Sunday, March 30, 2014

Forgotten Rites of Spring: Remembering the Old Magic

The subject of today’s gospel is blindness.  It is also the major theme.  There is a symbolic blindness on the part of religious officials who interrogate a poor blind man, ad nauseum, about his healing, and they are unable to see the presence of God in the actions of Jesus.  Jesus also healed the blind man on the Sabbath, which you’re not supposed to do.  Even miracles, apparently, constitute work, a recurring dispute in all of the gospels.  The passage from John is both symbolic and long, a wearying combination--forty one verses if you were counting.   

 Though John seems straightforward enough, there are, however, some very jarring notes as this subject and theme of blindness are explored.  The large group that seems symbolically blind are “the Jews.”  This is not very politically correct, pluralistic, or even very nice.  Believe me, I’d like to leap over this nasty element, but it’s widespread in John’s gospel in particular.  This tendency in John has created much division, too many problems—it has created too much blindness, not eliminated it.  So there’s irony for you, and it’s worth tackling to begin this morning.  First of all, Jesus was Jewish, so were his followers, and so was the writer of John’s gospel.  Jesus never would have seen the world as the writer of John did, nor would have his followers.  He never would have thought or spoken in these categories of us and them, where his own people were the other.  It is a later state of mind historically.  At the time of Jesus, there were Jewish officials who colluded with the occupying forces of the Roman Empire.  These religious and political officials were powerful, and yet often despised by their fellow Jews--for being something like the Vichy French in a twentieth century example.  Much later in the first century, Jews like the writer of John were experiencing the painful separation of Judaism and Christianity.  The writer of John and Jewish members of his community were being expelled from synagogues for their belief that Jesus was the messiah.  Obviously, this confession of Jesus would not become part of Judaism as we know it.  As a result, the poor blind man is bounced around, anachronistically, much like the readers today, by historical events that were much later than the time of Jesus.  It is almost understandable where John is coming from, but much ignorance—blindness if you will (or what we now call Anti-Semitism)—has been created by the gospel of John. 

Just so you know, when I have mentioned these contextual elements in past sermons in churches, people start to get nervous just about now.  Much like the Pharisees in John’s gospel.  So there are more than a few ripples of irony moving through this sermon now.   However, in a school setting like this one, you’re just thinking about what’s for brunch.  Actually, you know exactly what is for brunch.  Picture it.  There it is.  What’s really on your mind is: when will winter really be over?  When will a real spring be here?  In the symbolic or allegorical world of John, winter at Kent is blindness.  Spring term is the recovery of sight, beauty, goodness, or so we imagine.  You thought you had left blindness after your winter exams, especially if you went somewhere warm with beaches and ocean and happy, shiny people having fun over spring break.  Now we’re back in blind winter, no matter what the calendar says.  Bring back the sun.  Heal me, Jesus!  Ok, it was worth a shot, not that we would notice here in St. Joseph’s Chapel.  Don’t get me wrong, I love this chapel, but it is a little dark, and a little cold.  A visiting professor and priest from Cambridge once exclaimed when visiting this church with me, “What a wonderful sense of English gloom you have here. “ 

In thinking about the healing of the blind man in John’s gospel, I was reminded of the Matrix movies, that holy trinity of cyber theology.  In particular, I was reminded of the choice between the red pill or the blue pill, offered by Morpheus to Neo (no longer just Mr. Anderson…).  You know the moment of choice. 

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

As Morpheus explains the Matrix, he moves into literal and symbolic categories that are very much like John’s gospel.  The eyes of the world and culture are blind; the eyes of true faith can see beyond the accepted reality.  The latter is the true reality.  There is no easier in-between.  It is one or the other.  Choose between the two pills.  Now, we haven’t much time.    
“The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us.  Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work... when you go to church (I love that)... when you pay your taxes. It is the wool that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”

In the strange cultural blindness of our time right now, this very scene is now being used to sell luxury cars in television commercials.  Shame on you, Morpheus!  For some reason, Morpheus, in one of these commercials, seems to be wearing thinly sliced cucumbers for lenses in his iconic glasses—or maybe they are communion wafers.  What a sellout.  But wow, they were great movies.  Or rather, they still are.  As much as people seem to be drifting away from organized religion, the characters of Neo, Harry Potter, and now Katniss Everdeen show a cultural preoccupation with messiah figures who seek to bring about a better world by rebelling against corrupt governments and cultures that seek to enslave humankind in blindness.  The author J.K. Rowling said that her model for the Harry Potter character was none other than Jesus Christ.  Think about that one the next time you try an “expelliarmus” spell on one of your demanding teachers.  During a graduate seminar at Wesleyan, I was part of a discussion about why people love, and need, the Harry Potter series so much, even us adults.  Why would a rational, scientific based culture (with the exception of the Tea Party) suddenly become captivated by books and movies about wizards and magic?  The discussion was long, engaged, and winding, and I listened, mostly, which was a change for me in the Wesleyan program.  Then I added my own contribution, “I think it represents a religious longing.  A longing for connection with God.  What do you think the Old Magic really is?  It’s divine love.”  The other students looked at me like I had two heads, like I was crazy.  Like a dog when you make a funny sound.  I might as well have shouted “Stupefy!” at my fellow students and instructor.  There was a long, awkward silence before getting back to the actual subject, which hadn’t been Harry Potter in the first place.  Oh well, that’s liberal tolerance for you. 

But I think religious longing is exactly where we are today, and it’s all mixed up with our waiting for spring.  All sermons are born a little differently; they come out in odd ways, like your papers, in fits and starts.  This sermon is partly in winter, partly in spring break, and longing for the change of seasons.  But mostly, the difference between blindness and true sight was crossed on Thursday night, listening to Kent graduate Alex Armellini, class of 2008, speak about his classmate Anthony DiGennaro, after losing his nine year battle with cancer last year.  There was so much healing energy flowing through this chapel, and many of you were moved to tears, listening to a graduate you had never seen before; as Alex talked about the depths of his friendship and grief that are clearly still moving, still changing, and still seeking the light of what can only be called, accurately I think, resurrection.  The fullest, deepest religious longing, there it is.  Old Magic.  And yet there was also the profoundly eloquent theological statement from Anthony: “This sucks,” which he said just weeks before his death.  Joy and sorrow are all wrapped up together.  

Everything in our culture says don’t talk about death--don’t talk about all the awful things you can’t control.  Yet Alex did, including his anger at Anthony’s suffering and death.  This is the brave attempt to recover sight--to see with the eyes of faith, and it can be very hard to do.  Thursday was a tear jerker in chapel, and I don’t want to repeat the experience this morning.  But I do want to ask some of Alex’s implicit questions that came out of his friendship with Anthony. 

Could I really be meeting the most important person in my life during my third form year?  On my first day of school?  At an ice cream social (if that’s what they call it now) at Father Schell’s house?  Really?  Are you kidding me? 

Could this time at Kent School really be one of the most important times in my life? 

For Anthony DiGennaro, during his years of cancer treatments, Kent School was the safest, most wonderful place on earth.  In our blindness, we don’t appreciate this community in its fullness, but Anthony certainly did.   

Again, from Alex’s perspective.  Could I really be going back to Kent to give a chapel talk six years after my graduation?  To talk about my best friend with students I don’t even know?  To bear my heart with strangers?  With teenagers?  I remember what I was like.  Could I really be pulled back to St. Joseph’s as if drawn by a force of nature?   

Is it possible that years from now the chapel at Kent will be one of the first places I will want to visit when I return to this campus? 

These are Alex’s questions, but I think they’re also yours, and mine.  And the answers are all, strangely, yes.  

What would Anthony have said about all of the wonderful things being said about him on Thursday night?  Probably something like:  “I wonder if we’re having chicken burgers tonight.  People complain about them, but they’re really not so bad…they’re actually much better than hospital food.  Of course, I would prefer something Italian…but I wouldn’t go to the dining hall for that kind of feast.”

Answering yes to questions like the ones I posed for Alex, and us, can move you into the experience of faith, often times through the back door, not the front, of a church.  Faith isn’t really idealistic, or particularly sophisticated most of the time.  It comes from the gut; it comes in waves, and often it comes with tears and a broken heart…as it begins to heal.  It can be very ordinary, and yet the most powerful thing you have ever encountered.  It can come months, even years, after the death of a loved one.  It comes in the discovery that their spirit is still alive, still alive in you, still in this world somehow, and also in the next.  Faith is becoming more comfortable with mystery, and especially Love.  An old magic, one that the world, in its blindness, has forgotten.  But you remember.  The word re-member means to put things back together, to make it whole.  Same with religion; it means to re-ligament.  It means to heal.  You’re longing for spring, but what you really want to remember—to maybe see for the first times--is what’s behind it.  To remember that, whatever it is.  It’s much more than a change in temperature. 

It was a simple photograph of two friends on club fields that caused Alex Armellini to want to do something—something permanent-- in memory of his friend Anthony DiGennaro.  In every passing joy there is something more than the passing experience.  There is something more than joy, or even the sorrow for that matter.  Enjoyment has a residue, a signature, a lingering shadow of the giver.  Blessing has a source; the joy of human desiring is God.  There is something behind every joy, every love you experience, and it can be the center of your life, not just a shadow or a dim memory.  You can bring it out into the open and let it thrive.  Others will notice a change in you, almost immediately.  When you make room for God in your life, God makes room for you in this universe, forever—a love without end.  True joy can be yours.  And what’s behind it is even better.  You heard it in chapel first.  New life is coming to all of us.     

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