Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Lent – April 3, 2011
The Gospel reading today focuses on different ways of seeing on both literal and metaphorical levels. It begins with the disciples of Jesus asking a question, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It is a question that comes from a long-held but erroneous assumption that misfortune and illness were punishment for sin.
And this assumption—or should I say judgment—is still around. When a disaster occurs, it seems that there are some folks—particularly televangelists and extreme right wing commentators—who attribute these events to the sins of others, often vulnerable populations. It happened after 9/11, it happened when Katrina hit, and it happened just a few weeks ago after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
What Jesus says and does in this passage provides the single most striking case against the inclination to equate bad things that happen as a result of sin. The man’s blindness may have been some unfortunate result of a difficult pregnancy or premature birth, but it was not the result of any sin either he or his parents committed. Jesus is very clear about that. Those who continue to blame anyone or group of people for any kind of tragedy in our world certainly need to read this passage again.
This man in the Gospel is blind and, as if that were not enough, he is poor as well. Instead of being able to isolate from a world that looks askance at him, he is forced by his circumstances to display his blindness by begging for alms. Those who pass him by on their way to Temple may or may not toss a coin at him but they most certainly whisper about the sinful secret or dark cure that is responsible for his sorry state.
Can you imagine what it must be like for someone born blind to be cured—to be able in an instant to see what he or she has only heard described or about which they fantasized? Can you imagine the first experience of seeing the sun and the sky or the huge varieties of color? You would expect that there would be great excitement, jubilation, and celebration over it? And, of course, to God, to the healers or physicians who assisted—maybe even a huge party. Not in this story.
Rather there is a theological debate, blame, name calling, and dissension. Everyone misses the miracle that has happened right before their eyes. Instead they interview witnesses, conduct an investigation that rivaled Watergate, and rebuke the agent of the healing.
His sight restored, the man becomes the object of a nasty conversation about his morality. Even his parents distance themselves from him out of fear of the religious authorities. They can’t see beyond their comfortable reality. Giving sight to a person born blind simply doesn’t happen and certainly shouldn’t happen on the Sabbath.
Then comes the final rub. When the Pharisees who not only prided themselves in keeping religious laws but were self-appointed judges for those who did not keep it to their standards—when they pressed this man to bear witness that Jesus was a sinner — he told them that they would not recognize God even if God bit them on the nose. In their outrage they “outted him” as illegitimate—and expelled him from the congregation. Now he is truly an outcast, even with his sight restored.
The real tragedy of this story is that all of this bickering and spiritual pretentiousness kept everyone from appreciating the marvelous miracle that happened. They were all blind to the miraculous event and the manifestation of God’s grace right in their midst. You would think that the story would end here with the man and everyone else living happily ever after. But it does not. People who consider themselves to be very religious folk stand around quarreling and engaging in theological debate when a miracle has taken place right before their eyes. This strange healing is the least remarkable part of the story. What is extraordinary is the paralysis that runs through the entire plot—the inability for all involved to accept a new way of seeing—and living.
Once again today we have heard a Gospel in which one of the principal characters—just like last week’s story of the woman at the well—remains nameless, yet through the ages they have both taught us some profound lessons. I know that many people look to religion to provide them with answers, but I think that sometimes it is the questions that are more life-engaging and which lead to transformation. Here are a few we might consider during the week ahead:
- Whom do we choose to blame for any cause of our unhappiness or for what in our life is not going the way we want it to?
Whom do we “label” just as the blind man was labeled and, in labeling them, are we aware that we miss seeing that person as created in God’s own image?
- What is it around us to which we choose to remain blind—poverty, cruelty, dishonesty, hypocrisy, prejudice—because we are afraid to speak up or to act?
- Who are the Pharisees in our lives who want to paralyze our ability to see God’s wonderful intrusions in the world, who want to insulate us from God’s Spirit moving among us that brings us new vision?
And, finally, do we live in the expectation that we will see miracles—even tiny, seemingly ordinary ones? That miracles are the points through which God overwhelms our limited understanding of mystery?
There is a story about a family that lived in a cabin in the woods—without electricity, plumbing, paved roads or the other amenities we all take for granted. They were very poor but they gave one another a lot of support and caring and gave their children an example of tried and tested faith.
One day, while they were away from the cabin, a stray spark leaped from the fireplace and hit a pile of kindling. When they returned home hours later, they found no more than a mound of hissing ashes. They had no other place to go. They were now homeless. While their mother rummaged through the rubble to see if she could salvage any of their possession, the father and children headed out to town to buy food, blankets, and some canvas to erect a tent. That would be their home until they rebuilt the cabin.
When they returned from their trip to get the supplies, their eyes came immediately to the grass and the few things that their mother managed to find: some dishes, a few books, an iron bed frame and a pair of blackened scissors. She had placed these sad possessions, all they had left, in a circle. But in the middle of the circle stood a rusty tin can in which she had stuck a bunch of freshly picked wild flowers. “When we saw the flowers,” they later recalled, “we knew we would be all right.
Yes, God intervenes and intrudes in our lives in surprising, extraordinary, inconvenient, even shocking ways. God’s abundance and extravagance is a power, a presence, and a love that is beyond our understanding, certainly beyond our resources. God wants to refresh us, to anoint us with the oil of gladness, to fill our cup until it is running over with goodness and mercy.
We might expect to pick up the Gospels and find there good common sense. Instead there are surprises and often outlandish parables…in a world where it was often assumed that wealth and status were signs of God’s approval and illness and poverty of divine disfavor, striking reversals take place.
Encounters like Jesus had with Nicodemus, with the Samaritan woman at the well, and with the blind man are the lenses through which we see in a new way God’s hand at work in the world around us. Sometimes God’s intrusion is messy—like gobs of spit and mud—but it may be the means by which we enter into the miracle of a better way of seeing—seeing the world as God sees it. And sometimes, like the disciples, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions.