Sermon for Sunday March 2, 2014 (Narrative Lectionary)
“Human beings must be known to be loved; but Divine beings must be loved to be known.” ~Blaise Pascal
We read John 9:1-41 the story of the Man Born Blind with the refrain, Open our eyes Lord, We want to see Jesus… you should read the whole story of this man born blind and sing a song about seeing Jesus.
Sermon: What do you know?
In our tradition, this is what we call Transfiguration Sunday… in our other three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke there is a story of Jesus taking three of his closest friends and disciples and climbing to the top of high mountain to pray, while they are there Jesus’ face is transfigured (or changed) – and he shines like the sun, so brilliantly it blinds the disciples…
(Not surprisingly) John doesn’t offer us this traditional transfiguration story. There’s no mountain top or blinding light or God’s voice speaking from the clouds… instead, there is a man, born blind, there is spit and dirt and mud packed on eyes… and there is a transfiguration… yes, there is an alteration but instead of Jesus, it is the man who is forever changed…
I say changed and not healed for a reason… I say changed and not restored… because it’s important that we tune in at the very start of this story and hear some key things about these characters…
Jesus has just left the temple… where he’s been arguing and almost arrested by the authorities for making bold claims about himself, for siding with sinners and for performing miracles… or as we know John loves to call them, signs, on the Sabbath… Jesus is with his disciples and they encounter this man… a man born blind who sits by the temple gates begging… he is not alone in the world, he has a family – parents – who are later called upon to testify but in the social order and religious beliefs of this time blindness such as his was considered a blemish – evidence that someone has done something terribly wrong. So engrained was this belief that when the disciples see him, they don’t pause for a moment to wonder if he’d done something wrong but instead asked the question “Who has sinned? This man, or his parents?”
And Jesus says something radical… something so difficult for us to hear, so hard for us to believe, so very different from everything his culture and ours tells us over and over again… Jesus says, Nothing. Neither this man nor his parents have done a thing to earn this. They haven’t sinned, they haven’t made God angry, this isn’t punishment or shame or castigation.
How many times have you heard the voices in the crowd, on the news, in your own communities, even in your own heads, that heap on the shame… this pain, this difficulty, this difference… it must be punishment. Or it’s the refrain that pops into our head (unbid) when we encounter brokenness, difference or suffering in another… This one of oldest and most harmful stories we tell about God.
There are so many voices… in Jesus’ time, in the generation the Gospel of John was first written for and in our own time, that declare God’s wrathful judgment where it isn’t. There are voices that claim that every disaster and illness even our differences – whether physical or biological, if something sets us apart it must be our punishment. Voices that shame parents of difficult or differently-abled children, voices that claim that God is only interested in loving whom society deems perfect… and yet here is a radical notion. The man who was born blind was just fine… In fact more than fine. The problem wasn’t him, but the community that defined him. Jesus said so. He was perfect – the perfect vessel, the perfect disciple, the perfect teacher to partner with Jesus in a story that would transfigure our understanding of who truly sees… and who is truly blind.
Let’s trace this unfolding scene for just a moment… the man born blind gets progressively more aware as the story unfolds… receiving sight is the signal or catalyst of the change… but he comes to understand… to know who Jesus is gradually as the story unfolds… first his neighbors don’t even recognize him… which seems strange doesn’t it? Another failure to see who and what is right in front of them… at first the man simply describes Jesus as the “man called Jesus”… then when the authorities question him, he realizes Jesus must be a prophet and tells them so… when questioned a second time he asks if others want to become Jesus’ disciple as well… and insists Jesus must come from God… how else could he wield such power?
My favorite part of this whole story is the man doesn’t actually see Jesus with his own eyes until the very end of the story… remember he went away from Jesus with mud covering his eyes… and yet he came to know who Jesus was, what wisdom and power he held… through his actions… through his words… through his touch before he ever laid eyes on him. Jesus comes to him after he is thrown out of the temple and has to introduce himself… “you are speaking to him.” Says Jesus. By then the man has already come to know and love Jesus, and so when he sees him, he worships him.
The opposite happens to the Pharisees (religious authorities) doesn’t it? They can see Jesus from the start… and they can see the blind man… and they can see the way the world works… bad things happen to bad people… and physical differences are blemishes, and people who experience loss or suffering or pain have deserved it. Messiah’s don’t come from working families in Galilee. Messiah’s are royal and untouchable… you don’t know their mothers and brothers… God doesn’t work through ordinary people; and certainly not poor ones. God only lives inside the temple not outside laying around the gates… and miracles don’t happen on the Sabbath.
The authorities were afraid, and fear always stands in the way of vision. They don’t have a vision for the world working any way but the way they’ve always known, and so they eliminate the possibility of God standing right there in front of them… they cannot see the truth… they can’t even imagine it. They have physical sight but no vision… they have shame but no grace, they have a rulebook but have forgotten whom it’s pointing to and worship the rules instead.
Does your fear ever cloud your vision?
Has God ever stood right in front of you but you couldn’t see?
What gets in your way of knowing this God?
What is the difference between what we see and what we know?
When the religious authorities question the man and his parents, insisting that some one has to be a sinner in this story… there must always be a bad guy mustn’t there? I love that in that moment he doesn’t even care if Jesus is a sinner or a saint…
The man answered, “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. Here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I see.” (John 9:25)
Here’s what I know… what a great way of understanding how we come to know God. Here’s what I know. Here’s my lived experience. For the blind man it goes like this: I was blind and now I see.
What do you know?
What is your lived experiences of God?
Of life or love, of fear or doubt?
When has someone stopped and seen you? Really seen you?
Jesus spits in the dirt and makes mud and smears it all over this man’s face. This is an intimate and embodied act… have you ever had an experience like that?
Has anyone ever looked at your wounds, or the parts of you the world’s voice, or even your own voice, has declared broken and shameful or a sign of weakness and called it a strength? Have you ever come to know someone so well that you recognize them with out having to lay eyes on them? You know them by their words and deeds…
This is the invitation John extends to every seeker… come and get to know this man called Jesus… this prophet, this one who comes from God, who embodies light in the most unexpected places… come and know him, not by looking but by living… set aside your assumptions and shame and come to know him… encounter him in the generosity of the poor, in the stories of those born blind, or different, seek him out in the life of the ones you thought at first glance were the powerless… seek him out in your own life.
I think there is a reason this story doesn’t often win out in the public discourse we have about religion and faith… for all the grief I give these “religious authorities” I also understand them. I understand the need to have an answer… even a terrible answer can quiet our fears a bit better than no answer. And there are times God feels downright unknowable aren’t there?
Jesus never does get to the question of the man’s blindness – there is no explanation. I was blind and now I see… and that’s enough for the man for now. There so many things in our lived experiences we’d like an answer for. We live a lot of our lives like these Pharisees trying to make logical sense of why the world works like it does… why bad things happen, why people suffer, why it feels at times as if God is very far away. And if we think we have an answer, boy do we cling to it, don’t we?
But we also know there are no simple answers. This is the complex story of what it means to be a people of faith… we draw close to God and move far away and then circle back again. We find community and build families and relationships and at times we stretch them and even break them, and we learn to mend and rebuild and remake them. We are transfigured by our faith over and over again and there is cadence to our lives… a desire to know and be known by God… to see and be seen by Jesus, to love and be loved by one another.
And so we come to know by doing. We come to know the love of God because we enact it here – in this place, in our prayers and when we come to the table and when we go out into the world. We enact it in our lives as we reflect and refract and carry the light of Christ for one another. We take turns leading and following and leaning on the one who seems to have the clearest vision in each moment – depending on one another’s imaginations and trusting God to keep revealing God’s self in our midst. Amen.