Year A, Lent 4 March 26, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.”
The long Gospel passage we just heard is about sin. It starts talking about sin and it ends talking about sin.
Being blind, physically blind, has nothing to do with sin. Not that man’s, nor his parents. In those days, blindness in particular was associated with the sins of the parents, but all maladies, all tragedies needed explanations; leaving it to fate, or “things happen,” is too open ended, too inexplicable… someone had to be blamed. So, like when Job was afflicted in the ways he was, the assumption was that there must be fault. Job must have done something to have lost God’s favor or to bring God’s wrath upon him. That’s a terrible theology of “easy” answers which doggedly persists. “God blesses you with your wealth or health!” (Meaning of course that God curses you in your poverty or illness). When you give God credit for good things happening, we would then need to give God credit for bad things happening, and that just doesn’t hold the water of common sense or the grace of God that we experience in so many ways. The rain falls on us saints as well as on us sinners.
We know that the man’s blindness is not the result of sin not only through our own experience of God’s grace, but also why? Because Jesus says that it is not. He answered the disciples’ question about sin: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…” That should clear that terrible misunderstanding up. Now He does complete that sentence with a complicated clause, saying “…he was born blind so that God’s works may be revealed in him.” I’m not sure what to make of that. That would be like saying that your Mom’s cancer or dementia happened so God could teach you something, or climate change is divine pedagogy. That’s the same slippery theological slope that leads to claiming that New Orleans was destroyed by Katrina because of gay folks, or ascribing 9-11 to retribution for lesbians and witches, claims made by prominent preachers. But this passage, and certainly this sermon, are not about Divine Providence; they are about sin.
It is a tricky story. Well, no, it is actually very simple, how everyone reacts is the tricky part. There is a man who is blind from birth and Jesus heals him. That is phenomenal! That is a miracle! The spitting and making mud, that is curious, books have been written about that, but that is not what is important, what is important is that this man was blind and now he sees. If you were there, that should have been the take home of this story. A miracle! Thanks be to God.
The story, though, the story that St. John the Evangelist would have us know is not about Jesus healing this man’s physical blindness, it is about everyone’s reaction to this miracle.
Jesus smears the mud in his eyes and tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. He returns and can see. Halle—–something-or-other! That should be the reaction to a miracle, right? His blindness forced him into poverty, into begging on the streets and then he was healed. God is great! Rejoice! He was blind and now he can see! But that’s not his neighbor’s reaction, is it? No. Everyone is wary. “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” they ask. And while some said “It is he,” others said that it wasn’t, just someone who looks like him. And he is there repeatedly saying, “I am the man.” They don’t (or won’t) recognize him. This man who was conspicuously blind from birth in a small community, on the streets, begging, is not recognized by many of his neighbors. That is curious.
This whole event is so upsetting and disruptive to the community that they take him to the Pharisees, the men minding the letter of the law, for judgement. Did they praise this as a miracle? No. They weren’t much interested in the miracle at all, they were, though, very interested in the impropriety of the one who did the miracle. They cried “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” Not all of the Pharisees were of that opinion, but they were divided and they argued.
So not only did they focus on Jesus the so-called miracle worker, but some even denied that anything had ever happened at all. They did not believe that he had been blind in the first place! They even dragged his poor parents in front of them. “Is this your son, who you say was born blind?” And his parents were so scared of the consequences of implying that Jesus had done something contrary to the vision of the world held by the authorities, they said that yes, he was their son, and yes, he had been born blind, but how he was healed??? “Ask him, he’s old enough!”
So they did, they questioned him a second time. They went back and forth, until finally, in exasperation the Pharisees just go back to the beginning, falling back on old ideas even in the face of new evidence procliming “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” and they drove him out.
It all ends with the man confessing his belief in Jesus and worshippng Him, and Jesus making one of his the last will be first, the first will be last statements, “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Now being a good radical instigator, Jesus was not preaching this just to the choir, but within earshot of the Pharisees. “Are you saying that we are blind?” they ask. And Jesus brings it back to where we began this story, with sin, but placing it where it really belongs. He tells the Pharisees, the religious authorities, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
Sin. ‘Tis the season to talk about sin, Lent. And sin abounds in this story.
One sin this story may be about is how we don’t see the downtrodden in our midst. Even though the blind man had been among them for years (“ask him, he is of age”), they did not recognize him.
We do, most of us, recognize a few of the folks out on street corners, or in specific corners of the library or at 2nd Sunday Breakfast. We might even know a few people by name. But how many people to we see? How many people in great suffering or misery do we let in enough to know? One-on-one, most of us are very uncomfortable with suffering. Our own, obviously, and to a fault. How much suffering we endure avoiding suffering! How much anxiety, how many resources do we consume to avoid any discomfort? It is astounding, really. TV is full of commercials for unwholesome food and followed by the remedy to make sure you don’t feel bad after eating it. We shrink from our own suffering as much we do the suffering of others.
We don’t recognize the suffering of others for a lot of reasons. It is traumatic. We all have terrible memories of seeing an accident, or witnessing another’s wounds or pain. It is secondary trauma. It leaves marks so we want to avoid it. Of course. But we also want to avoid recognition of suffering because it reflects directly on us. At least seven folks died on our streets in Eugene since November. That is on all of us. We did not do enough. Our community failed those people. We are part of that community. Like the that people that threw the blind man to the streets, they couldn’t welcome him right back into the community for the exact same emotional reasons we feel we can’t welcome the homeless right back into ours. Emotionally it behooves you not to recognize someone whom you have harmed so egregiously, whom you have cast into the outer darkness.
We’ve all done things that make it hard to face the one we’ve wronged. That sin, staring you in the face like this man did to his neighbors, is too often too much to bear. Or it seems that way. He was banished to a life of poverty and begging for his blindness. After he was healed what are they going to say, “Welcome, friend! Where’ve you been?” “Starving on the corner in front of your house, thank you very much.”
I remember hearing the comedian Eddie Murphy telling a story. He was walking across a parking lot somewhere and a car load of young white men shouted a racial slur at him. Then they recognized him, and said, “Wait, you’re Eddie Murphy, we love you!” If those young white men had paused for a second, they might have seen what a hypocritical, shameful thing they had done. That shame might have been constructive. Shame is a communal response to a trespass; guilt is personal, internal, shame comes from outside. And shame, being shunned until reconciliation is made, it regulates, it can be helpful sometimes. But when a whole dominant community feels shame, it is much easier, or at least it is much more likely, to behave like the people in this story. Doubt that the miracle happened. Deny that it was him to begin with. Threaten anyone who might say otherwise. Racial boundaries. Gender boundaries. Class boundaries. All boundaries between oppressor and oppressed are so hard to transcend because the dominant culture can’t hold the hypocrisy, we must make it go away. That’s why affirmative action is so controversial. Why the word reparations ends any polite conversation about race. Why wage inequity between men and women is so rarely spoken of. Why we can’t admit that our nation ever makes a mistake, or does anything wrong, or is hypociritcal. We’re outraged that the Russians may have influenced our election, yet how many elections around the world have we blatantly influenced? How many democratically elected governments have we overthrown? And as far as pandering to international forces, Bernie suffered for not pleading his case before the Israel lobby at AIPAC? We can’t handle the truth! We can, but we don’t think that we can handle the truth.
When our world view is challenged, we don’t usually react well. (And we’ve been reacting poorly for a very long time). That’s why Socrates was given hemlock to drink. That’s why Galileo was tried (and convicted) of heresy. That’s why Gandhi and King and Romero were murdered. That’s why Jesus was crucified. He said and then demonstrated, that the world was not what most thought it was. God was for everyone. The kosmokrator, the Ruler of the Universe, Caesar, was in fact less powerful than the pantokrator, the Ruler of Everything, God.
The Pharisees were much more comfortable holding on to the laws they had been taught, that gave them meaning (and authority!), and defined right and wrong in very specific ways. Anything that challenged that was threatening, first and foremost to the maintenance of their own power and position. If men were to really accept that women were full on equals, we’d have a lot of privileges to give up. Like owning the fact that last year, the average male Episcopal priest made $11,000 more than the average female Episcopal priest. (According to the paper, the U of O has some explaining to do, too). Accepting that things don’t fit into your world view is very hard to do, especially when you are the one who benefits from that world view. The sin of the status quo is amongst our most egregious. That is why we use the confession that we do, asking forgiveness for not only whatever evil we have done, but for the evil things “done on our behalf.” We might be against the wars in the Middle East, but we are glad that gas is only $2.50 a gallon.
But if the sin of clinging to the status quo is bad, the sin that Jesus ends this story with is downright mortal. He rebukes the Pharisees, saying, “But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” They are claiming to “see”, to know the truth of the matter when they decidedly did not. This is a sin of arrogance. It is a sin of certainty. It is a sin of being blind to the possibility that we might be wrong, that there might be an entirely different way to look at things. For those of us on whom the meritocracy has shone it light, this is a common and uncommonly deadly sin.
Being sure that we are right, that we know the only truth, that we know the whole story is foolish. Even more foolish is being like the Pharisees, assuming that the way you understand the world is the only valid way to understand the world. They understood the world through the Law. That is a fine starting point, but it didn’t allow for consideration of right and wrong, only allowed and prohibited. Liberalism is a world view. It is a world view that highly prioritizes the individual and individual autonomy. It is a fine world view, one to which I largely ascribe, but it is but one way. A radical Thai dissident that I worked with years ago wrote eloquently about the UN Declaration on Human Rights. He wrote on how it was very difficult to integrate because it was so based on the individual as the starting point, a liberal/Western world view, as opposed to the collective as a starting point, which is held by much more of the world. Or Simone Weil’s contention that a society should not base its existence on the rights of the individual in society, but on the obligation of the individual to that society. Not a declaration of rights but a declaration of duties. Better? Maybe, maybe not. Different. Now that is for certain. And the world right now, the chaos in Washington, the bald-faced lies batted around as valid opinions, the unfoundable accusations flying back and forth, all of it hurled with certainty, we need to be cautious in our assumptions. If we learn anything from the story of Jesus healing the blind man, it is that we must be very, very careful before we claim certainty about anything. AMEN.