From a sermon preached February 27, 2022
I chose a call to worship quote from Mary Oliver on Tuesday:
“But I also say this: that light / is an invitation / to happiness, / and that happiness / when it’s done right / is a kind of holiness, / palpable and redemptive.”
I chose this quote about happiness . . . and then, well, all was not happy this week. Our cat died. Russian invaded the Ukraine. I know these events are not at all on par with each other, but they both bring me deep grief. And I imagine many of you are feeling sad as well. Because of what’s going on in your life, in our community, in the world.
I wanted to preach a sermon about our sadness, about our fear. A friend sent me a text recently to share a random fact: “Do not be afraid” recurs in the Bible 366 times. That’s what I wanted to preach on. But, unfortunately, as long as today’s scripture reading is, it does not contain even one of those 366 occurrences of “be not afraid.”
What it does contain is Jesus saying “I am the light of the world.”
And that light is an invitation to happiness.
What it does contain is a man who was born blind being able to see.
And that light is an invitation to happiness.
What it does contain is water from the pool of Siloam.
I learned this week that during the festival of Sukkot, priests would draw water from the pool of Siloam and carry it to the temple as people lined the streets waving branches and singing psalms of praise. At the temple, the water was poured into a bowl on the altar and allowed to overflow into the world where it would bring new life and healing. Some rabbis who saw this ritual said, “Whoever has not seen the joy of the temple water drawing has never seen joy at all!”
See, there it is again, an invitation to happiness.
And, if I’m honest, I didn’t necessarily want to be invited to happiness this week.
Because . . . because things are so hard for so many people. And happiness didn’t feel right.
So, while I expect John is setting the Pharisees in this story up as the villains, I can’t help but sympathize with them a little. Sure, they could have accepted the invitation to just be happy that this guy, who was born blind, can see now. But the Pharisees are important men with responsibilities. Is being happy really the responsible response? Surely they need more information first. Like what happened and who did it and WHY IN THE WORLD did he do it on the Sabbath (again!) because there are rules about these things and maybe others can just go around being happy willy nilly but somebody has to be the grown-ups around here and make sure everything isn’t going to fall apart!
It’s hard, isn’t it? Being the only ones who really see what is actually going on.
The irony, of course, is that the Pharisees are the ones who don’t see. They don’t see and they don’t listen. The second time they ask the man what happened to him he says, “I’ve already told you once and you wouldn’t listen.” They don’t see and they don’t listen and they don’t accept the invitation.
“But I also say this: that light / is an invitation / to happiness, / and that happiness / when it’s done right / is a kind of holiness, / palpable and redemptive.” (Mary Oliver)
“Happiness / when it’s done right / is a kind of holiness.”
It’s an interesting thought, that one could do happiness right—and, therefore, one could do it wrong.
I guess the Pharisees do it wrong—needing to investigate and interrogate the light before accepting its invitation to happiness. Asking people questions and then listening only for the “right” answers—refusing to actually hear the amazing stories. Yes. I think the Pharisees in this story are a good example of happiness done wrong. And I recognize my own temptations to do happiness wrong in exactly the same ways.
But how do we do happiness right?
Maybe the man who was born blind can be a bit of a guide for us here. The more I have read this story, the more I like him. And while certainly, for John, this story—like nearly every story in the Gospel—is primarily about who Jesus is, I think there are also some things we can learn from this man who was blind and can now see.
He receives the healing Jesus offers; he listens to Jesus’ voice (as opposed to the Pharisees who do not hear) and he follows Jesus’ instructions. He doesn’t ask Jesus what he’s doing or why he’s doing it or try to wash in a different pool or worry about it being the sabbath. Maybe part of doing happiness right is just to receive it—as it is, when it comes, how it comes.
This man also insists on his own identity and truth. Lots of his neighbors—maybe because they have only seen him as “the blind man” and so can’t recognize him as the same person now that he sees—these neighbors insist that he’s not himself, just “someone like him.” Don’t you feel some sympathy for this poor guy walking around saying, “Hey, it’s me! Really!”? But is that part of happiness? To insist on the miracles, insist on our joy, insist that we are exactly who we are no matter what others say?
How do we do happiness right?
This man tells his happiness story. He tells exactly what happened without interpretation or judgment or apology—and such tellings are harder than they might seem. For example, I felt great happiness when my book was accepted for publication, but in telling the story, I always felt I should add how much work it was going to be, how hard it was. When we had those beautiful sixty degree February days, the story I told about that included global warming, and the fact that it was going to be really cold again soon.
To be sure, we don’t want to put on a false happy front; we don’t want to pretend that everything is perfect. But we also don’t need to bring unhappiness into our story if it’s not really there in the moment. Because we all know that nothing is perfect. We don’t have to remind ourselves of it all the time. We know. And sometimes, like the man born blind, we can just let a happy story be a happy story. We can just tell about the wonderful thing that has happened—about the light we see.
But, oh, you might say, even this man’s story is not a completely happy one. He is interrogated by the religious authorities and kicked out of the temple. Which is true. And, perhaps, another piece of doing happiness right: be willing to take the risks that come with happiness. If he had been less happy, more reserved; if he had not taunted the Pharisees a little bit with the “do you want to be his disciples too” line, if he had been willing to get on board with the Pharisees’ concerns about Jesus healing on the Sabbath . . . well, then he probably wouldn’t have been kicked out. In accepting the invitation of light that Jesus’ offered, the man accepted the risks that came with it.
So, here we are at the end of the story with the once-blind man kicked out of the temple and bowing to Jesus, the light of the world.
It’s really not the story I would have chosen for this week—a story of light. Because the world feels dark right now in many ways, small and large, personal and political. So many miracles we pray for have not happened—we may feel like we have spit and mud smeared on us, but there’s no pool of Siloam to wash off in.
I suppose it’s true that the days of Jesus and the man born blind were also dark days—before and after the man was healed, there were factions within the Jewish community; Rome held oppressive control over Judea and Galilee and many other places; poverty and hunger were rampant.
For Jesus to claim to be the light of the world when things were so dark,
For the man to accept the invitation to happiness in the midst of so much grief.
Maybe that is happiness done right. The happiness that “is a kind of holiness, / palpable and redemptive.” The happiness we allow in the midst of the grief. The happiness that we live into despite the risks.
In the midst of the darkness, Jesus says: “I am the light of the world.”
And Mary Oliver reminds us that “that light / is an invitation / to happiness.”