4 Lent, Year A, 2017

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Link to Lectionary Readings for 4 Lent: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Lent/ALent4_RCL.html

So I’m going to boil that story from John
right down to its primary ingredients:
Those clergy
tried to talk that newly sighted beggar
right out of his own, very real, very personal experience.

Right? See what I mean?
They want him to believe their version of reality
rather than his own experience.

They didn’t like what they heard from that old beggar.
If what the blind man claimed was true –
that someone blind from birth
got his or her sight back –
it would hover outside their categories of truth
and be corrosive to their authority.

Accepting and confirming the version of reality
told by that newly sighted beggar,
would subvert the clergy’s neat and tidy theology –
which was an institutional worldview
carefully constructed to funnel the masses
into the self-interest of the institution.

We need to feel the burn of that tension in this story
if we want to see where it’s pointing us.

The clergy have a lot of anxiety
because if it turns out to be true,
that someone born blind can get his or her sight back
without the pre-requisite sacrifices,
and absolutions
prescribed by clerical authority,
it would lead to an unfortunate re-thinking
of what is possible –
unfortunate for the clergy and the temple.

You see, the way their worldview was constructed,
the temple had a monopoly
on the power to make things right
between God and the world.

The clergy didn’t like the implications
of the beggar’s testimony
so they went in search of something that would
undermine his credibility.
They hauled in his parents
and tried to coerce a different answer
than the one given by their son.
When that failed,
the clergy tried to get the parents
to admit their son wasn’t really born blind.

But here is the deal with oppressed
and enslaved peoples:
they often become expert
at walking on the razor blade of danger
extended routinely by their oppressors.

So the once-blind man’s parents,
afraid of the clergy who wielded considerable power,
found a way to speak the truth
without directly contradicting the clergy.

Frustrated, the clergy
brought back the newly sighted beggar
for further interrogation.

Here the story takes a turn
and it is all because the once-blind beggar
is not afraid them.
Truly, how could he be afraid
after the experience he has just gone through?
So the once blind beggar
finally runs out of patience
and he simply tells the clergy where to go.

The clergy do what people in power usually do
when they don’t like the answer: they get rid of him.
“Get out!” they tell him,
“you do not belong here.

You are not one of us –
your experience is wrong
and we know what is right.”

Now be honest,
hasn’t that happened to you before?

Somewhere along the line,
maybe even with people you love,
hasn’t your experience – what you know to be true – been denied by other people?
Religious and political institutions
are of course famous for denying human experience,
but it doesn’t stop there.
There is a high priesthood of science
that often denies our experience,
and insists we go against the wisdom in our bones.
If we cannot replicate it in the laboratory
then it is not real.
If we cannot measure it
then it did not happen
or does not exist.

It’s not any better at our end of the spectrum either.
The high priesthood of religion tells us,
with varying degrees of absolutism,
if it is not in Scripture,
or if it contradicts Scripture,
and if it does not conform to the doctrines and creeds,
then it is not true.

and political parties,
and all manner of partisan advocates and lobbyists,
have a version of truth
and a vision of reality
they insist we should agree with.
It has become evermore Orwellian and bizarre lately,
and is such a caricature it would be funny
except that millions of people on both sides
actually buy into it.

But regardless of which authority is doing the talking,
we are prescribed truth and reality
from every direction,
and underneath all that pressure
and seduction
it can start to be a struggle
to trust the wisdom of our own experience.
Like that newly sighted beggar in John’s story,
it can feel as though the voices from all sides
are insisting we believe what they say
above what we know in our bones.

Those of us who own our
religious and spiritual experience
are between a rock and a hard place these days.

On the one side
secularism and dogmatic science that lacks imagination, just outright rejects any faith claims
as ridiculous.
On the other side,
the voices of religion that get heard
in the culture,
get heard because they have created
a kind of capitalist Christianity
that sells a marketable prosperity gospel.

So many of us
who would like to share our experiences
are reticent to do so
because we don’t want to be mistaken
for that, or some of the other kinds of religion.

Let’s say we have an encounter with God,
one that couldn’t be proven by replication,
and one that does not conform to the narrow guidelines
of institutional or popular religion.
Maybe it’s just a little encounter;
maybe only a minnow of an inkling even,
that you wish you could share with someone.
It seems hazardous though, doesn’t it?

One time I was sitting in a hospital room
holding hands with an elderly woman
who was in and out of consciousness
on her way to death.
I happened to open my eyes
at the very moment her expression
was utterly transformed.
Where she had just been unresponsive
with labored breathing
in spite of oxygen flowing into her nose and mouth,
she suddenly had a glow as if a light
were shinning out from under her face.
A broad grin spread across her cheeks,
as her lips curled up
and raised the curtain on her teeth.
“He’s here,” she said.

Knowing who she was talking about
but unable to utter it out loud myself,
I asked, “Who’s here?”
“Jesus,” she said
as a weak arm lifted and formed into a pointing finger
toward the end of the bed.
“He is here and ready for me,” she smiled.

Now just because I am a priest
doesn’t mean I think Jesus
is the Gondola driver who ferries people
across the River of Death.
In fact, I can tell you
that woman’s experience
was definitely not in harmony with my assumptions.
I could easily have rejected it as morphine induced.

Instead I squeezed her hand
and looked around.
No one there from my perspective.
Fumbling for something intelligent
or at least pastoral to say, I finally muttered,
“Tell him Cam says ‘Hi.’”

One of the great privileges of my profession
is that I get to see and hear things on a regular basis
for which I have no experience –
I get to stand on other people’s holy ground.
In that place, and in those moments,
I can say “yes” or “no.”

Or, I can simply stay open
and store the moment away
as one of those marvels in life
for which I may one day have a similar experience.

We don’t know what it was like in John’s world
when he wrote that story
about the blind guy and the clergy,
but we do know in our world
there is tremendous pressure
upon each one of us
to give up the authority of our own experience.

We are constantly being urged,
and berated,
and seduced
into granting authority to others
who will define the world for us,
and tell us what to believe
and how to interpret our experiences.
We put the integrity of our lives,
and the wisdom of our own experience at great risk
when we allow them to do it.

One of the things we put at risk
when allowing other people or organizations
to define our experience for us,
is the kiss of God.

God touches us in the realm
of our own personal experience
and only we can judge or verify it.
Whether the kiss
is big, slobbery, and passionate
as it was for the newly sighted beggar;
or it is a small butterfly kiss,
an intimate gesture
no bigger than an inkling
or subtle affirmation;
we still have to appropriate it
and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to it.

We simply must not allow high priests of any kind,
or other so-called ‘experts,’
to cause us to deny what we know in our bones.

We must not allow the tenacious insistence
upon the singular truth of the scientific method
to fence us inside prison walls
where violence is performed
upon our memories of encountering the sacred.

We must not allow
sophisticated political or consumer campaigns
seeking to shape our perception of truth and reality,
to tell us our vision isn’t good
and we need their lens
in order to see properly.

We have seen the handprint of the holy,
and felt the light of God’s presence
stream through the eyes of another,
and we have been kissed by the lips of God.
Whether it was in the majesty of Nature,
or the intimacy of the heart,
or in a healing touch,
we must hold those experiences
and never allow others
to define
or deny them.

Every one of us here has known the kiss of God
in one way or another,
once or often, past or present.

Every one of us here
has been
and is being
pressured to let go of those memories,
to let go of the knowledge,
to let go of the wisdom of our own experience.

Every one of us here
is under pressure to more nearly conform
to what the hawkers
and marketers
and politicos
and experts
want us to see and hear.

My job
is not to tell you who or what God is,
or to get you to see the world
through a Christian or Episcopalian lens.

Our job as a community of faith
is not to prescribe a version of reality
or interpretive lens
so that we all perceive the same things.

Instead, we come here,
to a place like this
and to be with a people like this,
to help us live at uncomfortable angles
and to hold awkward insights.

We come here
to be reminded
and held and kissed again.

We come to a place like this
with people like this,
to do weird things like light candles in prayer,
sing odd words to strange songs,
and ingest bread and wine we call Jesus,
not to rob us of vision,
or have our eyesight replaced with social blindness.
Rather, we come to a place like this
and do weird stuff
in order that we might become more open
and see what is all around us
that we have been unable to see.

It is then,
here and elsewhere,
we hope to be able to recognize
and respond
to the kiss of God
when it gets planted on our lips
or placed in our heart
or delivered by the touch of another.