Text: John 9:1-49
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
March 28, 2017
One of my favorite TV series of all times was Mission Impossible. Do you remember it? Each episode always started out the same way. The leader of the investigative team, played by Peter Graves, would discover a small tape recorder hidden somewhere. When he hit the “play button,” a voice would say: “Your mission, if you choose to accept it….” and then it would spell out in fairly straightforward terms what the mission was about. Graves was then told to destroy the tape and the team would go into action.
As each episode developed, it did not take long before you realized that which seemed rather simple quickly became very complex. All kinds of unexpected developments took place which threatened to defeat the mission and possibly destroy the team. But by the end of show the ingenuity of the team prevailed and the mission was accomplished.
I have often thought the Christian life is a lot like that. The message of the Gospel is very simple and our mission, if we choose to accept it, seems very straightforward. But if you are serious about the mission, and your experience is in any way similar to mine, you were not very far down the road of this journey when all sorts of unforeseen complications emerge that make you wonder, “Was I mistaken?” “Is it worth it?” “Will I make it?” These are legitimate questions. But you are all here this morning! You have decided to hang in. You will see the mission accomplished.
Both this straightforward call to our mission, if we choose to accept it, and the complexities that emerge to threaten its successful completion are anticipated and amply illustrated in all four gospels. This year during Lent most of our Gospel reading are taken from John. Right at the end of the Gospel, he tells us why he wrote it and in effect gives us our Mission Impossible when he states: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of His disciples which are not recorded in this book, I suppose even the whole world would not have room to hold all of the books if everything were written. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that by believing you might have life through His Name.”
As we read through John’s Gospel we see how he develops this mission. Jesus performs his first miracle at the wedding of Cana and John records that when the disciples saw what he had done, they put their faith in him. John thus records his first visit to Jerusalem where he performed many miracles. Again, John records that when the people saw these signs they believed in him. Last Sunday we heard John tell us about Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. Not only did she come to believe in Jesus as a result of what she saw and heard, she invited several others from her village to join this “mission impossible.” They came and after listening to Jesus, as Fr. Claude so eloquently pointed out in his sermon last Sunday, they said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves and know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” They too join in on this mission impossible.
And so, we come to today’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples are continuing their mission. On the way, they see a man by the side of the road who has been blind since birth. Jesus heals the man and he is able to see. As we follow John as he describes this mission of Jesus we would anticipate that the people who witness this miracle would rejoice and like those Jesus encountered earlier would become believers and join him in his mission.
But no – Our Lord’s disciples are preoccupied with the question why was this man blind in the first place. They knew from their biblical training that it had to be for one of two reasons: either this was God’s punishment for some awful sin he had committed or he was the victim of sins committed by his parents.
What about the others who witness this miracle. Surely, they will believe and become followers of Jesus. After all, they are trained experts in the scriptures, Pharisees. They are expecting the Messiah. Surely, they will recognize Him as he performs his signs. But this is not to be the case. Jesus has violated the law given by God to Moses. He has healed the man on the Sabbath Honor the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy. Had not God worked for six days creating the world and rested on the Sabbath. Were they not called to enter God’s rest on the Sabbath. Healing involved work. Jesus had violated the Sabbath. He could not possibly be a man of God let alone the Messiah.
Could this blind man not see that? Was he really the blind man at all? Maybe, he was a clever double that Jesus had inserted. They went to the blind man’s parents. Was this their son? Was he really blind from birth? If he really had been blind and could now see, there had to be a diabolical reason behind it. These Pharisee were good people. They were the religious leaders who wanted to do God’s will. They thought they were doing God’s will. Though their eyes were open, they could not see. They began to plot. This Jesus was dangerous, He threatened their understanding of the world. He had to go! John has led us to the point of the story where we begin to understand that the mission of Jesus has indeed become Mission Impossible.
As John tells the story, the common people who respond to Jesus are the good guys and the religion's leaders are the bad guys. And it is clear that the Pharisees and other religious leaders worked with the Roman government to have Jesus executed. But why? They were good people. They were seeking to follow the law that had been given to them by God. They were longing for the Messiah. But their expectations of how the Messiah would come was so different than the way Jesus operated that they didn’t recognize him for who he was. They were blind. Jesus understanding of his mission, his approach to meeting people’s needs; him seemly total disregard for the law threatened their whole way of life. In seeking to have Jesus executed they actually thought they were doing God’s will. They were good people, but they were doing bad things in the name of God.
This has happened throughout history, hasn’t it? The most obvious example today is ISIS. They have a vision of reality that the whole world should be converted to Islam and if people don’t submit to their vision, they are to be wiped off the face of the earth. Convert or die! In this they think they are doing God’s will. The Crusades and the Inquisition are examples where Christians held a similar understanding. These are extreme cases of course. But they illustrate my point. Good people thinking they are doing God’s will when they are working against what God is really trying to do.
It can and often does happen in local church situations as well. I well remember Anna, an extraordinary woman. Brilliant, hardworking, a woman who loved the Lord and was totally committed to the church, but a woman who had little common sense and who in her zeal to give God her very best often trampled on those whom she was called to serve. When I met her she was a Presbyterian teaching French at a Methodist college and just a few years away from retirement. She had recently found herself on the Canterbury Trail and as the only Episcopalian in town, had asked me to become her Spiritual Director. Over the next several years she was confirmed and began a period of discernment to become a deacon. And after she was ordained the bishop asked her to work with the canon to the ordinary to develop a diocesan school to train deacons, and then to become one of the teachers.
As her spiritual director, I was of course privy to all that was taking place and shared with her the excitement she experienced. I also had a growing unease as I saw the way she approached her task. For one thing, despite my constant requests that she call me before stopping by, with every new insight she would show up at my door. And living is a small rural community where we never locked our doors when we were home, instead of knocking, she would walk right in to announce her news. I quickly learned to get fully dressed when I got up in the morning. The few times she did call, she would never think to ask if this was a good time to talk, and launch right in with what would prove to be an hour one way conversation being absolutely convinced that her new insight was of far more significance than any agenda I might have planned to the day.
And then there was the way she approached her students. She rightfully took great pride in her top students who spoke and wrote flawless French. Many of them ended up in the diplomatic service and have had great careers in French speaking nations. Others became teachers and missionaries to French speaking countries as well. But she had no tolerance for the average student taking French to fulfill their second language requirement so they might become a high school or elementary teacher in the United States. She took equal pride that over half of her class would drop out each semester rather than getting an F. Such an approach would be appropriate in training Seals or some other special opts unit in the armed services, but hardly the approach one would expect at a college whose primary mission was to train teachers, health care workers and those planning to go on to seminary.
Despite the continued council of the canon to the ordinary and me, she took this approach to training deacons. She was determined that those graduating from the course of study would be the best academically trained in the United States and the only way that could happen was to have more than half of them drop out. One day I got a call from the canon to the ordinary telling me to be prepared to hear from Anna. To save the mission of the deacon program he was going to have to fire her.
Three hours later, she was in my office, broken emotional wreck. She still could not understand that her approach was wrong. Chris, who she had previously described in saintly almost Christ like terms, was suddenly a diabolical agent of Satan. I listened and gradually, over time, she regained her self-confidence though she always remained blind to her flaws. We did not cast her aside. We found a place for her in the parish where I was serving as an Interim Priest where we could love her and where she could use her gifts, and where her flaws could be minimized. She was a cherished member of God’s kingdom, and the community of Faith worked together to change what threatened to be Mission Impossible, to Mission accomplished.
When I was called to be Priest-in-Charge at St. Paul’s, I was so deeply moved and gratified how you all responded and together and we looked to Jesus to lead us forward. But as we sought to be faithful to our mission, it became increasingly apparent to me that for us to move forward we need to introduce some changes, the most dramatic being the merging of the 9:15 and 10:45 services and create a space for focused adult formation classes. I knew this would push us past our comfort zone, that it could easily create discord, unease, challenges that could threaten our mission. But after much prayer, consulting with our other clergy, our vestry and the rectors of our deanery, for the sake of our mission we had to take these steps. I asked for volunteers to work with me to design a new service. I was greatly heartened that the several who did were respected parishioners who felt deeply positive about the service they attended and represented you all well. I recruited the rest from those who I knew had the same feelings. My thought was if this group of 10 people could agree on a service, it will work for all of us. If they could not, then we are all in trouble. I am happy to report that their work is almost complete. They have worked extremely well together and to all of our amazement have had unanimous agreement on almost every aspect of the service. Two or three issues remain to be decided that will probably require a vote, but the committee agrees on these points that whichever way the vote goes they can accept it and know that you can as well. When we embarked, we knew we were on a mission that could prove to be impossible. But working together, looking to Jesus, we are confident that you will agree a year from now looking back it will be Mission Accomplished!
Thanks be to God. Amen