Sermon of the Week
Courage for Lent: The One with Heart
Keywords: King David, Man Born Blind, Literary Analysis, Brene Brown, Fred Rogers, Heart, Coronavirus.
Like their parents, my daughters aren’t quite sure what to make of the fact
that there will not be any more in-person classes at school this academic year.
We got the word last week when we were out of town,
in Florida, trying to take a much-needed rest from school and work and life
and, instead, finding that this novel coronavirus
was more dangerous than anyone quite had thought
and so we needed to come home early, and we did,
home to self-quarantine and shelter in place orders,
checking in with our family and our friends and our neighbors,
and, for our kids, trying to come to grips with the fact that
they won’t be going back to middle school.
All of us are feeling disoriented. Disrupted.
I know I am.
Mixtures of emotions, for sure: happy for some time at home with family,
quite sad that we’re not able to see our friends in person again for a while,
maybe a long while,
not so sure how we feel
about not diving into the stress of school work right away,
but absolutely sure that the stress of these current moments is enough,
thank you very much.
I’ve been talking with them about their school work lately,
even before all of this.
I don’t want to go too deeply into this,
I don’t really mean to bring them into the middle of a sermon,
but they said something lately about school
that has impacted how I’ve been reacting
to these two stories from the bible that are before us today.
In 8th grade English, apparently, you learn a lot about how to study a story.
You explore metaphor, symbolism,
figurative vs literal speech,
foreshadowing and allusion,
all great things to think about,
all topics that are in a modern preacher’s toolbox
when we sit down to try to understand a passage of scripture
like the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Man Born Blind
or the ancient story of the selection of David to be the new King of Israel
a new King because God had decided that the existing King, King Saul,
wasn’t the right kind of King for that moment.
I spent a lot of time in Seminary working on some of those very techniques
so I could try to understand these Biblical stories better too….
and they’re important, because John uses a lot of symbols to get his point across:
elements like light and water–for-washing and even the faculty of sight,
because the guy who wrote the book we call the gospel of John
is trying to get the reader to see
that this Jesus is someone unique, someone important…
someone sent by God to heal and to bring compassion to a hurting world.
He literally says that phrase a lot in his Gospel: “come and see.”
So the writer of John likes to use metaphor and symbol to point to Jesus.
There’s a lot of symbolism in the other reading too,
the story of the selection of David:
there’s a flask of oil, which is the traditional way a King would be made the king,
someone duly appointed would anoint them with it,
literally pour the oil over their head like a crown,
so the flask of oil has a lot of meaning, foreshadowing at the start of the story;
then there’s the familiar motif in the Hebrew Bible of the selection of the youngest
an inversion of the traditional way that power was conveyed, right,
we expect responsibility to be handed down to the oldest, to the first born,
but time and time again, in the Hebrew Bible,
it is the unexpected one, the youngest, who steps up, who is called:
so it was for Isaac, not his brother Esau
and for Joseph, and that amazing technicolor dreamcoat,
not one of his 11 older brothers,
and so it will be for King David.
So David fits into a biblical motif, a trope, that we could explore,
noting how David was not even included by his father,
because he was tasked to be working in the fields…
there’s no way Samuel would want David to be a part of the dinner party,
let him tend the sheep.
It is the same sort of motif you get in our modern-day stories
like Cinderella or Rey from the more recent Star Wars movies,
where the one seen as the least plausible, most unlikely, most marginalized
that person becomes the central figure of the story.
All of these are great things to analyze in an English class,
or in a sermon, for sure.
And this helps us understand the God that these stories are trying to describe for us,
the same God that loves the Samaritan woman at the well,
and the pharisee Nicodemus,
the two central characters of the last few weeks,
implausible, unlikely people
through whom the love and the compassion of God would be made real.
There is a time and a place for that kind of reflection,
and it helps us dig deeper, sometimes.
And I kind of love doing that sort of work.
But sometimes it makes sense to just look at the story as a story, too,
to not feel like you have to go too deep underneath it to learn something from it.
Yesterday, when we were talking with our kids
about all of this stuff going on and about school and quarantines and
and about trying to give ourselves permission to adapt to the circumstances
and to not put too much pressure on ourselves to have everything worked out just yet,
one of my daughters said something like,
“Yeah, it feels so good to read a book right now
without having to analyze it for a class.”
To read it and just take the story in and try to get its point from the narrative.
And that struck me as kind of important.
There’s something to be gained from reading the story as it is,
and not feeling like the only meaning is tucked away in there somewhere.
There’s a time for dissecting the story,
you get a lot of good stuff from doing so,
but maybe not always a time for it.
Sometimes, it helps to ask “what is the plain meaning of what is going on here?”
The answers don’t always lurk under the surface.
There isn’t always an ulterior motive. A hidden agenda.
Or, to be less conspiratorial about it,
sometimes the best lesson is the clearest and the easiest one,
the one that is right there, waiting for you to see it.
So we have these two stories,
and in one of them,
you have a group of people who are desperate for some hidden meaning,
some explanation to the troubles of the day.
There is a man, blind from birth, John tells us,
minding his own business, apparently.
Jesus was walking by, with the disciples, doing his thing,
when the disciples saw the blind man,
and they wondered about what his lack of sight might mean.
So they ask Jesus about it:
Hey Jesus, what’s up with this blind guy? Who sinned?
This man? His parents?
What is the reason he is blind?
Sure, we could dig into the fact that John calls Jesus the light of the world,
in a world that is dark and hard to grasp, hard to see.
We could talk about how his DISCIPLES are the ones asking these sorts of questions
and wonder just who, exactly, are “the blind people” in this story.
But, rather than doing that, let’s just look at what the narrative gives us this time.
Maybe we can start with this:
It seems such a callous sort of talk, doesn’t it,
this effort to want to blame someone,
anyone for this supposed misfortune of the man’s blindness,
though we shouldn’t be quick to say it is a misfortune.
Unlike other healing passages in the bible,
this man doesn’t approach Jesus for healing.
He seems to be doing just fine, thank you very much,
and it is a bit bold, even presumptive
to assume that he is damaged in some way.
But we often are looking for assigning blame for misfortune,
so we can find a place to put our anger, our fear, our mistrust.
Surely someone is at fault, Jesus.
What did his parents do? Tell us.
Maybe we’ll go find them and give them a piece of our minds.
Or, better, what did he do to deserve it?
Surely if he lived his life better
this man blind from birth, this condition wouldn’t be his, right Jesus?
Good things happen to good people. Bad things must happen to bad ones.
That’s what everyone says…
That’s how this whole thing is supposed to work,
isn’t it, Jesus?
You can just hear the anxiety behind all of that, right,
seeking to find something that we can control so that, maybe,
WE don’t have to go through something difficult,
and, more to the point, our KIDS don’t have to suffer.
Does any of this sort of blame game sound familiar?
It does to me.
We’re often doing this,
particularly when we confront something new or different or disruptive.
The coronavirus becomes the Chinese virus, the Wuhan virus,
not really out of an attempt to find an accepted name,
but to ratchet up an already simmering feud with another group of people
as if maybe they’re the reason the whole world is in lock down
and people are losing their jobs
and we don’t have enough hospital beds and ventilators.
But Jesus will have none of it.
This isn’t about a hidden cause.
The man isn’t blind because someone did something wrong.
He is blind because he is blind.
That happens sometimes.
Just like sometimes a cell mutates in a dangerous way and becomes malignant
or neurotransmitters don’t quiet work as expected
and feelings of sadness might become elevated…
all of us have these little things about our bodies that are quirky and unique
and they just are that way.
This birthmark. That genetic code. My predilection for cookies and cream ice cream.
Just the way we’ve been pieced together.
Same with the way a virus might impact one person more than another,
perhaps made worse with underlying conditions,
but not because someone is at fault there,
and certainly not God,
as if God wishes any suffering on anyone.
There’s something very Pat Robertson about the disciples’ question,
Pat Robertson, the televangelist who likes to say
that God sends hurricanes upon sinners.
God doesn’t do that, says Jesus.
God isn’t the puppet master making every little thing fall into place.
I get so upset when I hear Christians talk like that.
God doesn’t do that, says Jesus. Right here, in the Gospel according to John.
We all are who we are so that God can be glorified by how we live,
each in our own unique, amazing, wonderful way,
which is another way of saying that “God’s works might be revealed in who we are.”
And to put an exclamation point on it,
Jesus makes a little mud
(because life is messy and sometimes we find new life in the middle of it)
and performs a miracle and the man can see again
and his neighbors couldn’t believe it.
Is that really you, man blind from birth? Who did that to you? Can we go see him?
And so we find that, if we just read the story
without feeling the need to go too far underneath,
what you see is the loving kindness of Jesus
reaching out with compassion to the man born without sight
but not just that,
but also Jesus reaching out with compassion
to the boneheaded notion of the disciples
that someone MUST be at fault,
someone MUST be to blame for this man’s lack of eyesight.
If you’ve spent some time with the bible, you might have heard that story before.
This other story, the one about the selection of King David,
is less well known.
People might know who King David is,
that he would lead the Hebrew People through their best years as a nation.
He’s one of the major names in their history,
right up there with Moses and Elijah.
He’s beloved, but he’s also an imperfect leader.
He will show flaws, serious flaws, and he will stumble.
But he is brave, and he seeks to be faithful,
and he shows an ability to learn from his mistakes and to seek the best for the people.
This is what makes him a great and beloved King.
All of that will come later.
Right now in the narrative he’s just a boy, out tending the sheep,
when Samuel, the revered and respected prophet,
has been given a task to go find the next King.
Who is it, God? You’re asking me to go anoint a new King
How will I know the right person?
Just go, Samuel. Trust me. I’ll show you, and you’ll know.
He’s not so sure. The current king has a lot of power, you know,
and this is dangerous stuff.
But off he goes, to Jesse’s place, Jesse the guy from Bethlehem
(if that place rings a bell, that’s because that’s where Jesus was born, right,
in the city of David called Bethlehem),
and there’s kind of a little rose ceremony, if you’re a Bachelor fan,
or, to go back to Cinderella, think of the glass slipper auditions,
where Samuel asks for all of Jesse’s boys to make an appearance,
to see if the shoe fits…
He wants to size them up, to see if one of them is the King to be.
Maybe it’s Eliab. He looks the part. Tall. Regal.
Nope, it’s not Eliab.
Maybe it is Abinadab? Maybe it is Shammah.
Nope. Nope. Not any of them. Shoe doesn’t fit. No rose for you.
But Why not? They seem perfect.
Do not look upon appearances, Samuel. Says the Lord.
I’m looking for things that are more than skin deep. I’m looking for character.
I’m looking for heart.
That’s what will make for a good leader, find the one with heart.
But all the boys have come and none of them are the right one.
Are there any more?
Well….sure, there’s one more, but that’s David. You can’t want David, I’m sure of it.
But they were wrong.
David had heart. He was the one.
And he comes, and Samuel knows,
And right then and there, he is anointed.
All that oil, over his head, and he is to be the new King.
Without looking too far underneath the surface,
what we learn here, in this story, is that God is persistent.
God keeps searching, asking, seeking for the right people,
who can step up and make a difference,
people who aren’t perfect, at least by the world’s standards,
but people with character, with heart,
and when God finds those people,
God will go to great lengths to help them fulfill their calling,
and through those people, we can see God’s light shine.
When we think about it,
we all know those people whose heart made all the difference.
THOSE are the people who help us through the difficult times,
who provide us the stability we need when the world seems so unstable.
Who are the people with heart you lean on?
I’ll share two with you.
One is Brené Brown.
She’s an professor and a social worker and an author.
She reminds us that it is ok to be vulnerable,
to listen to our fears,
and to seek healthy ways past them,
so that we can be stronger and more loving.
About this pandemic, she offered these words a few days ago:
This pandemic experience
is a massive experiment in collective vulnerability.
We can be our worst selves when we’re afraid,
or our very best, bravest selves.
In the context of fear and vulnerability,
there is often very little in between
because when we are uncertain and afraid
our default is self-protection.
We don’t have to be scary when we’re scared.
Let’s choose awkward, brave, and kind.
And let’s choose each other….
The other person with heart I’ve been leaning on is Fred Rogers,
of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.
He’s gotten a lot of attention recently,
with a couple of movies about him,
meaning that a lot more people are apparently open to the cardigan way of life.
Rogers did his best work helping a generation of scared kids, and their parents,
work through their feelings through his gifts of acceptance and compassion and heart.
One of my friends this week, on her facebook wall,
shared Mr. Rogers’ now somewhat famous saying
that when there’s a crisis, look for the helpers:
“When I was a boy” Rogers would say,
“and I would see scary things on the news,
my mother would say to me,
‘Look for the helpers.
You will always find people who are helping.”
I was thinking about Mr. Rogers, as I was reading this story of King David.
I always was surprised when I watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
He didn’t seem to look the part of a leader.
There was that cardigan of his. He was skinny, and soft voiced.
Not really the type.
But we look back upon what he did, and its true:
God shone through him, so that people might find strength and comfort in his words.
Look, you can be big and strong with a chiseled chin and be a leader too.
That’s not my point.
When I was in Florida, the local people in Little Havana wouldn’t stop talking
about Dwayne the Rock Johnson and all he’s done for his community…
But the point is: when times get scary, look for the people with heart,
not the people who outwardly look like they should help
the people who are actually helping,
the people who care,
the ones who take a moment to heal,
to make things better for their neighborhood,
or their patients, or their neighbors.
The people with heart.
They are all around us.
You will always find people who are helping.
And, and this is the kicker,
you can be one of those people too.
How can you help out?
How can you share love with the people around you?
How can you bear the worry and the fear of others so they don’t have to do it alone?
Some might say that this sort of thing isn’t possible if you are sheltering in place
but that’s not really true, I don’t think.
We can reach out to one another. We can still be Christ’s hands and feet in this world.
Just because we feel like we’re wandering in the wilderness right now,
doesn’t mean we’re stuck here.
God is right there, helping us find ways of turning TOWARD one another
choosing each other, caring for one another.
And so may we find courage in those people with heart
who are finding ways to build community in new ways,
maybe physically apart, so that people can stay healthy and we can flatten the curve,
but still ways we can care for one another and love one another,
and may we nurture that sort of heart within ourselves
and be the leaders and the care givers and the compassionate ones
that this world so desperately needs right now.
May it be so.