A sermon preached on March 2, 2008 based upon Ephesians 5:8 – 14 and John 9:1 – 7, entitled, “Simple Truth”.
Mathematicians and physicists are drawn to simplicity. Formulas and theories appeal to them when they are elegant and beautiful, which means not overly complex. If there are two theories that account for the same data, the one that is simpler, less convoluted, is the more appealing one. Physicists are presently searching for something called the theory of everything — some basic underlying theory that ties everything together, and their quest is based on this basic understanding that generally speaking, truth tends to be simple rather than complicated.
There is something similar at work in the realm of spiritual truth.
One of the reactions that people often have to the Bible is a certain bewilderment in regard to its apparent complexity. Something is said in one place that seems to be contradicted in another place. The concepts can be hard to understand. I’ve known quite a few people who in response to this are tempted to essentially give up on reading the Bible.
In reading the Bible, it’s a good idea to try to latch on to the simple ideas, because truth is ultimately simple. There was a verse in the letter to the Ephesians that caught my attention in this regard. “Live as children of light — for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true.”
Why are we here? To live as children of light. What are children of light about?
They are about bearing the fruit of light which is “all that is good and right and true.”
How do you tell what is “good and right and true.” Here, I think, if our hearts are relatively clear, that which is good and right and true, becomes intuitively obvious. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to recognize it, if — and this is a big if — your heart is relatively clear.
The story from our Gospel lesson gives an example of this.
Jesus and the disciples come upon a man who is suffering; a man born blind. His life has been a constant struggle. How does one respond to suffering such as this?
His disciples respond by asking a big question, perhaps the biggest of all questions: Why did this man have to suffer so? Entire books have been written on this question without really solving the mystery of the question. The disciples seem to be asking Jesus to give them some kind of complicated intellectual answer that will explain the ways of God in terms of sin and punishment.
Jesus’ answer is much simpler. Why is this man here? He is here so that we the works of God can be displayed.
At which point, Jesus turns his attention to the man himself. Jesus draws close to the man. He spits on the ground and with his saliva makes mud. He is unconcerned about getting himself dirty, nor with coming into intimate contact with this man whom many assumed must be a sinner and therefore ritually unclean. Jesus exchanges bodily fluids, applying the mud he has made with his own saliva directly onto the man’s eyes.
In short, he shows compassion on the man. What could be simpler than this?
Now here’s the thing: in and of itself, this simple act of compassion of giving attention and human contact to this poor man isolated in his blindness would have been “good and right and true”.
Amazingly, though, the man is actually healed through this encounter. He can see for the first time in his life! The colors of flowers, the smiles of children, his parents’ faces, birds flying in the air — he sees it all for the first time!
A “good and right and true” act, if ever there was one. Who can deny it?
Alas, however, the rest of the chapter goes on to describe how the Pharisees did indeed deny that what had transpired between Jesus and this suffering man was “good and right and true.”
They question the man, then the man’s parents, then the man again, and end up condemning the man when he insists that is was Jesus who has done this for him, and that it is indeed good and of God.
Now the Pharisees are not dumb men. If you gave them an IQ test, they’d do quite well. Why can’t they see something that is as obvious as the nose on your face? They can’t recognize it, because they have an attachment to a system of thought (quite complicated) and the power system that goes along with it, and the simple truth of what has happened here between this suffering man and Jesus threatens these systems.
Until they let go of this attachment, they will not be able to recognize the simple truth.
In the course of living our lives in this world, attachments form in our hearts that block our perception of simple truth.
Perhaps this is why Jesus said that unless we turn and become like little children,
we will never enter the kingdom of God. Children haven’t developed these attachments. Certain things are obvious to a child. A lonely man born blind has attention paid to him, and lo and behold, he gets to see for the first time ever. That’s a good thing!
The adult would say, “You just don’t understand the complexities involved here. First off, the so-called “healing” — if it really was a healing — took place on the Sabbath, and that’s not how God works.” But before the adult can go onto the other points, the child gets bored, and runs off to play.
In our epistle lesson, Paul gives another simple piece of advice: “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.”
Christianity is distinguished in understanding that Truth is not a set of propositions; it is not a system of thought, a theology or a philosophy — a set of ideas. Truth is instead, a person — a man named Jesus.
If you want to know what is true and right and good, watch and see what Jesus does. He reaches out to the outcaste. He doesn’t blame. He brings the lost into the circle. He forgives.
And one of the things that Jesus does that we pay particular attention to during the season of Lent is that he goes out into the wilderness for a time, to clear out his heart and head, just like his friend John the Baptist did before him.
Our souls get cloudy, so to speak. Lent is a season for going into the wilderness, metaphorically, if not literally, in order to let go of our attachments, so that we can become simple hearted again.
Getting close to death does this as well. That which is obviously good and right and true becomes clear once more when we draw near to death.
Shortly before his death George Fox, the founder of Quaker faith, was heard to proclaim: “Now I am clear, I am fully clear.”
I included the words of Lee Atwater in our Lenten devotional. Writing from his death bed, Lee Atwater also became fully clear. His words serve as a commentary on the story of the healing of the man born blind; a Pharisee turning and becoming like a child. Lee Atwater said:
“I’ve come a long way since the day I told George Bush that his `kinder, gentler’ theme was a nice thought, but it wouldn’t win us any votes. I used to say that the President might be kinder and gentler, but I wasn’t going to be. How wrong I was. There is nothing more important in life than human beings, nothing sweeter than the human touch.”
Or we could turn to the clarity of six year old Eddie Cogan of our congregation who once said to Sarah Jernstrom, “Your husband died. Some people die young, and some people live to be 100, and we don’t know why. I’m sorry that your husband died.”
People suffer. We don’t know why. We can argue about it. Or we can have their sufferings be a call to compassion — an invitation to see what God has been calling us to see all along, that we are, on the deepest level, brothers and sisters all.
A teacher asked his students how they could tell when the night had ended and the day begun. (Some might ask, “Was the teacher a Christian?” If not, I have no interest in hearing what the teacher had to say.) One said, “When you see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it is a cow or a horse?”
“No”, said the teacher.”
“When you look at a tree in the distance and can tell if it is a maple or an oak.
“Wrong again”, said the teacher.
“Well, then, what is it?” asked his students.
“When you look into the face of any man and recognize your brother in him; when you look into the face of any woman and recognize in her your sister.
If you cannot do this, no matter what time it is by the sun, it is still night.”