COVENANT NETWORK CONFERENCE 2003
New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC
Sermon – Saturday Worship, November 8, 2003
Poirot or Corot: On Asking the Right Questions
John 9: 1-12
J. Barrie Shepherd
Standing in this illustrious pulpit one question is paramount. What am I doing here? How DOES one get to preach the closing sermon at the Covenant Network Conference? The obvious answer would be that you do not say “No” to Pam Byers; not and live to tell the tale. Or again, might the whole thing be attributed to what I call the Scottish accent syndrome which claims among other things that a burr in the pulpit is worth a couple of zeros on the paycheck? My dear friend and fellow Scot the late J. Ernest Somerville, long-time minister at First Church, Philadelphia, Ernest would respond thus to folk who inquired why he invariably spent his summers back in Scotland:
Round about June every year my congregation starts to understand what I’m saying; so I have to go back home to brush up my accent!
But the correct answer, as to why I am here today, as any true Presbyterian should have known, is that it was all predestined. And predestination nowadays, as you may have already learned this week, predestination is where you are when your flight is cancelled. Perhaps we’d better pray:
Let these words that I speak, and the thoughts we all think, bring us closer to you, O God, nearer to one another. AMEN.
John, the ninth chapter and that second verse:
Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?
Father! Mother! I can see!
Words once memorized and never forgotten. The very first words, as I recall, that I ever spoke in church, at age ten or eleven, playing the part, in a Sunday School drama, of that blind man in John’s gospel.
Father! Mother! I can see!
So they meet a man, blind from birth, and the disciples – note it’s not the crowd who ask this or the pharisees – there’s no trickery involved – the disciples ask Jesus whose fault it is. They don’t ask him to heal the man, they’re just curious, they want to know who is responsible for this unfortunate condition. And, as he heals him anyway, Jesus tells his followers they are asking the wrong question:
He was not born blind because of his own sin or that of his parents, but to provide an opportunity to show the power of God.
Those disciples were playing the old blame game. They needed to know who was at fault. They wanted some kind of explanation – more than that, some kind of reasonable allocation of guilt – so that they could say he’s blind because of this or that, this harmful action, that sinful person. But Jesus said it was all about manifesting God’s glory, and went ahead and healed the man.
We too, for many of the same reasons, we too persist in looking for someone to blame. We too would rather call a thing a curse of God, a just and fitting punishment for some previous fault or crime, than ever to admit that these things just happen, might even happen to us. We too insist on seeking out the guilty party, the one in the wrong, the infidel, unbeliever, “axis of evil,” the individual, group, community or nation that is different from us, that sees things from a completely different perspective, and thus can be blamed for whatever currently troubles us.
But what Jesus seems to suggest here is that instead of asking who to blame, those disciples should have been asking who to praise, who to glorify, “Just who’s is the glory involved here?” Perhaps, in other words, the appropriate approach to this world, its mysteries, its quandaries, tragedies and comedies too, the correct, dare I even say the Christian approach, is not so much that of Poirot, as that of Corot. Let me explain.
Unlike Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s immortal little Belgian detective, who is forever seeking out what’s wrong, precisely what crime has been committed and how, and who, then, must be pursued, prosecuted and punished… unlike Poirot we might look at this world through the eyes of the artist, say of Corot, Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, the great French landscape painter, one of the very first to take his easel out of doors and paint what he saw in the real world. For Poirot, then, read Corot – look at life through the eyes of the artist and seek there the signs of God’s presence, God’s healing power, God’s astonishing, even terrifying beauty.
What if Jesus really came to teach us how to see? Do you remember how that blind man first claimed that he could see people, but only like trees walking, and then gradually his sight progressed toward being crystal clear? So many times in the gospels, especially in John, from his earliest invitation to his disciples, “Come and see,” to his opening the eyes of the blind, to his claim to be “The Light of the World,” to those parables, so many of which were simple exercises in seeing, in perceiving the reality of the kingdom concealed in the everyday events and objects that made up people’s lives – something lost, a coin, a sheep, a farmer sowing seed, a traveler needing help – in all this Jesus seems to be inviting people to a new way of seeing, a new way of recognizing God, and God’s realm at the core of everything that is.
To approach this world, this life, then, no longer as a problem to be solved, but as a possibility to be explored. To approach and appreciate our own selves, no longer as defined exclusively and eternally between those two opposing poles of sin and salvation, but as those who, being redeemed in Christ, can now seek out, and recognize, and reveal to others the living splendor of that redemption, its passion and surpassing glory, reflected in the world about us, at work in the events that make up our own time.
In my retirement, and it’s a splendidly liberating thing this retirement – particularly if your pension is fully vested – but in reflecting upon thirty eight plus years of ordained ministry, I am becoming more and more convinced that western Christianity, at least, has become inordinately obsessed with sin and guilt. This is an obsession which has led to the neglect, at times the complete denial, of other equally biblical aspects of theology, the theology of creation, of history, of justice, of community, to name a few examples. And that obsession, it seems to me, is rooted in a deeply ambivalent attitude toward sexuality.
Something’s wrong somewhere, something… someone is shameful. And since that shameful person cannot be me, it has to be someone else, the alien, the minority person, the woman, the muslim or jew, the gay person; the fault has to lie somewhere. So, as with Poirot, the world becomes one vast crime scene, and our task is to locate the guilty party. And as long as folk see the world that way, then someone, somewhere, has to take the blame. And the gays, or whoever else dares to be different, will continue to get what we used to call in the RAF, the short end of the stick.
Those who differ with us – Don’t you see? – are absolutely right. The issue does go far beyond the ordination of gay. lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Christians, even beyond conflicting approaches to biblical interpretation. Our dispute goes right to the roots of the faith, the purpose of the church. Are we called primarily to perceive and root out evil, or to discern and celebrate beauty? Is this world the treacherous arena of Satan or the ever changing theater of God’s creative grace? Of course these need not be mutually exclusive, but they have more and more come to be seen that way.
Surely Jesus’ own teaching in the parables points a direction here. Far from a dreary catalog of instances of sin and dire warnings against them, they guide us toward an unfolding revelation of the realm of God present and active in everything. Our chief task surely is to disclose God’s presence, not the activities of the evil empire.
H. Richard Niebuhr, under whom I was fortunate enough to study at Yale, Neibuhr in his later works expressed a growing concern over what he called the “Christomonism” of the West. By this he meant our tendency to narrow the faith down to a single, and quite unbiblical focus on the second person of the Trinity to the exclusion of much of the richness, depth and comprehensive breadth of Christian thought across the ages.
It seems to me that today we face an even further narrowing of focus, a narrowing down to something we might call “sin-omonism:, “guilt-omonism.” maybe even “forgiveness-omonism.”; a narrowing in which the focus is so exclusively upon the cross, and the most rigid transactional interpretation of what happened there, that once again the full spectrum, that radiant rainbow range by which our faith has been seen to encompass and embrace the entirety of creation and the cosmos, has been almost completely forfeited.
I said “unbiblical” just now fully realizing that there is much in scripture to support a view of God as the fearsome Judge in whose presence our first and only possible act must be to grovel in abject confession. Yet a fully biblical view, a view which encompasses Abraham, for one, the exemplar of our faith, Jacob, who wrestles with the mystery which is and is not God, and then limps into the sunrise, Koheleth the preacher, David, the psalmist too (particularly in those psalms which avoid vindictiveness and vengeance and are sheer glory from beginning to end) and then Job, surely the whole point of Job is his sinlessness, and when he finally does submit it is not the result of guilt, but of God’s sheer mystery and splendor, yes, a fully biblical view would lend support to my suggestion of a far broader, richer and fuller range of relationship with the divine than can be defined by John Newton’s “Amazing Grace.”
Those crowds who flocked to Jesus, and the winsome, winning message Jesus fed to them, Oh yes, there was repentance there, but repentance in the fullest sense of the Hebrew Scriptures, a transformation of one’s entire being, a turning full around (“SHUB” is the Hebrew word), a realization and recognition that this truly is “our Father’s world” and that everything in it, from bushel baskets to pearls of great price, speaks and even sings to us of glory if we would only stop and look and listen.
Do you remember how they asked Jesus why his followers behaved so differently from those of John the Baptist with his austere warnings to “Flee from the wrath to come.” What happened to us that so much of the church, even today, is still hanging with John the Baptist rather than rejoicing with the risen Lord of the Dance?
You Christians should look more redeemed.
Said Nietzsche, in one of his most telling criticisms of the church.
Now don’t let anyone – the Layman and their crew – go claiming that I am denying the reality of sin, questioning the necessity of the cross – I have no desire to be the next Dirk Ficca. What I am saying is that there is more to our faith than this; that we have other, further songs to sing, that we are heirs of a rich and glorious heritage, of sin and grace, yes, but also of gratitude and glory, of mystery and wonder, of a God whose majesty transcends even that revealed by the Hubbell telescope, yet who is also, in the poet’s words:
Nearer to us than breathing, closer than hands and feet.
Several Novembers ago I found myself, just before midnight, in the deep silence of London’s Westminster Abbey – that shrine of England’s history and tradition. I was attending a dinner in the Jerusalem Chamber adjoining the Abbey, the room where Henry IV was taken to die, and where our Westminster Confession was born. As the evening wore on I slipped from the table and entering by a narrow doorway found myself alone in that soaring nave, the tallest nave in Europe. Before me lay a bed of scarlet poppies covering the tomb of Britain’s unknown soldier, for this was the 11th day of the 11th month, the solemn anniversary of the Armistice of Wold War I. All around me were the emblems of mortality, the tombs of the great and the good, poets and generals, statesmen, explorers, inventors, with their fascinating inscriptions, their glowing tributes.
I walked the length of that long aisle, along which kings and queens had made their way to coronation, to marriage, to interment. I stood a while before the great high altar. And it seemed to me that all that I had seen there, yes the deaths and lives, the achievement and insight, sheer courage, true faith, that all of this was brought together here, embraced and lifted up to God, lifted up in one great hymn of thanks and praise and glory.
And I saw that that’s what we are called to do.
Father, Mother, I can see!
To perceive – Don’t you get it? – to recognize, and then reach out toward, the very best that is in all of us, and all creation too; to welcome it, rejoice in it, and claim it, own it – yes, in Christ’s name – recognize it for what it truly is, the love and grace of our God at work. And then lift it up, yes raise it high in praise to God the Source and God the Goal.
Poirot, then, or Corot? A world of separation; sorting out the guilty from the good, the chosen from the frozen, poring over these Scriptures to discern who’s in and who’s out. Or a world of celebration; seeking out God’s realm in every moment of our living, the sad every bit as much as the glad; looking for, believing in, seeking ever to bring to light and nurture that image of God deep in the human heart that makes every single one of us worth Christ’s dying for. Oh, we are flawed and fragile creatures, and yet by means of these very flaws we can be shaped to the life of Christ. Leonard Cohen puts it this way:
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s where the light gets in.
That’s where the light gets in.…