Questioning discipleship

This is the text of a sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture texts it references are John 9:1-41, Ephesians 5:8-14 and 1 Samuel 16:1-13.

Well.  The vicar decided that we were having a series of sermons on “Encounters With Jesus,” so that meant that I read this morning’s gospel reading with the question in the back of my mind, whose encounter is it, anyway?

I mean, we often call this the story of the “man born blind,” but until somewhere towards the end of the story he’s a fairly passive figure.  In contrast, the whole encounter is kicked off, if you like, by a question from Jesus’ disciples, and the unfolding drama is an outward spiralling of layers of response to their question.  So is this the story of the man born blind, or part of a bigger story of the disciples and their developing discipleship?

Think how often through the gospels Jesus’ teaching or explanation is prompted by questions from the disciples.  This isn’t just because they’re dim and not getting what’s right in front of their noses; it can also be because they are doing what good disciples do, and questioning their teacher about their experience to learn as much of God from it as possible.

Think for a moment of the Jews in this reading who claim to be disciples of Moses.  By this they meant something much stronger than simply that they obeyed Moses or kept the Law.  I recently had the chance to hear a Rabbi speak about the Jewish approach to Scripture.  He explained that even very ancient Jewish scholarship on Scripture is constructed as a series of questions which the scholar brings to the text and to which the scholar attempts to find answers.  And not necessarily the sorts of questions we might be used to as scholarly, about author, date of composition, genre, social setting, and so forth, but questions about emotions and motivations and matters of the heart, questions about how this text hits our own living concerns.

So for example, this morning’s Old Testament reading began with the Lord asking Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul?” and the Rabbinic commentaries on this might well spend pages exploring the questions of why Samuel was grieving, what Saul’s kingship had meant to him, and how this might relate to our life of faith now.

So the disciples of Moses, immersed as they were in this kind of questioning, open-ended – even, we might say, creative and imaginative – study of Moses, are willing to open Moses up to questioning in great depth.  That’s what it meant to be a disciple, and that lies behind the mentions of discipleship in this morning’s gospel.

This reading plays out almost as a series of questions and answers, but there’s a great difference in attitude reflected in the different sorts of questions.  There is, on the one hand, the genuine question of Jesus’ disciples; ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ And at least some of the Pharisees – and I wonder if Nicodemus was among them – were willing to wonder ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’  And towards the end of the story, when Jesus was talking about the Son of Man, the way the man born blind himself asks,  ‘And who is he, sir?’

On the other hand, there are questions which are not really questions at all.  ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’  ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’  Not so much questions as expressions of closed-mindedness.  There is here an absolute, resolute refusal to recognise that this situation might have anything to teach them.

In this encounter, the questions which come from openness, which allow for the possibility of real learning and growth, are those of disciples or those exploring the idea, maybe on the way to discipleship.  This suggests that a mind open to unexpected insight, and indeed actively seeking understanding, is a fundamental trait of discipleship.

To this questing mindset – and this was reinforced for me by what I heard from the Rabbi about how Jews approach Scripture – study and learning are not ends in themselves, but a form of worship.  To question, to wonder, puts us in a stance of fundamental openness to and humility before the God who is greater than any human understanding.  To worship in this way is to become the fertile ground in which God can grow much that is good for the healing of the nations.

It is when we question that we bring our problems, our struggles, our hurts, to Scripture, to tradition, and to God Himself, forging points of connection.  Without our daring to question, our difficulties and the resources which might speak to them stand separate, static, without any point of contact.  But when we question we throw a bridge across that chasm and claim all the riches of God for our very present trouble.

Discipleship starts where we are, just as it did for the man born blind.  The first step on the path is always at your feet.  But it is in being open to questions and new insights that we are able to move along that path.

I have had the privilege recently of visiting a parishioner several times while she has been in hospital.  And she gave me her permission to share with you something she has been reflecting on with me, in the face of uncertainty about what her future holds; that in her words, “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”  If we are certain of something we are closed to any possibility of something new breaking in.  The Pharisees in this reading had a very great deal of certainty; about God, about wisdom, about sin.  But in the end they were blind because their certainty closed their eyes to anything new.

So where does that leave us?  As disciples of Christ, each of whom has promised in baptism to love God with our whole heart, I’d suggest that this reading calls each of us to fresh encounters with Jesus.   It shows us that we should not be satisfied with what we already have, but take the initiative in seeking more and deeper wisdom, to bring the deepest longings of our hearts and minds, to bring all of the circumstances of our own lives, into questioning dialogue with Christ, in whatever form we each find effective.

And so I finish with the words from Paul in today’s epistle:  ‘Sleeper, awake!
 Rise from the dead,
 and Christ will shine on you.’

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Wondering what to look for.

I was doing some reading on church design and came across a reference to this poem, which I found rather thought-provoking.  I wanted to share it here, with only this brief comment for now; I notice that the poet says he often visits churches, “wondering what to look for.”  Perhaps it would surprise him to learn that a new curate often wonders the same thing.  As I listen to the members of the congregation, read the Scriptures, pray, attend meetings and deal with the administrative flotsam and jetsam washed up on my desk, I find myself worried that I will miss what is important, be inattentive to what God is doing in this place, be too busy with a to-do list to see what’s really going on.  I can only hope that as I try to take the time to reflect and give the work the seriousness it deserves, I will indeed find that this is a place which is “proper to grow wise in.”

Philip Larkin – Church Going

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new –
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.