“The disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered them, “Neither this man this man nor his parents sinned . . . “ John 9:2-3a
There was a young woman who approached her minister one day. She was worried about sin, and, specifically, the sin of pride. She said, “Minister, every Sunday I come to church and look around and think to myself that I am the prettiest girl in the church. I try to stop but I just can’t. Am I horribly sinful?” The minister looked at her and said, “No dear not sinful; just horribly mistaken.”
In today’s Gospel lesson, the disciples come to Jesus to talk, not about their own sins, but the sins of others. Wondering whose sin caused the young man to be born blind. Jesus tells the disciples that they are horribly mistaken. We all understand their question. We’ve all gone to visit the hospital after someone has had a heart attack or a terrible auto accident or a diagnosis of cancer and the question comes, “What did I do to deserve this?”
In the wake of the earthquakes and tornados and tsunamis and other natural disasters, some TV preachers always decide they have to figure out what sins the people had committed that caused God to punish them.
And to all of this Jesus says, “You are horribly mistaken.”
Today is the fourth sundy in Lent, and one of the most important themes of Lent is “turning to and fro with God;” turning from fear to faith, from sin to grace, from the world to God, from the dark to the light. And focusing on the sinfulness or saintliness of others distracts us from paying attention to our own relationship with God; our own turning to and fro.
In the early Twentieth Century, The Times of London, a newspaper read all over England and across all the world; invited famous writers to answer the question:
What is wrong with the world?
In response, they got many long essays spelling out the problems and also, as a bonus, the writer’s assessment as to who was to blame.
God, the Devil, the Church, the Communists, the Fascists, White people, Black people, Asians, Hispanics, the Jews, the Germans, the Italians, the Chinese, the Moslems, and the Americans. It was women, men, “The Older Generation” and “These Young People Today.”
There was also a contemporary English writer, theologian and philosopher named GK Chesterton who wrote:
What is wrong with the world? I am.
Sincerely, GK Chesterton
We all sometimes need this reminder, because all of us are sometimes “horribly mistaken” about the sins of others and the sins of ourselves. We have an unfortunate tendency to believe our sins are easily forgiven, but those of others, well, “…not so much.”
There is a character in American Literature, a Quaker preacher often reminds his parishioners that, “every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”
But sometimes, we tend act as though our saintliness is better than that of others and our sinfulness not as bad. We appear to believe that, if it were only our sins that mattered, then Jesus would not have had to die on the cross; just a good, stern talking to would have taken care of it. It was the sins of others that caused Christ to die. But we are “horribly mistaken.”
And the Good News is – God knows who we are, God knows what we have done, And God loves us anyway. And there is no mistaking that.
John 9 is also about light and darkness, and healing and wholeness.
First of all, this healing story challenges the “acts and their consequence” understanding of suffering. In this idea, there is a direct and linear relationship between what we do and what happens to us: the good prosper and enjoy health; the evil suffer and become diseased.
Jesus addresses the problem of evil, in response to that peculiar question, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” And so we ask ourselves:
Is the suffering of children fully attributable to their parents or their society? Do the sins of our fathers fall upon the son?
Jesus does not give a direct answer, but he says that God will be glorified in the curing of the man’s blindness.
This man is not an object of God’s wrath or a moral lesson to others; his healing is the important thing, both in terms of his own well-being and it’s witness to God’s amazing love.
Jesus tells his disciples to walk in the light, doing works of healing, while it is still day. Time is short and our lives are brief: acts of healing cannot be put off until tomorrow.
When suffering is around us, the solution to the problem of evil is our partnership with God in bringing comfort and cure.
The problem of evil is a theological issue and challenges us to reflect on the nature of the relationship between God and the world, and the extent of His power in the determining the events of our lives. Although his words raise theological issues, Jesus’ solution is more practical: confront suffering, ease suffering, and cure suffering.
Two thousand years later, “Mr. Rogers” made a similar comment: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Today’s readings challenge us to walk in the light. God is with us in threatening times and God’s circle of love surrounds us. In living light-filled lives, we tap into resources beyond our imagination for the good of ourselves and the world.
Which is worse, to be blind, physically, or to have a blind heart and inattentive ears? In the wake of today’s gospel lesson, it might seem like an easy answer. Of course we’d want to be open and receptive to God in Jesus Christ. But if this same question were posed within a different, less obviously spiritual arena, I imagine our choice might be less cut and dried.
As brilliant as she was, few of us would want to be disabled as Helen Keller was, even if it meant being as intelligent. Think of Ludwig von Beethoven. How many of us would be willing to gradually lose our hearing in order to get at the deeper meanings of human frailty and limitation in our art?
Couldn’t we have a great impact without too much sacrifice? Certainly! But don’t be surprised when God does things quite unpredictably.
Yet, even when we recognize God’s subversive way, disability is a very difficult topic for us. So much of our lives are about what we can do. To say “I can’t” is a concession. To make too many concessions is weakness.
The disciple in today’s gospel reading experiences a revelation of who Jesus is. This epiphany is facilitated by apt and clear theological argumentation on the part of this nameless disciple who was blind yet sees.
Nevertheless, what may be even more important here is the means by which Jesus makes himself known.
In Jesus’ time, it was thought that the congenitally blind and otherwise disabled were disabled because they were born entirely in sin. That seems not so much a value judgment as a simple way of writing people off. In congregational life in the first century, being “congenitally sinful” meant spiritual as well as physical impoverishment.
That’s where God works. In a twist of plot, the story of the disciple who was born blind and healed shows us not only that Jesus is from God, but that God in Jesus does not necessarily choose the obvious people to demonstrate the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Quite to the contrary, sometimes it’s in the unlikely that God demonstrates exceptional holiness. That’s often how God can speak to those who have been blinded by ability and the way things have always been done, shedding new light on the world.
Another thing that I see in this story is Struggle: A struggle between two worlds: the world in which we live, and the kingdom of God.
In today’s scripture, I see the story of a man struggling to find his place – and a community struggling to find its place – in this convergence of two worlds. I see people trying to make sense of it all, trying to figure out just where they belong. Trying to figure our their higher purpose.
In ancient societies, a man born blind didn’t have many options. Unable to work because he could not see, his only choice was to beg. There was no question about where today’s blind man belonged or what his place in the world was. He was a beggar. That was his place.
Then Jesus and his disciples come along. The disciples see the beggar, and wonder why God would assign him this place: surely it must have been because he – or his parents – sinned.
They should have known better than to think that. It hadn’t been that long since Jesus had stopped the stoning of a woman caught in adultery. He had stopped the execution of that woman by saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” There was no one who had not sinned, and thus no one to carry out the execution.
So, no one is perfect. Why, then, was this man born blind? According to Jesus, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.
I’m sure the blind beggar felt that there was somewhere he belonged, that there was some greater purpose for his life. If only he wasn’t stuck where he was. If only he could break free, somehow.
Are you feeling the connection with the man born blind? Because I think just about everyone, at some point, feels the way this blind man felt. I think we all have wondered where we belong.
I think we’ve all wanted to do something big, something heroic, something that would make us worthy of the life God has given us. And I think we have all experienced those times when we felt trapped, unable to break free from the chains that bind us, from the forces that hold us back, from our own limitations. If only we weren’t held back, why, we could do something great.
That is how the blind beggar felt.
Then Jesus comes along, and takes away the blindness. He removes the limitation that held this man back. He sets him free to do the work that God calls him to do, to fulfill that greater purpose, to find where he belongs, to experience a whole new world. In other words, Jesus makes it possible for him to live in the kingdom of God.
And that’s what Jesus does for us. Jesus makes it possible for us to live in the whole new world that awaits. His love shows us the way, if we choose to follow him.
One of the last times I was here to preach, we read about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which – I think – works to open our eyes to that whole new world more than any other passage of scripture. We learned that this whole new world is a world of blessing, but because it is a whole new world, those blessings do not come in the ways we are often told they come.
Instead of coming to us through force or violence, blessings come to those who work for peace. Instead of coming to those who seek to overpower their enemies, blessings come to those who work to transform their enemies with love. Instead of coming to those who are spiritually rich – convinced they have all the right answers – blessings come to the poor in spirit, those who recognize that God is much more than we are capable of understanding. Instead of coming to those who long for the best this world has to offer, blessings come to those who hunger and thirst for equality and justice for all of God’s children.
So Jesus blessed the man born blind. He opened his eyes to a whole new world. He allowed him to find a place where he belongs. He showed him his place in God’s kingdom. And then he … disappeared.
And the formerly blind man: did he then live happily ever after? Well, no. Because this is not a fairy tale. And Jesus isn’t actually a genie or a fairy godmother who is there to serve our will. Just because you find where you belong, just because your eyes have been opened to a whole new way of living… this does not mean that you will now have a life of ease. Indeed, in the kingdom of God, we are filled with the love of God, the same love that Jesus lived by; and look where that got him.
A part of me wishes I could tell you that entering this new life, living in this new world, this new kingdom, would bring an end to pain, suffering, poverty, restless nights, and turbulent days. But that is not the case.
When the formerly blind man went to take his place in the world, to begin living his new life, there was, right away, a controversy. When he started living in the kingdom, there was conflict.
He was brought to the temple authorities. It appears that they were not entirely comfortable with his leaving the place the world assigned to him, breaking free from that place and finding a new life to live. The temple authorities likewise were unsettled, especially since his healing had taken place on the Sabbath. They began arguing among themselves about whether this healer was from God, since he could heal, or if he was a sinner, since he had worked on the Sabbath.
They interrogated the formerly blind man some more. At this point he may have been thinking it would have been easier if he had just stayed in his old place, sitting and begging.
The authorities tried to get him to say that Jesus was a sinner, but he replied: “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner or not. All I know is that I once was blind, but now, I see.”
Well, eventually the authorities drove him out. No longer could he be among them.
And here we see the struggle between these two worlds: Those who hold tightly to the things of this world find it very hard to step into the new world proclaimed by Jesus. Those whose lives are built upon worldly wealth and possessions, those whose lives are intertwined with the systems of authority and influence in this world find it very hard to move to the place that has been prepared for them in the kingdom of God.
Likewise, those who do accept their place in the kingdom of God, those who find where they belong, those who discover the greater purpose God has for them: they discover that the systems of this world are often hostile toward them. History provides plenty of examples: Gandhi. Martin Luther King. Nelson Mandela. All of them discovered their place in the world. All of them had their eyes opened to the new world, the new kingdom, of God. All of them felt that their life was complete, whole, only when they were working on behalf of that kingdom.
And all of them experienced the world’s hostility.
And yet, none of them wished to return to a life of blindness. None of them wished to return to their former places, because even though those former places were free from the hostility and persecution of the world, there they were not complete. There, they were not whole. There, they were not fully alive.
Each of them was forced to carry their own cross, and yet they felt the blessings of God, because they knew that, God, through Jesus, shared in their struggle. Through Jesus, God experienced persecution. Through Jesus, God experienced the cross.
It was only after they found where they belonged, after they began doing the work to which God called them, that they felt whole and complete. It was only when they struggled and faced hostility and made their lives into a living sacrifice that they truly felt the blessings of God.
God’s desire is that you live a life of wholeness. God’s desire is that your life be complete. There is no better way to live, no greater abundance than that, no matter how hostile some may be; because when your eyes are opened, you see the place where you belong.
And if finding your place in God’s whole new world means carrying your cross, entering into controversy as the man born blind did, just remember what follows the cross: new life. Resurrection.
What the world rejects, God affirms. Having our eyes opened so that we can find our place, the place we belong, in God’s kingdom may threaten the established ways and institutions of this world, but it is pleasing in God’s sight. Those whose eyes are opened find their place in the world. They receive new life.