26 March 2017 – Fourth Sunday of Lent

The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of the 4th Sunday of Lent
26 March 2017

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

It is fitting that this Sunday—Laetare Sunday, or Rejoicing Sunday—falls on the heels of my trip to Fort Collins to see my family as well as the day after the Annunciation, which was commemorated yesterday at our deanery meeting in Monterey. The lightening of our Lenten tone in this morning’s mid-Lent celebration is accompanied by some flowers amidst our greens on the altar, it gives the option for rose colored vestments—a visual lightening of the deep purple of the season, and, appropriate to this morning’s readings, it is about a lightening of our hearts amidst our wilderness journey of spiritual discernment and faith.

It is interesting to me that I didn’t see the key phrase from First Samuel that ties all of this morning’s readings together, “the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” until I was on my way back home from a couple days with those in my own life who center me, fill my heart, and nourish my Spirit.

In each of our readings for today, the inner state of the heart, what Paul and Jesus both called Spirit in last week’s readings and light in today’s readings, focuses us on the difference between appearances, and the authentic state of our being and wellbeing in relationship with God and one another.

In First Samuel, the backstory of David being chosen as king gives significance to the part of the story we hear today. Spanning last week’s story and today’s, Israel finally arrived in the Promised Land after their forty years in the desert wilderness, and God ruled them as king with prophets who served as intermediary judges between God and the people. After many generations, Samuel became the last Judge over Israel. In his old age, the people asked him to appoint a king over them so that they might be like other nations. He told them that a king would take their children as soldiers and household servants, the best of their crops and lands as tribute, and rule over them as a master with them as his slaves. Demanding a king anyway, God told Samuel to give them what they wanted, and selected Saul for Samuel to anoint King. Saul was head and shoulders taller than anyone else in Israel, strong, skilled in battle, but became willful and eventually stopped listening to Samuel, who served as his personal prophet. God lamented to Samuel for choosing Saul as king, and told him that Saul’s reign was at an end. So while Saul was still king, God called Samuel in today’s readings to anoint David as king. Not another tall, powerful, imposing king who would fall away from God’s way and lead God’s people astray, but a boy strong in spirit—strong in an authentic heart of service and in who’s heart God saw someone worthy of being Israel’s king as well as progenitor of Jesus’ own family lineage. Here was a heart without malice, without pride, who would have the courage to rule with openness and integrity, to take responsibility for his mistakes, and to lead in humility.

The difference we see between Saul and David is the difference Paul discusses in today’s reading from Ephesians—it is the difference between Saul ruling from a place of secrecy, from a place of ulterior motives, from a place of pride and self-aggrandizement, and with a heart closed off to God; and David ruling with an open heart. The actions and decisions might be the same, even with the same results, but David’s motivation for doing them and Saul’s motivation for doing them are entirely different. In Paul’s words, the one acted in darkness, closed off, walled in, hiding his heart from God and driving a wedge ever more deeply between himself and God. He made his actions shameful, and in guilt tried to convince Samuel to overturn God’s command but did nothing to heal his own heart and return to God. Again in Paul’s words, the other acted in Light, with his heart and his actions open to both God and to others. With the exception of the Bathsheba incident, for which he admitted his guilt and repented in humility, He hid nothing, and acted with integrity to his word and his intentions.

Acting in darkness, in this regard, isn’t just doing things that we are ashamed of doing, but doing, even things that we might be proud of, without doing them from a place of integrity and authenticity. Doing them from a place of false motivations, from a place of selfishness, or doing them in such a way that they damage our relationships rather than feeding them, draining us of life rather than nurturing our spirits.

One of the hardest things to unteach Christians is that Sin isn’t doing something wrong, but doing something—right or wrong—with a closed heart. Sin is a distorted state of our hearts in relationship.

In today’s gospel, again, the state of the hearts of those in relationship with God is highlighted in the story of the man blind since birth. First, Jesus tries to unteach his disciples what was then a common misunderstanding of disability—that it was caused by sin. Neither the man nor his parents had sinned, Jesus explained. He was simply born blind in a society that punished people for being born different, and premised misfortune on the same misconceived economy of grace and forgiveness that Jesus sought to unteach throughout his life and ministry. Revealing God’s grace in an act of compassion, Jesus gives sight to the blind man in a scene that my boys would LOVE. In an intimate moment that involves the nitty gritty reality of Jesus’ incarnated life, he spat in the dirt and made a mud paste that he then smeared on the blind man’s eyes. Washing his eyes in the pool, the man glorifies God and is presented to the Pharisees at the temple. With a humble and open heart, the blind man simply did as Jesus asked. Upon finding Jesus again later in the story, he affirms his authentic desire to be in relationship and encounters God in Christ. His sight and his life are transformed, again in Paul’s and John’s words, from darkness into light.

The Pharisees and other religious authorities whom John simply calls “the Jews,” are the counterpoint to the blind man. From outward appearances, they have everything. They hold positions of power and relative ease, they are respected and revered in society, they are looked to as teachers. Much like Saul, they have the appearance of nobility that commands respect. They have everything to lose—and they know it. Claiming knowledge of God and teaching a doctrine of exclusion, they close their hearts to God’s compassion and love. Fearing for their security, and seeking to claim all teaching authority for themselves, they have already been conspiring against Jesus, closing themselves off to being transformed by his teachings, his acts of power, and his message of love and compassion. Jesus seeks to free the oppressed, downtrodden, outcast, and despised from a social, political, cultural, and religious system that has imprisoned them under a false doctrine of sin and powerlessness. He heals the untouchables of his world on the Sabbath. He proclaims the forgiveness of sins. He challenges the teachings of those who seek to uphold the status quo, and then produces miracles that to any who are not blind—and even those who are, as in today’s gospel—can see have come from God. And he does it all without credentials, without fees, without approval from the structures of temple power, and without any regard for the consequences. To those whose hearts are open, whether they’ve had any previous faith or not, whether they have power or not, the encounter with God through him is life changing, eye opening, transforming. But to those, like today’s Pharisees, who see only what they stand to lose, he is a dangerous adversary. Given the encounter with God in Christ they just experienced, they chose to keep their hearts closed to God, they chose to maintain a distorted relationship, from behind their protective walls of privilege and security, they chose darkness and sin.

We’re each given the choice between darkness and light. Not just in our relationships with God, but in every encounter, in every new day, in every new moment in relationship with those around us, we choose to either engage with God and one another from a place of openness and love or a place of fear, apprehension, withdrawal, or, more sinisterly—apathy. While some forms of distorted relationship are easier to recognize, as in today’s gospel story, some are more gradual. Saul started his kingship in fear and trembling, literally hiding behind the luggage in the crowd of people from which he was named and chosen as king. Only over time did he begin to take God’s presence for granted and start distancing himself from God. By the time he realized what had happened, he was either unwilling or unable to find his way back to right relationship.

Such is also the case for us. In relationship with God and in relationship with those we love most, the problem is seldom that we suddenly stop caring or suddenly stop believing. Rather, it is more frequently a gradual and unintentional drifting apart, and it is difficult to recognize when we’ve inadvertently settled into a pattern of taking our more important relationships, including our faith, for granted.

With the exception of perhaps our canine companions, we meet precious few people in our lives who remind us of the depth of God’s love, adoration, forgiveness, and care. My youngest son is one of them. At six and 3⁄4 years old, he still looks at me with the beautiful Christ-like eyes that see only the good in me. For however long it will last, I am currently his favorite person, and about two years ago, I realized that in the busyness of my life, I had been missing it. As I tried to get my dissertation edited to file it before that year’s fall deadline, kept up with my other professional responsibilities as a priest and professor, and still sought time to be a husband and to be a father to my three amazing but demanding young children, I had quite simply been missing it. My eight year old had more experience and more engaging ways of drawing me into creative play. My seven year old with autism had more emotional needs, and, despite his own amazing heart, he still takes up more of my patience and time. And so Luke’s constant desire to play with me, to grab my hand at every opportunity, to seek every opportunity to shower me with hugs and kisses, to crawl into my bed and snuggle me when he woke in the night, and his constant demand to be noticed, needed, and valued had been downplayed, even at times taken as an annoyance… It hurt to realize that I had been trivializing his love. Realizing that I had been taking his precious heart for granted, I also had to realize that unlike the God who will always be waiting to embrace me, Luke would only be five for a short time. I had done nothing to deserve the unabashed love, kisses, hugs, snuggles, and excitement with which he greeted me every morning and every time I came through the door. But unless I held myself accountable to that love, unless I took it into my own heart and reflected it back to him and to the rest of those I held dear in my own life, I would not only have taught him that his adoration was misplaced, but I would also gain nothing from it.

The beauty is that God has loved us like this since the beginning of time, and will never cease loving us like this. Love sustains, builds up, forgives, heals, radiates, and grows. But we only stand to gain from it if we hold ourselves accountable to it, if we open our hearts to it and receive it. The way we live our lives is a testament to the condition of our hearts in this way.

Having come to the realization that I was taking Luke for granted, I have taken every opportunity to soak up his bright and beautiful eyes, smiles, hugs, and heart. Over these past couple years, we have played more, laughed more, and connected more, and I praise God that it was not too late to show my beautiful son that I love him every bit as much as he loves me, that he means the world to me, and that even when his adoration eventually fades, mine never will. His heart inspires me, and I thank him for reminding me what it feels like to be loved as God loves.

If I’m honest, as much as I have delighted in these past weeks with you, they have also been difficult. I started today by saying that it took a trip home before I could recognize the heart of today’s readings. When I got to Fort Collins at 3am on Wednesday night/Thursday morning and crawled into bed between Jane and Luke, tears suddenly streamed down my cheeks. They are my home, my center, my joy. Over the 36 hours I was there, I spent very intentional time breathing in the relationships that help keep my heart open and alive. Re-engaging with the readings on the flight home, I was surprised that I had missed the heart-reference in Samuel which was then easy to see in each of today’s readings, but in reflecting on how difficult it is to recognize when our hearts begin to stray, it should perhaps be less surprising than a simple reality of being a human separated from the relationships that sustain me.

Our Psalm assures us that in relationship with God, we are loved, we are cared for, we are accompanied, we are anointed as God’s beloved, and we have all of the abundance of God’s inexhaustible love, forgiveness, compassion, and strength to uphold us and lift up others around us. We are also assured in other shepherd references to God that when we stray from God’s presence, God seeks us out tirelessly, calling out in love for our return. But as today’s other readings also remind us, it is up to us whether we hear and respond to God’s call of love. It is up to us to examine our hearts, to be aware of our relationships, to honor them with attention and investment equal to the value we place on them, and to re-engage our hearts when we find ourselves far apart—whether by geographic or emotional distance.

As we take a breath in the midst of this Lenten journey, may this day of rejoicing be a day to remember those who lift and feed our hearts, may we look with new eyes on our own hearts and lives in relationship with God and one another, and may we take the opportunity this and each day to re-engage, reinvest, and renew our hearts in God’s transforming love.