A sermon for Lent 4A March 2, 2008
As he walked 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?" (John 9:1-2, NRSV)
We start with a plaguing question. Is it the fault of the man or of his parents that he was born blind?
We would like to think we are past that kind of thinking, and in fact the prophets had gone beyond it, long before Jesus came on the scene. But the idea prevailed among many people, that any sort of disability must be a punishment directed by God against some person or persons.
So, was it the parents who sinned, or the man himself, while still in the womb?
I find that kind of thinking smug and limited, but I'm afraid I subscribed to it myself until I had a good reason not to do it anymore, a personal reason. I'm afraid I couldn't put myself in other people's shoes. I'm afraid I could not see things from another perspective until my mother, dying from multiple metastases of malignant melanoma, wondered quietly what she had done wrong? Why was God punishing her?
I understood how she felt. For a year I had been wondering what lesson God had been trying to teach me when I learned my baby had a genetic abnormality, when I lost my baby. For a year I had been blaming myself.
I had never heard anyone ask the question so directly as my mother did that day, and I knew in that moment, without a doubt, she was wrong. Sure, she was set up for melanoma: a blue-eyed blond with fair, fair skin who lived in the tropics as a child and sunbathed as an adult, a person with a quiet, self-denying personality who kept everything inside, what they now call "Type C." She had all the components, and yet we know there are people with similar characteristics who never develop melanoma or cancer of any kind. Why did it happen to her?
Was it the parents who sinned, or the man born blind?
This was a common question, and we can hear in the story how risky it was for the family to answer it, how many years the parents had kept a low profile as they try to do in this event, to avoid being blamed for their son’s disability. Ask him, they say. He is an adult and can answer for himself!
But they know what the world thinks!! The world thinks they did something wrong, and the only way to get out from under that is to lay the accusation at the feet of their son himself, not the grown-up son begging in the marketplace, but the infant once placed in his mother’s arms, the baby they eventually realized could not see.
Did they feel he was lost to them in that moment of realization, knowing that a person who could not see, whose eyes might even have looked unusual, would be condemned by the neighbors and the people in religious authority?
Was it the parents who sinned, or the man born blind?
What a cruel God they worshiped.
I do not worship that God, and I believe God came to us in Jesus to free us from that way of thinking, yet we know that it persists, that people love to blame the troubles of other people on the wrath of God. It makes us feel safe to define ourselves as different from “them,” right up until others return the favor.
How were your eyes opened? They asked him that question. They wanted to know what Jesus had done to heal him, to change him, to make him nearly unrecognizable, but mostly they wanted evidence to prove Jesus had worked on the Sabbath, to show him to be a breaker of the Law. They were looking for reasons to arrest him, even to kill him, to ensure that he would not be heard or seen again.
He upset the balance, the norm, the status quo, and the Pharisees did not want to hear about it.
Sometimes we go along abiding by a family or community code because we don’t know any better, but other times we do it to remain safe within the system.
I’m not, on the whole, inclined to law-breaking, but why should it matter that Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath? Is it not the day for doing God’s work?
And, really, isn’t every day? There are no limits to the days on which our eyes may be opened, no limits to the days on which we may learn to see.
I want to share something with you, because this is in a sense our last “regular” Sunday together. Next week we will approach the word through drama, and my final weeks with you will be in a holy season that draws more than the usual people to church. So while we are here together, the immediate family, I want to thank you for opening my eyes. Through your willingness to tell me what you thought about what I do, you gave me confidence in areas of my ministry that I hoped I did well, but there had been no one to tell me before. You did it with kind words or the squeeze of a hand, and I thank you for it. God moved through you, and I thank God for it. I am a better pastor for having been with you, better able to see what God is calling me to do.
How were your eyes opened?
Jesus did a strange thing. He spat on the ground used his own saliva to make mud with the dirt of the road. He used that mud to heal the man born blind, to give him visions he had never imagined, to let him see the world, his parents, his neighbors and all those whose voices he knew but whose faces were unfamiliar.
When God restores our sight, we see things differently. The familiar becomes clearer, more recognizable. When my mother voiced her fears, I saw the history of her life, the love and trust she placed in her own mother, the person who taught her such truly terrible things, who “cured” her gall bladder problems with diet and believed in her own will to heal and called it God’s. What worked for her, an orderly system of blame, remorse and repentance leading to victory, left my mother feeling not like a beloved child but like a person begging on the fringes of the community, abandoned by God.
My mother trusted me with her deepest question, and although you know me as a pastor and might understand why she would talk to me about it, she thought seminary was a very bad idea for the mother of young children, and faith had become a closed subject between us. Thanks be to God, she opened it again. Thanks be to God, we talked about it, and I told her, kindly, how I disagreed with her assumptions. Thanks be to God, she heard me and became more forgiving with herself. In her vulnerability and brokenness, spoken aloud in a simple question, my mother opened the door to healing for both of us. In that moment, God broke through and opened both our eyes. At the end of her life, I saw her more clearly and loved her more. At the end of her life, she began to see who I might be and to love that person, too.
How were your eyes opened?
Jesus walked into town with his disciples, a notorious character, already in trouble for his radical actions and teachings, for the company he kept. He walked into town on the Sabbath and he broke the Law and he healed a man who could not see. God broke through. Using the most ordinary element, earth, God broke through. Using part of God’s own self, working in human form, God broke through.
And it happens every day, when we realize what is really happening in the world, when we look in the mirror and know ourselves, when we offer a kind word to someone who needs to hear it, when we ordinary people doing completely usual things meet one another and recognize God is with us in the mud of life and can use it for healing.
Was it the parents who sinned? Or the man born blind?
Our sin is not found in our disabilities any more than our salvation is found in our gifts. God does not rate us based on merit but loves us as we are, human and broken and, yes, sometimes quite completely blind in spirit.
How were your eyes opened? They asked the man and he gave a simple answer about a poultice of dirt and spit, and sometimes those homely answers contain a truth based in facts and observations. But the real opening comes when we see that God is with us in Jesus, and we decided to join him on the journey, wherever it may lead. Amen.