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Sunday, February 19, 2012

From Blindness to Sight--A Sermon

From Blindness to Sight
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 19, 2012
John 9:1-41 (Scholars' Version)

This is my favorite story from the Gospel of John. It is filled with irony and snark. There may have been an event in the life of the historical Jesus that is the basis for this story. The Jesus Seminar concluded by a narrow majority that the historical Jesus might have cured one blind person by the use of spittle. Not that the spittle was medicinal but that Jesus fit the profile of a charismatic healer and the healing was of blindness due to psychosomatic therapy.

The story became part of the lore about Jesus. In Mark 8:22 ff., Jesus cures a blind man with spittle. In Mark 10:46 ff., he cures Bartimaeus of his blindness.   Both may be narrative elaborations of one common event. Thus this story in John chapter 9 may be a further elaboration in which the author of John’s gospel places the healing in the context of another struggle altogether.

That is the struggle in John’s time between these two infant sibling religions that arose after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. These two siblings became Judaism and Christianity. The common parent for these two religions was Biblical Israel. The Gospel of John is one side of the squabble between these siblings. Jesus never had a conflict with “the Jews”. He was a Jew. That is John’s conflict. He creates these stories to present Jesus on his side.

Ancient religion was about the sacrifice of animals. You go to the Temple or to a holy shrine whether it is the Temple of Zeus or the Temple of YHWH and you sacrifice animals. That is worship. It appears that a couple of things are happening. The Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed. That makes animal sacrifice a logistical problem. Also a consciousness has been arising of thinking of worship without animal sacrifice. This sacrificial practice is slowly becoming symbolic or commemorative.

At least two paths develop, one centering on Jesus as sacrifice represented by the Lord’s supper and another on Torah, circumcision, and Sabbath. Neither requires animal sacrifice. One path becomes centered in the church and the other in the synagogue. John’s gospel reflects this early division from the perspective of what would become church. When characters in John’s gospel are kicked out the synagogue that reflects the situation in the author of John’s time, not in the time of the historical Jesus.

So John takes this story in the lore of Jesus of healing a blind person probably psychosomatically and elaborates making it a teaching moment. There is nothing psychosomatic in John’s telling of it. Jesus has been exaggerated to become God incarnate. He barely touches the ground. He speaks in exalted terms about himself. “I am the Light of the World!” Just to show that this healing was no parlor trick, John has the blind person be born blind.

This gives the disciples an opportunity to ask a theological question. Whose sin caused him to be born blind? If you have a just God who runs the place, you can’t have people suffer for no reason. You have to blame someone, either the man who sinned (either in the womb or in a previous life) or his parents. John sets up a classic question of theodicy. 

By the way, a side note. Since I mentioned theodicy, it might be fun to go there for a minute. Theodicy is the attempt to explain the injustice of God. If you have an all-powerful and all-good God, why is there suffering and evil? Much thought, energy, and time have been spent on that question. You can tie yourself in knots over this. We ask this question in many different ways, whenever there is suffering in our own lives or in the lives of others, we ask what is God doing?

If you have found an answer that works for you of why an all-good and all-powerful God can allow for suffering and evil, then I say go with it. If you have an answer that works I don’t want to take it away from you.

Personally, I take the easy road. I think an all-good and all-powerful God on one hand co-existing with suffering and evil on the other is a logical impossibility. I find that any explanation for someone’s suffering by implying that God could fix it if God wanted to is cold and cruel.

I let go of the idea of an all-powerful God. The answer then is easy. God is not all-powerful. There is no magic fix out there. Life is a mix of good, evil, suffering, and joy, and we make the best of it. But I do believe God is all-good. Not all-powerful but all-good. That to me means Life is worth giving it a go and hanging on for the ride. It also means that part of Life’s purpose is to look for and to find decency, compassion and joy and to make life more decent, compassionate, and joyful for ourselves and others. If you would like to read someone who agrees with me, I recommend Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Here is how the Gospel of John handles the question of theodicy.
As Jesus was leaving he saw a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, was it this man’s sin or his parents’ that caused him to be born blind?”
Jesus responded, “This man did not sin and neither did his parents. [He was born blind] so God could display his work through him. We must carry out the work of the one who sent me while the light lasts. Nighttime is coming and then no one will be able to do any work. So long as I am in the world I am the light of the world.”
This is an interesting answer. What John’s Jesus is saying is that you can spend a lot of time worrying over who to blame for misfortune and suffering. You can blame the victim. You can blame the parents. You can even blame God. Or you can carry out the work of healing while you have the light to do it.

John’s gospel is a symbolic gospel. Nothing is to be taken literally. Jesus is not just about Jesus. The figure Jesus is not a one of a kind supernatural God-Man. I see him as representing the Authentic Human. He is a symbol, an archetype perhaps, of what it means to be an integrated, authentic, and aware human being. When Jesus speaks so exaltedly about himself, we can read it that he is speaking exaltedly about human beings.
Jesus is you when you see yourself as you truly are.
So the answer to the question of why do bad things happen to good people is this: 
So you can do good today. 
So pick up some spit and let’s go heal this guy. Here is the text:
With that he spat on the ground, made mud with his saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Then Jesus said to him, “Go, rinse off in the pool of Siloam” (the name means “Emissary”). So he went over, rinsed off [his eyes], and came back with his sight restored.
That is all done in the first three small paragraphs, the first seven verses. The rest of the narrative, the next couple of pages, the next 34 verses are about the responses to this healing. This is all John’s creation. Remember this is all fiction. John made this whole thing up. Part of this narrative is John’s sniping at his sibling, the synagogue. John writes later in the narrative:
“…the Judeans had already agreed that anyone who acknowledged [Jesus as] the Anointed One would be banned from their congregation.”
That is the historical issue behind John’s gospel. Those are John’s fighting words. His crowd in his time as he sees it has been thrown out of the synagogue. This is reminiscent of church splits.

You know there are dozen (give or take a couple) Presbyterian denominations in the United States. Last month, another one started. It is another splinter off the PC(USA). Apparently, the PC(USA) does not believe in the authority of Scripture. Because if we did we wouldn’t allow gays to be ministers. If we really loved Jesus we wouldn’t allow gays to be elders or deacons either. From our end we say the issue might not be scripture but perhaps a wee bit of prejudice on your side? 

Now imagine either side writing a gospel and putting Jesus in the script. Imagine the snark and sarcasm that would be embedded in the text. I know I could write a doozy. That is John’s gospel. The hurt and the anger jump off the page.

But it isn’t all snark and sarcasm. It does rise above that on occasion. Jesus certainly is a figure used to bolster one side in a sibling squabble. But he also represents the authentic human. In order to read it the second way, we have to allow ourselves to be the opponent of Jesus in the text as well as his ally.

The Pharisees or the Judeans or the leaders of the synagogue represent the folks who cannot see beyond their own traditions. These are those who believe that unless something receives their stamp of approval it cannot be legitimate. Anyone who does work outside the bounds of the authoritative structures is to be mocked and not acknowledged.

They are blind for doing that.

But…is there a sense in which we do the same on occasion? If honest I have to admit my blindness too.

There are forms of religious expression that I find particularly blind, silly, and superstitious even. I am suspicious of faith healers. I don’t like the way some people read the Bible as if it is a supernatural revelation from heaven. I don’t like certain views of Jesus dying for sins and whatever.

I think everyone would benefit from a dose of religious and scientific literacy. But if I cannot open my eyes enough to see that not everyone experiences life, our religious tradition, spirituality, and healing in the same way I do, then I am like the Pharisees who ask smugly,
“We’re not blind are we?”
Well, yeah, kind of, you are.

There are many different ways to live in this world. We all have our blind spots. We have blind spots about ourselves and we have blind spots about others. Sometimes others can point out our blind spots. That can be painful or embarrassing. That should be done sparingly and with love, not fake love, real love. Before we point out the speck in the other’s eye, we could remove the plank in our own as Jesus is reported to have said.

It seems that the gift of insight, the ability to see with the heart, is the gift that recognizes ironically, that we see very dimly. The greater the insight, the less omniscient we become. The greater our horizon of knowledge and wisdom, the larger is the abyss of the unknown. Insight then becomes humility.

That is the insight of John’s story. The blind beggar, the most humble of all has the gift of sight, whereas the scholar, the leader, the person with authority, is blind. The blindness on the part of the leaders in the text is not due to their lack of knowledge or wisdom. The blindness is the unwillingness to see that others can see where they cannot. It is the lack of humility.

Humility as insight is not hiding your truth. It is telling your truth but recognizing that your truth is provisional, meaning it can change. Humility also recognizes that your truth is one truth among many. None of us has a corner on truth.

One of the more rewarding aspects of ministry is being able to be present when people have their eyes opened in such a way to see things about themselves, or others or the significance of their lives. This is different than trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. This is different than the blind leading the blind. The posture of seeing is one of permission-giving and of humility. It is a posture of invitation. It is not forcing one’s truth on another but allowing through the telling of your truth for others to discover theirs. It is the gift of listening so that others may find the space to become whole.

Our story began with the disciples asking Jesus whose sin caused this man to be born blind. Jesus turns the question. He says it is nobody’s sin. It is life. In fact, it is an opportunity.

To the suffering and blindness in the world, you have the opportunity, with your life, with your truth, with your limited sight, to respond with compassion and healing.

Work while you have the light.

Amen.
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