Last week I had the privilege of spending some time at St. Paul’s Senior Homes, down the street. As you may know, the Dean of the Cathedral is ex officio the president of this very impressive and successful corporation. I attended the annual board meeting on Monday and on Tuesday I attended a “clergy interest” tour of the close-by facilities, led by the development director. I had the advantage of having had a tour the previous week from residents who are also parishioners, so it was interesting to see how the “official” tour differed from the residents’ tour. I learned a lot about the history of St. Paul’s Senior Homes, and we got a peek at the renovations in the McColl Health Center, which are nearly complete.
Our tour leader pointed out the newly renovated entrance area and nurses’ station, where the counter is extra-low to accommodate those who use wheelchairs, and he talked about the evolution of care, from a time when the rules were made and kept purely for the benefit of the institution, to today’s enlightened era where residents are not, for example, woken from a sound sleep just because the rules say they must have breakfast at 7 am. It was good to hear about how the vision has expanded over the years, from the original apartment building in the Manor to the assisted living facility at the Villa, to the under-construction Plaza, which will incorporate the latest thinking about senior living and the preferences of the Baby Boomers. The boomers of course are retiring in their thousands and proving to be a much more demanding client population than previous generations of elders, I had to wonder if there will be any rules at all by the time the millennials retire.
In the days of Jesus’ ministry, the people of God were all about rules. The law of Moses, handed down through the generations, was God’s greatest gift to God’s people. It was not a burden but a privilege to know how God wanted people to live and to be able to strive for a life free from infraction. But over the centuries, the rules became rigid and brittle. They were too easy to break – a step too many from home on the Sabbath, a brush against a menstruating woman, an inability to pay the Temple tax – and fulfilling the Law was functionally impossible for almost everyone.
The Pharisees, well-educated, wealthy men, were better able than most to keep the rules, and so they became the guardians of the law, all too ready to call out and punish those who broke the rules, however inadvertently, even when breaking the rules clearly resulted in a beneficial outcome. For the Pharisees, the rules trumped kindness, generosity, and even the gift of healing. They had lost sight of the reason for rules; they were blind to human need.
So here comes Jesus, on the Sabbath, and he sees a man who is blind. I wonder, how many other people really saw that man? All the disciples saw was the disability: the man was a living example of misfortune, and they believed that misfortune was a punishment from God for some sin in the family tree. We don’t believe that, do we? We don’t prevent needy children from receiving free lunches because their home environment is too chaotic for them to finish their homework? Do we? We don’t dismiss the homeless man begging on the street because he should be out finding a job. We don’t blame the neighborhood drunk for his disease. No, we never allow ourselves to believe that misfortune is somehow deserved. At least I hope we don’t.
The question the disciples ask – who sinned – opens up an opportunity for Jesus to open up their minds, to open their eyes to the true nature of God: that God doesn’t visit misfortune upon us, but on the contrary, God may demonstrate God’s glory by doing wonderful and healing acts. And so Jesus acts out a little ritual with mud and spit, anoints the man’s eyes, and sends him off to wash in the pool of Siloam nearby. The man hasn’t spoken, hasn’t asked to be healed, hasn’t even given Jesus permission to touch him, but he is given a task and he does it promptly. Of course, if you got mud in your eye you would want to wash it off too.
It’s in the man’s return from the pool that the miracle becomes evident. You can imagine him running, dancing, shouting with glee, wondering aloud at the beauty of the world, drawing attention to himself. And the neighbors notice. They see the man, see him fully for the first time, and start to ask each other, “Who is this? Surely he isn’t that blind beggar?” They’ve known him all his life, and yet they can barely recognize him. So often we see only someone’s disability: the wheelchair, the missing limb, the drooping face or scarred skin, and we cannot see past it to the remarkable person within, the person who may not even dare to ask for healing.
It’s only a small step from there to seeing only the brokenness of each other, only the sin of the other, and thence to imagining that we see as God sees, that our judgment is God’s judgment, that we speak for God and can therefore condemn on God’s behalf. The late Fred Phelps surely thought he spoke for God when he condemned individuals, communities, and even an entire nation for what he saw as sin.
The neighbors don’t know what to make of the miracle of the man’s healing, and they bring him before the authorities. He tells the story, over and over, in the most straightforward terms: the man called Jesus put mud on my eyes; I washed, and I can see. He doesn’t attempt to explain, interpret or justify: he just tells the truth. Remember, just a few verses earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus has said that the truth will make us free. This man demonstrates his spiritual freedom by telling the truth. But all the Pharisees can see is that the rules have been broken: someone has worked on the Sabbath. Never mind that it was healing work, liberating work, life-giving work: it’s against the rules, and the God they know cares only about the rules. That’s how blind they are.
Now, there are rules, and there is God’s desire, and the two are not always the same thing. In fact, I believe that the Holy Spirit operates entirely outside the rules, and that’s how new things come to be; that’s how God makes God’s self known to us in new ways; that’s how we grow. Sometimes we must break the rules if we are to break open our understanding of God’s will.
The church has learned this over and over: the rules said priests couldn’t marry. The rules said only men could be clergy. The rules said children must be confirmed before they could receive communion. The rules said marriage was only for heterosexual couples and then only for couples of the same ethnic background. We are currently in the middle of a church-wide conversation about the rule that says only baptized Christians may receive Communion, and as you may know, there is wide variety in the observance of this particular rule even within the Episcopal Church. As our understanding of God’s love and desire for humankind grows and evolves, courageous and prophetic individuals push the envelope, break the rules, force the issue, so that we can re-examine the rules and perhaps, prayerfully, faithfully, push beyond the rules to an expanded sense of divine love.
As I come to know this community and as we start to discern God’s will for us in the days and years ahead, I have a sense that we are to lean a little on the rule – perhaps an unwritten one but one that pertains nevertheless – to lean on the rule that says church happens inside a particular building and should be contained within what we have designated sacred space. I see this rule starting to crumble as we take to the streets and parks, as we find ways to engage with our neighbors, as we discover what it means to create sacred space wherever we are.
When I was in seminary, I worked as a chaplain in the outpatient department of a rehab hospital. It was my task to approach people who were waiting for treatment or for a loved one, to engage them in conversation, to offer what pastoral care I could in the moment. I learned that it is possible to create sacred space in a busy corridor, a noisy waiting room, a crowded entrance-hall, anywhere, in fact, where two or three are gathered together. My understanding of sacred space was stretched, and perhaps it was stretched in order to prepare me for the ministry that lies ahead of us here.
The Pharisees insisted on remaining blind to the love and compassion which formed the foundation of the Law of Moses: they could see only the rigid structure of the rules, and when Jesus challenged the rules they reacted in fear and tried to destroy him. People’s lives were injured by that fear: the healed man was driven out of his community. But Jesus came looking for that man, to offer him a new community, one based on love instead of fear, on freedom instead of captivity, on spiritual sight instead of blindness. Jesus comes looking for us today to offer us the same gift, just as he comes looking for all those who have lost community, who have been wounded by the structures that block our vision.
Freedom is scary: sometimes it feels preferable to remain safely locked into the rules that we know, rather than to smash the structure and step out into the light. But the community Jesus calls us into is infinitely better than the fear-driven communities we have known. We do not see as God sees: we are not God. We see only the outward, while God sees the heart. But if we are courageous enough to look, and keep looking, if we answer the call to break out of our blind prisons, by God’s grace we may be freed to find a new way of seeing, a way that offers us a greater glimpse of God’s true self, a way that pushes through the suffering and darkness and alienation to a new home of healing, redemption and light.
The Very Rev. Penny Bridges
March 30, 2014