The Rev. Joseph Farnes
All Saints, Boise
March 19, 2023
When we read today’s Gospel reading, we often project back onto the story our modern Christian assumptions. We don’t get the moral and theological debacle over healing someone on the Sabbath. It makes good sense to heal on the Sabbath, doesn’t it?
We also live in a culture that doesn’t really get the Sabbath, or any holy day for that matter. Sundays formerly were a day of rest for a lot of folks, and now Sunday mornings compete with all sorts of other activities to choose from. The only real difference between Sundays, Saturdays, and the rest of the week are that certain folks get to have the weekends off, and it’s generally people who get paid less. I remember being at a pharmacy chain and overhearing an employee talk about how they had to work holidays, that they got to choose one holiday, like Christmas, Thanksgiving, or New Years to get off and had to work the other two. Holy time is not culturally honored.
So we need to be aware of that as we read this story. We have our cultural expectation that all time is like any other time.
But that isn’t true. Some time is different from other time. Some time takes on a holiness, a difference, a sacredness.
Holy Week is our guide to the sacredness of time. The culmination of Holy Week are the Three Holy Days that bring us into the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ in a powerful way, and there is no way to speed up or skip past them.
On Maundy Thursday we will recall the last supper. We will wash one another’s feet in the ritual of footwashing, a sign of service. And then we strip the altar to leave it bare. Maundy Thursday thrusts us out of our normal way, our normal accounting of time. The Solemnity of time reigns supreme.
Between Maundy Thursday and the Easter Vigil, no Eucharist can be celebrated. It isn’t done. Time is shifted. Silence, somber liturgy take up space and time. For one day, we sit in the trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus. In that time, we cannot rush past the cross to get to the happy ending. We cannot fast forward.
And on Holy Saturday, we sit with the grief of Jesus’ burial. We know the end of the story. The altar guild will already be polishing the silver and getting everything set up for the Easter Vigil. But still, no rushing, no fast forwarding, no side-stepping. We must finally observe the sacredness of time.
That is the sacredness that the Pharisees are protecting. For us modern Christians, Sunday is supposed to have that level of sacredness, but we treasure it only during Holy Week. But the Pharisees were protecting that sacredness for every Sabbath. The religious rules help keep the sacred sacred. The healing on the Sabbath is the toe over the line: well, what about this? And then the next exception: what about this? It’s a slippery slope until nothing is sacred at all, and nothing has special significance or holiness.
And yet, at the same time, there’s another threat: building a wall around the sacred to keep people out, creating regulations strict to keep everything frozen in the only holy arrangement we know. Everything gets regulated to make sure it stays pure and perfect.
We see that, too. We see people fixated on making the rules strict to decide who’s in, who’s out (and, conveniently, they always see themselves as being the right kind of people to decide who’s in and who’s out). That their way is the only way.
So what do we do? How do we avoid a slippery slope, and how do we keep from building a wall?
There’s not a comfortable, clear-cut answer for that. It’s ambiguous. It’s messy.
We need rules – rules that help us to honor the sacred, rules that help us to decide what is right. And we need to know when to bend the rules – to do what is more right, to save a life.
We have to be able to do both. Rules, and bending them. Bending rules, and knowing when to hold to them firmly.
It’s messy. It’s uncomfortable.
It’s something that takes time to figure out and understand. The man born blind is healed, and he reflects on it in his heart. What does this healing mean?
Does it mean the Sabbath is no longer sacred? No.
Does it mean that Jesus broke the Law? No.
What does the healing mean for the man born blind?
The healing means that he has to discern what he knows and believes. Notice at the end of the passage for today, he doesn’t immediately jump to believing Jesus is the Son of Man, the Messiah. No, he asks Jesus, “Who is the Son of Man, that I may believe in him?” He still discerns. The man born blind decides that Jesus is worth listening to, that he will guide him rightly. He doesn’t throw himself at Jesus’ feet and proclaim him the Messiah enthusiastically – no, the man born blind takes it slowly and deliberately. His faith takes time to unfold, and it embraces uncertainty and ambiguity.
Where do you find yourself uncertain? Where is there ambiguity in your spiritual life? Perhaps it can be messy for a while as you figure things out.
What are the rules that give you the trellis to grow on? What are the rules that highlight and protect the sacredness of your life, your time? We all need guiding principles.
And what are the times to bend those rules, to follow a deeper value, to break a rule to fulfill a deeper righteousness? There are always deeper values that guide us. Ultimately, I ask you: what does Jesus Christ mean to you – to your life, to your world? That’s the sacred question we must answer with our whole mind, and heart, and soul, and strength. That’s a question we must sit with and figure out for the entirety of our lives, so that we may grow, and see, and understand Jesus, and follow him wherever he leads. Amen.