by Ed Foley, Capuchin.
There are many goals preachers have
when preparing and delivering a homily.
Some hope to inspire, others entertain.
some want to convert people to their brand of Christianity.
Others hope to present Christianity as viable,
especially to the young
I have been variously motivated by all such goals,
but one that arose in this week’s preparation,
and rears its challenging head from time to time,
is the basic goal that I don’t want to look stupid
It is goal that frequently rises,
in view of texts or issues about which I know little
whether that is about marriage or divorce,
wealth or children,
adolescence or falling in love.
A good friend who teaches preaching on the East Coast,
a specialist in rhetoric, especially writings of Aristotle
notes that the character and credibility of the speaker
was what Aristotle considered the “ethos” of the event.
This is the persuasive quality of the preacher
based on their informed approach to a topic
and display of having best interest of assembly at heart.
I don’t know much about marriage or children,
finances, and many other topics that arise in the readings.
I also don’t know much about physical blindness,
a pivotal disability in today’s gospel,
and an image shot through this liturgy
So to establish a more credible ethos,
I asked a friend who is blind, though not from birth,
what she thought of this gospel.
She offered many helpful insights
about the fear and pity of people with disabilities,
the stigmatization of their families,
but her most surprising comment
was about what she called Jesus’ “quick fix:”
Giving sight to the blind.
That stirred the pot of identity politics
and turned upside down the life of the man born blind,
his parents, religious leaders,
and local faith community
That aspect of the gospel, had never occurred to me
and set me off on a cautionary journey through today’s readings
and my own preaching
so that this does not devolve into quick-fix Sunday.
A quick fix reading of this gospel and the supporting lections
which both deal with sight and blindness, light and darkness,
could be something like:
God sees rightly – we don’t
sin disables us to see God’s ways.
If we renounce our sin and turn to Jesus,
all will be clear and we will live in the light.
Through Christ our Lord … Amen.
This rendering of the texts is both quick
and provides a religious “fix”
while such preaching is usually not that transparent
and quick fixes are often couched
in more nuanced rhetoric.
That fact that such a quick fix approach
is rampant among preachers and bloggers.
Is evident to me in the number of them
who suggested preaching on the text “Amazing Grace”
with its “once I was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”
Is it really that simple?
And if not,
what is the alternative to quick fix Sunday?
A few years ago,
I was introduced to the work of Wes Jackson & the Land Institute,
a nonprofit agricultural research organization
developing what they consider
a more natural approach to farming.
In 2004 they staged a conference entitled
“Toward an Ignorance-Based Worldview.”
The conference was inspired by the writings
of farmer-poet-activist Wendell Berry,
who has emphasized the importance in farming and life
to respect mystery.
If we are up against mystery, then we dare act only on the most modest assumptions. The modern scientific program has held that we must act on the basis of knowledge, which, because its effects are so manifestly large, we have assumed to be ample. But if we are up against mystery, then knowledge is relatively small, and the ancient program is the right one: Act on the basis of ignorance. Acting on the basis of ignorance, paradoxically, requires one to know things, remember things — for instance, that failure is possible, that error is possible, that second chances are desirable (so don’t risk everything on the first chance).
Maybe an ignorance based approach to governing
Would allow congress to craft health care legislation
what would actually contribute to the common good,
and not just to the wealthy.
Maybe an ignorance based approach to immigration
Would allow the U.S. Government
to craft immigration policies that both enhanced the dignity of all
and enrich this great country
with diversities of knowing, being and believing.
Maybe an ignorance-based approach to racial equality
Would disallow individuals and communities
from thinking that they understand or even know the other
and thus would disallow anyone from thoughtlessly
or arrogantly simply standing their ground.
Is it surprising that a few years ago, the Harvard Business Review
published an article titled:
“Wanted: A Chief Ignorance Officer”
Last year, I listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ devastating
Between the World and Me;
it is an epistolary work directed toward Coate’s 15 year old son.
This letter contemplates the feelings, symbolism, and realities associated with being black in the United States.
Coates recapitulates the American history of violence against black people.
The book’s tone is bleak, guided by Coates’s experiences growing up poor and always in the way of bodily harm.
He prioritizes the physical security of African-American bodies over the black, Christian tradition of optimism, and eventual justice
Coates does not believe there is reason to be optimistic, and does not expect the association between America and white supremacy to ever change.
One of the refrains of the book
that I found both shocking and disturbing
was Coates’ continuous references
to “those who consider themselves white,”
language that echoes that of literary mentor James Baldwin.
While I have not yet recovered from the book,
it has allowed me to begin to recognize
in the language of a very helpful colleague
that given my fundamental ignorance of what it means
to be black in this country
I am a racist … but hopefully not a bigot.
My instinct is that the non-quick-fix reading of today’s gospel
suggests that the dynamic in the word is not a binary
between blindness and sight
between grace and sin
between followers or non-followers of Jesus,
but an invitation into the kind of believing,
predicated upon our ignorance of God and God’s ways.
In the first reading Samuel, even though God’s prophet,
did not know which of Jesse’s sons to anoint as king.
In the Gospel the Pharisees thought they knew it all
about sin and blindness and wandering Rabbis,
but their surety became their trap
since the empirical evidence of a miracle
shone threw the new eyes of the man born blind
and upended their convictions
about who could and when might
an actual miraculous healing occur.
This is not quick-fix Sunday,
but it does have another name, a liturgical appellation.
This 4th Sunday of Lent is a traditional Sunday
when those moving towards Easter sacraments
undergo public scrutinies.
Exorcism … yes exorcisms and blessings
Acknowledging, not just for themselves, but for the whole church
that there is prejudice and evil and greed and selfishness
rooted in each of us
that needs to be exposed and expunged,
realized and remedied
so that God’s good grace,
in all of its ambiguity
might overtake our surety
and lead us into humble discipleship.
For when such candidate journey through scrutiny and exorcism,
the church honors them as photozomenoi, enlightened.
Not necessarily to see the light with laser clarity,
but to be the light to and for each,
even in the midst of ambiguity, mystery and even darkness.
While it has been embellished over the years,
they say it is a documented event in naval history:
The captain of the destroyer was standing on the bridge, watching the ship steer through the dark night. Suddenly the first mate yelled out, “Captain, a light on the starboard bow.” The Captain responded, “Is it turning, or steady on its course.” The Mate yelled, “steady on its course.” The captain had the communications officer to signal the other vessel to turn 20 degrees to port. A message came back, advising the destroyer to turn 20 degrees to port. The captain sent another message, that he was a Captain of the U.S. Navy, and was ordering the other vessel to turn 20 degrees to port. Another message came back, indicating that on the other vessel was a seaman 1st class; respectfully instructing the captain to turn 20 degrees to port. Finally, the Captain had the communications officer relay that this was a U.S. naval destroyer, and the other vessel should turn 20 degrees to port, and do it smartly. The other vessel communicated back that it was a lighthouse, and the captain should turn 20 degrees to port, smartly.
We’re not the lighthouse,
and even though we sometimes act like it,
we’re not even the destroyer.
I think of myself more like the rowboat
the one Ann Sexton occupied in her poem
“Rowing toward God,”
a poem published posthumously after her suicide.
In part she writes:
I grew and grew
and God was there like an island I had not rowed to,
still ignorant of Him, my arms and my legs worked,
and I grew, I grew,
I wore rubies and bought tomatoes
and now, in my middle age,
about nineteen in the head I’d say,
I am rowing, I am rowing
though the oarlocks stick and are rusty
and the sea blinks and rolls
like a worried eyeball,
but I am rowing, I am rowing,
though the wind pushes me back
and I know that that island will not be perfect,
it will have the flaws of life,
the absurdities of the dinner table,
but there will be a door
and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside of me,
the gnawing pestilential rat.
God will take it with his two hands
and embrace it.
Ignorance based knowing.
Humility based loving.
Ambiguity based believing.
It is an amazing grace,
but maybe one that does not provide the quick fix.
Musically enshrined as sin to grace,
from blindness to sight.
So in recrafted words we metaphorically sing:
Who strangely beckons me
I was once sure
But now not so
Yet doubt can set me free
Why you have chosen me
Is no longer clear
Yet you abide
With me in mystery.
Welcome to scrutiny Sunday … through Christ our Lord.
 https://landinstitute.org/land-report-article/toward-ignorance-based-world-view/ (accessed 23.iii.17)
 Cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Between_the_World_and_Me (accessed 22.iii.17)