Once, you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are in light.
Every year on Good Friday we offer an afternoon service with spoken and musical meditations on the Seven Last Words from the cross. When I was new to the church, I had heard this phrase, “seven last words,” but I always thought the seven words were “my god, my god, why…” and I’d have to count off on my fingers and figure I could make it work if I only used one “my god,” rather than two. Later I learned that the seven last words refer to the utterances attributed to Jesus from when he is on the cross. (Come on Good Friday to find out. It’s worth taking the afternoon off.)
There’s another interpretation about the seven last words of the church. “We have always done it that way.” Or: “We have never done it that way!”
We have all had our turn to experience or witness a change we didn’t like: singing the psalm instead of saying it, pancakes versus tacos, changing from the old prayer book to the new prayer book. With my diocesan hat on, I’m working with another church that is trying to move from being consumed with anxiety about survival to joyful, frightening, new mission. (That should sound familiar to those of you who have been around here for a while.) To do this, that parish must move from saying “We always do it this way” to drawing a line in the sand that says: “That was then; this is now.”
In the “now,” things are different from the “then.” In the rest of our lives, we know that, right? Kids grow up and move away, jobs change, neighborhoods change, people die, and we understand this as the circle of life. But in our religious institutions, nothing is ever supposed to change. When we close ourselves off to change, we miss out on the new ways of seeing that God may have in store for us.
In today’s gospel, the religious authorities are upset with Jesus’ actions because that is not the way they do things around there. I’m not sure which was more offensive: healing on the Sabbath, or healing someone whose blindness they believed was a punishment from God. For everyone involved, that was then; this is now. And Jesus is now.
For no one in the story is this as true as it is for the man born blind. He has experienced amazing grace. I was blind, but now I see. Can you imagine? That was then, that blindness. This is now, seeing. It is not the moment of transformation that is the miracle in today’s gospel, but the movement from one way of seeing to another. As fascinated as we may be by the description of the paste of mud that Jesus puts on his eyes, that is mostly irrelevant. The man born blind has inhabited a different world his entire life, a world without sight, and his experience of grace is dramatic: he leaves that world and enters another.
More often, transformation—leaving one world and entering another, with new sight—takes time. In the fitness world, one sees a lot of before and after photos, reminding us that while always miraculous, transformation rarely happens overnight. Transformation is always happening.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. The gospel—today’s gospel and the whole of the Good News—is about grace. Grace needs no reason. The man in today’s gospel was not punished by blindness, nor was he given sight as a reward for righteous behavior.
Not only that, but he did not even ask to be healed. He is just sitting there by the side of the road, the subject of a dialogue between Jesus and his followers about sin and God. From the perspective of the man blind from birth, this healing just happens out of nowhere. Grace is like that.
On Friday, Mark and I saw a fabulous movie which I recommend to all of you, called The Lunchbox. Anybody seen it? The setting is Mumbai’s unique dabbawallah system. Individually prepared and packed lunches are delivered to businessmen—mostly men—all over the city by a complex process and a faithful corps of deliverymen in white coats. The lunches are usually made by a family member, or, if the businessman is single, a restaurant. Well, in the early moments of the film, there’s a one-chance-in-a-million mix-up, and someone ends up with the wrong lunch. This is the beginning of a story that involves, ultimately, as much transformation as we read about in today’s gospel.
The characters in the story are changed by new ways of seeing, and I, too, saw things differently as a result of seeing the movie. For one thing, I saw that I really craved Indian food. I began to wonder whether the Indian restaurants around here might deliver individual lunches to people who work in SE Portland. But another, more significant transformation—and I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to give anything away—is that I came to look at aging, and the way I see the second half of life, differently. Sometimes, someone else’s story about seeing differently can become our story, too.
We are changed, not only by dramatic intervention of grace, but by small interventions of grace. How do you see differently as a result of hearing this morning’s gospel? When has listening to a piece of music or watching a movie or seeing a painting changed you? Grace enters our lives and opens our eyes over and over again. How will you be changed by the stories we will hear in Holy Week, and on Easter? As we continue our journey toward the cross, I pray we will be ever more aware of the grace that travels with us and opens our eyes.