- Parish House
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
The Rev. Patricia Matthews
Well, I didn’t win the mega-millions lottery this week. But I had a chance to. You see, I was given a lottery ticket from a stranger on a bus.
Let me back up a bit. This week was spring break, and my four-year-old, Louisa, wanted to do only one thing: ride a city bus as far as we could. Depending upon your bus experiences, that either sounds like heaven or hell. To Louisa, it is heaven, so we chose the long bus loop out to West Little Rock. That is when we met Tad.
He got on the bus and sat down behind us and started talking. I told him that I couldn’t hear him over the air conditioning. He apologized and said that he had a hard time speaking loudly. He also had a hard time hearing because of all the gunshots he had been around when he was little. Which all meant, we both had to work pretty hard to listen to each other.
He told me that he had never met a priest before, and we shook hands. Then he asked me, “Why do you think I am still smiling, even after all the suppression I’ve experienced?” Sometimes, things get real, real quick, on the bus. I said, “Maybe it’s God?” And he smiled bigger. Then he said quietly, “And Jesus. Jesus is what is getting us through all this right now.”
Louisa asked if she could whisper something in his ear. She turned around in her seat, stood up on her knees, and told Tad, “I love you.” His smile got bigger, and he replied, “Now what made her say that?”
It was then, as he was getting off the bus, that he gave us his mega-millions lottery ticket, good for the drawing that night. Now I know that lottery tickets only cost $1, but it felt like there was more than $1 at stake. It felt like he was handing us his hope for the day.
So, we didn’t win the lottery, but that gesture – that was valuable – and for those brief minutes, the three of us were able to really see each other. That real seeing only occurred after the three of us happened to listen closely to each other.
Now, if I asked what today’s Gospel reading is about, most of us would say that it is a story about the miracle of a man being born blind and receiving his sight. And it is! Because of Jesus’ extravagant mercy, the man’s life has suddenly changed in ways he could not have imagined. And by the end of the story, not only has the man’s physical sight been restored, but his spiritual eyes have been opened as well.
But did you notice – the story begins not with seeing but with listening? Listening comes first and the seeing comes out of it. And this theme winds all the way through the passage.
Here’s the scene. There is a man, who happens to be blind, on the side of the road. He hears a group of people coming by. They are talking about him. They ask, “Is the man blind because he is a sinner, or were his parents the sinners?”
I can only imagine the man thinking, “I’m right here. I can hear what you’re saying. I’m blind. I’m not deaf.” But all the disciples can see is “a blind man” – just a stereotype of a person, identified only by his blindness. And the disciples want to know what the man did to deserve being born blind.
But then, the man hears a different voice. It is Jesus, and he is saying that nothing the man or his parents did made him blind. That must have been good to hear. Then, the man feels Jesus’ hands, covered in mud, all over his eyes. And that must have been startling. Then he hears, “Go, wash in the river.” The man listens, and he regains his sight. And there’s that pattern: first he listens, and then he sees.
And that’s it. Jesus is gone from the scene. The story could easily have ended there. But it didn’t, because this physical miracle was not be the only thing Jesus was up to on this day. The gospel writer decides to leave in a lengthy explanation of what happens next.
We might expect a celebration. A man just received the gift of sight! But what happens instead is that his community, his family, and his religious leaders each break down into their own camps. They all stop listening, and are therefore blind to all that is happening on this day.
His community stops listening to to the man. They keep asking him, “Who are you again?” and the man insistently tells them, “It’s me!” They do not recognize this man, whom they know. His parents stop listening and cannot hear the celebration in his voice; they are worried about getting kicked out of the synagogue. And his church leaders stop listening. Everyone hears only what they want to hear, yet here is a miracle, standing before them, but they are blind to it. No one in this situation is listening to each other.
Then, at the end of the story, Jesus shows up again. In the midst of everyone talking past each other, Jesus quietly comes to the man’s side and restarts their previous conversation. By listening to each other, Jesus leads the man to a second, even deeper healing – his spiritual sight is opened and the man sees divine grace, Jesus, standing in front of him – not just the healer of his eyes, but also the healer of his soul.
This man’s ability to see Jesus clearly didn’t happen immediately. It slowly took place over the course of the story, as the man listened all day, through all the conversations. We see this evolution in the way he describes Jesus. At the beginning of the story, he doesn’t know who Jesus is. When the man is first questioned about Jesus, he simply says “I was blind, but now I see.” Later, he says that Jesus is a prophet, then that Jesus is from God. But now, when Jesus has returned at the end of a long day of conversations, the man calls him Son of Man and Lord and can fully see and acknowledge Jesus as the God who heals and restores. All that – through listening.
Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the crowd could have just stayed with the man through it all, listening a little more closely – then – they would have been able to see the spiritual healing and restoration that Jesus was offering not just to the man, but also to everyone there. We know this – because this story actually continues in the next chapter of John, where Jesus tells the man’s community, and his family, and his religious leaders that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, that he calls his sheep by name, and his sheep know his voice and listen to it. He is inviting them all to listen so that they can see God.
It’s too bad – isn’t it? – that the people in today’s story missed out on this offering of divine grace. Wrapped up in their human frailties and fears, they couldn’t start at the place of listening. It appears that the problem of not being able to hear each other is an old and persistent one, certainly one that I am guilty of.
A group of people in our country is interested in this age-old problem. Their organization is named Better Angels, and their goal is to help people to learn to listen to one another again. They believe that by rebuilding civil dialogue in America, our communities can begin to move beyond polarization and stereotypes toward seeing each other as people again.
This is what they do: they bring people who have opposing views on certain issues into a room together. They establish some ground rules: Don’t try to convince each other of anything. Talk only about the present and what is possible. Speak only from personal experience.
Then the participants are asked, “What would you like to understand about the other person’s point of view?” And the curiosity in the room is real. Someone begins, “I really want to understand why you think this way, or support this idea.” Then, each participant shares the way he or she sees the world.
And through these listening sessions, something shifts. Not dramatically. By the end of the day, all these people don’t magically agree with each other, but that’s not the point. The point is that through listening, their sight is restored, and instead of seeing the other people in the room as stereotypes or enemies or sources of fear, they can now see that they are people who hold similar values.
They learn some things like, regardless of their points of view or politics, they all love their families. They all want what is best for people, and they actually all want what is best for the world. They may disagree on how to get there – that’s work for another day – but what they realize is that until we begin to listen to each other, we will remain blind to one another.
If the folks in the synagogue with Jesus that day could have had a session with Better Angels, there could have been a celebration. But instead, they missed the blessing because they couldn’t hear.
Surely, we don’t want to miss out like that. As Scott mentioned last week, it is time for us, as Jesus’s church, to learn how to listen and to speak again. The church is called to see the Risen Christ in all people. And as today’s Gospel seems to say, that seeing begins with listening, and if we can listen to those whose views differ from ours, we may just get something even better than a lottery ticket out of the deal.