There aren’t many professions which include giving the people who fund your work a yearly reminder that they are going to die. And yet, that is exactly what we clergy do on Ash Wednesday. Don’t forget your mortality. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
A Lenten Sermon on John 9.
We do this because it is so easy to forget. It is so simple to get caught up in the daily minutia and busyness and endless scrolling on social media apps designed exactly to suck our attention and sell our online proclivities to others. “Remember,” we are told; do not forget. Your life will not last forever. I say it not to bring you down, but to help you recenter, refocus, and to truly re-member your personhood. To bring together that which is most authentically you, those gifts given to you by God so that you can go out into the world and share God’s love and grace with others.
This season I’ve been reflecting on the questions posed by Frederick Buechner that can help us have a more meaningful Lent. This week that question is this: “If you had only one last message to leave the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words of less?” Buechner is asking us to imagine our days are numbered on this earth—which they are by the way, nearly 30,000 if you live into your early 80s. So, Buechner asks, if you were nearing the end of your days, what would you say to those you loved and cherished? If you had to sum it all up into a sentence or three, what would you say? What would you tell them as you finished up your life, in order to encourage them as they kept living theirs?
I wonder what the characters in this drama given to us by John might answer this question. Like the disciples who were question whether the blind man got what he deserved, or the Pharisees who were convinced Jesus was ungodly because he healed someone on the sabbath day. I wonder about the parents of the blind man looking out for their own skin and choosing fear of the Pharisees over the immense joy that their boy had been healed. Interestingly, the thread weaving throughout this story is a misunderstanding about sin and its connection to other things.
Oh, we’re not so far behind in our own thinking. I’ve heard far too many people in our day asking if they did something to deserve the hard diagnosis or the traumatic event that happened to them. If they had somehow made God mad through their actions, and God is now repaying them with a cancer diagnosis or a financial crisis or the death of a loved one. “Who sinned,” the disciples ask Jesus, “was it this poor guy or his parents seeing he was born blind?” Never mind that the man in question would have had to sin in utero if he were the one to blame, and I cannot fathom how that would work. And let’s not forget how gauche the question was because while the man was blind, he certainly wasn’t deaf, and he would have been standing near enough to hear the disciples’ query.
“Neither,” Jesus responds. It’s not about sin. It’s about the work of God to be done in his life. It’s about wholeness and restoration. It’s about the way in which God seeks not to punish us but to offer us life. Not to make us question our actions, but to be people who trust in the ultimate goodness of the one who created us in order to be in a relationship with us.
“Balderdash,” the Pharisees say. They, like religious and political leaders of all generations including our own, tend to focus on causation and how difficulties in life are always related to personal shortcomings, except of course when it happens to them. It’s a way to keep the screws on the marginalized, to keep them thinking they’re always in the wrong and deserving whatever comes their way. The leaders claim Jesus is not from God simply because of the day he offers this healing—though they wouldn’t have said this if Jesus had waited until sundown, which shows how arbitrary their thinking was. They also tell the formerly blind man when they get upset with him that he was born entirely in his sins, reinforcing their own belief about sin causing horrible things. And when they put the squeeze on this man’s parents, Mom and Dad redirect and obfuscate in order to avoid the harsh penalty of being removed from their cherished religious community. What the religious types wanted, of course, was to hold on to their power and for things to remain the same. As long as their own lives were comfortable, it didn’t matter if other people’s lives were hard. And as religious professionals, obviously they had an in with the Big Guy Upstairs, while everyone else, well, not so much. When faced with an actual show of God’s mercy, grace and healing, they are threatened and do all they can to reject it.
I suspect that the last message from most of these Pharisees would have been about control and fear rather than love. About the need for others to be perfect, or how to wield power in a certain way. About how you can tell whose a sinner and whose not based on their condition or the things that happened to them. Their last message would likely have been the same sorts of things they believed in life, that they were better than others.
Of course, there’s the blind man himself, this one who had heard again and again that he was a sinner due to his condition. What might he give as his last message to those he loved? Perhaps some words about the importance of never giving up hope. Of how glorious the spring flowers were when they emerged after a cold winter, or how he had received a second chance by a miracle worker who defied the ones in authority by choosing love. I suspect he would offer a word of compassion and gentleness and forgiveness, and the need to never believe you’ve done something wrong when horrible things outside of your control happen to you. That life is hard enough to not bear the extra weight of other’s perceptions of how something was your fault.
I imagine the parents of this man maybe expressing regret in their final words for not standing up for the truth, for giving into fear. Or maybe they made their peace with their son in the years following, and found new sight themselves so expressed a message about the power of compassion. About the way Jesus healed them too.
The disciples? Well, I suspect all of them learned so much more about Jesus and his way of mercy and love in the years that followed. I trust that they gave up this false notion of people deserving difficult times in their lives because of something they did. That they saw in Jesus the opportunity for resurrection and renewal and the possibility of healing.
So that leaves just you and me. If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less? I’d say this: “Love extravagantly like Jesus. Advocate for justice. Make time for renewal. And never forget that God cherishes you no matter what happens in this life.”
What about you? If you had only one last message to leave to the people who are most important to you, what would it be? You have twenty-five words or less.