Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 3, 2011

2011.04.03 “Questions Along the Way” – John 9: 1 – 41 – “Fearless: The Courage to Question” Series, Lent 2011

Central United Methodist Church

“Questions Along the Way”

Pastor David L. Haley

John 9: 1 – 41

April 3rd, 2011

Jesus then said, “I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind.” – John 9: 39, The Message

 

     In every city in the world you see them, in the subways, along the sidewalks: beggars, the homeless, people with disabilities and injuries. Most of the time we try not to make eye contact, because if we do, we have to look them in the eye and walk by, because most of the time, we are not going to give them anything. 

      In foreign travel, it’s worse. The blind, the legless, people badly burned, women with children, tapping on the car window where you are a captive audience. It can be intimidating.

      Even if you don’t give, seeing their condition, you wonder what happened? That man with deformities, was he born that way, has he been a beggar all his life? That man without a leg, how did he lose it? That woman, face down in prostrate begging position, is she that bad off, to beg that way hours on end?  That blind man, can he see me, hear me, as I walk by, giving nothing?  Would it be better to put change in his cup, that makes a noise, rather than a paper dollar, that makes none?

      The question is, what do we do, when human need is connected to a human face, and we have to look into it? Do we turn away, and forget, if we can? Do we debate the root causes of homelessness and poverty? Do we question why we even profess a loving and powerful God, when evil and suffering confront us in various forms daily?

      It’s not a new question. It happened to Jesus and his disciples as they walked along their way.  There was this blind man, known among his family, friends, and community as “the man born blind.”  Did he have a name?  Did anyone remember?

As they passed, Jesus’ disciples were struck by his plight and asked, “What’s up with that?”  Reflecting a moral theory of their time, the causal connection between sin and suffering, they saw the man as a theological question, and asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”

I like Jesus’ answer, especially as Eugene Peterson translates it:

“You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.” (John 9: 3 – 5, The Message)

In other words, Jesus said, “This is not a problem to be discussed, but a person to be cared for.” Put away your theologian’s pipe, your philosopher’s hat, roll up your sleeves, get to work, and let’s see what good God can bring out of it. 

      There is a place for theology and philosophy, for Bible study and prayer, to attempt to understand how the world works, and to seek to be a better Christian. But the best way to practice the religion of Jesus is to suspend thinking, talking, and debating, and roll up our sleeves and get to work. Instead of looking for someone to blame, let’s look instead for what God can do — what we can do.  Someone has put it like this:

      “Past the seeker as he prayed came the crippled and the beggar and the beaten.  And seeing them, the seeker cried, “Great God, how is it that a loving creator can see such things and yet do nothing about them?”  God said, “I did do something.  I made you.” 

      As if to reinforce this point, Jesus did something: he gave the blind man sight, in a most unusual way. He spit in the dust, made mud, and put it on the blind man’s eyes. (Kids, don’t try this at home.) Imagine the poor blind man walking from where he was to the pool of Siloam, now not only blind, but with mud in his eyes.  Do you think anyone said, “Here’s mud in your eye.”  Some say that phrase comes from this story. 

      And what happens next?  When he did what Jesus said, as strange as it was, the blind man saw.

      But as amazing as that was, that’s not all this story is about. It’s about what happened next, the controversy which followed the blind man’s healing.  The story of the blind’s man healing takes 2 verses; the controversy which followed takes 39 verses.   

      It’s a great story, one of the best in the New Testament. Scenes are smoothly connected; characters unfold before our eyes; questions are answered in a timely fashion; and above all, the dialogue, ironic at almost every point, unveils the satire of a blind man who comes to see, only to see people who prove themselves blind. The words for blindness, sight, and seeing crop up 24 times in this forty-one verse story. The entire story is an enacted parable of Jesus as the Light of the World, who, while enlightening some, proves blinding to others.

      And it plays out in the fate of the man born blind. It’s been said that when somebody gets sick, the whole family suffers.  In this story, when the blind man gets well, the whole family . . . suffers.  Or as the saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

      People take note, and soon the whole town is buzzing; no longer does the blind man blend into the woodwork. The dialogue among neighbors, friends, and even relatives indicates how little attention they paid to him previously: “Wait, is that the blind man?”  “Yeah, I think so, it looks like him.”  No, I don’t think it’s him, just somebody that looks like him.”  Which is to say, I don’t really remember what he looked like, because – to tell the truth – I never paid attention.

      One night at Epworth United Methodist Church in Uptown, thieves stole a painting off the wall. In the morning, the police were called and came to write a report. The first thing they asked was, “What was the painting?” Nobody could remember. Sadly, people can become like that. Whether it’s people on the street such as beggars or the people who serve us at McDonald’s: what happens is that we don’t really look at them, we don’t look into their faces or learn their names, and they become just another character in the script of our lives, as this man born blind had become to many.

      Baffled, they drag him off to the Pharisees for questioning.  They too are mystified, disbelieving, so they go to question his parents. Intimidated, worried that the actions of their son will get them thrown out of the synagogue along with him, they refer the Pharisees back to the blind man. Finding him insulting, they call him “Nothing but dirt,” and throw him out of the synagogue. For being healed.

      It reminds me of the story about the woman who came to church, who, as the service progressed, became to respond, by saying, “Amen” and “Hallelujah!”  An usher approached and asked her to be quiet. “But I’ve got religion!” said the woman. “Well, you didn’t get it here,” said the usher.

      You should know the background of the story, which is the animosity which developed between Christians and Jews in the late first century. Out of these tensions, Christians were kicked out of synagogues. To get kicked out of a synagogue was to be cut off, to be separated from your community of faith, your social networks, your friends, and perhaps even your family. Like the blind man, despite their newfound “sight”, Christians to whom this happened often felt lonely and isolated. The message of John, chapter 9, was clear: even if that happens – Jesus the Good Shepherd – has a place for you, even as he did for this man born blind.

      The other message of the story, while consoling to some, is challenging to others: those who think they see, don’t. Those who are certain they are right, may not be.

      In truth, the Pharisees were the best of their day. Of all the religious parties in Jesus’ time, Jesus was closer to them than any other group, which may explain why in the Gospels – Jesus is so harsh to them; they should have known better.  The point made is clear: if they could miss seeing what was right before them, where does that leave us?

      All of us have known — or know — people who are blind:  not literally, but to something right in front of their faces.  It might be a blindness to something affecting their health, like smoking or overeating or addiction.  It might be a blindness to something emotionally obvious, like the waywardness of a child, or a relationship that is codependent or abusive. It might be a blindness to something that is seriously hurting the person and those around them, but they don’t see it.

      Though we may not always be aware of it, the assumption that we alone are right, especially in regard to religion, can be a form of blindness which has consequences, including serious ones we never intend. Unfortunately, it seems we never have to look very far to find an illustration. 

      This week’s best illustration might be the Rev. Terry Jones, pastor of the 50-member Dove World Outreach Center in Gainsville, Florida.  Over the last year, Pastor Jones and members of his small congregation have been threatening to burn Korans, the holy book of Muslims, and have received worldwide media attention because of it. He was finally dissuaded from that mass burning only by phone calls from General David Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who assured him it would lead to violence and cost lives, including the lives of American troops.  Despite that, on March 20, at Pastor Jones’ church they held a trial of the Koran, condemned it for crimes against humanity, and burned a single copy. This week, in response to the burning of that Koran, there have been violent protests in Afghanistan. In the last two days alone, 21 people have died, and scores more injured. In an interview with Agence France-Presse on Friday, Mr. Jones said that he was “devastated” by the killings, but then added, “We don’t feel responsible for that,” and called for retribution.  Sometimes it seems the blind outnumber those who see.

      Today, when political and religious viewpoints seem set in cement, when civility and toleration are the exception rather than the rule, it would be good for all of us to consider what the Lord Protector of England in the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell, once wrote to the Presbyterians of Scotland: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ think it possible that you might be mistaken.”  It’s too bad someone didn’t say that to him, before he cut off the head of King Charles I and committed genocide upon the Irish people.

      Which brings us to the final, most disturbing point of all: the possibility that we too, may be blind to something right in front of us. Likely, most of us, as we read this story, identify with the blind man. “This one thing I know, I once was blind, but now I see.”  At our best, we may identify with Jesus, who saw the man not as a problem, but as a person to care for. The humbling truth is, we are also sometimes the Pharisees, who can’t see the truth even if it’s standing right in front of them

      Let us pray that like the blind man, our transformation by this same Jesus will be the notable truth of our lives. This week, as last, I end with the words of Anna Carter Florence:

      “So let description of the before and after be the thing.  Once I saw the world like this; now I see it like this.  Once I believed this; now I believe this. Once I lived in a place that I now see was blind to certain things. Now my eyes are opened, and here is what I see and know! These are the stories the church needs to hear.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, p.121)

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