In Focus – Sermon for Lætare, on John 9

The fourth Sunday in Lent is Lætare, which is a Latin word that means “rejoice.” We get this name for today from the opening lines of worship. In the old Latin mass, the opening lines of today’s worship would have been “Lætare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam”—“Rejoice, O Jerusalem! Gather round, all you who love her!” Check out the front of your bulletin. It’s there.

This day in the church calendar is a time for us to relax a bit from our Lenten fast—not give it up completely, but relax a bit. We anticipate with joy the coming Easter celebration. We know how the fast ends, and so we have reason already in the midst of our time of penance to give thanks for all God has done and continues to do for us. We have reason even now to rejoice. Lætare is our time to step back, especially if we’ve turned our fasting into a pseudo-punishment for our sinfulness, and to intentionally consider God’s goodness toward us and to find joy in that—true joy, a cause for rejoicing. All of Lent is a time for us to approach our spirituality, our lives as disciples with intentionality, and Lætare is the day that we intentionally look at the reasons we have to rejoice and be ever thankful for God’s unmitigated love toward us. Keep that in mind as we go forward today and into the rest of your Lenten fast.

Let us pray. May the Word of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

I got my driver’s license the January of my senior year of high school. Not long after I got it, I started driving myself to school at every available opportunity. And something that I started looking forward to was listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross on NPR on the drive home from school. One afternoon, the topic was a relatively new musical that had become quite popular. Some of you may know of it, or even seen it on or off Broadway—Avenue Q. Avenue Q is a musical comedy that has puppets and human actors. Think Sesame Street, but for adults. It’s been critically praised for approaching themes of racism, homosexuality, and internet pornography unapologetically head-on.

So of course, as a high schooler, I had to look it up. The song list, as you might expect from a musical, is pretty extensive, including such numbers as “What Do You Do with a BA in English?” “There Is Life Outside Your Apartment,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “Schadenfreude,” to name only a few. One that sticks out is the song, “It Sucks to Be Me,” which comes pretty near the beginning of the musical and allows for all the characters, puppet and human, to tells us whatever it is that makes their lives suck—in their own eyes. Setting up the conflict of the show, if you will. Of course, each and every one of the characters is relatable, but one character, Kate Monster, sticks out as she sings her plight—“I’m kinda pretty. And pretty damn smart. I like romantic things like music and art. And as you know, I have a gigantic heart. So why don’t I have a boyfriend? It sucks to be me!” Being an adult-themed musical, I may or may not have redacted an adult expletive from those lyrics. I’ll let curious minds remain curious…

It sucks to be me…

How many times have we thought that, or something similar. Kate Monster—doesn’t she describe most of us? Not ugly, kinda pretty. Not dumb, pretty damn smart, especially in some things. Interesting interests. Caring, kind, loving. So what’s not to like? Doesn’t it seem unfair that our lives end up with their share, or more than their share of unpleasantness? Kate wants a boyfriend more than anything. Doesn’t she deserve that given all the good about her? Yet you can do all the right things, and your life can still end up sucking…

Or so it can seem.

It can be easy to get caught in the death spiral of negativity. You can be going along having a great day, and one thing happens that can upset the whole apple cart. And it doesn’t have to be a big thing. Even a little annoyance can make you question the goodness of the whole day. In fact, I’ve been known to say that I can handle big problems, real problems, but little things can quickly send me over the edge into thinking—and listing and keep track!—of the things that are horrible in my life. Negativity can quickly destroy the way that we view life. And our negativity can affect other people as well. It can be contagious—like a sickness. Our negativity infects someone else, whose negativity infects someone else, whose negativity infects yet someone else—and so on and so on.

In the days of film photography, when you got photographs back from being developed, you’d also get the film back, but as negatives. Developing pictures was a process that involved chemicals in a dark room and exposing the film to light and the chemicals. I was always fascinated by the negatives when we’d get them back because they looked so weird—so wrong. Everything was backward, opposite the way it should be.

The reason for that I know now is because the negatives showed the opposite color from what was needed to develop the actual picture. What you see on the photograph isn’t what is on the negative. The negative was the exact opposite of the captured moment from reality. The same can be said for looking at our lives negatively all the time. When we only look at the negatives, we only see an opposite, backward picture. It’s reflective of reality. It’s not the truth.

Today we hear a story about Jesus giving a blind man his sight. Like last week’s gospel, there’s a lot going on, but the central focus, no pun intended, is on Jesus healing the man who had been born blind. Even before Jesus heals him, the disciples wonder who’s to blame for the man’s blindness. Was it his parents’ sin or his own sin that caused him to be born blind. Jesus says it’s not sinfulness. And then he proceeds to use this as an opportunity to see God’s glory in action. He heals the man of his blindness. But of course, this raises a lot of puzzlement for the people around the man—in particular about the man’s sinfulness. People have always looked at his blindness as a manifestation of sinfulness, and so what’s going on here that he’s no longer blind? How does this happen? And it happens on the Sabbath to boot! Whoever healed him obviously is just as lawless and sinful as he is because this doesn’t follow the rules. This isn’t how we’ve always done it!

How do we explain this? What does this tell us about God? About Jesus? About us?

I like how the blind man answers that question—simply, and to the point. “One thing I do know,” he says, “that though I was blind, now I see.”

Jesus changes the way that we look at things—everything. Jesus forces us to look our lives—our selves, our time, our possessions—and truly assess them for what they are. Everything we have comes from God. For each and every one of us that’s true. Our looks. Our smarts. Our relationships. Our homes. Our jobs. Our skills. Everything is from God. Blessings that are sometimes so small we forget to count them because we’re blinded by what popular wisdom would tell us are blessings, what popular wisdom would tell us makes our lives suck. We’re blind to what really matters, and we don’t see that blessings all around us in the mundanity of ordinary life. I’ve always been astounded that the most joyful, most content people in worldwide surveys of happiness aren’t people living in so-called developed countries in Europe or North America, but instead are in places that have been derisively maligned by some with adult expletives in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. Maybe instead of focusing our attention on worldly visions of happiness, we could look to those we consider less developed and learn from them to refocus our vision on what truly matters, what truly brings joy and contentment. Maybe instead of thinking we’re so developed, we could look to people living in places where we see life as backward and opposite of what we think makes for a good life.

Jesus forces us to readjust our perspective and brings our vision into focus so that we can clearly see what matters, what truly matters. Life as a disciple of Jesus isn’t one that looks for excuses for things that we wish were different. Life as a disciple trusts that God will come into our lives and make his glory shine through us—even in the mundane ordinariness of our day-to-day lives. Jesus forces us to confront our preconceived notions, our views long held about how things ought to be done, and challenges them at their core. Jesus makes us ask questions—tough questions about ourselves, our relationships with one another, our relationship with the things in our lives, and our relationship with God.

What is most important?

When our vision is properly focused, how do we respond? When we see the world through the lens of Jesus, instead of the backward, opposite negatives that although fascinating aren’t reflective of reality, how do we behave? When we are confronted with the glory of God, do we see the truth of God’s abundant and unending blessing before us and all around? Or do we still have blinders on that hinder us from fully glimpsing God’s marvelous vision for full and abundant life, not only for us but for each and every person and all of creation?

What’s our reaction when God shows us our life and everything it is and what it yet can be?

Do we gripe, grex, and complain, saying, “It sucks to be me?”

Or do we fall down and worship, confessing, “Lord, I believe?”

In the end, it’s really all a matter in how you see it.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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