My sermon today recounted the incredible story of the Hughes family, whose son was born without eyes or the ability to extend his arms and legs. At his birth, his parents lamented that he'd never be able to do all the things they'd hoped for. They cried out to God 'what did we do to deserve this?' That's what the blind beggar's parents would've asked, too. What sin had they committed? What was he being punished for? The Hughes' quickly found, however, that while Patrick might never play football, he had remarkable, unexpected musical abilities. 20 years later, Patrick's exceptional musical talents are fully honed. With the deeply sacrificial help of his father, Patrick now plays in the University of Louisville marching band and says things like 'so God made me blind and unable to walk--big deal?'. Patrick's parents say they still cry out to God, 'what did we do to deserve this?' but now with a different perspective: 'what did we do to deserve this--what did we do to deserve such an amazing son?'. Their response is 'how can I help the world experience Patrick's gifts?'. So, Mr. Hughes wheels his son around campus, helps him in class, pushes him through the marching band formation. Then he works the graveyard shift at UPS and goes home to take care of his other two sons. Through his father's sacrifice, this blind young man can 'see.'
Along with the story of the blind beggar, today we read one of the most beloved pieces of scripture: Psalm 23. We love its gentle tones; we love to take comfort in its pastoral imagery. Many of us have it memorized to calm us during times of strife. But is that really what it describes? Does it really offer a way for us to escape life's places of pain? Psalm 23 was in the lectionary for one of my first sermons and, feeling anxious, I went to meditate on its words in Cherokee park. I laid down in the grass that early spring morning. He makes me to lie down in green pastures, I thought. How lovely. Over to the side was a small creek, and I thought, he leads me beside still waters. And for a while it was nice. Quiet, cool, easy, enjoyable. But, then... the damp ground began to seep into my clothes. My allergies started to react to the grass and pollen, my lungs started to tighten. I had to shoo bugs away. That rock under my hip really started to become uncomfortable. There was trash collecting along the banks of that stream: a coke can here, an old shoe there. I remembered how we get those warnings to rid our yards of standing water--still water--so that they don't become infested with mosquitoes. And then I thought, do I really want a table prepared for me in the presence of my enemies after coming home sneezy, wet, and mosquito bitten? I'd really rather relax with some friends, with people I like.
Yes, God grants us times of refreshment (see commandment #4*. When was the last time you took advantage of that?) but God also calls us into sacrificial love and service. Patrick Henry Hughes could not have lived into God's gifts to him if his family had not turned their lives upside down to serve him. If the band director and members had not been willing to risk thinking creatively and doing some real problem solving and cultural stretching, Patrick's gifts would have been suppressed. If Jesus had not wanted to stick his hands in the mud, the beggar would still be blind. Our living, incarnate God is all wrapped up in the messiness of human existence. He makes us lie down in green pastures. He sits us at tables with our enemies. He takes our lives and says stop, be human, feel what its like to touch creation. Roll around in it. Look for what I'm trying to do in the world, and be ready to sacrifice to make it happen. Get your hands dirty, eat a meal with someone different than you. Stick your fingers in the mud. And behold, the blind can see.
*For Catholics and some Lutheran it's commandment #3. Only one of the problems with state-sponsored displays of the commandments is figuring out which version to use.