03/19/2023 ~ Fourth Sunday in Lent ~ 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41 ~ SLIGHTLY TRUNCATED VIDEO OF THE SERVICE: https://vimeo.com/showcase/7960701/video/810606715
“The answer came: ‘The one they call Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and told me to go to Siloam and wash. When I went and washed I was able to see.’” — John 9:11.
Since I have some background in theater, I want to share some theater history. Indeed, it’s said theater professionals need to know the literature of the medium.
The writers George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart collaborated and were titans of in the mid-Twentieth Century stage. They made a good match.
Both were writers and directors who wrote comedies, political satire and books for musicals. Kaufman even wrote for the Marx Brothers. Hart directed My Fair Lady and Camelot. Together Kaufman and Hart won a Pulitzer for You Can’t Take It with You. Another of their collaborations was the play Merrily We Roll Along.
A conceit of Merrily is that it tells its story backwards. Hence, at the start of the play the characters are old and look at the world with some distrust, even cynicism. At the end of the tale they are young and envision a future filled with hope and promise.
The play is often performed with another conceit. Actors under twenty-five play the parts. At the start these young actors play old, skeptical, at the end optimistic.
In 1981 the well known composer Stephen Sondheim wrote a musical based on this play. It was Sondheim’s biggest flop, lasting just sixteen performances.
I am one of the few who saw that original production. It actually featured a young Jason Alexander, who later came to fame as George on Seinfeld. But I also readily remember all this because I’ve seen a recent documentary about the Sondheim musical.
When the Sondheim show was about to open the ABC networf had planned a program about the making of this musical. So a bunch of archived film was available. Production on that ABC documentary stopped when Merrily was not successful.
The recent documentary uses the old film of the young actors and then covers a more recent reunion of the original cast gathered for a concert version of Merrily. Of course, when the musical was produced all the actors were under 25 and are just starting their careers. The optimism of youth is clear in their responses.
In the more recent interviews the actors reminisce. While cynicism is not a tune they broadcast, they do talk about where life might have led and where life has really led.
Hence, the unifying conceit of the documentary, the musical and original play is each looks back in time from the perspective of knowing what has happened. They all look back on a life lived and how life played out.
Thereby, these questions arise. “If this is where I am now, how did I get there? Who am I, now? Did I become who I wanted to be?”
These might be poignant questions for each of us. Indeed, I was recently having a conversation with a friend, about 15 years younger than I. She reminisced about who she was when she was twenty-something and said, “I wish I knew then what I know now.”
How often have you heard someone say that. How often have you said it yourself? (Slight pause.)
This is what we hear in the Gospel According to the School of John: “The answer came: ‘The one they call Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and told me to go to Siloam and wash. When I went and washed I was able to see.’” (Slight pause.)
Few stories in the New Testament are told as well as the healing of the one born blind. Scenes are smoothly connected; characters unfold; there is crisp, ironic dialogue at every point. It unveils the satire of someone born blind and is then enabled to see people. And the people this person sees have sight but prove themselves to be blind.
The story is a work of art to be admired. In fact, one commentary I read said the story needs only to be told. One should never preach about it. Why? The story makes its own obvious theological claims.
So this may be a mistake but I will try to say something about it. (Slight pause.) Toward the end of this tale the one born blind is cast out of the synagogue, cut off from family, religion, heritage, home.
All anchors, all the things commonly perceived of as linchpins of life are gone. I want to suggest that, while the story makes all of what happens sound inevitable, it is not inevitable. Real life is more scattered than it is inevitable.
Let me throw out a concept here. We tend to think that knowledge is binary. Either you know something or you don’t. We see knowledge as a fact or a series of facts. But each of those facts, even a series, is isolated, separate from other facts.
That leads me to ask ‘what is true knowledge?’ Is knowledge a fact or a set of individual facts which you know? Or is it something else? (Slight pause.)
I think knowledge is neither a fact nor is it a series of individual facts. Rather, true knowledge is an ability to connect facts.
Having true knowledge means connecting different aspects of life, integrating facts. True knowledge is, hence, complex, textured, emotionally demanding, random, scattered.
True knowledge is challenging. Or rather true knowledge, by definition, challenges our ususal ways of thinking. Our usual way of thinking says if we know facts we are knowledgeable. But what really makes us knowledgeable is integrating facts.
Further, knowledge is not simply about winning or losing, that binary thing, something we constantly hear in our society. Real knowledge is a lot like a life lived, a lot like real life. Knowledge is experienced over time. It’s complex, textured, emotionally demanding, random, scattered. (Slight pause.)
That brings me back to Merrily We Roll Along. Yes, we all wish we had 20/20 hindsight. Why? 20/20 hindsight sees things perfectly, or as close to perfect as we might imagine perfect to be.
Of course, the final conceit of Merrily, is that we might look back with this perfect 20/20 hindsight. And perhaps we even think if we had 20/20 hindsight, we would have the same vision of the world God has. But real life is a lot more complex, textured, emotionally demanding, random, scattered and imperfect than simply having that nearly perfect 20/20 hindsight.
All this brings me back to the textured story of the one born blind from birth. (Slight pause.) What is the story about? I don’t know. But, I think— this is my opinion— I think the story is an invitation to see the world as God sees the world.
However, counter to the way we think the world works, this story is an invitation to not see things as simply facts. It is an invitation to not see things isolated from everything else. Please understand everyone in the story except the one born blind sees things, sees the world as an immutable set of facts.
And we tend to see the story that way precisely because, like any story, it looks back. It has 20/20 hindsight. But how does God see the world? Does God see the world in hindsight or does God see the world with foresight?
Does God see the world from the perspective of just one person? Does God see the world from the perspective of just one nation? Does God see the world as an immutable set of facts? Does God see the world in hindsight? (Slight pause.)
My bet is our own way of seeing the world is, by definition, limited. And I want to suggest God sees the world more fully than we do. God does not see facts as isolated, immutable. God does not see the world facts as isolated, immutable. God does not see the world only in hindsight.
God sees all the world, God sees aspects of life as connected, integrated, complex, textured. God sees the world as emotionally demanding, challenging. Equally and therefore, God does not see the world as being about winning or losing.
The economy of the world, as God sees it is— I think— a world in which equity, joy, peace, freedom, justice, hope and love reign. The economy of the world, as God sees it is— I think— not a place where distrust and cynicism abound.
This, my friends, is God’s sight, God’s vision, how God sees the world— a world in which equity, joy, peace, freedom, justice, hope and love do reign. And if anything, I think that is the lesson we need to hear when the story of the one blind from birth is told.
God’s sight invites us to see the world with the eyes of God, see the world not as an immutable fact or set of facts but as a place in which integrated textures— the integrated textures of equity, joy, peace, freedom, justice, hope and love do, indeed, reign. Additionally, God invites us to see the world with God’s foresight.
What might happen if we saw the world with God’s foresight? Well, let us commit ourselves to seeing the world as God sees the world. And I think God sees the world with the God’s heart. God sees the world with overwhelming love. Now, there’s a challenge. Amen.
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Life does take strange turns. In 2012 Merrily We Roll Along was staged on London’s West End, the British Broadway. It won the award for Best Musical. This Fall a revival will be on Broadway staring Daniel Radcliffe who played Harry Potter in the movies. As Søren Kierkegaard said, ‘Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.’ Life is complex, textured, emotionally demanding, random and scattered, imperfect. None of us foresees fully. But we are called to see how God might see— the world as a place in which equity, joy, peace, freedom, justice, hope and love reign.”
BENEDICTION: There is but one message in Scripture: God loves us. Let us endeavor to let God’s love shine forth in our lives. For with God’s love and goodness there is power to redeem, power to revive, power to renew, power to resurrect. So, may the love of God the creator which is real, the Peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding and the companionship of the Holy Spirit which is ever present, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge, love and care of God this day and forever more. Amen.