Lent 4a,March 30, 2014

March 31, 2014

The Problem With Seeing
John 9:1-41

1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. 35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

Today’s story is a variation of the light vs. darkness theme that was illustrated by the stories of the two previous weeks. We’ve gone from the story of Nicodemus, who went to Jesus under the cover of darkness, to the story of the Samaritan woman who spoke with Jesus in the light of high noon, to this story today that explores the concept of blindness. Darkness and light – blindness and sight – these are large issues for people who seek to find the path to true life.

It doesn’t matter if you think Jesus was actually able to heal physical blindness with spit and dirt or not, what we have here today is a true story. It’s a story that reveals so much about what it takes to see the truth. This story so clearly portrays the difference between a person who was enabled to see because had no illusion of his own righteousness and those who were blinded by their own self-righteousness. It was the man who knew himself to be blind and who wore the label of sinner who found his way to the kingdom of God, while those who were so confident of their own ability to judge the works of others and who were so sure of their own righteousness that were shown to be blind and unable to find their way to God.

We also see in this story some people who could see the truth, but were afraid to embrace it. The neighbors and the parents of the man born blind could see the problems that would arise if they gave Jesus credit for what had happened, so they weren’t guided by truth but by caution. They maintained their status in the synagogue, but their fear cost them the opportunity to be included in the community of Christ. It’s hard to deny the truth of this story – it reveals the true barriers we must overcome if we wish to abide in the kingdom of God.

What this story primarily reveals to me is how well Jesus was able to redefine what it means to abide in God’s favor. The events of this story were initiated by the disciple’s question to Jesus of who was responsible for the unfortunate condition of the man who was born blind. The disciples saw this man’s condition as the consequence of somebody’s sin, and they wanted to know if it was his own sin or the sin of his parents that caused him to be born blind and Jesus revealed that question to be a false dichotomy. That’s the $100 phrase I added to my vocabulary just last week. I learned in my Tuesday morning study group that a false dichotomy is what you have when you are presented with an either/or answer to a question that has at least three answers.

False dichotomies are often presented by religious fundamentalists. Such people would say you can either believe in the Bible or you believe in science. These are not mutually exclusive endeavors, but some people like to define them as such. But it’s not just religious fundamentalism that presents such untruths. Dominant culture always feeds people false dichotomies. From a very early age we are all filled with assumptions about what is right and normal and godly and these messages can be very blinding to us. This was the case with the disciples who had no doubt about the cause of the man who was born blind – but they were the ones who were blind to the truth.

The disciples probably thought they were going to impress Jesus with their seemingly sophisticated theological question about who’s sin had caused the unfortunate situation, but instead of revealing their high level of spiritual curiosity they exposed their lack of understanding of how God operates. And what Jesus revealed to them is that the world is not so rigidly managed. God doesn’t punish people’s sins with physical infirmities – instead of thinking of God in such a punitive manner, Jesus said the man was born blind in order for the glory of God to be revealed. The reality of the situation is that it’s often our physical limitations that often provide us with the greatest opportunities to see the glory of God.

This story is filled with great irony. I love the comedy of this story. It’s not laugh out loud funny, but I always think it’s sort of funny when bad pompous behavior is halted by the truth. This story is funny in the same way that it’s funny how the Arizona State legislature quit passing terrible anti-immigration laws a couple of years ago when the 60 largest corporations in that state sent a letter to that body saying stop it – it’s hurting our economy. I shouldn’t just pick on the Arizona State Legislature – our own state legislators provide plenty of material for comedy, but I was amused when I heard that particular story last week.

It’s not so funny when you are the one being told to stop, and I recognize that there is always this possibility that I will be the one who gets a letter or an email or a text or a phone call or a knock on my door that exposes my own boneheaded-truth-denying thinking, but I also know that if I truly love the truth, in time, even I will be able to laugh at whatever it is I may have been thinking.

I’m not sure that the Pharisees were ever able to see the comedy of this situation, but they are like clowns in this story. They were intent upon turning Jesus in to a heretic, and they only succeeded in revealing their own spiritual lostness.

I suppose Jesus had violated the Sabbath in a very technical sense, but only in a technical sense. Moses didn’t elaborate on the way in which the Sabbath was to be observed. It was to be a day of rest, but I think the spirit of the commandment to keep the Sabbath was to turn away from the distraction of a daily occupation in order to give attention to God. It seems to me that Jesus was operating very much within the parameters of keeping the Sabbath holy when he used his God-given power to release this man from his burden, but the Pharisees could only see that he had violated a rule.

What this so clearly reveals is that blindness is not just a problem for people who are unable to see. Blindness is a condition that can be a problem for any of us. Some people wrestle with the actual condition of not being able to see what’s in front of them, but we all have to deal with the world that we perceive it to be as opposed to the way that it really is.

Gratefully, most of us gathered here today don’t suffer from the extremely blind condition of the Pharisees. Pharisees are not attracted to Quapaw Quarter United Methodist church. People who want to maintain cherished religiously rigid conditions don’t come here – at least not twice. I’m sure there have been some Pharisees that have unknowingly stepped in here, but they don’t come back – at least not to join in on the way worship.

I’m not saying there isn’t any blindness to be found here, but religiously rigid blindness isn’t the particular form of blindness most of us harbor. I think most of us just suffer with that routine form of blindness that comes with being human. It’s a narrow path that leads to the kingdom of God, and it’s not easy for any of us to stay on it.

I was grateful for a visit from a friend last week. He had come in to the neighborhood looking for someone else, but luckily she wasn’t there, so he came by the church. My friend is a student of Buddhism, and when I shared with him my struggle to generate a sermon on blindness he told me of a glimpse of some truth he had recently experienced.

He told me that one of the Buddhist vows that he repeats regularly and struggles with perpetually goes something like this: The teachings are infinite – I vow to learn them all.

Of course vowing to learn an infinite number of anything is a staggering undertaking, and he said he had often imagined that vow to be something like pledging to memorize the Library of Congress – which is not particularly appealing or motivating. But then he heard that vow to be described as an admonition to pay attention to the lessons of each day. The infinite number of lessons is not like working through a stack of homework – it’s more like a daily challenge to navigate life gracefully.

I’m thinking this is a good lesson for those of us who are trying to follow Jesus. If we can imagine each day as being an opportunity to see what’s true as opposed to what we’ve been led to believe by actual misguided authorities or the ones we create for ourselves – then the challenge of discipleship becomes much more of an adventure than an overwhelming task. I don’t know, but I think my Buddhist friend helped me see what Jesus was talking about.

The truth of the matter is that we are all born blind (that’s a thought another wise person pointed out to me). Certainly none of us remember what we were looking at on day one. But we’ve been storing information in our brains every day since, and some of that information is true, but we’ve accumulated a lot of false information as well. False information about ourselves, about our neighbors, and about our God.

It’s not easy to find that narrow path that leads to the kingdom of God, and it’s particularly hard to find if you think you know where it is. There is an infinite number of lessons to learn about the nature of God, and we have to learn every one of them.

Thanks be to God for the sight-restoring lessons of yesterday, of today, and of tomorrow. With God’s help we will learn every one of them.


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