Sermon, March 30th, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, South Hadley, MA.
Readings: John 9: 1 – 41, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8 – 14, and 1 Samuel 16:1 – 13
It was only after my own grandmother passed away, almost exactly a year ago, that i began to really appreciate MaMa.
MaMa is as vibrant and as strong as the red North Carolina clay she was raised on. I remember when we first met: i had gone to my now-fiancé’s hometown to meet his extended family. I was immediately grateful then for how easily she beckoned me into their family, her matter-of-fact country sensibility making me feel right at home.
I had loved MaMa from the moment we met, but in that sad irony of not knowing what you have until it is gone, it was only really after the loss of my own grandmother that i began to deeply appreciate her presence and gift in my life.
MaMa and I share a birthday week, so the family threw us a joint birthday party. Holding her hand and blowing out the candles was the best way to enter my twenty-first year. We began talking on the phone more frequently, our visits lasting longer. She became a grandmother to me of her own right: truly the woman i turned to when i was sick and needed a recipe for chicken-and-rice or needed that Steel Magnolia reassurance that things were, really, going to work out.
And then in October, MaMa fell off a stool and broke both her leg and her wrist. Lying, immobile, in the hospital, she received the results from a biopsy done the week before.
She had cancer. For the third time.
It felt like the kind of melodrama found in only the most lavish of soap operas. Except it was real, excruciatingly real. My fiancé and i sat in her hospital room, beholding a woman as strong as the red North Carolina clay plugged into a machine: fragile and in pain. She would not be able to start any cancer treatment until her leg healed, and that alone would take months.
We knew we were simply at the beginning of a long walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
That line is taken from our Psalm today, Psalm 23, and it is easily one of the most famous in the Bible. I have heard it read at funerals and in hospital rooms much like the one MaMa sat in last October. The whole verse is this: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me, your rod and your staff- they comfort me.”
As I prepared for this sermon, i repeated this verse to myself, over and over again. As i did so, i could not rid myself of the image of MaMa in that hospital room. Of MaMa, and all who love her, walking together through the valley of the shadow of death.
She has started Chemo now, which has made her feel like she has an endless case of the flu. It is hard to feel like our family is fighting this cancer when even the medicine makes her feel sick.
When i talk to MaMa on the phone now, i am tempted to stay in the valley. I want to stay in the anger, the pain, the chaos that comes with the inexplicable question: why does a God of mercy let such suffering happen?
It is the ultimate question each one of us asks. In times of divorce, of death, of sickness, of depression, of loss.
But the psalmist does not leave us in the valley. The last line of this psalm is this: “and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” Even in the midst of deep sorrow, the psalmist is singing praises to God.
Psalms historically were often sung – a practice we continue even this very morning. I find singing especially symbolic when talking about sadness. As one of my favorite theologians, Nadia Bolz-Weber, writes, “singing in the midst of evil is what it means to be disciples.” *
Singing in the midst of evil is what is means to be disciples.
Our Gospel today is a story of a man who has borne a terrible illness and been, miraculously, healed. And yet all around him, the Pharisees and even his own parents are full of fear at the miracle of his healing. And their fear turns to anger, as the Pharisees convene to discuss the “sinfulness” of the healing: that Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath day.
Jesus did not follow the Pharisees rules. He did not perform a miracle at a prescribed time, he did not wait for permission to reach out and be with someone in pain.
God’s miracles do not follow our rules.
This works two ways: the first is that God breaks our assumptions about when we can do right, and God breaks our assumptions about who is saved and who is sinful. Sometimes I think it is easy to blame the Pharisees, to think they were too blinded by their own prejudice to see Jesus. But we, too, can be the Pharisees.
God’s miracles do not follow our rules.
The second way this works is, i think, is much harder to stomach. God does not perform miracles on our time. And this means that as angry as i may be that it was a blind man and not MaMa who crossed Jesus’ path that day – as grieved as i may be that her healing process is breaking her wide open – i cannot force God to fix her.
But I can choose to sing the Psalm.
I can sing praise to God even whilst living in the valley of the shadow of death.
Paul tells us in our Ephesians reading today that “once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of the light.”
As the blind was made to see, we too can learn to see in our suffering. This does not mean that suffering is mandated by some bearded man in the sky. But suffering provides us with a choice: we can choose to dive into those layers of our human experience, emotion, and connection, or choose to become bitter and angry.
We must choose, as Paul writes, to live as children of the light. We must choose to see God’s work in our lives, even when we feel God is absent. And we need each other in this process. MaMa told me the other night she would not be able to face chemo without the prayers and helping hands of her loved ones surrounding her.
In all three of these intertwined texts today I think there is one crucial theme: God does not abandon us in our darkness. God does not leave us in the valley, God invites us to live as people of the light, God does not abandon the blind man.
When the disciples first see the blind man, their first question to Jesus is: who sinned to make this man blind, him or his parents?
Jesus replies: neither.
Jesus saw the man as a human being with an affliction, not as an affliction attached to a human being. Jesus saw a human being suffering in a way no one else around this blind man could see.
Jesus broke all our rules to walk with us. Jesus broke all the rules by inhabiting a human body and suffering with us, as i know God is suffering with MaMa. God does not abandon us in the valley – and God’s presence with us is not dependent on our ability to feel God’s presence.
For though God’s miracles do not follow our rules, God is always, always, performing miracles in our lives.
* Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & a Saint (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), 201.
(I’ve had an internship at a local church for the academic year, and several of y’all have asked to read my sermons, and i figured this was the easiest place to share. Thanks!)