February 11, 2018
Today is the day in the church year when we celebrate the Transfiguration. Normally, we hear a story that can be found in Matthew, Mark and Luke, in which Jesus goes with three of his disciples up a mountain, and he is transfigured before them, becoming bright white, and Moses and Elijah appear with him. The disciples are terrified by this glory of God being revealed, and Peter says, “It is good for us to be here!” and says he wants to build a dwelling for everyone, so they can stay forever. But then everything returns to normal, and they all troops back down the mountain and, we come to find out, start heading toward the cross. It is the hinge that brings us from Epiphany, the season of light, into Lent, the season in which we prepare for Christ’s passion and resurrection.
Well today is Transfiguration, but we’re reading through the Gospel of John, and that story doesn’t appear in John. Why not? Perhaps it is because John’s entire Gospel is about God’s glory and light being revealed through Jesus’ signs. That blinding light already appeared, in the manger at Christmas, and has appeared several times since, including, we will see today, when Jesus heals a man who has been blind since birth. So far, the presence of that light on earth has not caused too much trouble – today, all of that changes, as we see the impact that change and healing really can have on us. This reading is 41 verses long, really longer if you count the discourse that follows (which we will hear on Ash Wednesday), but the healing itself only takes seven verses. The remaining verses are dedicated to the aftermath, to people trying to place blame, assign logic, and understand what exactly happened and what it means. Of course, Jesus told them outright: it means that he is the “light of the world,” sent to scatter darkness and bring healing and wholeness in ways that transcend logic, and might even transcend what we are comfortable with. Let’s see what happens… [READ]
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There was a woman who lived in Charlottesville, VA for many years named “Anna.” She told people that she was in fact Anastasia Romanov, the daughter of the last Czar of Russian. Many people believed this – it was such a compelling story! After she died, researchers acquired remains of her DNA from a Charlottesville hospital. They compared her DNA with that of members of the Romanov family in North America and in Europe. And guess what? She was an imposter, not Anastasia, and not a member of the Romanov family. She was a Polish factory worker with a history of mental illness. One of her neighbors, however, didn’t want to give up the story. He believed that she was who she said she was, and so when he was told of the DNA results, he immediately responded, “I don’t believe it,” and proceeded to list reasons why the DNA test must be inaccurate.
It’s called cognitive dissonance: when reality does not confirm expectations, and so people continue believing what they believed previously, even against evidence to the contrary. This is not an unfamiliar concept to us. We see it in politics, in our families, in our neighbors, and if we’re honest, we see it in ourselves. No one likes to admit that something that they ardently believe could be wrong! We don’t like to have our worldview challenged, much less debunked. So we choose to interpret the evidence in such a way that it fits with what we believe in our heart to be true.
That cognitive dissonance is what makes up the bulk of today’s Gospel reading. The disciples start us off by indicating their worldview: if this man was born blind, he or his parents must have done something to deserve it. They must have sinned, because that’s the only way such a tragedy makes any sense. And so when Jesus not only says, “Nope, that’s not true,” but also heals the man (and on the Sabbath, no less!), their reality is shattered. They scramble to explain: maybe this isn’t the man? Maybe he wasn’t really blind? Maybe Jesus is a sinner. Surely, there is a way to fit this into how we know the world works! They couldn’t accept the possibility that, not only was this man transformed from blind to seeing, but their very understanding of how life works was also transformed.
What an interesting commentary on human nature this is. The new worldview that Jesus offers is a life-giving one: one in which light wins over darkness, in which sin does not get the final word, in which healing is possible. It is one not bogged down by keeping the letter of the law, but rather, lifted up by the promise of eternal relationship with God. These are good things! But with the exception of the man who was formerly blind, everyone, even his own parents, refuse the transformation.
And this may very well be the case with us, too. We do not like things to be different from what we already know so well, even if what we know is not really all that good. And so we might look at ourselves in the mirror and see ourselves not for our potential, but for everything that has ever been wrong with us. We are held back by our failures, our setbacks, our disappointments. Or, we look at others this way, only seeing them for who they were, how they failed, mistakes they’ve made or people like them have made, rather than for what they could contribute to the world or even to our lives. Isn’t it interesting that when the man suddenly can see, his own friends don’t even recognize him! They knew him only as the man who was born blind. How could he possible be anything else?
How does that feel, to be placed in a box like that? How does it feel to be labeled, and for people to assume that this is all there is to you? How does it feel to do that to yourself? I’ll tell you how it doesn’t feel: it doesn’t feel like life. It doesn’t feel like hope. It doesn’t feel like wholeness.
This week begins the season of Lent. Our theme for Lent this year is Healing and Wholeness. I spent this week writing several reflections on this topic for our Lenten devotional. One was on the story toward the beginning of John, where Jesus comes upon a man sitting by a pool, who has been ill for 38 years. Jesus asks him what he is doing; he says he is hoping to be healed. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” I was so captivated by this question! It’s so obvious: yes, of course I want to be made well! Why do you think I’m sitting here? Why would I want to continue in this way of dis-ease? And yet, how often do we look at our lives, see the areas in need of healing – in our bodies, yes, but also in our hearts, our minds, our work satisfaction, our relationships, our finances, our perspectives on life – we see where we need healing, and yet do nothing about it? Do you want to be made well? Well yes, but only if I don’t have to change. Only if I don’t have to face the fear of something different from what I’ve known for so long. Only if it doesn’t mess with the worldview to which I’ve grown accustomed. Only then do I really want to be made well.
Sound familiar? It is to me! Quick example: After holidays and the cold weather preventing me from getting out and moving as much as I’d like, I decided I could stand to lose about 5 pounds. Easy, right? And so every day, I get up, do exactly what I’ve been doing, eat the same food, and dutifully check the scale. And it’s the funniest thing – that number hasn’t changed yet! Go figure, right?
But if there is one thing we have seen again and again as we’ve read through John’s Gospel, it is that when Jesus shows up… things have to change. Lack turns into abundance when water is turned to wine. Former ways of worshiping are literally turned on their sides when Jesus enters the Temple. Centuries-long divisions between Jews and Samaritans are broken down. The despised become the beloved. Eyes and hearts are opened, indeed, they are transformed. When one encounters Jesus, things change, and life becomes abundant.
It sounds good… until we realize how very disruptive even a positive change can be. It is much less disruptive just to keep on keeping on in the same patterns we’ve always had, damaging, stifling, or unhealthy as they may be, rather than risk even the new life Jesus offers.
After worship today, we will hold our annual meeting. We will discuss several topics that have stemmed from a need for change. For instance, how we structure our ministry here, our council and committees. What we’ve done has worked for many years… but does it continue to bring life to this congregation? What does “life” even look like in terms of a congregation’s ministry structure? To me, it looks like joyful service and listening to the Spirit’s movement, and stepping out in faith. Does our current structure do that? What could? Another topic is the role of the pastor in a shared ministry. Bethlehem has had many fruitful years with a pastor serving solely at Bethlehem. The Spirit led Bethlehem into a covenant relationship with another congregation, which brought new life – but also necessarily changed the role of the pastor. So we will be talking today about how that looks. Part of it looks like the possible need for an earlier worship time, which we have been trying out for several months already. This, too, is a change that maybe some have been resistant to. But is it a change that could bring new life?
Not all change is good. Sometimes God’s voice is heard in our resistance to it. But whatever it is we face that is challenging our old worldview, or the way we see ourselves or other people, Jesus calls us to examine: where can life be found most abundantly? Where can the light of the world most brightly shine?
I hope that during our meeting today, and in this upcoming Lenten season, that you will take some time to reflect on these questions, for us as a congregation, and also for yourself. Next week I’ll be inviting you to make some healing goals for yourself to focus on and pray about during Lent. Where is Jesus smearing mud on your eyes and telling you to wash, so that you may see? What aspect of your life needs healing? What worldview are you clinging to, that may be keeping you from being able to enter new, abundant life?
Let us pray… Life-giving God, open our eyes to see where you might be working to transform our worldview. Give us the courage to step into a new life, into a deeper relationship with you. Help us to say, with the man born blind, “Lord, I believe.” In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.