A sermon preached by the Rev. Beth Rauen Sciaino
at St. Bernard's Episcopal Church in Bernardsville, NJ,
on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 26, 2017
Scripture: John 9:1-41
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 answered, "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." 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" (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors 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, "I am the man." But they kept asking him, "Then how were your eyes opened?" He answered, "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." They said to him, "Where is he?" He said, "I do not know."
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. He said to them, "He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see." 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." He said, "He is a prophet."
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." 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 is a sinner." He answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" He answered them, "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?" 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." The man answered, "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." 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, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" He answered, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him." Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he." He said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped him. Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains."
Our lives are made up of stories. Even those of us who don't consider ourselves great storytellers use stories to make sense of our experiences and interactions. What's happened in the past, what's currently going on, and what the future will bring. I'm reading Brené Brown's book Rising Strong, about how we get up from a fall, either personal or professional, the process of falling, getting up, and trying again. You may know Brené Brown from her TED talks and research on vulnerability and shame.
In this book, she begins by focusing on the importance of storytelling. To rise strong after we have fallen, we need to pay attention to the stories we are making up when we are down on the ground, before we even get up.
Brown writes, "If integrate means "to make whole," then its opposite is to fracture, disown, disjoin, detach, unravel, or separate. I think many of us move through the world feeling this way. The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness-even our wholeheartedness-actually depends on the integration of all of our experiences, including the falls."
In order to be transformed in our rising, she calls on us to be curious about what we are feeling. "Recognizing emotion means developing awareness about how our thinking, feeling (including our physiology), and behavior are connected." What are we feeling? How is our body responding? What stories are we telling ourselves? Too often we were discouraged from having a range of feelings as children, and rarely given the tools to recognize, acknowledge, and work with our feelings and related thoughts and behaviors. Even if our initial answers don't capture what's really going on, they may tell us about our default narratives and patterns. Increasing our awareness of our emotions and stories is a scary task, especially when we identify our default messages: I'm not good enough, I'm not worthy, I don't have anything to contribute, I'm not a creative person. But knowing these defaults is the first step to changing them. Next, Brown charges us with delving further into what we are feeling and telling ourselves. We can't just run with the first story that fits our way of seeing the world, including our insecurities.
Brown cites neurologist and novelist Robert Burton who "writes, "Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them." He goes on to say that even with a half story in our minds, "we earn a dopamine 'reward' every time it helps us understand something in our world-even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.""
Jotting down a few notes can help us gain a new perspective on what's actually going on in a particular situation. Brown uses the following list and fills in the blanks:
"The story I'm making up:
Brené Brown emphasizes the "power of expressive writing in the healing process." She writes that researcher James "Pennebaker believes that because our minds are designed to try to understand things that happen to us, translating the messy, difficult experiences into language essentially makes them "graspable."" The act of private writing allows us to avoid editing events to make ourselves look better, or at least, less awful, which we are more likely to do in a conversation with someone else. Taking 15 to 20 minutes a day, for four days in a row, to write about "emotional upheaval" we are experiencing or have experienced "can decrease anxiety, rumination, and depressive symptoms and boost our immune system."
Putting aside the fact that most of them can't read or write, there are a number of people in today's Gospel for whom I would recommend this assignment. There is upheaval all over the place in our Gospel. I'm first struck by the neighbors who can't recognize the formerly blind man. They cannot integrate his new reality because it's broken the narrative mold they're accustomed to. How often does this happen to us? We are no different. To his neighbors, he's the blind man - his place is on the margins, begging, his gifts and very presence neglected and unseen. Why would anyone take notice of him, especially on the Sabbath? The Pharisees are also blind. They are stuck in their narrative of sabbath keeping and their questions about the source of Jesus' healing power.
John, our author, is busy at work making sense of this story. I'm not sure if the parents' response to the Pharisees is out of fear, as John says, or because they see their son as a full person, able to answer for himself. This story precedes the good shepherd discourse in John, in which Jesus tells another story to help us make sense of the blind man's healing. Jesus says, ""Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.
The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers."" (John 10:1-5)
Unlike healing stories in the synoptic Gospels, the man doesn't call out to Jesus asking for healing. We hear Jesus proclaim himself to be "the light of the world" - the light source by whom God and God's kingdom are made visible - and then he makes a paste of dirt and saliva and rubs it on the man's eyes. When Jesus tells the man to go and wash in the pool of Siloam (which means Sent), the man follows Jesus' instructions, he trusts Jesus' voice, and returns with sight. Just like St. Photini last week, the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind moves into greater awareness and discipleship as the story progresses. He too will be sent to witness to God working through and in Jesus.
Our Gospel with its accompanying good shepherd discourse and Brené Brown invite us to pay attention. Pay attention to the stories we make up to make sense of our lives. Get curious about the stories and our own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Which stories are incomplete, or just plain wrong? How can we see new narratives, that help us make new choices? Our call is to wade into the pool of Siloam, feeling the weight of holy mud on our eyes, and wash in the water, trusting that we too can be Jesus' hands, feet, and heart in the world, having integrated our falls and our successes into our own stories. Rising up out of the water, trusting in God's love and our capacity to love helps us live more fully into the authentic person God created us to be, the authentic Christian community of St. Bernard's that Jesus experiences us to be. May we trust our capacity to do that hard work we have been given to do in our own lives, with our own stories. So that we can reach out our arms in love to neighbors, strangers, and parishioners in the name of Savior who isn't afraid to get muddy and heal on the sabbath. Amen.
Brené Brown. Rising Strong. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. pp. 42-43.