Well this is going to upset a few people.
Last Sunday’s sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral in London is not what you might call “conciliatory”. Nothing like it, in fact. The preacher was the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor who tackled 1 Samuel 16: 1-13 and John 9: 1-25. Actually he executed a sliding tackle in another direction. It merits quoting in full, being not really that long anyway. Doesn’t need to be, Hampel gets to his point soon enough:
Our second lesson this morning is one of the most vivid narratives in St John’s Gospel. One of the great Old Testament prophecies of the advent of a Messiah is that the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the story we have just heard not only points to Jesus as Messiah but also provides us with a dramatic symbol of the Christ who gives light to those in spiritual darkness.
And, as is so often the case in the gospels, religious people don’t come out of the story very well at all – neither the disciples nor the Pharisees nor even, one might argue, the parents of the man born blind.
The disciples presume the man born blind to be responsible for his blindness because of sin – and equate suffering with sin, as did many Jews, despite the passionate protestations of Job. Jesus instantly denies the connexion – thus rendering meaningless those times when we ask, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ as if we genuinely believe that God causes suffering: blasphemy, surely?
And the Pharisees – ignorantly or willingly blind to the potential fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy – question the breaking of the laws of Sabbath observance in such a way as to reduce the miracle just witnessed to a sideshow. Jesus has broken the law in order to heal and, given that the miracle could easily have waited until the next day, has done so deliberately in order to set his followers new priorities.
And then, in a kind of Peter in the High Priest’s courtyard moment, the parents of the man born blind deny any knowledge of the cause of their son’s healing because they are afraid of the Jews who had threatened to throw out of the synagogue anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah. Although, with pastors like that in charge of your local place of worship, who can blame them?
And, two thousand years later, not much has changed. There are still many people, not least in the Church of England, who hold superstitious views about God and the clergy which often turn the teachings of Jesus upside down as if these people had never read the gospels; there are also many people who hold quaint views about Church rules made in their own image and not susceptible to any change whatsoever; and there are also many people who are afraid of their fellow Christians and don’t want to be seen to rock the boat in case they are bullied as a result.
Given that Jesus turned all of this on its head in this morning’s second lesson but also on a vast number of other occasions throughout the gospels, it’s difficult to understand why we should be as accommodating of people whose attitude to God and whose approach to faith identifies them with the protagonists in our drama this morning, situated as they are somewhere between the Temple and the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem.
Superstition about the laying on of hands at the consecration of bishops, the observance of purity laws that dehumanise gay people, and bullying in church circles which is a form of spiritual abuse are rife and, given the direction in which the Church of England is moving which is away from the middle ground of faith to a series of conservative evangelical ghettoes, this decidedly un-gospel-like behaviour is going to become the norm rather than the exception: looking on the outward appearance and not on the heart.
In Lent, we talk of turning away from sin and being faithful to Christ. Given how sinful Church can be, perhaps we should be turning away from Church in order to be faithful to Christ.
Well, not here at St Paul’s where we are clear that Jesus’s priorities are our priorities which is why you will find no superstition here, where we embrace people of all genders, skin colours and sexualities, and where people who bully their congregations into thinking any differently from all of that are not welcome.
I don’t know whether that makes me a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.
Let us pray:
Save us, O Lord, from the snares of a double mind. Deliver us from all cowardly neutralities. Make us to go in the paths of thy commandments, and to trust for our defence in thy mighty arm alone; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all, evermore. Amen.
Take note. Not only is he really really annoyed with evangelicals, mean tyrants that they are, but it’s also a call to arms: “Deliver us from all cowardly neutralities.”
“Choose your sides” demands Hampel; Jesus or the evangelicals. And then he finishes with the grace.