A message from the Minister

SERMON FOR ST ANDREW’S 22/3/20

Our country has been rather battered of late, with earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, terrorist assault and now we have a worldwide pandemic threatening to disrupt us at every level.  I bought a new hymnbook at a seminar recently.  One of Norman Brook’s hymns caught my eye.  It’s called: Earth’s, Wild, Hidden Forces.  You can imagine it being sung to Cwm Rhondda, Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah.

  1. When the earth’s wild hidden forces,
    roar and shake and tilt the ground,
    making fissures, cracks and sinkholes
    in this land that once seemed sound.
    Then we know a power beyond us,
    part of mystery profound,
    part of mystery profound.
  1. When the earth’s wild hidden forces,
    crush and maim, and kill life’s dreams,
    taking from us those who loved us,
    people that we long esteemed.
    Then we know the power beyond us,
    greater than we ever dreamed,
    greater than we ever dreamed.
  1. When the earth’s wild, hidden forces,
    strike our cities thought secure,
    damage buildings long enduring,
    till unsafe, they stand no more.
    Then we know the power beyond us,
    sprung forth from creation’s store,
    sprung forth from creation’s store.
  1. Now let earth’s wild hidden forces,
    renew values we’ve ignored
    in our search for passing pleasures:
    Life, and love, and faith in God.
    In the testing and the turmoil
    may God’s healing power be found,
    may God’s healing love abound.

I’ve been getting communications from all directions in the last few days.  This one came from Russell Norman.  He says,

“When something shakes us to the core of our society, it can be hard to know what to do. Or say.

“For those of you worrying about friends and whānau, for those of you with loved ones overseas, for those of you frantically scrambling to rearrange, postpone, cancel and prepare, I’m with you.

“I know that for people like you, for whom compassion for people and the planet is a guiding light, these times can bring up so much anguish.

“The coming days and weeks will be tough.

“But as New Zealanders, we’re pretty resilient. We’re used to the ground under our feet being a bit shaky (literally).

“When things get tough, we pull together. We can do this.”

In our reading a man has been born blind.  He’s had no other way of supporting himself than by begging for handouts of food and money from those who might take the trouble to help him.  But, when Jesus meets up with him, he refuses to accept the man’s blindness as being permanent and unchangeable.  He does something with mud and spittle.  He sends the man to bathe his eyes and, the next thing we know is that, this man who has been born blind can see.

The important thing that is happening here is not so much the incident.  It’s the attitude of the people.  In this story, Jesus comes into collision with the authorities of the day who think they know it all, who have got life sorted out, who claim to have a special and rather privileged understanding that other people don’t have.  They even claim to know why some people get sick and others do not.

But Jesus has a different understanding altogether.  When he comes up against people who are stuck in their own way of thinking, who are no longer open to other possibilities, he challenges them to think again, to consider that maybe God could break into their experience in new and surprising ways.  He says to people, “Look, don’t go around thinking that nothing new or different can ever happen around here.  Don’t go around thinking that things have to just stay the way they are.  Don’t discard the possibility that sick people can get well, that blind people can see, that ignorant people can become wise, that poor people can become rich in ways that rich people have never been.”  Jesus does not allow people to close off the options that condemn them to a degrading life of hopelessness.

Jesus doesn’t tolerate hopelessness.  He doesn’t allow people to stay trapped in a meaningless state of misery without any hope of changing anything.  Jesus is fundamentally concerned about freedom and life in all its fullness.

This man who has been born blind doesn’t claim to know it all.  But he does know what has happened to him.  When the important people try to challenge him and to sow the seed of doubt in his mind, he will have nothing to do with such things.  “Look,” he says to them.  “There is one thing that I know.  Once I was blind, and now I can see.”  And that is good enough for him.  The other people can play their political games as much as they like.  They are of no interest to him.

This is a story about a man who has met up with Jesus who can now see when he could not see before.  I don’t think its meaning is limited to physical blindness and being able to see in a physical way.  I believe there is something more here.  Through his meeting with Jesus, this man can see into the heart of things.  He can see through the power play of the authorities and he can see that Jesus’ power for love actually does change things for people.

I wonder if we can get into the experience of the blind man.  Can you imagine the change from sitting there begging for food because you have no way of supporting yourself?  Can you imagine being a blind man in a society, which believes that things like blindness and other misfortunes of life are brought on because you yourself, or even your father or mother have been sinful?  Can you imagine the change from being blind with all the limitations that go along with that, to suddenly being able to see?  Can you imagine the so-called authorities trying to tell you that the one who brought about this change in your life is somehow an unworthy person?  What sort of response are you going to make?

The man who was born blind has nothing at all to say to those who want to trap him into condemning Jesus.  He says simply, “One thing I know.  I was blind but now I see.”

You could say that in this story we are seeing the original prejudice.  We know about prejudice against people of a different race, against women or men, or older people or the young, but here we have a prejudice against those with a disability.  And this is a much more powerful prejudice because it has the full force of religion behind it.  The belief being expressed here is that “people who prosper” and do well “are blessed”.  Others get what they deserve.  But Jesus will have nothing to do with this kind of prejudice.  Instead, Jesus reaches out in compassion and he even weeps at the misfortune of others.  He will have nothing to do with those things that detract from the dignity of people.

The Pharisees in this story are obsessed with rules.  They have strict rules surrounding the Sabbath and religious purity.  But their rules are not helpful to people.  In fact, they can do great harm.  In our world today we can see that rigid rules about religion can even be dangerous.  Sometimes people want their God and their brand of religion to win against another.  But instead, in this story in John’s gospel we are presented with, “divine compassion which puts people first.  As the blind man might have said: ‘Well I don’t understand much about all of that, but I know when I see people getting helped and I’ll go with that.’”

As human beings, we have a tendency to judge people by one facet of their personality or by something that we think we know about them that may or may not be true.  When we do that, we feel we can put them in a box with a label on it and dismiss them from our lives.  Sometimes we do need to protect ourselves.  Of course, we have to be sensible about how and when we can extend the hand of friendship to others.  But Jesus calls us to compassionate concern, that sees people as the objects of God’s love, whether they seem to deserve it or not.

I suggested that we might imagine what it would be like for the man who had been blind from birth, feeling what it would be like to have all that happen to him.  I wonder if we might also feel what it would be like for the Pharisees, who are feeling that everything that they stand for is being threatened by Jesus seeming to disregard the rules of the Sabbath.  I wonder if we sometimes feel threatened by change that is going on around us and by people whose ways and attitudes to life seem to be so different from our own.  Do we stand off in judgment, or do we try to get to know them as people and listen to what they have to say?  What did the nameless gunman in Christchurch do?  How could he be so consumed by hatred for people he didn’t even know?  And, what a difference it made for those of us who were able to visit our friends at the mosque and convey our concern for them after the shootings?

I think it is all summed up in the sentence at the end of our reading:  Eyes are good for one thing and that is to look with compassion and to see the goodness in everyone.

In this strange time that we are in right now, we are having to make huge changes to the way we do things.  Who knows what is going to happen next?  Through all the messages about what we need to do, there is one theme and that is that we need to look after ourselves and to look after one another.  It’s all about keeping ourselves safe and keeping one another safe.  We very much need to look with compassion and to see the goodness in everyone.