The heart of the man in today’s Gospel (John 9:1-41) was clouded by the shame of being born blind. Jesus cleansed his heart of that anxious shame by opening his eyes. Oh what joy! In this gracious healing, the regular prayer of this man’s synagogue community, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit with me,” was wondrously fulfilled.
His parents were thrilled that the child who had been born blind could now see. However, their hearts had not yet been cleansed of the shame of his blindness, which they were told resulted from their sin. With the fear of anxiety clouding their hearts, they were unwilling to speak the truth. They wouldn’t even defend their own son!
Likewise, the leaders’ hearts were clouded to such a degree that they could not see, much less rejoice in, this awesome healing. As the man told them, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Nevertheless, because their anxiety locked them into a system of shaming and blaming, Jesus pronounced the leaders blind. Anxiety blurs our vision.
Clean hearts and a right spirit in relationships go together. For anxiety can be toxic to relationships, sometimes leading to condemning, blaming, and complaining. Today’s Gospel reminds us that we’re responsible for inserting the cleanliness of non-anxiety into our relationships.
The happy ending of this story is that with eyes opened and a clean heart, the man was restored to his family and welcomed into the community of followers of Jesus. His non-anxious presence of peace and gratitude helped renew a right spirit between others in his family, and—we can well imagine—in all of his relationships.
Blindness due to anxiety is a besetting sin in our day, too. Sociologists might look back and name ours the “age of stress.” That’s why our Lenten theme, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within us,” is so apt.
During my sabbatical God opened my eyes, as he did for the blind man in today’s Gospel. I saw how anxiety clouded my heart; then with profound grace, God cleansed my heart. Hearts washed from anxiety are set free to restore a right spirit in relationships, including those of family and church. For the sin of anxiety results in such symptoms as sleeplessness, worry, and high blood pressure, but can also lead to complaining, over-functioning, blaming others, and trying to change or fix them.
All Saints’ has carried chronic anxiety from at least the time of the schism in the mid-1980’s. It’s often under the surface, but spikes at times such as staff changes, or when the rector is away for an extended duration. Part of my calling to serve this congregation was discerning its need to be renewed. Quite a few of the members present in 2007 when I arrived thought that All Saints’ was dying. They said so out loud, with resignation. This was not true, of course, but was symptomatic of the collective anxiety.
Unfortunately, anxiety is contagious, but—happily—peace and joy are equally contagious. From the distance of my sabbatical, I realized how much anxiety I had absorbed, especially evident in sleepless nights and over-functioning. Over-functioning does not equate to working long hours, as much as to trying too hard and carrying too much of the responsibility.
The antidote to anxiety is faith in Jesus Christ, who repeatedly commanded his followers not to fear. My healing came through the unveiling of a one hundred-year-old family secret. I learned of the shameful secret, which came to light only a few months ago, when during my sabbatical I was inspired to call a distant second cousin, whose name I bear. The legacy of shame had passed through the generations and captured me almost fifty years ago with a couple of specific instances that clouded my heart. When I saw the family connections with new eyes, I laughed from the depths of my soul, so deeply that I didn’t even the laughter. And as I laughed that shame simply melted away.
The symptoms of a clean heart are the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These lead to a right spirit of taking responsibility for one’s own actions, expressing gratitude, affirming others, and speaking di-rectly to other people rather than talking about them. Clean hearts lead to a right spirit within relationships.
My form of anxiety included trying too hard and worrying too much about being liked. My worry reinforced the anxiety already present within the church family, as did the worry and blaming of others who also love the parish, but who are anxious and fearful. In my absence, I wondered whether any person in the church was thinking thoughts like “When the rector gets back, we’re going to get him,” but that was when anxiety was organizing my thoughts. I’m back, and you’ve got me, and I’ve got you, and God has us all wrapped in his love. It’s so good to be back. I love being “gotten” by you in the grace and healing power of Jesus Christ!
Thank you for allowing me to enjoy this sacred time of silence, solitude, study, and prayer at Lake Tahoe. It was a life-changing experience. I absorbed the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and discovered some valuable material, which I’ll be proposing that we read and discuss together.
Some experts write that sabbaticals function as a trial separation. Indeed, sometimes professionals do change positions after a sabbatical, and since returning I’ve already been asked whether I will stay at All Saints’. As I jokingly told someone, the trial separation failed! Then again, in some ways the separation was an outstanding success, because now I renew my commitment to serve with you and to lead you. It’s great to be back. I bear the Peace of Christ in a new way, and have been sent down the mountain well rested and eager to facilitate God’s continuing cleansing of hearts, including my own. Our sacred duty is to commit ourselves to assisting God in renewing a right spirit within All Saints’, as well as in our many other relationships. It’s not so much what we do, as who we are, disciples who bear the Peace of Christ for the sake of the world.
Anxiety is a good barometer for our spiritual lives. I commend it to you. I encourage you to pay attention to your level of anxiety, whether your anxiety is manifested like the fear of the parents or like the anger of the leaders in today’s Gospel. As human beings, we will always experience some level of anxiety. After all, we’re human, and it’s good to be human. We cannot control our emotional reactions to a given situation. In fact, we’re likely to respond in a manner consistent with our role in our family of origin, passed down generation to generation. Unless, of course, God intervenes by restoring our sight and cleansing our heart—and we do expect such miracles, don’t we? We can choose not to follow our initial emotional reaction of fear or anger. Rather, we can decide daily to allow the Peace of God to direct our responses.
The gauge of this personal barometer is the question of how anxious one feels. How much negativity (blaming, complaining, trying to fix someone else) are you bringing to this relationship? Or, on the other hand, how much responsibility are you taking for yourself, for your shortcomings, for your own worship experience, for nurturing the Peace of Christ, for affirming others, and for living with gratitude in the grace of the Holy Spirit? These behaviors represent the Gospel code of conduct. They are the heart of All Saints’, and are our spiritual delight.
The Rev. Rick Matters, preached at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Carmel