Lent 4 – Gospel and Sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 22nd March 2020

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral – a rather empty St Mary’s, shorn for the time being of the people that make it come alive. But still open, still a place of prayer, and contemplation, and faith, in these times of uncertainty, of anxiety and apprehension.

We hope, by next Sunday, to have developed the means properly to offer worship online from the Cathedral. That won’t be with full choir – an all singing affair – but we do hope it will help us all come together, reduce our isolation and our fear; gather us once again as the Body of Christ. Please do check our website at cathedral.net for details. For this Sunday, we have pointed you via our website towards the act of worship offered by our Primus, to the Scottish Episcopal Church as a whole. We hope you will find the ways to engage in that act of communion.

We wanted to also offer you something today, however, from within the Cathedral. To send you our love, assure you of our prayers, and display a little of the ways that we are working to find new creative patterns of gathering and worship in these testing times.

So today, I’ve enlisted the help of my family – my 3 daughters who’ve returned home – to offer a reading of this Sunday’s Gospel, and a short reflection from myself on that Gospel and our current context and crisis.

But first, the Collect for this Sunday. Let us pray.

Almighty God, through the waters of baptism your Son has made us children of light. May we ever walk in his light and show forth your glory in the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Gospeller: A reading from the Holy Gospel according to John, Chapter 9.

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

Jesus: Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

Gospeller: When Jesus had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him:

Jesus: Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.

Gospeller: Siloam means Sent. Then he went and washed and came back able to see.  The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying:

Man: I am the man.

Gospeller: But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’

Man: The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.

Gospeller: They said to him, ‘Where is he?’

Man: I do not know.

Gospeller: They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.  Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight.

Man: He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.

Gospeller: Some of the Pharisees said: ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided.  So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.

Man: He is a prophet.

Gospeller: The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’

Gospeller: His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.  Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him: ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man, Jesus, is a sinner.’

Man: I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.

Gospeller: They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?

Man: I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?

Gospeller: Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’

Man: 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.

Gospeller: They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said:

Jesus: Do you believe in the Son of Man?

Man: And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.

Jesus: You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.

Man: Lord, I believe.

Gospeller: And he worshipped him.

Jesus: I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.

Gospeller: Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him: ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’

Jesus: If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

 

Gospeller: Give thanks to the Lord for his glorious Gospel.

All: Praise to Christ our Lord

 

That long reading, from St John’s Gospel, is the reading given for this Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent. At first hearing it’s perhaps an odd reading to reflect on in our current public health crisis. The more I thought about it, however, the more it seemed to address something important and vital – in these days before the expected storm, as we adjust to new patterns and responsibilities, unsure of what lies ahead.

Our Gospel opens with Jesus and his disciples walking along. The sight of a man born blind provokes a question from the disciples, a question that humans have been grappling with since records began – the question of why people suffer; why the world is, sometimes, such a seemingly cruel place. The disciples begin from the supposition that there must be a reason; that suffering must be, at some level, deserved. That supposition is about a belief in the world being a just place, or at least in God being just: we do something wrong, we are punished, God punishes us. The disciples though, are aware that things aren’t that simple, perhaps blame is something that can be passed from parents to children, they wonder. And so they ask: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

They are asking the question to make sense of an, at times, senseless world. It’s a question, we should note, about someone else – the man born blind over there. It’s a real question, but a slightly academic one, about someone else. We may well be asking a variety of the same question, but it’s not just about someone over there – it’s about all of us; it feels close and fearful – what have we done wrong to deserve this? Who’s to blame? Where is God in it all?

And Jesus offers a strange answer. An answer that is, characteristically, no answer at all to the question posed, but an invitation to reframe the question, to see things differently from the start: Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

Neither this man nor his parents sinned – Jesus begins by breaking the connection between sin and suffering. He is not interested in the blame game. It is a question without an answer. Suffering is.

He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him, Jesus goes on to say. Now we may struggle with that sentence – it may seem that Jesus is saying that God has caused the suffering, in order that God’s works might be revealed. Is God to blame? That would indeed make God something of a monster – presiding over the suffering of others – our present suffering – so that his glory might be revealed. That would be, however, to misunderstand the extent to which Jesus is uninterested in who’s to blame. Not the man, not his parents, not God. It is a question without an answer. Suffering is. This we know. Jesus wants to direct our looking away from the past, away from the question of blame, into the future, into what might be, into how God is, always and everywhere, at work. What Jesus’ response suggests is that God is not in the business of finger pointing and retribution, but in the business of eternally loving and rejoicing. And the invitation is to see God at work and so join in: rather than this man’s blindness being something that leads to a debate about who’s to blame, it will be the place of God’s working. And that is what Jesus, very matter of factly, without great ceremony or show, goes on to do:

When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him: ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’ Then the man went and washed and came back able to see.

John is uninterested in the mechanics of the healing – the story is about going from blindness to seeing, from a question of who’s to blame and pointing fingers, to recognising that God is at work in the midst of it all and joining in with that movement of healing and wholeness. And it is not just the disciples beforehand that miss the point – the story goes on to relate the growing circles of consternation that this simple healing, this restoration, this working of God, causes in those around, whose world has been turned upside down.

What is revealed is a great reversal: the man born blind, assumed by others to somehow be to blame, to be in sin, is restored, and those who think they know what is going on are revealed to be blind to the truth of things, to God’s working, to those simple acts of kindness – no great miracles – but moments of connection and solidarity that can do so much to relieve the suffering.

And in all the too-ing and fro-ing, the man born blind holds on to the new thing he has discovered. You can hear his growing exasperation at the extent to which others are missing the point. He refuses to get caught up in the blame culture. In fact he makes the opposite journey, to recognise in Christ, not just a healer, not just a prophet, but the heart of all things, the truth of all things. Lord, I believe, he exclaims at the climax of the story.

I don’t want to trivialize, or minimize, the dangers and suffering we all face. The coming days will see much soul-searching, much anxiety; but we will also see extraordinary acts of kindness and compassion; extraordinary acts of faith and trust. Jesus himself went onto say, in response to the disciples’ initial question: We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

He too was about to make that journey into darkness, into suffering and desolation. It’s a journey we will walk once again during Holy Week and Easter; it’s a journey that, in different ways we may all be called to make in the weeks ahead. We don’t know. And suffering is. But as he prepared for that journey, he asked his disciples not to look back, not to indulge in academic questions of blame, but to open their eyes to see how God is at work, to see and join in.

Almighty God, through the waters of baptism your Son has made us children of light. May we ever walk in his light and show forth your glory in the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Christ give you grace to grow in holiness, deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow him; and the blessing of God almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be among you, and all for whom you pray, this day and always. Amen.

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