that the Christian’s life must be characterized by the light of holiness. In today’s gospel, a blind man gains sight and worships Jesus.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the prevailing understanding of illness was that it came from God, the result of sin. The disciples, however, find a flaw in the theory: if illness was the result of sin, how could a tiny baby be afflicted? How could a man born blind be culpable? Passing the buck to the parents hardly seems fair.

Jesus turns from the verbal and intellectual exercise to the direct, and in this case dirty, work of healing the individual. It is as if he deliberately chooses the most basic elements–spit and mud–to show his preference for action over theory.

Catherine’s 2017 sermon adds,"But the fact that this man is blind does give Jesus an opportunity to do God’s work in the world by healing the man and giving him sight. And by giving the man sight, Jesus is going to not only let him see light, but to give this man an opportunity to take his seeing to a whole new level.

"But not only does this man gain his physical sight, but he also goes through a process of gaining his spiritual sight.This man’s awareness of who Jesus is works like that. After Jesus touches him, he can see. And at first, all he knows about his healing is that a man named Jesus put mud on his eyes."

"And then when Jesus finds the man, Jesus asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (And for John, the Son of Man is Christ, the Son of God.) And the man says, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus says to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”

In other words, “It’s me—you’re looking at me, and hearing my voice!”

Now this man’s understanding reaches full intensity. He is seeing at a whole new level. “Lord, I believe.”

Ironically, the cure causes a flurry of theorizing. It threatens authorities whose positions are entrenched, and who refuse to let facts interfere with assumptions. The Pharisees would never dirty their robes or their rules with spittle, dirt or (God forbid) humanity!

As they question the cured man, he responds with courage–tinged with sarcasm. The authorities resent his plain, unlearned speech and become defensive as he bares the holes in their arguments. Confronting unvarnished truth, they resort to the same tired theories. Their strategies fail because the man speaks fearlessly, refusing to be intimidated.

Jesus seeks the man out, in contrast to the authoritarian method of summoning him. Unbothered by the man’s ignorance of his identity, Jesus explains, you–with your new power of sight–have seen the Son of Man. Perhaps it was for that moment of recognition that the man’s sight was restored. In a stunning gesture of belief, he bows before the Lord.

As Jesus diagnoses the Pharisees’ blindness, to what extent the diagnosis is also ours ?We are not guilty because we have limited sight (that is the human condition), but because we do not bring our impaired vision to Jesus.

David Lose elaborates this week about our tendency to hold on to people’s past in a negative sense:

"In this story, it seems like it’s just really, really hard for the people around the man who received his sight – which John calls him in v. 18 – to adjust to his new reality or see him for anything more than what he used to be. And so some folks don’t recognize him at all. Others, including his parents, know what he struggled with and see his transformation but aren’t sure what to make of it.

"The two exceptions to this pattern of being trapped in designations reflecting the past are, first, the man himself and, second, Jesus. The man who sees can only rejoice in his recovery and looks ahead to an open and even delightful future that probably exceeds anything he had previously imagined. How else, I wonder, could he engage the religious authorities who have intimidated others (including his parents) with such good humor: “Do you, also, want to become his disciples?” Indeed, there is a certain joyfulness to his portions of dialogue that is easy to miss if we understand him only as “the man born blind.” Consider the brave playfulness of his retorts to the authority: “I do not know if he was a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (v. 25) Or, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (30-33). He has been given an open future and nothing will deter him from seizing it.

"Jesus also looks to the future rather than the past, inviting this man to faith and encouraging him by not just taking his question seriously but by revealing himself to him – indeed, the play on “you have seen him” is simultaneously poignant and joyful. All of this leads the man who now sees to make the quintessential confession in John’s Gospel: “Lord, I believe.”

"Perhaps this week, Dear Partner, we have the opportunity to ask people to take stock of their past – the good, the difficult, the encouraging, the challenging – and ask what they need to let go to receive the open future God has prepared for them. What designations no longer serve? How have they understood themselves in terms of tragedy or challenge or limitation? And how might they grasp hold of the open future that Jesus’ grace and forgiveness and resurrection provide? How might the baptismal identity of “child of God” replace some of the other names we’ve been called or have accepted?"