Tuesday, May 20, 2014

“Who Sinned?” Lent 4A (March 30, 2014)

Psalm 23
God is my shepherd, I lack nothing. God makes me lie down in green pastures, and leads me beside quiet waters, and refreshes my soul. The Holy One guides me along the right paths for God’s name’s sake. Even though I walk  through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of my God forever.

John 9:1-5 
As Jesus went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of the One who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.  “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
His neighbours and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?”  Some claimed that he was.
Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”
But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”
“How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.
He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”
“Where is this man?” they asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said.
They brought to the religious leaders the man who had been blind.  Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath.  Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”
Some of the leaders said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.
Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”
The man replied, “He is a prophet.”
They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents.  “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”
“We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”
He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”
Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”
Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”
The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but only  to the godly person who does God’s will.  Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.
Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Human One?”
“Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”
Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”
Then the man said, “Teacher, I believe,” and he worshiped him.
Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
Some religious leaders who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”
Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

Will you pray with and for me? You who are, give us grace in this moment to be open in heart, mind and spirit to your word for us today. May all that we do be an expression of your love for us, shared with the world around us. In all your names, amen.

Some of our scripture readings are short but have a lot of meaning packed into them—others are long with one or two kernels. And some are long with a lot to say. This is one of those.

It’s been interpreted and preached on in many ways—blindness as spiritual blindness, drawing parallels between the man who was healed of physical blindness and those who are spiritually blind; or, with another focus, on Jesus as the light of God, so that even people who are visually impaired can recognise him; or yet again, the lack of ability to see and understand on the part of the religious leaders is contrasted with the trust and confidence of the man who was blind.

One very important thing to bear in mind is that this man was very lucky to have survived to adulthood, to have parents who cared for him.  In that day and age, disabilities, whether physical or mental, meant either a short life or a very limited one—in a time without antibiotics, wheelchairs, Braille, most corrective surgeries, prescription glasses or hearing aids, work and therefore participation in society was pretty much impossible.  So living with a disability was viewed as a curse from God, or the result of something the person or her ancestors had done.  And then there is the future--this man’s parents were helping him, but what would he do when they died? It is pretty bleak, but it is the truth.

In these days, we know better, right? We are more aware of the role that genetics and the mother’s nutrition and health care play, the importance of good medical care; we understand about medical errors, and the things that modern medicine cannot cure, or sometimes even treat.  We know that these are not the “fault” of the individual-- they happen, period.  Disabilities, of whatever kind, are not God’s will.

An advocate for physically disabled people pointed out that those of us who think of ourselves as “abled” are only temporarily so.  If I lose my contacts, I am effectively visually impaired—without my contacts or glasses, I can navigate my apartment, but I cannot drive, and even reading the directions on a soup label is a challenge. During my cancer treatment, I tired easily; I was no longer as mobile as I had been. Ask anyone who has been on crutches for a broken leg how difficult it is to climb stairs. If nothing else, we will all grow older, and become less mobile, more likely to fall, more susceptible to illness; our eyesight or hearing may begin to deteriorate, too. In another time and place, many of us here would not be here—the resources available to us in a modern Western nation mean that we can survive heart attacks, strokes, and cancer; that we have technologies and services available to allow us to live fairly comfortably.

The reality, then, is that in one way or another, we all are, or will be, or were in the past, living with a disability or disabilities.  We are all in this together, and so the focus should be on acceptance and mutual support , rather than trying to “fix” people, whether we are talking about depression, a broken leg, or visual impairment. 

“Fixing” people doesn’t really work; not only can we not do so, but even when a person is treated and cured—as the man was in this reading—that does not mean a person is healed. Cure means whatever it is, is gone and will not be back—but how often does that really happen? Cancer can always recur, a broken bone is more likely to break again than one that has not; the flu or a cold is likely to happen to people over and over. Healing, on the other hand, takes the illness or pain or difficulty, and makes something more of it—healing occurs when the person understands what has happened and how to grow from it, internalises the lesson.  Many people are cured of illnesses without being healed.

The man who was born blind was cured—he could see again—but more than that, he was healed, because he stood steadfast in understanding that God had brought about the cure and that Jesus was the one who brought it about.  He kept that understanding of Jesus and would not let go of it. Even if he lost his sight again the next day, he understood who Jesus was, and no one could take that away from him.

Healing is not cure—not everything can be cured. But with God’s grace, everything can be healed. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is with us, even in the midst of the dark valleys of our lives—not to cure everything, but to walk with us through that fear, pain, confusion, and hurt.

So the religious authorities believe that either this man or his parents committed some terrible sin, and that is why he was born visually impaired.  Well, let’s talk about that a minute.

Sin is a very loaded word. It has been hurled at so many people for so many things, it is both overloaded with meaning and trite at the same time. Through history, everything from murder to clothing styles that violate the norms of a society to relationships that make others uncomfortable to tattoos to swearing to reading or playing cards on Sunday have been called sins. That very overuse has meant that the idea of sin has become diluted—if so many things are sinful, how we avoid it? And at the same time, because it has been used towards so many of us for so many different reasons, it is still a word that makes us flinch, even if we do not believe that we are sinful or sinners.

Sin is, essentially, separation from God. Whatever we do that does not contribute to bringing about God’s realm, whatever keeps us from being close to God, is sin. So we could say, for example, that arrogance is a sin, but then so too, in that sense, is self-abasement—thinking we are no good. Whatever keeps us from God is sin, and so yes, we all sin, but—and here is the important bit—we are also all forgiven. This is the other half of the equation—if we are separating ourselves from God, then we also must accept God’s forgiveness, that open invitation to return to a relationship with the divine. That divine forgiveness doesn’t erase what we did, but God has let go of it and will not let it come between us and God. Just as we forgive a person who has done something to us—we can’t erase what has been done, but we can prevent it from coming between us and the person who did it—we can return to a relationship with that person. It will be different, just as our relationship with God will be different—but it will remain. The difference is, though, that while our understanding of our relationship with God may change, God’s understanding does not. We are still and always God’s beloved, with no strings attached.  That does not and cannot change.

This is what the man who was born blind has come to realise—nothing keeps him from God except himself.  He has been healed of his pain and separation, from the world assuming he or his parents did something wrong, from his own assumption that this must somehow be his fault. He is cured, too—but when the religious leaders send for him, he understands that the cure didn’t change how people thought of him. His true and final healing comes when he proclaims that he believes—he recognises God’s presence and action in his life. He has returned to that relationship with God.

Some people do not understand this—they sit in judgement on others, thinking they can decide who is not in a right relationship with God and who is, based on their own thinking and understanding. But Jesus says elsewhere that humans look at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart.  The ones who think they can judge and decide are the ones with no vision; those who have been through that mill of self-judgement and been healed know that they cannot judge another person’s heart or relationship with God.

Jesus is the light, then, that illuminates the darkness for us, shines into the shadowy corners of our lives, where we hide the things we are ashamed of, the things we think make us sinners and less-than. He brings them out into the bright sunshine of day, and we can see which are truly ours and which belong to someone else—which are things we should be eliminating from our lives and which are things that were never ours in the first place—and most wonderfully, which are the things that, far from being hidden in the corners, should be polished up and shared with joy.

So—who sinned? Not the man, not his parents. Those who are so afraid of losing God’s love that they have to set human limits on who God loves—that is a separation from the One who loves us all. We all do that from time to time—decide who is worthy of God’s love and who isn’t—when the decision is not up to us, but to God, whose love is for all. Our work is to focus on service to others—curing them, if we can—and give them the grace to heal in their own relationship with God.

As we move through Lent, let us remember that only God knows all that is in our hearts, and loves us anyway. With the light of God’s love around us, we can see those hidden things for what they truly are, and know that we are healed. In all God’s names, amen.

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