02 April 2014

Seeing and believing … two stories
of healing and restoration in Lent

Do we see clearly? Do we see what is before our eyes? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

2 April 2014,

5 p.m., The Community Eucharist,

I Samuel 16: 1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5: 8-14; and John 9: 1-41.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Last Sunday [30 March 2014] was both the Fourth Sunday in Lent and Mothering Sunday. It’s a Sunday when we probably hear little about this Gospel reading (John 9: 1-41) at the expense of a lot of repeat sermons on the benefits of motherhood and apple pie and the stellar qualities of “Mother Church” or of a cathedral as the “mother church” of the diocese.

But I wonder and worry at times how many women feel isolated and marginalised by some of those sermons on Mothering Sunday – women who have had miscarriages or seen their children suffer and die; women who would love to but have never given birth to children; people who have grown up in families where the mother figure was absent or ill, died early, or was abusive or violent?

In our Gospel reading this evening, Christ meets a young man in Jerusalem who has been blind since birth. The disciples ask Christ: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (verse 2) He answers them: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9: 3-5)

Many grieving and suffering mothers hearing this Gospel reading on Mothering Sunday must have wondered why their children are suffering and how or where their sufferings and the sufferings of their children fit into God’s plans for the fullness of creation.

Indeed, while we must agree the blindness of this young man could not possibly be due to his sins or the sins of his ancestors, how many of us blame other people for their plight, and how many of us still believe that those in poverty and deprivation simply need to “pull themselves up”?

In healing this young man, Christ puts into action what he has already proclaimed in the synagogue in Nazareth as being the heart of the Gospel. We heard this in the first reading here in the chapel yesterday evening [Tuesday, 1 April 2014]:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4: 18-19)

This evening, Christ moves beyond compassion for the young blind man in Jerusalem to actually healing him and restoring him to the place in society those around him would deny him. But he avoids falling into the trap others want to set for him, those who want him to pass judgment on those they see as being sinful and deserving of divine wrath.

Christ’s compassion, his caring and his non-judgmental response, are in stark contrast to some of the attitudes we find today. For example, I recently came across this posting: “Christians who by their failure to proclaim the Christ of the gospel of the kingdom while they treat AIDS victims in their suffering here and now show themselves not really to believe all that the Bible says about fleeing the wrath to come. In the end, it is a practical atheism and a failure in love.”

Practical Christianity is reduced to practical atheism in this sharp judgment without any reference to the example of Christ in the Gospel.

Compare this with Christ’s own words later in this Gospel, the end of the Gospel reading on Maundy Thursday: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13: 35; see I John 3: 14; I John 4: 20).

John Myatt’s mural on a wall in Bird Street, Lichfield, commemorating Samuel Johnson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Meanwhile, it is worth asking: What would you miss if you were blind?

So often, we take for granted not just our health and well-being but our physical senses too – our sight, speech, hearing, sense of smell and touch.

Even when we have the gift of sight, when we have 20/20 vision, we do not necessarily have the gift of being insightful. Throughout the Fourth Gospel, there is sharp contrast between darkness and light, and also between seeing and believing. It is an interplay worked out very carefully yet very dramatically in this chapter, and also, for example, in the post-resurrection story of Thomas who refuses to believe until he sees (see John 20: 24-29).

Our eyes can play some nasty tricks on us, catching us out by surprise, not allowing us to see what is actually there.

Things are not always as we see them or as they seem.

Many of you are familiar with the match-stick play on the letters that make up the name of Jesus. It takes some time to puzzle it out. Then, once we have worked it out it becomes impossible to see the composition the way we had seen it in our ignorance.

In art, I particularly like mosaics. If we look at the detail we miss the whole picture. Sometimes 20/20 vision can be a barrier to clear vision and we have to squint our eyes to see the full picture, to see what the artist wants us to see.

I don’t have 20/20 vision and I am also colour blind – yes, I actually have a form of red/green colour blindness that means I see some shades of green and orange as brown, which all goes to make an interesting political point.

So, in looking at mosaics in old churches or on Byzantine floors and walls, I have to squint my eyes or even rely on someone else to help me pick out the colours before I get the full picture.

I had to do this for the first time when I saw a mosaic of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) on a street corner near where I once worked in Lichfield. This mosaic, by the controversial artist John Myatt, is based on a portrait of Dr Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds and was completed in 1976.

Perhaps it is appropriate that you have to squint when you are looking at this mosaic for the first time so that you get the whole picture, because Samuel Johnson was almost functionally blind since childhood, and to read he had to squint and peer. Yet he became one of the most important writers in the 18th century, and next only to William Shakespeare he is perhaps the most quoted English writer.

Samuel Johnson could have identified with the story of the blind young man in today’s Gospel reading. A childhood infection left him deaf in his left ear, almost blind in his left eye, with impaired vision in his right eye, and with scar tissue that disfigured his face. He was so blind and disabled that a family servant carried him on her back to and from school each day.

But he refused to allow his near-blindness and his visible disabilities to put him on the margins of society, or to blame his parents or himself for the disabilities that made him almost sightless and almost unsightly (see I Samuel 16: 7). Indeed, all this served to strengthen and to grow his faith as he matured.

In his diary he wrote one Easter:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, who hast created and preserved me, have pity on my weakness and corruption. Let me not be created to misery, nor preserved only to multiply sin. Deliver me from habitual wickedness, and idleness, enable me to purify my thoughts, to use the faculties which thou hast given me with honest diligence, and to regulate my life by thy holy word.”

As a young man, he was deeply influenced by reading William Law’s A Serious Call To a Devout and Holy Life, and he went on to live such a saintly life that he is commemorated by the Church of England in the calendar of Common Worship on 13 December. Later in life, he bemoaned the fact that the observance of Lent had fallen into neglect in Britain and in Ireland in his time, and he fasted strictly on Good Friday.

He is best known for his pioneering Dictionary of the English Language (1755), editing Shakespeare’s works, and his essays. Before writing those essays, he would pray in these words:

“Almighty God ... without whose grace all wisdom is folly, grant, I beseech thee, that in this my undertaking thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote thy glory, and the salvation both of myself and others.”

I find Johnson’s last prayer, as he was about to receive Holy Communion for the last time, an appropriate prayer to mediate on during Lent, and also before receiving Holy Communion:

“Almighty and most merciful Father,
I am now, as to human eyes it seems,
about to commemorate, for the last time,
the death of your Son Jesus Christ our Saviour and Redeemer.
Grant, O Lord,
that my whole hope and confidence may be in his merits and his mercy;
enforce and accept my imperfect repentance;
make this commemoration confirm my faith,
establish my hope and enlarge my charity,
and make the death of your Son Jesus Christ effectual to my redemption.
Have mercy upon me and pardon the multitude of my offences.
Bless my friends, have mercy upon all.
Support me, by the grace of your Holy Spirit,
in the days of weakness and at the hour of death;
and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness,
for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

He died quietly on the evening of 13 December 1784.

Samuel Johnson turned his back to the smiters and did not hide his face from shame. His life story is one of darkness turning to light, of moving from blindness to sight, of rising above the harsh judgments of others to redemption, restoration and a living faith.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) ... the portrait by Joshua Reynolds inspired John Myatt’s mural in Lichfield

John Myatt’s mosaic in Lichfield depicts the recognisable face of Samuel Johnson, including his squinting eyes. It is made of small plywood blocks painted with emulsion and marine varnish in a variety of colours. It is larger than life, measuring 2.32 m (7.61 ft) high x 3.36 m (11 ft) wide.

John Myatt is a controversial artist and a convicted forger who carried out “the biggest art fraud of the 20th century.”

At art school in Stafford he discovered an amusing talent for mimicking the styles of other artists. He began teaching art at a school near Tamworth in 1968 and opened a studio in Lichfield, where he created original works and in 1976 painted this street mural of Samuel Johnson.

Meanwhile, he was also travelling to Birmingham at weekends to study paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites and artists like Pissarro. It fuelled a passion that turned into quite a skill – undetectable fakes.

His first wife left him in 1985, and he gave up teaching and tried to make a living by painting original works in the style of well-known artists. In 1986, while struggling to raise two children on an art teacher’s salary, he placed a notice in Private Eye offering “genuine 19th and 20th century fakes for £200.”

John Drewe, a regular customer who claimed to be a professor of nuclear physics, resold some of these paintings as genuine works, and forged papers for their provenance. When he told John Myatt that Christie’s had accepted one of his paintings as a genuine work and paid £25,000, he became a willing accomplice to Drewe’s fraud, and began painting in the style of masters like Marc Chagall, Le Corbusier, Matisse and Graham Sutherland.

Drewe sold them to auction houses, including Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s, and to dealers in London, Paris and New York.

Myatt was arrested in 1995. He quickly confessed, admitting he had created the paintings using emulsion paint and K-Y Jelly. He had made around £275,000, and he offered to return it all and to help to convict Drewe. They went on trial in 1998, and a few months later Myatt was sentenced to a year in prison and Drewe was sentenced to six years.

On his release, John Myatt’s arresting officer from Scotland Yard became the first new customer for his “Genuine Fakes.” Since his release, John has continued to paint portraits and copies, now marked indelibly as fakes. Some have sold for up to £45,000.

In 2005, he and Stephen Sanders restored the mural of Samuel Johnson. Now John is a well-known Sky Arts presenter and is happily remarried. He is back living in Lichfield, where he is a committed Christian, and where he plays the organ in his local church every Sunday.

His story is not just a story with a happy ending, but a story for Lent about wilderness times, fall, redemption and restoration.

A street view of John Myatt’s mural of Samuel Johnson in Bird Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Both John Myatt and Samuel Johnson found themselves in the wilderness, but they moved from the trials of Lent to the hope of Easter.

Their stories are stories of compassion, and of how the compassion of Christ not only extends to but also embraces those who are pushed to the margins by others.

Those we think are blind can often see clearly and come to full faith in hidden ways. We can see, but do we have a faith that others can see in us, in how we live, how we pray, and how we show compassion to those who others would push to the margins or all too easily think are suffering because of their sins and the sins of their families?

Tertullian quoted a pagan official saying about the Christians: “Look at how much they love each other!”

We may see, but do we show we believe? We may believe, but do others see that we believe?

And so, may well we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Wise words from Dr Samuel Johnson in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)


Lord God
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings of this present time
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

through your goodness
we are refreshed through your Son
in word and sacrament.
May our faith be so strengthened and guarded
that we may witness to your eternal love
by our words and in our lives.
Grant this for Jesus’ sake, our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Community Eucharist in the institute chapel on 2 April 2014.

No comments: