Fourth Sunday of Lent Year A
April 3, 2011
Let us pray: O God, it just may be these days that our lives are guided more by questions than answers. May the words I say or the spaces between them be ones which tell of your power, presence and care. Amen.
Jesus' response to the disciples, as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson in his version of the bible called The Message is just the right one. The disciples were expressing a mind-set or world view that would be hard to find, at least in western culture these days, namely that physical disabilities were caused by the presence of sin. The disciples wanted to know if it was something passed down from the previous generation or if it was the direct result of something the blind man had done himself. It's not the kind of question you are likely to hear these days, but in case we get too smug that such ancient points of view are no longer relevant, I think it is fair to say that there are still many similar flawed understandings of how the world works. There are still many skewed interpretations working away in the world creating misunderstanding, fear and mistrust.
You are asking the wrong question, Jesus said. Just in case you think the kind of assumption that the disciples demonstrated is a thing of the past, consider the fact that many people seem to be waiting to hear what evangelist Pat Robertson has to say about the Japan earthquake given that he blamed the 2009 Haiti earthquake on a pact that country made with the devil in the 18th century. Maybe we don't have to wait for Pat Robertson because it seems that Glenn Beck the current poster boy of American tea party conservatism pinch hit for him blaming humanity for the devastation of the Japan earthquake. There's not a lot of difference between the questions raised by the disciples with Jesus and the foolish pronouncements of Beck and Robertson, who are doing their best to tarnish the Christian faith with their own brand of misguided stupidity.
A lot of wrong questions get asked, especially when it comes to stories of miracles in the biblical record. We spend a whole lot of time, perhaps almost all of it, trying to figure out the how and what, leaving the why sitting on the back burner. It's almost never about the how and what when a miracle happens. It's about the why. It's not that I don't believe in them. There are plenty of them even if they can be explained to keep us occupied for many lifetimes. It's just that the stories are told to answer a different question.
Today's gospel is a case in point. Surely it is not that great a leap to understand the point the story is trying to make namely that there is more than one way to be blind and more than one way to see things anew. It's also a story not just about being blind, but being blinkered. The pharisees in the story want to make a claim against Jesus as a God follower because no God follower would do what he did, restore the sight of someone on the Sabbath. Like so many of the gospel stories perhaps all of them it's a call to openness openness of vision openness to new ways of understanding the way of God openness to using some common sense in interpreting the religious rules and prescriptions.
Of course such insights are not limited to the gospel record. The bible Hebrew Scripture and Christian Scripture alike is chock full of stories where the wrong question gets asked or the wrong assumption gets made. The reading from the Hebrew Bible today is no exception. Time after time we read of how expectations and assumptions are overturned in responding to the call of God. David, the young artsy shepherd boy, the poet son of Jesse, almost overlooked in the selection process turns out to be chosen one.
As I go through life I am becoming more and more convinced that is this asking a different question that comprises the Christian way and that of the Judaic heritage which we share. It describes in large part what I see as the point Jesus was trying to make in his public ministry namely that God's presence is revealed in the unexpected, in challenging assumptions, in questioning previously strongly held points of view.
I've been getting a lot of radio frequency interference in my office lately. I don't know whether that's a function of a bad radio, too much metal in the building or solar storms but it has resulted in my hooking up my iPod to a pair of speakers so that I can listen to recorded radio in the form of podcasts of some of my favourite programs. I listened this week to scholar Karen Armstrong, a pretty well known author of recent years for her work on comparative religion and an emphasis on what the major faith traditions share. She was speaking to Mary Hynes of the show Tapestry about her Charter for Compassion which won a $100,000 TED prize. In many ways Ms. Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun, encapsulated much of what I am trying to say today, namely that the challenging of assumptions, the presenting of different questions, the following of a different way of doing things is all about what Jesus and for that matter the whole Judeo Christian faith is about. Karen Armstrong's vision is multi-faith which of course throws the whole triumphalist branch of the Christian church into turmoil. But that is pretty much enough for me to say that she's on the right track if it messes up previously held assumptions, causes certain among the Christian community to rise up in protest then there is probably something valid about it. The Charter for Compassion suggests a completely different way of doing things based on peaceful and co-operative interaction. There's nothing completely new to it, her charter draws on the three related faith traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, but it draws on those parts that emphasise co-operation, compassion and peaceful ways of dealing with difference.
Of course it is not just others that are due to be disrupted by the asking of different questions. We can't advocate for a new way of doing and being without knowing that those new ways could very well disrupt, challenge and probably even upset us from time to time. I've mentioned this before and perhaps you remember hearing it, but I recall a classmate of mine from theological college who took a course on the psalms. One of the assignments was to pick a psalm and do a critical analysis of its content and message. My colleague chose Psalm 23 especially because it was so well known and popular. I clearly remember her telling me about the class and how her work on this work of comfort and serenity was being challenged. Of course that is part of the scholarly process, to raise new questions, different questions about that which is taken for granted and previously thought to be thoroughly understood. One of the beauties of scripture is that depending on the context that the reader is in, it can give a tremendous range of both challenge and comfort. This is what my fellow student was finding. Can we do the same? Can we take such familiar words as The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want and consider what different questions, what different perspectives it might offer. It's fine to let it be the source of comfort and strength, but can it also be a source of new insight into the way that God would have you follow?
I believe the call of God to us is just that, namely to allow ourselves to be challenged, even by the very familiar, to hear AND respond to the word by letting it ask different questions, the last shall be first, the underdog will bubble up to the surface, the least expected will be the most wanted, kinds of thinking.
And just in case you are wondering if there are any practical ways to put this into action. Just in case you are wondering if there are any present day opportunities to allow yourself to ask the different question, let me remind you that there is an election campaign underway, and in my mind what I've seen so far is an awful lot like the past, except maybe a little worse. Is this not a perfect time to ask the different question, to suppose that there might be a different way, a different question, a different perspective to put forward. Isn't it what we are called to do? Amen.