Fourth Sunday in Lent—Year A
March 19, 2023
Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent in the Western Church, so called from the first word (“Rejoice”) of the introit of the liturgy. It is also known as mid-Lent Sunday, for it occurs just over halfway through Lent, and as Refreshment Sunday, because it may be observed with some relaxation of Lenten strictness. Hence the rose colored vestments rather than the deeply penitential purple. In England the maids from the manner houses were often given the day off to visit their mothers, and so it was also called Mothering Sunday. Simnel cakes (special rich fruitcakes) were consumed on this day. And as a special treat, we have several simnel cakes at coffee hour for you to try.
Before I get into the sermon for today I want to address the very negative comments about Jews in the Gospels, and particularly The Gospel of John. We forget that Jesus was a Jew. The disciples were Jews. The man born blind was a Jew. Everybody in this story was Jewish. Only some of the Jews belonged to the party of the Pharisees. And the Pharisees didn’t always agree.
There’s the assertion in today’s reading that “anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”
This Gospel was written near the end of the first or beginning of the second century CE when there was growing division and animosity between Christians and Jews for many reasons beyond religious ones. The tensions in the text regarding the Jews reflect the period when the Gospel was written — and not the situation at the time of Jesus. In fact, the witness of the New Testament itself is that the early Christians continued to worship in the Temple for years after Jesus’ death and resurrection
Some of these negative portraits of Jews in John have been used to justify anti-Semitism through the centuries in pogroms, crusades, in Shakespeare, the Holocaust, and in White Supremacist Nazi circles today.
All this is to say that great care must be taken with the portraits of the Jewish people that are painted here in John.
Now let’s turn to today’s Gospel.
It’s a parable, or better yet, a morality play where people are consumed with finding sin and assigning blame.
You may remember Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which is set in 17th-century Boston. It’s the story of Hester Prynne, who conceives a daughter through an adulterous affair and struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity, all the while forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” as a badge of shame. It has a lot in common with this gospel text.
The story begins when Jesus “saw a man blind from birth.” The disciples, filled with empathy and compassion, paragons of love and openness to the pain of the world, look upon the poor blind man and ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Jesus, who can we blame, who’s at fault here? Upon whom can we pin the scarlet letter?
Jesus refused to play the blame game. He responded by saying, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” In other words, the issue isn’t who’s at fault, but rather, given this situation, what are we going to do about it?
In a gesture filled with symbolism, Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes,” and told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. The man did as instructed, and then his eyes were opened. The mud calls to mind the clay out of which God formed Adam and breathed into him the breath of life, and the pool of Siloam was part of the elaborate water system that gave life to the city of Jerusalem.
In this morality play, Jesus then goes off stage, to return only at the very end of the drama. New characters come into the scene. Neighbors and passers-by that had seen the blind beggar sitting and begging on the street, now begin to ask, “Isn’t this the blind guy?”
They start to argue. Some say “Yes,” and others say, “No, he only looks a little like him.” But the man himself insists, “It’s really me!” And then they all get into it. How can a person be blind one moment and then see? The man repeats the story about Jesus and the mud and the pool.
Now the crowd wants Jesus; but no one knows where he is.
So they drag the man off to some Pharisees where he has to repeat the whole tale about the opening of his eyes. And now the Pharisees get into it with one another—some claiming that Jesus is a sinner, because he healed on the Sabbath day, while others argue that a sinner can’t do such things.
In the middle of this dispute, someone suggests that the man wasn’t blind in the first place. So they send for his parents to certify that their son was born blind. But when pressed to say how their son could now see, fearing the anger in the crowd, they refuse, saying, “Ask him; he’s an adult. He can speak for himself.”
The man born blind, now sighted, is brought again before the interrogators who want him to condemn Jesus as a “sinner.” And the man says, “I don’t know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
Then they want him to repeat, once again, how he received his sight. “I’ve told you already and you wouldn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples?”
“We’re disciples of Moses, but this man, we don’t know where he comes from.”
Then the man really goes to the heart of it. “Here’s an astonishing thing! He healed me by the power of God. If he weren’t from God, he could do nothing.”
Enraged, they exclaim, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
The play starts with an attempt by the disciples to paint someone as a sinner. Throughout, the effort continues to try to pin the scarlet letter on the man, his parents, Jesus followers, Jesus himself. And all the while, the great joy of sight and new life and new possibility is drowned out by folk seeking to blame, shame, and shun.
At the end, Jesus comes back to the stage to seek out the man – to welcome him into a community of joy. Jesus, in one last exchange with the condemners, suggests that the truly blind are those who are convinced, in their self-righteousness, that they see clearly the sins of others while being blind to their own.
This is a morality play for every age. We want so deeply to have everything be clear. We want to know what is right and what is wrong. What is correct belief and what is heresy? What people are OK and which ones are outside the fence? Who’s a true believer and who’s a sinner”
And when Jesus appears to be offstage, we fight with one another, condemn one another, and even when miracles happen we see sin rather than the person behind the label. When Jesus does appear onstage, we’re just as likely to crucify him as we are to worship and follow him.
In his book Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity, Roman Catholic biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson imaginatively takes his readers on a tour inside a typical Catholic Church. He observes that there is a different religious world at the front of the church than there is at the back. In the front of the church, the pulpit, the missal, the Bible, and the priest’s chair—all symbols of order, authority, and sound theology. At the back of the church, however, things are a bit messier. In the narthex, tacked to a bulletin board, are news clippings of the latest appearance of the Virgin Mary, brochures advertising pilgrimages to a local shrine, copies of novena prayers said to St. Jude, and notices of various charismatic prayer meetings and healing services. Johnson says, “At the front of the church, religion is much concerned with correctness of doctrine, morality, authority, procedure. Back in the vestibule, religion is much more about the experience of transforming power in any available form.” Johnson is quoted in “The Essential Untidiness of Ministry” by Thomas Long.
I’ve often suspected that what occurs in the choir, at the soundboard, in the narthex, the unscripted moments in the liturgy, on the bulletin boards, at coffee hour, and in the parking lot—I suspect that there are many more “experiences of transforming power” than there are in the more formal liturgies.
Just as Jesus’ greatest moments weren’t in the Temple, but in the chance encounters in the street, involving not purity and perfection, but brokenness and mud, so we, too, can find what John called “abundant life” in the messiness of the world.
Ours is an especially messy time in our national life, economics, international affairs, our politics. We’ve just come through a world-wide Pandemic. Like John’s characters, we want to attach blame. It’s the fault of the Chinese, the Russians, the President, the former President, the Congress, Fox News. But being able to pin the letter on someone, doesn’t address the question that Jesus raises, “What are we going to do about it?”
Messiness is not the equivalent of sin. That which occurs outside the control of the holy space, can be just as sacred, if not more so. In this story, everyone is worried about sin and who should wear the label “sinner.”
Everyone, that is, but Jesus.
Hester Prynne would have been a whole lot safer in Jesus’ hands. No scarlet letter. No shame. Only welcome and embrace.
So let’s welcome the messiness and uncertainty of life. Not that we would have chosen it, but it is certainly here. What are we going to do about it?
My friend, Mary Tom Watts put it this way at the beginning of the Pandemic. She wasn’t not very far from the spirit of Jesus.
“This will be the longest sustained period of opportunity in our lives, so far, to be agents of love, grace, compassion, empathy, charity, hope, encouragement, generosity, and understanding to others. Everyone is our neighbor now.”
And so they are.
 Quoted in “The Essential Untidiness of Ministry” by Thomas G. Long, from Midterms to Ministry: Practical Theologians on Practical Beginnings.