glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, March 30, 2014

On Dusty Springfield, the Pet Shop Boys, and the Miracle of Sight: A Sermon for Laetare Sunday

This past Wednesday evening, during our Bible study, I mentioned in passing the 1960s Dusty Springfield song “Wishin’ and Hopin.” I guess in doing so I surprised the Wednesday crowd, as they wondered how I would even know about this song, since Dusty, great as she was, was not exactly at the height of her popularity for my generation in the ‘80s, which was more the Madonna era. But I love Dusty even so, and listen to her lots, especially when I’m working around the house. Though, not while writing sermons—I tried that in preparation for Ash Wednesday this year and it was a total disaster. I was too busy singing.

Now, like the Wednesday night crowd you, too, might be wondering how I would even know about the great Dusty Springfield—with her big blonde beehive hair, thick mascara, and soulful voice. Well, for starters, it’s because when I was about 14 my new and (as it happens) my still favorite band was the English electronic synth dance duo—the Pet Shop Boys. And in 1987, just as I discovered them, they released a duet with Dusty titled “What have I done to deserve this?,” which ended up being her biggest ever hit, and introduced her to a whole new generation of fans, just like me. But, as much as that was my official, conscious introduction, as I think on it, it’s probably also the case that I like her because my father, a child of the 60s, absolutely loved that era’s music, especially of the “British Invasion.”

And Dusty, well, she was the undisputed female Red Coat General of the British Invasion, reaching these shores even before the Beatles and breaking new ground with her “blue-eyed soul” Motown sound, with hits like “I only want to be with you,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” “Just don’t know what to do with myself,” and later “the Look of Love” and “Son of a Preacher Man.” On car trips or just hanging around the house, that’s what I heard, along with the likes of the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and for a little American flavor, Peter, Paul, and Mary.

My dad literally spent hours and hours on Saturday afternoons sitting on the living floor, with his meticulously cared for 1960s records piled up all around him (I was never allowed to touch them), putting together the perfect 8-track mixed tape for long driving trips through Canada and the Black Hills, for work (he was a courier, so he spent considerable time in the car), or just for Saturdays at home. You may know that he died when I was 15, and he was just 38, so his beloved ‘60s music is one of the ways that I have of holding on to him, feeling that’s he present still. Though, I have to admit that my favorite song, perhaps of all time, is still, and maybe forever will be, the more contemporary Dusty, with the Pet Shop Boys, singing in very techno fashion: “What have, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?”

As it happens, “What have I done to deserve this?” is a question that people ask all the time. What have I done to deserve being sick? What have I done to deserve being fired from my job? What have I done to deserve having my spouse or partner leave me, or worse, die unexpectedly? No doubt the family members of those lost in the missing Malaysian airplane, those affected by Washington mudslide, survivors of the firefighters in Boston or the Marathon Bombing, of 9/11, Pearl Harbor, or even Nagasaki and Hiroshima, could all ask the very same question: what have I done to deserve this? I suppose it’s a question that my mom, my brothers, and I all could have (and might have) asked when my father died unexpectedly 26 years ago, too. It’s even one that my dad himself might have asked, since from the time he was in his late 20s he struggled with the effects of muscular dystrophy, having to wear leg braces and often struggling to walk, which is probably what led to him falling in an accident, breaking his knee, and dying after surgery.

Unfortunately, though, who ever we are, and whatever our personal afflictions or struggles, whatever our grief or loss, the “what have I done to deserve this?” question often ends up going unanswered, because, really, most times, there simply is no good or satisfactory answer. Things just happen. Painful things. Undeserved things. Things that make no reasonable or rational sense.

But, because we human beings don’t really like unanswered questions, we make up explanations. For example, whatever bad thing might have happened—whether on a small personal scale or in bigger more universal ways—it is all part of God’s mysterious plan. For centuries people have thought that way, for millennia really, probably going back to the very origins of humanity. If there’s something we don’t understand or can’t make sense of, well, then, we can blame it on God. Or if not exactly blaming it on God, then blaming it on ourselves (or on other people’s selves), followed by what we deem to be God’s appropriate judgment. That’s the whole point of the biblical Book of Job, after all--why do bad things happen? It is God's fault? Our fault?

And sometimes that can be comforting, in a way. Having the faith that God is always in charge and that whatever happens, seemingly good or bad, it is by God’s design. But at other times, that can seem really, even outrageously offensive, too. Did God have a hand in causing 9/11 or the Holocaust, or less globally, taking my dad from me, or your loved ones from you? I don't know for certain, but I just don’t think God does that. I don’t think that God wants us to go through grief or pain or loss, all to fulfill a great master plan. I suppose it’s possible. But it’s not really how the God I believe in operates.

But what God does do, I think, is help us endure these sufferings. God stands with us and dries our eyes. God helps us to see that there is a new day on the horizon, holding out the promise of new opportunities, new hope, and new life. God helps us to know that as we suffer and endure trials, losses and hardships, we are never alone. Because God, and the Great Cloud of Witnesses —the Mystical Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people, as we pray in the Rite I post-communion prayer—are always there with us, alongside us, and even within us, propping us up, prodding us along, and giving us eyes, opened eyes, to see the world and our lives in it in ever new ways.

That, at least in part, is what I think our gospel passage this morning is all about. Here we find a man who is blind from birth, who has never seen anything, at least physically. But through Jesus’ presence and intervention he finds himself healed. He is given new sight. And more importantly, he is given new understanding—of himself, of his faith, and of the power of God. (You’ll notice in the passage that he goes from saying Jesus is a man, to saying he’s a prophet, to finally saying that he’s the Son of Man, the Messiah).

If you remember, one of the questions that people around him had been asking, probably since the time he was born, was what had he done to deserve this, this blindness? Or, if it’s not his fault, what had his parents done? Because no one would be born blind otherwise. It must be a symptom of some other greater, deeper, more profound, inner evil. In fact, the blind man probably believed this himself—that his condition was a direct consequence of his own inner sinful nature.

But then, along comes Jesus. And he tells the blind man, his own disciples, those crabby, wet blanket Pharisees, and us 2000 years later, that this just is not so. By giving the blind man sight, by opening his eyes, Jesus testifies that his blindness is not some kind of punishment from God, but is instead a condition that we all share, in various ways, by virtue of being alive. We are all limited in some way or another—for some it is sight, for others hearing, for still others it’s not so much physical, but feeling alone or discouraged, unsatisfied or unfulfilled. None of this is God’s punishment for anything that we, or certainly our parents have done. Nor is it even necessarily punishment for what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of time.

Instead, it is simply a manifestation of being human, of being limited, fragile, mortal. But Jesus tells us, in fact, he shows us, that through him, by being united to him, we can transcend these limitations and truly see, truly hear, and truly be filled. Whatever our griefs, whatever our losses, whatever our crucifixions and Good Fridays, we will always find Easter and we will always be led to resurrection. Which is, of course, the whole point of our Christian faith. We haven’t done anything to deserve it, this resurrection, to answer the question of my favorite song. But it’s what we get. Just because. Christ shines upon us light to see and know that even in our grief, even in our loss, and even in our limitations, we are never alone, we are never truly blind, and, most importantly, we are never really dead.

As it happens, that was exactly my experience, so many years ago, when my dad died. Not at first, of course. At first it was horrible. But over time I came to believe that God had not abandoned me or my family, but was walking alongside us and strengthening us, propping us up and giving us hope. Through that experience, our faith—or at least mine—grew deeper and stronger and more real. Not because it gave me any answers as to why. But because, through that grief, I experienced the promise of resurrection and new life in a profoundly real way. It wasn’t any longer just something I was taught to believe in at Sunday School or confirmation class. Rather, it became something that touched me at the heart of who I am. In fact, I’d even say that’s why I am here as a priest among you today. My feeling of being loved, being cared for, and being filled with Christ’s light at that painful time—through friends, through our church community, and through prayer—through Mystical Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people—was so powerful, so encompassing, so motivating, that I felt called to share it with others, even if all too often dimly and imperfectly.

That’s how God works—God takes people, people like his Son Jesus, people like Jesus’ disciples, people like us, even people like the wet blanket Pharisees, and he uses them. God uses us all, in our various gifts and in our various limitations, to make the world brighter, fuller, and more alive. So that others, too, can see. And then, so that they can believe.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.

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