Nor crushing, but lifting
Passage: John 9:1-41
Date: March 02, 2008
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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Who taught you how to spit? Did your dad? Did he have the skill to expectorate through the little hole between his front teeth? My dad did not teach me, I suspect as much as anything because my mom thought spitting was vulgar, and dirty. Only certain kinds of people spit. Mostly, it is a guy thing. There are some pretty wealthy people in our society who spit, and get away with it of course. We call them baseball players. Today's gospel reading is about spit and sin and surprise and seeing--a great tense, confrontational, puzzling, faith-full story. Like last week's story of the Samaritan woman at the well, today's is lengthy. You might want to follow along. In a sense, it begs a readers' theater. Like last week's, the central character is an outcast, an expendable of society, one with no honor status. A word about eyes and blindness. In the ancient world, human eyes were understood to emit light, not receive it. They reflected the light or darkness of one's inner being. A person blind was viewed as being totally dark inside, a potential threat and thus one to avoid. I invite you to listen to this multi-scene wonderful encounter. Pray: Gracious God, open our eyes to see and our hearts to receive your disturbing and affirming word this day, in Jesus Christ, our light and our salvation. Amen. (Read)
How many years had the blind man, nameless, planted himself there on that corner? He had no honor-- dirty, hand outstretched, those horrible dark eyes. They forced him outside the city at night, along with all of the other wretched ones. But, as soon as the gates opened, he felt his way back inside, to his place. Judged, condemned-that is how he felt. People treated him that way. A few threw nearly worthless copper coins at him. He heard them hit the rough pavement. His hands immediately, desperately searched. Season after season, year after year, they walked by without seeing. He was just "the blind man."
So, when Jesus gave him sight, townsfolk disagreed about who he was. They had become so accustomed to not seeing him that when they encountered him able to see, some did not recognize him. Maybe they had never looked into his face-the dark eyes, you know. In their minds, his condition defined who he was: someone unlike themselves. Thinking of him as other was far easier than considering the fact that he might have feelings, that he probably desired to love and be loved, that his ostracism was excruciating and certainly life-threatening. Not to imagine him as a whole human being, part of their community, made their lives easier, less complicated. Simply, he was no one like themselves. He was "the blind man." Crushing, exclusionary for him, safe for them.
But he knew who he was, even when they disagreed. "I am the man," he kept saying. Only now he could see their responses. No longer blind meant to be given life, to be restored to community-to meaning, to future, to hope. We cannot imagine his shock, nor his parents'. Jesus had noticed him. Against his cultural mores, against his religious tradition, Jesus looked at him with holy valuing. Jesus saw in him someone made in the image of God, not just "the blind man."
More than a decade ago, a wonderful young lawyer in this congregation asked if he could have lunch with me. As we ate, he told me that he had AIDS. He wanted me to know, but he did not want anyone else to know. He desired to stay in relationship, to have people see him as a whole person, and not as that man with AIDS, thus reducing him to one with a dread disease. Perhaps it is one of our ways of coping with life, but we tend to do that. "He is developmentally challenged;" "She is ADD;" "He has cancer;" "She is mentally ill;" "He is an ex-con." Categories which help us understand, and at times reduce the other to a single dimension, less than fully human, less like us, or at least less like we want to see ourselves.
The "blind man" not only carried the physical disability and all the horror that went with it. He also bore the burden of that society's belief that somehow his condition was punishment for sin. How could he begin to know the nature of that sin? Because he was blind from birth, some at that time even blamed how he was on the sin of his parents. Imagine what a huge dishonor it would have been to an extended family to have born into it one unable to see. Surely they would have wanted to have that person out of sight, out of mind.
But, Jesus would have none of that horrible understanding of God. Did you hear that? (Repeat) Directly repudiating the disciples' cozy belief, Jesus proclaimed no connection between the man's disability or illness and punishment for sin. No connection. "Neither this man nor his parents sinned." Moreover, God did not make the man blind in order for Jesus to show off God's power. Most translations imply that. I don't know about you, but I have always been bothered when the end of verse 3 says, "he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." Like a nasty trick, God setting up this man in horrific suffering so Jesus can show off God's power. Dr. Tom Troeger says that "there is another way to translate the Greek. It goes like this: ‘But that God's power might be seen at work in him, we must keep on doing the works of him who sent me." (Ten Strategies for Preaching in a Multi-media Culture, p. 114) More than a punctuation change, a whole new understanding emerges. Jesus did not blame anyone for the man's condition or say it is somehow a tool for God's glory. He did not try to solve this blindness mystery with some easy, theologically pacifying answer that makes people feel better, at least the healthy ones. Even for Jesus, an answer to why certain things happen to people did not exist. Rather, he changed the conversation, moving it to our privilege of doing the life-giving works of God. Then he did that spitting thing in the dirt, made some mud, spread it on the man's eyes, and told him to find his way to a certain city water source and wash his face. In the process, the man gained sight for the first time in his life. How unnerving, wonderful, terrifying, exciting that would be. Jesus' word and deed make it clear: Ours is to keep on healing, supporting, nurturing, lifting, embracing, because that is in the nature of God, the one who sent Jesus.
Dr. Roy Fairchild, one of my favorite seminary professors, once said, "Christians grow spiritually when we move from asking ‘why?' to asking ‘what now?'" After we learned that my wife's cancer had returned, we both cried and we were afraid, and we prayed. Yet, during the next three years, she very rarely asked "why" and "what did I do to deserve this?" She and we were given a wonderful gift not to need to go there. Instead she and we were empowered to ask, "What now?" "How does God want us to be faithful in this part of our lives?" Of course we argued with God about it. Of course we wanted it to be different. But in the midst of it all, at our best we tried to be open to any gifts, holy gifts, healing gifts. And there were so many. I know others in similar circumstances who testify to this same grace.
Friends, there is tremendous good news here in Christ Jesus. We can rightly pray that God will free anyone from the terrible burden of believing that God is punishing them or those they love with an illness or disability. We can also pray for the healing of those who teach such cruel belief. And we can rejoice that in Jesus Christ, we are not defined or valued simply by our physical condition. God knows us by name. Regardless of our condition, God in Christ sees us, embraces us, lifts us up. Made in God's image, in life and in death, we belong to God. How fabulous! Thanks be to God!