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Get Real, Be Real

from the “Sermons and Services” collection

Fourth Sunday in Lent

1 Samuel 16:1-13
John 9:1-41

March 2, 2008
Marsh Chapel

“For the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” So 1 Samuel 16:7 quotes God, whispering in Samuel’s ear while Samuel was choosing among Jesse’s son the next king and messiah. Of course this is an extremely anthropomorphic representation of God, whispering in Samuel’s ear. And perhaps the story is a bit disingenuous: what makes David stand out from his brothers is that “he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” You might remember that God earlier had instructed Samuel to pick Saul as king and messiah of whom it was said, in 1 Samuel 9:2, that “[t]here was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” So this whispering God did notice external appearances as well as look into the heart. Moreover, in David’s case, from what we know of his later life, his heart was not what human beings would call very pure: he was a Philistine mercenary, he committed murder to keep Bathsheba in his bed, and he was soft on a treacherous son who almost ruined the kingdom. Yet in those and other cases of a not-so-good heart, David was a passionate lover, even when that got him into trouble. Perhaps that’s what God looks for in a heart. Do we have such eyes to see?

The story of the blind man in John is more complicated. The official theology in this passage is that Jesus proclaimed himself once more to be the light of the world, through whom we see what is true, including our hearts. A powerful irony runs through this story, however, perhaps more important than Jesus’ summary moral. Although Jesus did provide the initial healing miracle and at the end went to find the formerly blind man, the real subject in the incident was the man born blind. According to the text, he did not go running after Jesus for a miracle cure, as so many others had. He was simply himself. Jesus’ disciples pointed him out as a theological conundrum: was his blindness caused by his own sin, or rather by his parents’ sin because he had been blind from birth? That moralism was popular in Jesus’ day, and it comes from believing in an overly anthropomorphic God who must have a moral reason for everything that happens. Even today some people slip into that childish conception when they ask why God causes or allows them to suffer: did they do something to deserve it? If we anthropomorphize our universe, then everything must be “deserved.” Remember after 9/11 when some Christian conservatives said that the destruction of the twin towers and the Pentagon was God’s punishment for America’s tolerance of feminism and gay rights. For that matter, remember the prophets such as Ezekiel and Isaiah who tried to explain Israel’s defeat by the Assyrians and Babylonians as God’s punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness. The argument was unpersuasive even then, and Jesus simply dismissed that moralizing way of thinking. Rather, he said the young man’s blindness was only the occasion for him to demonstrate something else about God’s work. So he healed his blindness without being asked, and the man was grateful. The man explained to people just how Jesus did it: he put mud on his eyes and told him to wash it off. Then the man lost track of Jesus.

But the Pharisees were out to trap Jesus. The real Pharisees, by the way, were given a vicious, mendacious characterization in John’s Gospel; Jesus himself was roughly a Pharisee among the theological divisions of that time. So we should bear in mind that here in the story they are a literary invention to make John’s larger point. The Pharisees said that Jesus could not be a man of God if he did work on the Sabbath, namely healing. But then again, if he could heal, maybe he was special. They asked the formerly blind man, who said, yes, Jesus was special, a prophet. The young man knew Jesus only by what he did. Wanting to discredit the healing, the Pharisees pressured the young man’s parents to say he was not really blind. They said, on the contrary, that he had been blind from birth but they would not testify that Jesus had healed him, although they knew it, because they were afraid of the Pharisees. They said, ask the young man himself. So back the Pharisees went and tried to get the young man to call Jesus a sinner for healing on the Sabbath. Perfectly honest, the young man said he had no idea whether Jesus was a sinner, but “[o]ne thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” (The young man apparently knew “Amazing Grace.”) Enraged, the Pharisees accused the young man of being a disciple of Jesus, which he was not, rather than a disciple of Moses as they were. When the young man said that Jesus obviously had something going for him, they threw him out of the temple community with the claim that he should not try to teach them, given that he was born entirely in sin as evidenced by his congenital blindness. It was then that Jesus hunted up the young man who had been both abandoned by his parents and dismissed from the religious community, two severe forms of ostracism, especially in that society. Jesus introduced himself and only then did the young man become his disciple.

Now I submit that having sight to see the heart of others, important as this is, for God in choosing David, for Jesus in helping the young man, for the young man himself, is not as important as having something real in the heart to be seen. For all of the moral ambiguities of David’s heart, he was an heroically passionate lover. And the young, formerly blind, man proved himself to be heroically honest. The Pharisees were only hypocrites, as John portrayed them. The man’s parents were cowards, fearing that they would be ostracized from the temple. The young man by contrast knew and accepted the condition of congenital blindness. He rejoiced suddenly to gain sight. He was not bamboozled by the Pharisees trying to get him to testify against Jesus. He said only what he knew. He drew plain conclusions from what he knew, free of religious ideology. And Jesus went to find him. He was real in his heart despite a life of blindness.

Don’t we too often suffer from not being real? Don’t we live in hypocrisy (though surely none of us here as much as John’s Pharisees)? Don’t we live in hypocrisy in small things so that we deceive even ourselves? Don’t we tell ourselves we are one thing when we know deep down the truth is something else? Don’t we draw back from the truth because we are afraid, like the young man’s parents, that the truth is unacceptable, and that we will be ostracized for it?

When God sees into our heart, will there be anything there? Even if God does not look into our heart, bearing in mind the limitations of that anthropomorphism, do we have a true heart to present to God? Are we real, in ultimate perspective? Or are we a tissue of lies and denials? For most of us, the answer is that we are a confused mixture of the real and negativity. Our imperative is to Get Real so that we can Be Real.

That’s the title line of this sermon, “Get Real, Be Real,” and it comes from a book called The God Box by Alex Sanchez. The main character is a boy in the senior year of high school who is sexually attracted to other boys but, because of his religious upbringing, denies this to himself and others while maintaining a dating relationship with a girl who has been his best friend since childhood. “Get Real_Be Real” is the text-message screen-name of a gay friend who helps him accept both who he is and God’s creation of him to be himself. No better emblem of our clinging to false identities exists that the deep-seated power, massive confusion, and blinding terror of adolescent sexual ambivalence. Nor is the destructive effects of some religion more manifest than in the self-hate it causes sexual minorities. Get Real, Be Real, is what Jesus called us to do by his example. Theologically, Jesus’ miracles were not important by themselves, but because each of them unmasked hypocrisy or rewarded people for loving with the real passions of the honest heart.

The invitation to the table today is in these words, Get Real, Be Real. Jesus was real when he exposed the hypocrisies of his own religion, and was crucified for that and related reasons. He was real when he bore the abandonment of his disciples. He was real when with open-eyed faith he bore the abandonment of God on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What a union of desolation and ecstasy! There was the Light of the World!

And yet here he is inviting us to eat and drink his reality. Come to the table, not because you think you are real but because you know you need to get real. Come to the table to get the courage to face the things you fear about yourself. Come to the table to get the heart to contain whatever you might find in yourself. Come to the table because being real is more important than moral virtue: you are welcome regardless. Come to the table because being real is more important than moral depravity, or self-deception, or spiritual weakness: you are welcome regardless. Come to the table because being real is more important than looking good on the outside: you are welcome regardless. Come to the table because being real is more important than looking good in the inside: you are welcome regardless. Come to the table because God’s welcome empowers the real heart when only negativity is apparent. Come to the table because God welcomes the real heart regardless. Come to the table because here we can welcome God, the infinite creator, lover and terror, whose reality is the most awesome miracle, and light, we shall ever see. Get that reality, and be real. It’s in the bread and wine. Come.


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