Faith Remains Intact
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A, RCL
1 Samuel 16:1-13, John 9:1-41
For the last two weeks, we have been invited into the lives of people who are struggling with doubt and faith, Nicodemus and the woman at the well. Similarly, the village people we encounter today are questioning if this man is the same they once knew as a blind beggar. We have the Pharisees who struggled to believe that the man was blind until they called the man’s parents in for questions.
Nicodemus seemed to need more proof before he could fully believe. The woman at the well was willing to go out on a limb and had faith. Today the Pharisees have the ability to get all the proof they need, but they seem to be tied to their traditions, specifically with regard to the Sabbath. And because they are tied to the past, they cannot see what is in front of them right now. Can a man of God work or perform miracles on the Sabbath, the day of rest? The Pharisees were divided. Some thought that God could work on the Sabbath and others said no, God would hold up the traditions that Moses gave us, keeping the Sabbath holy.
The real question is that of truth. Who determines what truth is? Does truth come from the man who was healed, the one who has firsthand experience? Or does truth come from those who have been put in positions to keep the truths as handed down from one generation to the next? And are these Pharisees afraid that they will lose control of the spiritual truths if they admit that they don’t know or that it is possible that God can work outside the biblical narratives they hold?
I think we are offered this Gospel story alongside the story from 1st Samuel because they complement one another well. Samuel’s job is to anoint a new king. God told him it would be one of Jesse’s sons. In the historic Jewish culture, the eldest son would be the logical choice. The eldest son is privileged with a double share of the inheritance, the one who will keep the family business. If someone was going to be chosen king, it would be the eldest son. When Samuel sees Eliab, the eldest son, he says, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” He must have been a strapping young man, but the Lord rejected him. In turn, the Lord rejects all seven of the brothers that were present. Yet, David, the youngest son, wasn’t at the party because he was the least important. It would be like the Archbishop of Canterbury visiting Grace. We will call everyone to be here, but someone inevitably will have to run to the store or prepare a meal. If the Bishop unexpectedly arrived at your house and you had a family-run business, you would still need someone managing the store. So you leave the store in capable hands but with the least significant person in charge.
As we find out in our story today, it is the least significant brother that God calls. God choose the brother that traditions would not have chosen. The unexpected happened. The youngest and least significant was anointed king. In a similar fashion, Joseph, the youngest son of Jacob, becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man and ultimately saves his family from starvation. When God gets involved, we should expect the unexpected.
Today, in the Gospel, the unexpected happens when God heals a blind man on the Sabbath. Some want to reject the unexpected, and others are willing to accept it. Some are willing to open their eyes and see, and others would like to keep them closed and hold on to traditions that have been handed down from one generation to the next.
Today, we are little different. Some see change as breaking important traditions, while others see it as liberation. Climate change forces some people to break with certain traditions of capitalism or the way we use our resources. While others find new ways of being liberated from destructive cultural norms. Same-sex marriage is liberating to some, while others feel that the long-standing cultural norms are being dismantled. Recently in the news, there are similar “conversations” around transgender issues. Some see this issue as damaging while others as freeing.
I won’t tell you what to believe. Though I think it is important to ask ourselves where we see God in these issues. And to ask why we feel it is important to hold on to or reject traditions that have been handed down from one generation to the next. Let’s be honest, we are sitting in an Episcopal Church that holds onto many traditions. Some of us may not understand them. And there is nothing wrong with questioning why we hold onto them or should we hold on to them. Some traditions such as vestments, candles, bells, and incense are rather insignificant. I could explain their use and theological symbolism, but overall whether we use them or not does not change what we believe about God. Other traditions are significant, Baptism and Eucharist. How we change them or if we were to discontinued their use would change how we believe God interacts in our lives. There are questions and debates currently going on about these sacraments in our church. And there is nothing wrong with the questions.
I believe it is similar to the social and environmental issues we deal with. Questions are good and change may or may not be necessary. But we shouldn’t hold on to traditions just for the sake of tradition. We should not be afraid for someone to challenge our long-held beliefs. And we shouldn’t speak for God unless we can clearly articulate what we believe God is telling us and why.
I can’t help but think of Reptevia, from Fiddler on the Roof, a man first plagued by his daughters’ breaking tradition. One after the next bends his belief system often causing him great pain. But each time he turns to God and sees that God has not changed. Even, in the end, when the Russian Revolution is tearing apart his village and culture, his faith remains intact and God remains with him.