Friday, March 28, 2014

“The Landscape of Lent: Mud” - March 30, 2014

Text: John 9:1-34

Jesus and the disciples are traveling when they notice a blind man – apparently someone known in the community and to the disciples, because they know that he has been blind from birth.  Upon seeing the man, the disciples ask Jesus what seems to be a strange question.  Who sinned?

What kind of question is that?  You see a blind person and the question is, “Who sinned?”  Well, in that day the question actually made sense.  It was commonly accepted that those who suffer do so because of sin.  That was not really in question.  The question was, whose sin?  Since the man was blind from birth, was his blindness because of his parents’ sin, or was he some sort of pre-natal sinner who right from the start was a flawed person?

While these may seem like strange questions, we might want to pause before criticizing too much, because we are prone to playing the same game.  In our own way, we maintain the suffering-sin connection that they had in Jesus’ day.  Just mention that someone has a disease like AIDS and some folks will feel that the disease was probably deserved because of sinful behavior.  With diabetes or lung cancer or heart disease, there is a certain amount of sentiment that not only did behavior and lifestyle cause the disease, but that because of that, the suffering is in a sense at least partly deserved.  We are not as different as you might think from the folks in Jesus’ day.

And then we wrestle with how responsible parents are for the behavior of children.  Some argue that it is up to the parents to raise their children properly and instill the right values, so if children act up, it is at least partly the parents’ fault and they should be held responsible.  And indeed in some places, there are laws that hold parents responsible for crimes committed by their children.

Others argue that while parents obviously have a lot to do with the way their children turn out, as a parent you can do all the right things and a child can still have problems and get into trouble.  In our 21st century way, we are still having this same conversation they had in the first century.

A few years ago Jerry Farrell had a teenaged son who threw a beer party.  Since he was underaged, the boy and his friends broke the law.  But the police didn’t arrest just the teens.  They went after Jerry too.  He was arrested, fingerprinted, and charged.

Farrell was shocked.  “I hadn’t done anything wrong,” he complained.  “I didn’t even know [my son] had friends over.”

Lack of knowledge of the drinking didn’t get Farrell off.  Under a parental responsibility law in Arlington Heights, Illinois, whether or not a parent knows his or her child broke a law doesn’t matter.  The parent is held accountable.

A man is born blind.  “Who sinned?” Jesus is asked.  “Who is at fault here?”  Again, this is an awful lot like the 21st century.  Whenever anything goes even slightly wrong, the big question is, “Who is at fault?”

But Jesus says that to ask questions such as these is to get sidetracked.  “Who sinned?” is the wrong question.   Whether this man was blind because of his sin or his parents’ was the wrong question.  The answer to who sinned is, neither.  Jesus says, "He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  What mattered was that here was a child of God, and Jesus could help him to see.  So often we focus on incidental matters and ignore what matters most.  Jesus is not into blame, he is into possibility.  Jesus is not about heaping on guilt, he is about healing. 

And so instead of speculating or theologizing about why this man was born blind or who was responsible for the condition he was in, Jesus acted.  He healed him.

And I loved the way he did it.  I have to say that this story of Jesus spitting on the ground, making some mud, and rubbing it on the guy’s eyes, is just an awesome story.

Some Christian traditions use a tangible, physical act in prayer by anointing a person with oil when praying for their healing – you can find encouragement to do that in James chapter 5.  I have attended healing services, even Baptist healing services, in which those who would like prayer for healing have oil anointed on their forehead and someone prays with them.  It’s not that common in our tradition, but it’s not unheard of.

Well, it would be just as Biblical to spit in the dirt and then rub it on the person with an injury or illness, and we would have the added bonus that his is something that Jesus himself did.  Instead of holy oil or holy water, we could have Holy Mud, but for whatever reason I have never heard of anybody doing that. 

It sounds really weird, but it may help to understand what Jesus did in the context of the day.  It was believed that there was healing power in saliva, especially from a righteous person.  So Jesus used one of the accepted methods of the day to build expectation and as a symbol of the healing that was to happen.  He told the man to wash in the pool of Siloam.  And the man came back able to see.

It was an amazing story.  A man blind from birth is healed.  John saw this as a sign of Jesus’ messiahship.  We would expect people to rejoice.  We would expect celebration.  But that’s not what happened.  His neighbors couldn’t believe it was the same person.  “Yeah, he looks like Joe and he talks like Joe, but it can’t be him, because Joe is blind.”  For his part, the man kept insisting that it was really him--he had been healed.  They asked how it had happened, and he said, “Well, this man Jesus made mud and put it on my eyes and told me to go wash.”  They asked where Jesus was, and he told them that he didn’t know.

Well, this was serious, so they brought him to the Pharisees, the religious authorities.  And they were not only doubtful, they were upset because this had all taken place on the Sabbath.  As it turns out, Jesus had broken the Sabbath law.  Twice, at least.  First, he had worked on the Sabbath by making mud.  And then, he had healed on the Sabbath.  On the Sabbath, medical attention could only be given in case a life was in danger.

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man cannot be of God because he breaks the Sabbath.”  Others said, “How could a sinner perform such signs?” 

There were questions about Jesus’ background and qualifications, and the Pharisees thought it best to do a little digging, a little investigating.  You know, people are not always who they say they are.  This was clearly the case with Jesus, they thought.

Maybe you heard the story this past week about college basketball coach Steve Masiello.  Only 36 years old, the former Louisville assistant had done a good job at Manhattan and had agreed to go to South Florida as their new coach for around $1 million a year.  (It’s good work if you can find it.)  But when South Florida did a routine background check, it turned out that while Masiello lists a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky on his resume, he had never actually graduated.  Now he has lost out on the new job and may well lose his old job.

The Pharisees look at Jesus’ resume and assume that something funny is going on.  They asked the man who was purportedly healed.  “Who is this Jesus?” they ask.  “What do you say?”  He told them that he thought Jesus was a prophet.

A prophet, he said.  Well, this was obviously going nowhere so they called in the man’s parents.  They gave an honest answer.  They said, yes, he is our son, yes, he has been blind from birth, but no, we don’t know how he now sees or who did this.  They were careful not to say anything about Jesus because apparently they could be drummed out of the synagogue if they spoke too highly of him.  So they said, “Our son is a big boy, he’s a grownup, he’s of age, why don’t you ask him?”

So once again they called in the man who had been blind.  Speaking of Jesus, they said, “We know this man is a sinner.”  He said, “I do not know if he is a sinner—but one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I can see.”

“I once was blind, but now I see.”  I love that response.  He doesn’t argue, he doesn’t theologize, he doesn’t try to assign motivation or cause or get into some big explanation of the mechanics of how it all happened.  He doesn’t agree or disagree with the Pharisees; he doesn’t take sides.  He simply shares his own experience - which is a great model for how we are to bear witness to our faith.  “I once was blind, but now I see.”  When we share with others about our faith, this is really the way to do it – not by making big, sweeping, theological claims but simply sharing our own experience.

The man born blind does not try to explain how it had taken place or what it might mean.  “I don’t know if he is a sinner,” he says.  “Al I know is, I once was blind but now I see.”

But this is not the kind of answer the Pharisees were looking for.  How did it happen?  What did Jesus do?

And then comes maybe the best part of the story.  The man who had been blind said, “I’ve already told you, but you won’t listen.  Why do you keep asking?  Do you want to be his disciples too?”

That did not  go over well with the Pharisees.  But he went on, and this beggar, this man who had been blind, winds up teaching the Pharisees.  He said, “Here is an astonishing thing--you don’t know where he comes from, but just look at what he does.  God does not listen to sinners, but to those who obey God’s will.  Apart from God, this man could do nothing.”

That was it.  “You were born entirely in your sins,” the Pharisees said – they were not averse to name calling – “and now you are trying to teach us.  Get out of here!”  This man had been healed, but instead of celebrating with him, the Pharisees grilled him and then ran him off.

This story is about blindness and sight, but it is not so much about physical sight.  Seeing is really a metaphor for understanding.  As we read the story, it is clear that the one who was blind can see clearly--not only with physical eyes, but he can see spiritually.  He has understanding.  He describes Jesus as a man first, then as a prophet, and then he is called a disciple.  Meanwhile the Pharisees, who have everything figured out, turn out to be the ones who are really blind – they are without understanding.  God is clearly at work, and they cannot even recognize it.

The renowned artist Paul Gustav Doré once lost his passport while traveling in Europe.  When he came to a border crossing, he explained his predicament to one of the border guards.  He hoped he would be recognized and allowed to pass.  The guard said sorry, people try this all the time.

Doré insisted he was who he claimed to be.  The guard said, all right, we'll give you a test, and if you pass it we will allow you to go through.  Doré was given a pencil and paper and asked to sketch people standing nearby.  He did it so quickly and skillfully that the guard was convinced.  His work proved who he was.

Jesus’ work in healing the man who was blind and that man’s testimony should have allowed the Pharisees to see that he was from God.  But they simply would not or could not see. They were the ones who were really blind.

The story is about this man and the Pharisees, but it is about more than that.  It is really about us.  It is really an invitation to examine our own lives and to ask if we have blind spots.  Are we really paying attention, are we really open to the work of God?

Timothy Haut, a pastor in Connecticut, wrote a beautiful poem about really seeing:

Once I saw a bird
But I did not see
A soaring, feathered song
Rose-breasted and alive,
Rejoicing at the dawn.
Once I saw a tree,
But I did not see
A billion green cells
Devouring the golden sunlight
As they quiver in leafy splendor,
Reaching toward heaven’s brightness.
Once I saw a face pass by,
But I did not see
A holy child, brave, unfettered,
The eyes seeking loveliness and love,
The sweet lips that have kissed away hurt--
The lips that speak my name--
The lines of weariness, etched by sorrow,
Wrinkling when you smile.
I did not see you,
Nor any of this world’s wonders,
Until you touched my eyes,
Opened my senseless heart.
I was blind but now I see.
This morning, most of us could stand to have our spiritual eyes opened a little wider.  To keep with the metaphor, maybe we need to have the mud washed away.  We might choose to look for the good, look for the beautiful, look for God at work around us.  We might choose to look for the possibilities and potential and gifts that are in others – and in ourselves.  We might be open to the possibility that God is doing a new thing. 

We might choose not to get caught up in pursuing those things that are not truly essential, but to focus on what really matters.  The man was asked a lot of questions, confronted with a lot of speculation.  For his part, he knew what was important.  “All I know is this: I once was blind, but now I see.”  Amen.

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