Lent 4 Year A
March 26, 2017
“A Pharisee’s Transformation”
A few summers ago, a colleague of mine from a church in Newark who happened to be away on vacation, asked me to fill in for him and officiate at a funeral for the grandfather of one of his parishioners. His call caught me at a bad time. It was at the tail end of a long holiday weekend, one which had already been filled with too much work and, glancing at my calendar, the days ahead weren’t much better. I hemmed and hawed, stalling as I reviewed the “to-do” list in my head, until he finally begged, “Please. I’ve already tried 4 others. No one is available.”
I begrudgingly said “Yes.”
So, just a few days later, I arrived at the funeral home in Union, and met this family for the first time. The family, of course, was in mourning, which hit me like a ton of bricks because, still consumed with my own self, I hadn’t really come prepared to enter their grief.
It came time to begin the service, and those who gathered found their seat. I introduced myself and began the service with a few prayers from our Book of Common Prayer. Then came the time for the family to share their reflections and remembrances. Uncharacteristically, within seconds, I was moved to tears. In fact, their stories had me both laughing and crying out loud, and I sat there, not really wanting it to end.
But it did, and after everyone said their good-byes to Grandfather, silently, we headed to our cars and drove in a long procession, following the Hurst, through the streets of Union on our way to the cemetery in Newark for the burial. Again, I was moved by what I witnessed along the way. First, we drove past an elderly man walking and holding a child’s hand. It must have been his grandson. But, as our procession passed by, I noticed that he stopped walking, and tugged on the child’s arm. And they both stood at attention. Next, I saw a young woman, dressed in nurse’s scrubs, coming out of her apartment. As she locked her door, she noticed the Hurst and cars moving by and stood still on her stoop, just long enough to honor this stranger’s death and a family’s grief passing by. Then still, there was another woman, older than the first, walking along the sidewalk. She crossed herself as we passed, and I could see her lips move as she said a prayer. Cars moved to the side of the road. Pedestrians saluted.
I had never seen or felt anything quite like this before. I became connected to a man being honored for a life well-lived, and to his family who loved him and mourned his passing. And I realized that although I was the 5th person on my colleague’s call list, I was the lucky one, the one blessed to be a part of something so incredibly beautiful. And ultimately, through my encounter with this community of respect, honor, and deep love, I was transformed.
THAT, I think, is what our Gospel reading - this lengthy chapter from John - is all about. Transformation. Sure, the man blind from birth whose sight is restored takes the spotlight. And it’s easy for us, raised in the Christian faith, to identify with either him or the disciples in this story. But this story also reveals the possibility of smaller, less obvious, daily transformations, like the one I experienced with that family in Newark. Transformation more subtle than a flash of lightning . . . than the blind receiving their sight . . . than the lame picking up their mats and walking. And for that, we look to the other people in this story - the Pharisees.
Now in case you think that the Pharisees couldn’t possibly be transformed . . . think about Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee. And I have to wonder, maybe he was there on that Sabbath day? Part of the group of Pharisees who heard the testimony of the blind man or his parents? Maybe he saw for himself the man born blind suddenly receive his sight. After all, something, we don’t know what exactly, was definitely sparked in Nicodemus. Because we know that he approached Jesus, under the cover of night, asking his questions of faith. And we know that he followed Jesus to the cross. And we know that he anointed Jesus’ body after his death. Lighting never struck Nicodemus. Scales didn’t fall from his eyes. He wasn’t raised from the dead. But just the same, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, was transformed, healed of his own blindness [perhaps, for all we know] by unexpectedly witnessing the blind man’s testimony.
Which brings me to one more important lesson from our Gospel reading today. In it, the man born blind is cured, received his sight from Jesus’ touch, some mud, and a spring-fed pool of water. And it takes John all of 2 verses to tell that story. But, as you heard, that’s not where the story ends. It takes 29 other verses for John to describe the response, giving witnesses to the Zen proverb which says, “After enlightenment, laundry.” That’s right, the man born blind is transformed, but that transformation is merely the beginning. With it comes work to be done. And over and over again, he testifies, “I am that man. I was blind. But now I see.” He testifies to the Pharisees. He testifies to the community. And then he testifies to the Pharisees, some more. The man who received his sight becomes a bold and persistent witness to Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus is the one who brought this about. Jesus is the one with the power to transform.
Today’s Gospel compels us to confront our own blindness. And yes, it’s hard to think of ourselves as blind, let alone associate ourselves with the Pharisees, who time and time again, Jesus calls them out for their blindness. But, being honest, the way I stepped into officiate that funeral in Newark, I was a Pharisee and I was blind. I thought I was doing the family a big favor, bringing my skills, my knowledge, my experience to them. But, in fact, the opposite was true. I had been blind to the opportunity and possibility in this day, and I was converted, transformed.
Healing and transformation at Jesus’ hand is possible IN each one of us, and THROUGH each one of us, on a daily basis. And our transformation demands action, challenges us to share the Good News.
Because who knows? Who knows who might be listening? Who knows who might hear us say, “I was blind, but now I see,” and be transformed? Amen.