I want you to imagine a beautiful scene, the kind of scene that many people wait their whole life to see. It is a beautiful sunny day, and you are part of the huge crowd in the magnificent St Peter’s Square facing toward St Peter’s Basilica.
You are waiting for this moment, when Pope Francis, in his white cassock, appears on the high Vatican balcony (the Loggia of the Blessings) with two children. He looks out over the huge crowd with loving eyes and smiles, and then the children release two snow-white doves, which are symbols of peace, an expression of hope for the people of Ukraine.
It is a gesture which has been done many times, but today, this beautiful scene is about to go horribly wrong, as the doves are suddenly attacked and savagely pecked by a seagull and a crow. White feathers are flying; the fate of the doves becomes very uncertain.
The Pope continues to stand there for a moment, oblivious to what is going on, unaware that he has just consigned these two hapless birds to a violent demise. As many in the crowd begin to react in horror, the Pope probably assumes they are cheering.
In the aftermath of that unfortunate scene, the Animal Protection Agency appealed to Pope Francis to end the practice of releasing doves from the Vatican window, according to the Associated Press.
The irony of a Pope who has named himself after St Francis (a saint famous for his affinity with birds) now being condemned for bird abuse, is significant and symbolic. To me, it is a sign of how traditions do have to change at times and give way to the realities of the moment. As the hymn says, “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.”
You have to wonder sometimes how the Church came to be such a conservative, even at times reactionary institution, unable and unwilling to change. As we reflect on the scripture readings this morning, it’s hard to imagine how conservatism came to be our primary stance.
The first reading today has the prophet Samuel being challenged by God’s question: “How long are you going to hang on to the past?” Acknowledging that he has languished in grief long enough, mourning for the old regime, Samuel finally sets out to find fresh leadership for Israel, and a new way of doing things, setting aside the usual qualifications of hierarchy and age and entitlement and appearances as he sorts through one brother after another trying to find the next king. And he does indeed find a fresh face in the person of David, and David will be a very different king, not what people would have expected at all. This is often the biblical pattern, as people seek to follow the God whose ways are not our ways. And the advice given? You have to learn how to see as God sees.
In today’s Gospel, we see Jesus challenging traditional religious beliefs and understandings of God, and being confronted by the Pharisees, who were faithful defenders of institutionalized Judaism.
The reaction of the Pharisees to the healing of the blind man seems confusing and disturbing. Just the other day, we saw on the TV news the moment when a young woman, who had been deaf for many years, was provided with the technology that would allow her to hear normally for the first time. It was an inspiring and touching moment.
In this case, absolutely great things are happening, and no doubt many people were jumping up and down with excitement and hope. A man born blind has just received his sight! It’s amazing! Perhaps it’s the sign of a new era dawning! But the Pharisees are strangely opposed to it and immediately start to attack it. Instead of a celebration, the man gets the inquisition.
The blind man in today’s Gospel becomes an allegory of spiritual blindness in general. Jesus says: “I came into the world that those who do not see may see.” Enabling people to see was a huge part of Jesus’ ministry, and it far exceeded the physical healing of a few individuals. This healing of blindness becomes a metaphor of the spiritual life, whereby people, as though they had suddenly been born all over again, begin to see things in a new way, and experience a new creation.
Ultimately, the goal is to see as God sees. In the first reading today, Samuel discerns that it is David, not his apparently older, stronger, more experienced and more qualified brothers, who will be the next king. In that passage we hear the famous line: “Do not look on appearance[s] . . . for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” In today’s Gospel, the new King (and once again a very different kind of king) is standing before the Pharisees and they do not recognize him.
The reaction of the Pharisees is an indication of this larger sense of blindness that John is trying to convey in the way he recounts the incident. They say “Surely we’re not blind, are we?” and of course the answer is automatically implied: there are other, more serious kinds of blindness than the one afflicting the man who had been healed.
Helen Keller, who was born blind and deaf, once said, “It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision.” The Pharisees assume they can’t possibly be blind, partly because most religious leaders assume they see things as God does (or that God sees things the way they do). But they do fail to see the bigger picture, as they focus on the minutiae and miss the point. And the enormous irony is that before them stands the Son of God, but their tradition, and their outmoded concept of God, have rendered them blind to this great new thing that God is doing through Jesus. Ironically, in trying to serve God, they end up missing out on the great blessing that God is holding out to them in the person of Christ.
Here we see the intransigence of the institution and begin to see why institutions eventually fail us. And we begin to realize that the Church in many ways can tend to be more like the Pharisees than like Jesus.
When an institution has lost track of its original mandate, it’s time for self-examination and change. This is what happened at the time of the Reformation of the 1500’s, as many people in the Church reflected on how their practices no longer bore any resemblance to the early Church or to Jesus himself. And so, massive, radical change took place – a violent upheaval that took several centuries to sort out.
We are in a similar time of self-examination, repentance, and need for renewal. It is an opportune time for the faithful to distinguish between Churchianity and Christianity.
One of my professors at seminary suggested a very simple, basic question to keep in mind as a kind of touchstone in assessing anything the Church is doing, from ACW to Zuccheto, which, by the way, is that crazy little skull cap that some clergy wear for some obscure reason (my personal guide in these matters is, if you have to explain it every time out, it’s not a tradition, it’s what you call an anachronism, and it’s probably time to consider letting it go). Anyway, the key question is: “What does this have to do with Jesus of Nazareth?”
At the time Jesus came into the world, all the arguments had been made, all the doctrines and rules were established and had been for a long time. There were certain ways of doing things, learned opinions about everything. Changing things was extremely difficult.
Like many church leaders today, the Pharisees would defer to tradition. “It’s out of our hands” they might say. Or, “There’s nothing we can do about it. It says so in the Law or the Torah.” Most people today would call that approach a cop-out, as it allows many religious leaders to believe they don’t need to respond to new challenges, and obliges the faithful to be defensive and reactionary, suspicious of any new ideas or practices. That attitude binds the institution to practices and beliefs that have long since become irrelevant, and sometimes even dangerous, to continue. It is not only a pessimistic view, it is a refusal to be creative, it’s a refusal to think (and thus love God with all our mind), and ultimately, it’s a refusal to trust in the living God.
Jesus obviously was not about to be deterred by that mentality or held back by laws and customs. It seems clear from his actions that he felt much of it was obsolete and had become a source of injustice and oppression to the ordinary people. He urged the people to re-interpret their scripture and traditions and re-examine their understandings of God. And obviously, for Jesus, people came first, whereas the Pharisees seemed so tied to protecting the institution that they had become indifferent and unresponsive.
It’s important to try to find the balance between being conservative and reactionary; between being radical and iconoclastic. There is always a struggle, a dynamic tension between stability and change, between sticking with what we know and trying something new. We need to discern carefully how much risk we want in our portfolio. It’s easy to say “I would have stood with Jesus.” In reality, not that many people are willing to defy authority and break the rules, and by and large that’s a good thing. But once an institution is established, whether it’s a church or a bank, it takes on a life of its own, and it’s good to be aware of that. The more “institutionalized” we are, the harder it is to pay attention to those voices that urge us to take risks or step out in faith or do something different.
But as we look at the Pope in his naiveté, innocently letting birds go out of his window, only to see them destroyed, we realize that the Church often persists in doing things in certain ways well past the time when it is viable or useful. The way we have looked at many things needs to be seen through new eyes as we move forward into this still-new century. We cannot afford to be on autopilot any more, blithely doing things that have always been done, assuming it’s business as usual, because it’s not. And indeed the Church is transitioning to new ways of doing things, slowly, painfully, reluctantly, but surely. Only 40 years ago, the Church shunned the ministry of women and it shunned those who had experienced divorce; it was stuck with a book that hadn’t changed substantially in 400 years. It was stuck in attitudes toward sexuality that had not been examined for centuries. That has all changed, and guess what? We’re still standing!
And, surprising at it may seem, it’s often the scriptures themselves, as well as our traditions, that urge and enable us to be open to a new vision and a new way.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
1 Samuel 16:1-13 The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the LORD commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the LORD.” But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
Ephesians 5:8-14 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light — for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
John 9:1-41 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.
We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he 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” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid 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. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.