Monday, March 31, 2014

March 30 Sermon

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

John 9:1-41

9As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

8The 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?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He 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.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then 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.” 16Some 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. 17So 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.” 18The 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 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but 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.” 22His 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.23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24So 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.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He 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?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

39Jesus 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.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.


An artist and his wife went to a museum. The man was extremely near-sighted and forgot his glasses, but that didn't stop him from critiquing every piece of artwork that he saw.

He stopped at one particular painting and studied it for a minute. Then he stated: "This frame is all wrong. The man in the portrait is ugly and shabbily dressed. I don't know why anyone would want to display such horrible work!"

His wife pulled him aside discreetly and said, "Honey, that's not a painting - that's a mirror."

Well, we’re talking about sight today, and as someone who has worn glasses his whole life, this is a subject matter I’m familiar with. Let me be clear, though, that when I talk about lacking sight, I am not talking about the man born blind. His disability is part of the story, of course, but I don’t mean to talk about him when I talk about being near-sighted. I want us to be careful about the way we talk about people with disabilities, as if they aren’t enough without fully-functioning eyes, or legs, or intellect.

I don’t think the man born blind is even the most interesting character in the story, anyhow, so when I talk about being near-sighted, I’m talking about the Pharisees, these religious leaders, these poor saps who can’t seem to see past the hair on their own noses.

The Pharisees, of course, are frequent foils for Jesus in the Bible. He loves to argue with the Pharisees about religion just as much as I like to argue about which region of the country has the best barbecue—Memphis, of course. And the reason he loves to argue with them is that they are just so consistently near-sighted, just so consistently unable to see the forest for the trees. Here, a man’s sight has been restored and instead of joining him at the party, the Pharisees are all worried about what it means that Jesus healed him on the Sabbath, as if the holiest day of the week is only holy if you don’t show love to your neighbor.

It is silly on its face, but then the Pharisees are these kinds of folks that say, well, there are rules, I didn’t make ‘em, but there are rules, and maybe they don’t make sense, but such is the mystery of God, that you are wrong and I am right.

It is silly on its face, but it’s a common way of doing religion, of being church, to say that if we just follow these three spiritual laws and ten commandments and 613 mitzvot, the 613 laws in the Torah, if we just follow the rules we’ll find ourselves in the presence and favor of God. It’s silly, but it’s common, because it is much easier to spend your time following rules than doing the dirty, messy work of love.

And here Jesus comes and says, go wash in the pool of Siloam, which the man did despite the fact that Jesus had just rubbed mud all in his eyes, and suddenly, the man could see. Jesus did not wait until a more socially acceptable day to heal the man. He just healed him, saw the long view that healing is much more important than the rules, that the long-term is more important than the short term, that even though right this moment might feel totally unbearable, God is at work.

That doesn’t mean that God causes bad things. I wish every person who has told me that God must have wanted another angel when somebody I love died too young could read this passage, because it very clearly says that God does not cause tragedy, that God does not cause blindness or disability. It says that God works through it, but then, that takes some Gospel lenses to see, now doesn’t it? For if all you can see is that which is right in front of you, you come to the logical conclusion that the man’s blindness must have been his fault, or that of his parents, because all you can see are the black and white words on the page. But if you take the long view, you see that God is love, that God does not work this way, that God does not cause bad things but works through all things to bring about good.

It is like the driving instructor told me when I learned to drive: aim high. Look up. Don’t look down, don’t get distracted by all the noise around you. Aim high. Take the long view.

I thought about that advice just after our daughter Emmaline was born, because after the nurse cleaned her up and poked and prodded her—she did not like that, believe me—we noticed that her breathing was not quite right. Not enough to really alarm the nurses, but enough to get her whisked away to the Neonatal ICU within her first hour as a human.

I went with her, of course, and Stacey joined us after a little while, and we spent five nights there, each night thinking we were about to go home, each time only to hear the nurse say that she wasn’t ready; the baby had a breathing problem in the middle of the night, or her oxygen levels weren’t quite right, or she’d not kept down enough food.

It’s funny, you spend nearly ten months growing the thing, and as soon as she’s born, all you want to do is take her home. An extra five minutes seems like an eternity.

And eventually, we went home, and she was fine—just had to get through a condition that affects babies in the hours after being born, which she did—but its funny; those four or five days felt like forever, like we’d live in the hospital, like we’d never get home, like we would have her first birthday in that place, and her only friends would be doctors and nurses.

But, of course, that wasn’t the case. We got home. She’s fine. She was always going to be fine. Here we’d been given this incredible gift, this beautiful child, and rather than celebrate, we spent lots of energy fretting over when we were going to get to go home. But that’s how life works: when you are stuck in the middle of it, it can be hard to take the long view.

This is why I don’t think the man born blind is the most interesting character in the story. He’s just kind of a foil for the Pharisees. They are talking with a man born blind, but it is the Pharisees who do not see, who can’t see past their own noses. It is sort of a little joke that the Gospel writer throws in for us: honey, that’s not a painting. It’s a mirror.

I think it is significant that when the man born blind gets his eyesight back, the Pharisees go on the attack. Do you know anybody like that—people who respond to somebody else’s good news with unbelievable viciousness? That is how the Pharisees acted, and the thing they hold onto is the fact that Jesus broke a rule—he healed on the Sabbath, which was against the rules—and because he fell outside their understand of the rules, they said, he could not possible be from God.

Well, the poor formerly blind man doesn’t know where this guy Jesus came from; he just knows that he can see. And there is this remarkable part of the passage in which he and his parents are basically being grilled by the Pharisees, and you can almost see all three of them sitting across a steel table from the Pharisees with the mirrored glass on the one side of the room and a single flickering light bulb hanging above. And I say it is remarkable because it is the longest passage in the Gospels in which Jesus is absent. The scripture that was read in your hearing has the longest passage without Jesus being present, and it is all about the nearsighted Pharisees unable to see past their narrow understanding of religion to the incredible view right outside the window. They are so concerned with nailing Jesus that they completely ignore the miracle.

Can I bring this home a little bit? There is a spiritual sickness so prevalent that it has infected the church all over the world, and it’s called individual faith, the me-and-Jesus approach. I say that this is a sickness because if it is left untreated it can make you so nearsighted that you will miss that which is right in front of your nose. The Pharisees certainly did. The religious leaders were so stuck on the rules that they missed the miracle, and it was right there! Here they had in their presence someone who had encountered the living God, and all they could think to do was to interrogate him, question his faith, and drive him out.

We’re all a little nearsighted that way, unable to see God at work, but let me share two pieces of good news as we finish. First, while we’re all a little nearsighted, I think it is probably much more likely that you’ve found yourself in the shoes of the man born blind than in the shoes of the Pharisee. You’ve probably found yourself on the defensive more than you ought to have. Maybe you have been accused of breaking the rules. Maybe you’ve felt like you weren’t good enough, like you were born entirely in sin and without any standing to let your light shine. Everyone feels that way now and again, and I say that it is good news, because the message of this remarkable passage in the Gospel of John is that Jesus is right there with you, for he has come to support those who feel unsupported, give sight to those who can’t see past their own noses, a voice to those who feel like they have no voice. This is the good news: that Jesus came for us.

And then there is this, the second piece of good news: if you are looking for a place that errs on the side of love, that falls on the side of grace against judgment, every time, you’ve found it, for while we certainly aren’t perfect, while we don’t have it all together, this place—God’s church here at North Decatur—this is a place full of people who have found themselves standing by the side of the road, blinded by indecision, or pain, or confusion, or feelings of inadequacy, and have had their world illuminated by Jesus, who loves us despite all that. If you are looking for grace, for love, even in brokenness, maybe especially in brokenness, this is a good home base, for even when you find yourself on the side of the road, know that you aren’t alone, that you’re surrounded by all of us who have been there, too, those of us who also don’t have it all together, but who give thanks to God for the man born blind, the patron saint of those who don’t have it all together. Like this nameless saint, may we muster the courage to say, “I may not have all the answers , but one thing I do know: I once was blind and now I see.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

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