Sunday, 26 March 2017
Mothering Sunday and blind prejudice
suffered by children and their mothers
Sunday 26 March 2017,
The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Mothering Sunday
11.15 a.m., The Eucharist, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.
Readings: I Samuel 16: 1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5: 8-14; John 9: 1-41.
In the name of + the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
In recent weeks, we have had Gospel stories about water being turned into wine at a wedding in Cana, and Christ sharing water with a Samaritan woman at a well in Sychar. We have more water in this morning’s Gospel story, which brings us to Jerusalem and the pool of Siloam.
As a fresh water reservoir outside the walls of the Old City, the Pool of Siloam was a major gathering place for pilgrims to Jerusalem, and the water from the pool was used for purification rituals in the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles or Succoth.
At that time, everyone – and not just the Pharisees – seems to have believed that visible physical or intellectual disabilities, such as blindness, being lame or suffering with leprosy, were the natural and just consequences for the sins of the past, even the sins of past generations. In some way, people thought, we could explain the inexplicable way God allows other people to suffer is because of their sins or the sins of their ancestors.
Today, we probably think this is superstition, a difficult way of thinking about a loving God and about people with disabilities, and an uncharitable way of ignoring the plight of parents.
But, I wonder, do we still behave like that in Irish society today?
How many mothers today, listening to this morning’s Gospel story on this Mothering Sunday, when they hear again about this man who was blind from birth, will think of their own children, including adult children, with life-long physical or intellectual disabilities?
How many mothers, on this Mothering Sunday, will identify with the mother of this man, know how she suffers social stigmatisation in society, and recall those times when their child has left the parents being judged, being stigmatised, and being left on their own to cope?
We can look benignly at a mother pushing her child in a wheelchair, or look with a caring dismissive glance at a mother embarrassed by a child who appears to be misbehaving in the supermarket aisle.
But how many mothers in such situations silently bear their grief?
How many mothers in situations like this bite their lips and do not know how to cope when others tell them their child is not a burden but a blessing, that God only gives us burdens that our shoulders are broad enough to bear?
How many mothers silently rage at God and ask: ‘Why have you done this to me, to me of all people?’
How many mothers, who grieve through the life of a child like this, have their grief made more difficult when that child dies and they are told, ‘Well this must be a relief to you,’ or ‘God has another angel in heaven’?
In this morning’s Gospel story, Christ rejects the idea that the suffering of children is a reflection of the sins of their parents or of their families in the past.
But the story reaches its climax when we are told that spiritual blindness is a greater affliction than physical blindness, and that seeing the way but not following it is worse than not seeing the way at all.
Christ tells us at the beginning of this reading to be prepared to link this man’s congenital blindness to the revelation of God’s works. And once again he speaks of himself as the light of the world.
Did you notice how the man in this morning’s Gospel story does not ask for healing? It is Christ who sees him; it is impossible for him to see Christ, and so he does not ask Christ for healing. Nor does Christ ask him what he wants. This is an act of pure compassion, not just for the man because of his physical disability, but it is stirred too by the social judgment that has been passed on him.
Christ sees the man, not because of his blindness and the supposed sins of his parents, but sees him first as a child of God.
Nor does Christ ask the man about his faith or his beliefs. He is not asked to say he believes in God, nor is he asked to say who Jesus is.
He has not been asked to return, but like the one Samaritan among the Ten Lepers, he does come back. Yet by the time the man gets back, Jesus is gone.
Those who see that he can now see include many who refuse to believe their own eyes. And when he speaks out, they refuse to believe their own ears. Our prejudices can be so ingrained that even in the face of incontrovertible evidence we can refuse to believe what we see and hear – and this is true particularly when it comes to our received and inherited social, political and religious prejudices.
What are the consequences of the healing? The man moves from being blind to having sight, from being a beggar to being free, from being dependent to being independent, from being regarded as a sinner to knowing that he is free of the sins that others have laid on his shoulders.
Yet he is still reviled and driven out, cast out.
In his first condition, people thought he suffered as a consequence of God’s judgment on him and his past. Now he truly suffers because of what God has done for him. But his suffering in both cases only exists because society rejects him.
A quieter man might have slipped away quietly, found a new job, and settled down nicely. But instead, this man comes back, and faces the consequences.
Yet no-one believes him, and so his parents are called. They too are not believed, so the man is called in for interrogation a second time.
Seeing and believing, blindness and revelation, are important themes running through the Fourth Gospel.
Think how, at the end of this Gospel, Thomas refuses at Easter to believe in what he hears until he sees for himself.
Christ tells us at the beginning of this reading to be prepared to link this man’s congenital blindness to the revelation of God’s works.
Notice too how Christ puts the poultice of saliva and mud on the man’s eyes on the Sabbath, when new life is about to begin and healing actually takes place. The blind man’s eyes are opened on the Sabbath itself, before the new week, before a new life, before what is for him almost a Resurrection.
Compare this with the Johannine setting for the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and compare too the questioning of the man with the trial of Christ.
Are prejudice and bias things we inherit, or things we chose to live by?
How many mothers hearing this passage on Mothering Sunday would identify with the parents and their embarrassment, and have so often heard the judgmental responses we hear in this reading?
How many mothers on hearing this passage can identify with a mother who suffers when a child has disabilities, and may even continue to suffer when their child is healed?
In the last century, one set of the circumstances that excused society as mothers were rejected and their children were stigmatised is in the way the ‘Mother and Baby Homes’ were run.
Let us not ask how a child was conceived. That compounds and perpetuates society’s judgmentalism. Many of these children were conceived in love, no matter how young or how unacceptable it was in those days. Other children were conceived through violence or abuse, often at home, but the mother shouldered the blame.
Almost all mothers loved those children, and most mothers, it seems, wanted to keep those children. But no-one was offered a choice. And for ever after, both mother and child were stigmatised, told that the children were the consequences of sin.
It was an easy way out for society. But even then the rejection was compounded in some, in many, cases when the children were treated as burdensome, disposable commodities, to be exported, to be given away as cheap labour, or to be buried without the dignity of recognising that they too were made in the image and likeness of God, that they too were deserving of love and could respond with love.
How many mothers on this Mothering Sunday, distressed by recent reports of the Tuam Mothers and Babies horror, and similar stories throughout Ireland in recent weeks, would compare the response they received from religious figures in the past with the voices of religious authority in this Gospel passage?
In the weeks leading up to this Mothering Sunday, the Church and State, Mother Church and Mother Ireland, have been found falling short of the demands of the Gospel. We failed to see those mothers and those children as Christ sees them. It was the Church, and it was Society, that were blind, that showed blind prejudice, in perpetuating the myth that the children should suffer for what society judges to be the sins of the parents.
For whenever we deny the love of God, and refuse to love one another, no matter how conceived or who has conceived, if we deny the love of God and we refuse to love one another, then we deny the very core message of Christianity.
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Saint John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville PA)
John 9: 1-41
1 Καὶ παράγων εἶδεν ἄνθρωπον τυφλὸν ἐκ γενετῆς. 2 καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ λέγοντες, Ῥαββί, τίς ἥμαρτεν, οὗτος ἢ οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ, ἵνα τυφλὸς γεννηθῇ; 3 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς, Οὔτε οὗτος ἥμαρτεν οὔτε οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ, ἀλλ' ἵνα φανερωθῇ τὰ ἔργα τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ. 4 ἡμᾶς δεῖ ἐργάζεσθαι τὰ ἔργα τοῦ πέμψαντός με ἕως ἡμέρα ἐστίν: ἔρχεται νὺξ ὅτε οὐδεὶς δύναται ἐργάζεσθαι. 5 ὅταν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ὦ, φῶς εἰμι τοῦ κόσμου. 6 ταῦτα εἰπὼν ἔπτυσεν χαμαὶ καὶ ἐποίησεν πηλὸν ἐκ τοῦ πτύσματος, καὶ ἐπέχρισεν αὐτοῦ τὸν πηλὸν ἐπὶ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς 7 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Υπαγε νίψαι εἰς τὴν κολυμβήθραν τοῦ Σιλωάμ (ὃ ἑρμηνεύεται Ἀπεσταλμένος). ἀπῆλθεν οὖν καὶ ἐνίψατο, καὶ ἦλθεν βλέπων. 8 Οἱ οὖν γείτονες καὶ οἱ θεωροῦντες αὐτὸν τὸ πρότερον ὅτι προσαίτης ἦν ἔλεγον, Οὐχ οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ καθήμενος καὶ προσαιτῶν; 9 ἄλλοι ἔλεγον ὅτι Οὗτός ἐστιν: ἄλλοι ἔλεγον, Οὐχί, ἀλλὰ ὅμοιος αὐτῷ ἐστιν. ἐκεῖνος ἔλεγεν ὅτι Ἐγώ εἰμι. 10 ἔλεγον οὖν αὐτῷ, Πῶς [οὖν] ἠνεῴχθησάν σου οἱ ὀφθαλμοί; 11 ἀπεκρίθη ἐκεῖνος, Ὁ ἄνθρωπος ὁ λεγόμενος Ἰησοῦς πηλὸν ἐποίησεν καὶ ἐπέχρισέν μου τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς καὶ εἶπέν μοι ὅτι Υπαγε εἰς τὸν Σιλωὰμ καὶ νίψαι: ἀπελθὼν οὖν καὶ νιψάμενος ἀνέβλεψα.12 καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Ποῦ ἐστιν ἐκεῖνος; λέγει, Οὐκ οἶδα.
13 Ἄγουσιν αὐτὸν πρὸς τοὺς Φαρισαίους τόν ποτε τυφλόν. 14 ἦν δὲ σάββατον ἐν ἧ ἡμέρᾳ τὸν πηλὸν ἐποίησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ ἀνέῳξεν αὐτοῦ τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς.15 πάλιν οὖν ἠρώτων αὐτὸν καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι πῶς ἀνέβλεψεν. ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Πηλὸν ἐπέθηκέν μου ἐπὶ τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς, καὶ ἐνιψάμην, καὶ βλέπω. 16 ἔλεγον οὖν ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων τινές, Οὐκ ἔστιν οὗτος παρὰ θεοῦ ὁ ἄνθρωπος, ὅτι τὸ σάββατον οὐ τηρεῖ. ἄλλοι [δὲ] ἔλεγον, Πῶς δύναται ἄνθρωπος ἁμαρτωλὸς τοιαῦτα σημεῖα ποιεῖν; καὶ σχίσμα ἦν ἐν αὐτοῖς. 17 λέγουσιν οὖν τῷ τυφλῷ πάλιν, Τί σὺ λέγεις περὶ αὐτοῦ, ὅτι ἠνέῳξέν σου τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς; ὁ δὲ εἶπεν ὅτι Προφήτης ἐστίν.
18 Οὐκ ἐπίστευσαν οὖν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι περὶ αὐτοῦ ὅτι ἦν τυφλὸς καὶ ἀνέβλεψεν, ἕως ὅτου ἐφώνησαν τοὺς γονεῖς αὐτοῦ τοῦ ἀναβλέψαντος 19 καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτοὺς λέγοντες, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱὸς ὑμῶν, ὃν ὑμεῖς λέγετε ὅτι τυφλὸς ἐγεννήθη; πῶς οὖν βλέπει ἄρτι; 20 ἀπεκρίθησαν οὖν οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ καὶ εἶπαν, Οἴδαμεν ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ὁυἱὸς ἡμῶν καὶ ὅτι τυφλὸς ἐγεννήθη: 21 πῶς δὲ νῦν βλέπει οὐκ οἴδαμεν, ἢ τίς ἤνοιξεν αὐτοῦ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ἡμεῖς οὐκ οἴδαμεν: αὐτὸν ἐρωτήσατε, ἡλικίαν ἔχει, αὐτὸς περὶ ἑαυτοῦ λαλήσει. 22 ταῦτα εἶπανοἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ ὅτι ἐφοβοῦντο τοὺς Ἰουδαίους, ἤδη γὰρ συνετέθειντο οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι ἵνα ἐάν τις αὐτὸν ὁμολογήσῃ Χριστόν, ἀποσυνάγωγος γένηται. 23 διὰ τοῦτο οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ εἶπαν ὅτι Ἡλικίαν ἔχει, αὐτὸν ἐπερωτήσατε.
24 Ἐφώνησαν οὖν τὸν ἄνθρωπον ἐκ δευτέρου ὃς ἦν τυφλὸς καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Δὸς δόξαν τῷ θεῷ: ἡμεῖς οἴδαμεν ὅτι οὗτος ὁ ἄνθρωπος ἁμαρτωλός ἐστιν. 25 ἀπεκρίθη οὖν ἐκεῖνος, Εἰ ἁμαρτωλός ἐστιν οὐκ οἶδα: ἓν οἶδα, ὅτι τυφλὸς ὢν ἄρτι βλέπω. 26 εἶπον οὖν αὐτῷ, Τί ἐποίησέν σοι; πῶς ἤνοιξέν σου τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς; 27 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς, Εἶπον ὑμῖν ἤδη καὶ οὐκ ἠκούσατε: τί πάλιν θέλετε ἀκούειν; μὴ καὶ ὑμεῖς θέλετε αὐτοῦ μαθηταὶ γενέσθαι; 28 καὶ ἐλοιδόρησαν αὐτὸν καὶ εἶπον, Σὺ μαθητὴς εἶ ἐκείνου, ἡμεῖς δὲ τοῦ Μωϋσέως ἐσμὲν μαθηταί: 29 ἡμεῖς οἴδαμεν ὅτι Μωϋσεῖ λελάληκεν ὁ θεός, τοῦτον δὲ οὐκ οἴδαμεν πόθεν ἐστίν. 30 ἀπεκρίθη ὁ ἄνθρωπος καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ἐν τούτῳ γὰρ τὸ θαυμαστόν ἐστιν, ὅτι ὑμεῖς οὐκ οἴδατε πόθεν ἐστίν, καὶ ἤνοιξέν μου τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς. 31 οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἁμαρτωλῶν ὁ θεὸς οὐκ ἀκούει, ἀλλ' ἐάν τις θεοσεβὴς ᾖ καὶ τὸ θέλημα αὐτοῦ ποιῇ τούτου ἀκούει. 32 ἐκ τοῦ αἰῶνος οὐκ ἠκούσθη ὅτι ἠνέῳξέν τις ὀφθαλμοὺς τυφλοῦ γεγεννημένου: 33 εἰ μὴ ἦν οὗτος παρὰ θεοῦ, οὐκ ἠδύνατο ποιεῖν οὐδέν. 34 ἀπεκρίθησαν καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Ἐν ἁμαρτίαις σὺ ἐγεννήθης ὅλος, καὶ σὺ διδάσκεις ἡμᾶς; καὶ ἐξέβαλον αὐτὸν ἔξω.
35 Ἤκουσεν Ἰησοῦς ὅτι ἐξέβαλον αὐτὸν ἔξω, καὶ εὑρὼν αὐτὸν εἶπεν, Σὺ πιστεύεις εἰς τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου; 36 ἀπεκρίθη ἐκεῖνος καὶ εἶπεν, Καὶ τίς ἐστιν, κύριε, ἵνα πιστεύσω εἰς αὐτόν; 37 εἶπεν αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Καὶ ἑώρακας αὐτὸν καὶ ὁ λαλῶν μετὰ σοῦ ἐκεῖνός ἐστιν. 38 ὁ δὲ ἔφη, Πιστεύω, κύριε: καὶ προσεκύνησεν αὐτῷ. 39 καὶ εἶπεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Εἰς κρίμα ἐγὼ εἰς τὸν κόσμον τοῦτον ἦλθον, ἵνα οἱ μὴ βλέποντες βλέπωσιν καὶ οἱ βλέποντες τυφλοὶ γένωνται. 40 Ἤκουσαν ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων ταῦτα οἱ μετ' αὐτοῦ ὄντες, καὶ εἶπον αὐτῷ, Μὴ καὶ ἡμεῖς τυφλοί ἐσμεν; 41 εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Εἰ τυφλοὶ ἦτε, οὐκ ἂνεἴχετε ἁμαρτίαν: νῦν δὲ λέγετε ὅτι Βλέπομεν: ἡ ἁμαρτία ὑμῶν μένει.
1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ 3 Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ 9 Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ 10 But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ 11 He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ 12 They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ 16 Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’
18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ 20 His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’
24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ 25 He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ 26 They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ 27 He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ 28 Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ 30 The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ 34 They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ 36 He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ 37 Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ 38 He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. 39 Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41 Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.’
The Blind Man Washes in the Pool of Siloam, James Tissot (1836-1902)
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.
God of compassion,
whose Son Jesus Christ, the child of Mary,
shared the life of a home in Nazareth,
and on the cross drew the whole human family to himself:
Strengthen us in our daily living
that in joy and in sorrow
we may know the power of your presence
to bind together and to heal;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Lenten Collect:
Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Being justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(Romans 5: 1, 2).
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
who was in every way tempted as we are, yet did not sin;
by whose grace we are able to overcome all our temptations:
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.
as a mother feeds her children at the breast,
you feed us in this sacrament with spiritual food and drink.
Help us who have tasted your goodness
to grow in grace within the household of faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Christ give you grace to grow in holiness,
to deny yourselves,
and to take up your cross and follow him:
and the blessing of God Almighty,
+ the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group; of Parishes, and Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was prepared for the Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick, on Sunday 26 March 2017.