These days we may often feel overwhelmed by some very big uncertainties– in the worldwide scheme of governments, economics and environment, what impact can our small, seemingly insignificant daily choices make? During Lent, here at St. James we’re asking that very question, and coming up with some surprising, creative and even inspiring answers. Our Lenten Series, entitled, “The Power of Small Choices,” based on the book by Hilary Brand, has shown us the hidden similarities in film characters as diverse as death row inmate, Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption and a French chef named Babette, preparing a Feast for a strict religious community in a remote village of 18th century Denmark. In these very different, but in some ways, equally limiting circumstances, each of these characters kept their hope alive, and their choices brought hope to others.
This morning, we encounter both the Hebrew prophet, Samuel, and Jesus of Nazareth, during times of great political upheaval in Israel: in the book of Samuel, the nation of Israel is transitioning from the judges of a tribal government, to a hereditary monarchy; the Jewish community two centuries later at the time of Jesus is struggling to regain control using religious laws in their now Roman-ruled country, while the Jesus movement is transitioning toward a focus on faith and Spirit and not legalism. The transition from judges to kings, for Israel and for Samuel, was not going so well.
The first king, Saul, had already blown it. And, in the thinking of those times, that spelled trouble for everyone, because when leaders proved unfaithful, it caused God’s punishment for generations. Amidst all this chaos, God makes a small, unexpected choice in David: a simple, dark-skinned shepherd boy. And God tells the prophet, Samuel, to anoint David, an act symbolic of calling a leader.
As Episcopalians, and part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, we recognize anointing with oil as a sacrament: an outward, visible sign of an inward Grace. If we lived in England, in fact, our prayer book would still include anointing of a king or queen as one of the sacraments! Americans may think of anointing as healing unction, or as part of the sacrament of baptism. That is my favorite part of the baptism, actually – the smell of the holy oil on the forehead of a baby or new Christian, glistening in the light of the paschal candle.
When Jesus heals “the man who had been born blind”, he does not anoint him with oil, but rather with mud, with dirt and spit to be exact. Pretty down to earth! And then, as with King David, the man is sent –to a position of ministry, of leadership. Although we never learn the name of the man – in fact he continues to be referred to as the formerly blind man – our story in John’s Gospel tells about his journey toward becoming a prophet, a voice proclaiming the Good News. “Go and wash,” Jesus tells him, and the man is changed forever. The inward Grace which he possessed all along is now made visible through this sacrament of healing.
As Paul (or one of his students) wrote to the early church in Ephesus, Jesus – the light of the world – brings all things to light. He makes hidden qualities visible; Jesus sees, as God sees, into the heart, and helps us to see that way too. Whether it is beholding a young shepherd, or a blind man, a woman hauling water, or . . . ourselves? Jesus sees them, sees us, and marks us as his own.
Still, it can be difficult for us to see with the eyes of Christ. We humans have a penchant for seeing only what is wrong with the world, with our lives, and with our neighbors – how they have fallen short, how they are not what we expected or thought they should be. It’s easier, seems safer that way, doesn’t it? It keeps us from feeling disappointed; because, as Morgan Freeman’s character says in Shawshank, “hope can be a dangerous thing.”
The scene in John’s Gospel becomes almost comic as the leaders of the synagogue simply refuse to see the miracle of the man’s healing: after all, they understood blindness as a punishment for some failing of a past generation, how could that be changed? We see a promise of the healed man’s future evangelism when he asks them, “Gee, you seem very interested in Jesus, would you like to follow him too?” The man’s eyesight is an outward symbol of his new, inward Spiritual insight. In some ways, his physical “healing” becomes secondary.
I recall a seminar on Disability Theology held at the Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley, when a theological scholar, I think it was Dr. Karen Black from Claremont School of Theology, told a story about a woman who lived with impaired sight. Whenever this woman sang the hymn Amazing Grace, she loudly proclaimed “Was blind, and STILL CAN’T SEE!”, asserting that God’s grace still exists in those with certain limitations. This sometimes-hidden grace becomes visible through Sacrament.
How many sacraments are there? Some say two: baptism and Eucharist, when waters cleanse our souls, and bread nourishes our spirit. Some say seven, including reconciliation (or confession, only without the sliding windows) and anointing with oil. What makes a sacrament? It can be a very small action, a small choice, but one that transports us, engages each of our senses – sight, smell, sound, touch, taste. Even little, everyday things can become sacramental with the right intention: tea with a friend, taking someone’s hand, carrying someone’s burden, lovingly polishing the brass in the sacristy. So many small moments that connect us to God, and help us to see with Jesus’ eyes. So many opportunities to make a choice of kindness, of caring, of nurturing, of healing. To recognize the beauty and potential in a person or another part of God’s wondrous creation.
Intentional, faith-filled living can call us to risk: to pick the unlikely child, to stumble blindly down to the pool and wash. But if we do so with faith, with courage, generosity and even with joy, great things can and do happen.
People of Saint James, my fervent prayer is that we may, as individuals and as a faith community, find joy and transformation in a sacramental Holy Week and Eastertide. That we may bask in the paschal flame of Christ’s light and see all the beauty that may have been hidden in the darkness of winter. May springtime bring powerful, small miracles of healing to our lives, and a new era of ministry and expansive possibilities.
In the name of the one who makes all things possible, Christ Jesus, our Lord, AMEN.