Sunday, March 30, 2014

Can I See a Pattern If I Cross My Eyes?

It starts becoming a strange experience to read the upcoming Sunday lectionary early in the week, thus having it to reflect on throughout the week. But, of course, come the end of the week, all the free time that I thought I would have evaporates and I'm left without time to actually write down those reflections that I made.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be a monk, having that daily cycle of prayer and worship. I would definitely be a Benedictine (yes, I have given this thought) because their cycle of ora et labora, reading and work, seems so profound to me. But the flip side of that life would be that it's not restful in a physical sort of way. They've got to get up at the butt-crack of dawn for prayer and then they need to start working, really only taking breaks for food and for chapel. But what I'm driving at is that they hear the daily lectionary and they have that to meditate every day. Daily scripture, not just weekly scripture. I've tried my own version of that discipline before... I don't think it's the sort of stuff that you would try to sit down and write reflections to every day. There's just too much, I think.

Anyway, here is the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A

In case you don't feel like reading it, here are my Clifs notes (so they would really be Tom's notes...)
Old Testament: The reading is from the first book of Samuel. It's a history story. Samuel is sent by God to find Jesse, which involves sneaking away from Saul. But he successfully gets away, finds Jesse and anoints David on God's command.
Psalm: This week's psalm is number 23. Everyone knows this one, probably even if you don't go to church often, "The Lord is my shepherd/ I shall not want..." I heard it pointed out that that one is usually associated with trying times or funerals. But here we are at the last Sunday of Lent proper and this is the psalm we hear...
New Testament Epistle: This week is taken from Paul's letter to the Ephesians. It's really short (in contrast to the Gospel) and points out that we, as followers of Christ, are called to give light in the dark places, just like Jesus himself did. Then there's a bit about the light leading sleepers from the dead. And I just realized that this one could easily be taken out of context and applied to the idea of zombie Jesus... that's definitely a topic for another blog...
Gospel: It's another dizzyingly long story from John. The basic story is Jesus restoring sight to a man blind from birth... but, of course, there's more to it than that.

The most concrete, relatable narrative in the story this week is the man's sight actually being restored. I concluded this after I listened to an interview with Sarah Kay where she said that an audience is most engaged if there is something presented that relates to their five senses. These are experiences that (most) people can relate to... but in this Gospel, it is a negative presence of sight that is used for God's glory. And the lines of thinking that have been prevalent on this particular story aren't as universally accessible as I would like them to be.

Let me back up and unpack that last statement: In the story itself, the Pharisees are not inclined to interact with sinners. And since, classically, physical defects were considered outward signs of sins, the man's blindness was either a sign that he had sinned or that his parents had sinned. Either way, Jesus takes the man, restores his sight, and effectively brings him back into society. But he did it on the sabbath. So now the Pharisees divide themselves into two camps: 1) Jesus is now the sinner because he made signs on the sabbath and 2) there is no way that a sinner can do such things. So they go back to the now-not-blind man and ask him what he thinks of Jesus.

The point that I'm trying to highlight, however, is this equation of blindness with a sign of sin. Not something that sits well these days. And nor should it; we've been able to prove scientifically that there are biological reasons that someone could be born without sight and none of them have any connection with sin. Blindness just happens sometimes, unfortunate as it is. And this effectively means that my one opportunity to connect this story to our physical experience of the world is shot.

So since I'm now grumpy, because making that kind of reflection isn't easy and giving up on something to write is not easier, I take account of my dead end and try to move onto a different reflection. But I only find myself capable of dwelling on the strangeness of this year's Lenten readings. Because they are really weird. First you've Jesus going into the wilderness, which is actually a logical place to start this Lenten narrative, but then we go onto Nicodemus, then the Samaritan woman at the well, and now the blind man. None of them were really ever a part of the "in" crowd, yet Jesus decided to talk to them, not the cool kids.

What if I go back to this idea of catechism? That Lent, historically, has been a time of initiation for new Christians who will be baptized on the Easter Vigil. We are all, like them, invited to self examination and confession. I've seen it written by other bloggers and I think it appropriate at this time to preach "Repent! and return to the Lord." By this, I mean that our self examination during Lent will turn us back toward God (because that's what "repent" means: "to turn away") and then pursue Christ at the cross. We are called to be Christ-lights. Think about Martin Luther's idea of "little deaths" and "little Christs" when I talk about pursuing the cross and being like Jesus. It's the same idea that Paul is trying to convey in the Epistle: in order to be a Christ-light, you need to leave behind what you thought you knew about the way the world works. That's repentance. And that's the discomfort and uncertainty that's ours during Lent. The readings on each of the Sundays of Lent may only be the uncertain icing on top of our discomfort cake.

I think the oddity of these readings really is meant to make us uncomfortable. This is not intended to be a comfortable season. But you may have already had that sense, or at least felt some of that discomfort while you were reading my previous paragraph. These wonderful ideas of repentance and dying to our old ways and rising with Christ... none of it is easy. Not in the least. In one of the popular C.S. Lewis quotes that keep circulating the internet, he says, "I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don't recommend Christianity."

Maybe that's the earworm that I'll leave you with: Don't feel comfortable with Christianity. Don't feel comfortable with Lent. We are not called to be fat and happy, living high on the hog of certainty and prosperity. We are called to constant conversion, confessing our vulnerabilities and weaknesses. And we receive forgiveness when we do these things. Then, when we receive that forgiveness, we rise with Christ so that we can go out into the world and offer the same thing to others.