Sermon for Sunday 19 March 2023
Lent 4 2023
God does not see as man sees: man looks at appearances but God looks at the heart. How could a sinner produce signs like this?
A few weeks ago, on my day off, I was walking in the North Downs – on a path that took me across Box Hill, just outside the Surrey town of Dorking. That great glamour destination. You can’t say I don’t use my time off imaginatively.
Just off the path, I came upon the curious gravestone of one Major Peter Labilliere – as the inscription puts it – an eccentric resident of Dorking. Imagine such a thing. He was buried here, it goes on, head downward, according to his own wishes, on July 11th 1800.
Angry like Labellière – Auden wrote –
Who, finding no invectives hurled
Against a topsy-turvy world
Would right it, earning quaint renown
By being buried upside-down.
Major Labelliere was a controversial figure in his time, speaking out, for example, against the British campaign in revolutionary America, and in favour of the better intentions, at least, of the nascent revolution in France. He was an eccentric, difficult man who like many figures who superficially don’t quite fit into their times yet had a better sense of the truths of those times them than many of those who do seem to fit in so seamlessly.
And the eccentric demands of his will regarding the manner in which he was to be buried were a parting – and lasting – spur to reexamine the way we live now. That topsy-turvy challenge to a topsy turvy world might lend us some of the spirit we need as we seek to absorb this morning’s gospel. It might remind us, however familiar our pattern of Sunday worship is, that in engaging with that gospel, in asking questions of and responding to the questions of God, we must likewise be prepared to turn things on their heads. To allow ourselves to be unsettled, upturned, made anew.
My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor my ways your ways goes the Psalm – echoing that passage from Samuel. God’s difference, the essential counterpoint he represents in terms of his creation, is something we need to sit with, to lean into its uncomfortableness and strangeness.
And then we need to be prepared to go out into a world and be disruptive examples ourselves. Unafraid to be eccentric reminders of the unintuitive but all transforming love of God and of his difficult, beautiful gospel of reconciliation. What could be more eccentric in a sense than running about in rose lame poncho? But let’s all take something of that beautiful strangeness out there.
This isn’t the first lengthy gospel text, this Lent is it? Another sub-diaconal weightlifting session for Fr Peter. And weighty stuff for us all, as it was for those characters we’ve heard sketched by St John.
There are things we might feel uncomfortable about. The particularity of the blind man’s miraculous cure. What we might see as the ableism of sight as a metaphor for moral goodness and understanding. And more generally, the perennial questions of suffering in a world as cruel and sightless and wrong-headed today as it was in the days of Peter Labilliere and of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
But let us not overthink it – let rather our hearts meet it. Let the man born blind’s cry now this is an astonishing thing be our cry, as we remember with thanks what God has done in our lives already, and promises yet to do.
We all share something of the ‘blindness’ of that man. And the blindness of those around Jesus who refuse to see. We all find ourselves in situations – for better and for worse – that are not the result of our own choices. And situations which very much are. The Christian response in so many of these situations is not – as I’m afraid we’re increasingly conditioned to suppose – who is to blame – who got this wrong – but instead, trusting in the Lord, to move on from the point of disaster, or shame, or difficulty, or hopelessness, and to ask ourselves, what in the situation gives us the opportunity to glorify the Lord? Turn things on their heads. Accept God’s mercy and look for a way to glory in this tremendous life and the eccentric gospel of its creator.
Today we find ourselves in high glee. Schubert, Champagne and a trip to the Royal Academy. But in another sense we’re in the deepest part of Lent. We have an opportunity to look both ways, as it were, to the promise of salvation, and to the extent that we still fall short. To the joy that is ours already, and to the unresolved knots of our hearts and the continued suffering of the world.
What today’s gospel suggests to us is that wherever we are, wherever we’ve been, God will make something of our journey if we let him. That isn’t a call to stop trying – but it is a call to rejoice in the surprising things God does and how he does them – rejoice in the what he can make of the weirdest material – as Hopkins has it
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
We are all called, in whatsoever situation we find ourselves in, to show, often, perhaps mostly, surprisingly, the eccentric glory of God. Informed by God’s Church, live your lives to the full, let them be coloured, transformed by him and so sing of his love to the world. How could a sinner produce signs like this – we might well ask this of ourselves. But trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and cry with the man born blind instead – now here is an astonishing thing.
Fr Alan Rimmer