The Heart of the Matter

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
April 3, 2011
Year A - Lent 4 - John 9:1-41

Vicki Garvey, our Canon for Christian Formation in the Diocese described our Lenten journey through the lectionary as a giant sandwich. The bread is made up of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness – a story we hear on the first Sunday in Lent - and the Passion – the story we will hear read on the Sunday which launches us into Holy Week. But, in between, these slices of bread, we have the meat – stories of folks who are seeking something and who, in their seeking, are ultimately found by Jesus. So, two Sundays ago, we had the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews who comes to Jesus because he is struggling to understand how it is that Jesus is able to perform signs and wonders. And last Sunday, we heard the story of the Samaritan woman at the well – a woman that Jesus comes to for water, to quench his thirst. But through the story, the tables are turned and it is she who receives the gift of life-giving water. Today, we have the third layer in the Lenten sandwich – the story of the man born blind.

Now, at the risk of confusing things a bit, I’d like to suggest that today’s layer is a sandwich within a sandwich. And this time the bread is Jesus. Jesus appears in today’s story only briefly – once at the beginning of the story and once at the end. In the beginning, Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’” Jesus does not appear again until the very end of the story when he approaches the man born blind for a second time and asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus is the bread of the story: Go, Wash, Believe.
Yesterday, at our cathedral, lay people and clergy from throughout the Diocese gathered together for the Chrism Mass. Prior to the service, Bishop Lee spoke to us about the meaning of the word Christian and its use as both a noun and an adjective. We were reminded that through baptism, Christ claims us as Christ’s own. It does not matter how we try to mess up that relationship, it does not matter if we try to turn away, run away, hide from, or otherwise avoid it, because once Christ has claimed us, we are his, a Christian. That’s the relationship. The noun-ness of our being in Christ. In baptism, we are made a Christian.

But, in baptism, we also enter a process, a way of life. This new way of life begins with a creed – the Apotles’ Creed. The word Creed is typically rendered into English as “I believe.” And so our creeds contain statements of faith that begin with either “I believe” or “we believe.” The problem with this language for most of us Westerners, however, is that our understanding and use of the word “believe” is typically all tangled up in our heads with another word - “think.” But, in fact, the Latin root of the word creed – credo – is a heart word, a loyalty word. Marcus Borg makes this point in his book The Heart of Christianity. He writes:
“credo does not mean ‘I hereby agree to the literal-factual truth of the following statements.’ Rather, its Latin roots combine to mean ‘I give my heart to’ . . . ‘I commit my loyalty to,’ ‘I commit my allegiance to.’ Thus, when we say credo at the beginning of the creed, we are saying, ‘I give my heart to God.’ And who is that?” Borg continues, “Who is the God to whom we commit our loyalty and allegiance? The rest of the creed tells the story of the one to whom we give our hearts: God as the maker of heaven and earth, God as known in Jesus, God as present in the Spirit.”[1]
And so, in baptism, we begin with the creed. I give my heart to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And what about the rest of the baptismal covenant? According to Bishop Lee that is the “so what” of the matter. If you say, “I believe” or “I give my heart to” God, then so what? Then, will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being? We answer, in baptism, “I will, with God’s help.” And, that is the process, the way of life, the “so what” of setting our hearts on God, the heart of being Christian [the adjective].
The bread of today’s story is Jesus: Go, Wash, Believe. But the meat of the story is our response to that experience of new life – the “so what?” of the encounter. The disciples cast their encounter with the blind man in terms of what they understood to be true: one is born blind, lame, sick, etc. because of the sins of one’s ancestors ( “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.”)[2] The faithful, law-abiding Pharisees cast their experience of the man born blind in terms of what they understood to be true: working (that is, healing) on the Sabbath is a sin (“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.”)[3] And the fearing parents cast their encounter with their son – yes, their own son – in terms of their fear of the Jews “for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”[4] But the man who went to the pool of Siloam and washed casts his experience in the only terms he can – his changed reality, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”[5]

My brothers and sisters in Christ, I am the one who says, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”[6] I am the one who asks how he received his sight.[7] I am the one who exclaims, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.”[8] I am the one who asks, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”[9] I am the one who does not believe.[10] I am the one who acknowledges that this is my son and then distances myself out of fear when questioned by the authorities.[11] I am the one who throws him out of the community.[12] And every now and again, I am the one whose eyes are opened, the one who sees and can boldly proclaim the Christ singing,
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.[13]
And now we’ve come full circle, reminded once again, that it is through the water of baptism, that Christ lays his claim upon each of us. It does not matter if we try to turn away and deny it, run away from it in fear, hide from it in shame, or otherwise avoid it, because once Christ has claimed us, we are his, a Christian. That’s the relationship. That’s the promise of God.

1. Marcus J. Borg. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. Harper, 1989. 39-40.

2.  John 9:2; Deuteronomy 5:9
3.  John 9:16a; Exodus 20:8-10:
4.  John 9:22.
5.  John 9:25.
6.  John 9:8.
7.  John 9:10.
8.  John 9:16a.
9.  John 9:16b.
10.  John 9:18.
11.  John 9:22.
12.  John 9:34.
13.  John Newton, “Amazing Grace,” Lift Every Voice and Sing II: An African American Hymnal. Church Publishing, 1993. 181.

Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation, Vicky Garvey and Bishop Jeffrey Lee's comments were made at the Diocese of Chicago Chrism Mass held at The Cathedral of St. James in Chicago on Saturday, April 2, 2011. 


Raisin said…
Debra, I read your sermon after delivering mine, and found enough similarities that I want to give you the link if you're interested in seeing mine. It's shorter than usual, because we had a healing service and had to cut a few minutes off in other places.

You can find mine from visiting my blog and reading the newest entry.
Cheers to you and A.