THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT

April 3, 2011

 

“Hearing and Seeing”

John 9:1-41

 

 

18 “Forget the former things;
   do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
   Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

~Isaiah 43:18-19

 

There is a cute little phrase that our United Church of  Christ has been using as a marketing tool of sorts.  It intends to reveal something about God, and thus something about our denomination.  The phrase is: “God is Still Speaking.”  Now, as much as I believe this, I have become a little frustrated by the seemingly ubiquitous use of the phrase.  I was tired of this idea, that is until I began preparing to preach on this text from John’s Gospel.

 

The man is blind.  If that was not enough, he is also poor.  So in these circumstances he is not able  to stay at home and be out of public sight.  He must place himself at a busy gate in the city and grovel for the crumbs from the tables of the rich.

 

Everyone who passes by knows that this poor soul has found himself in this predicament because he has done something to deserve it.  He must be burdened with some particularly dark and sinister past, or another curse due to his parent’s life.

 

For those of you who you follow the idea that “everything happens for a reason” may be happy to have this text affirm your understanding of the world.

 

Deanna Thompson, who teaches religion at Hamline University in St. Paul Minnesota, was recently diagnosed with stage four cancer.  She teaches an introduction to theology class there and recently had to address the apparent conflict between the idea of an all loving, all powerful God; and the existence of suffering. 

 

“As some of you know…” she said hesitantly, “I’ve been dealing with cancer over the past few months…and some people have taken this approach with  me, suggesting God has given me cancer to make me a stronger person.  Personally, I don’t buy it,” says Thompson, “living with cancer sucks, frankly, and I have a hard time believing in a God who sends people cancer or other terminal illness in order to teach them a lesson.  This view simply does not acknowledge the full scope of suffering that pervades many of our lives.”[1]

 

Some might add to Deanna’s assessment a question:  “How is it then, that Jesus, here in the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel, seems to suggest that a man’s disability serves as an opportunity for the grace of God to shine?”
 
 
 

 

As the father of a son who has faced significant health problems and relatively significant disability his entire life, I must tell you that I cannot accept this analysis of consequence, and so I answer the question by saying, “it doesn’t.”

 

When Becky and I first  knew the extent of Paul’s problems  we tortured ourselves.  Did we do something to cause this?  Did we have a glass of wine when we shouldn’t have?  Did we inadvertently expose ourselves to some contaminant?  Was it some kind of genetic disposition we were unaware of?  Fortunately, the Pediatric Intensivist who saved Paul’s life had a succinct answer for our problem as well:  “Just stop it.  You didn’t do anything to cause this.”  I cannot speak for Becky and Paul, but what I have come to know is that there is evil and illness loose in our world that does not have the blessing of God, but is part and parcel to our fallen  creation.  But I’ve also learned that even in times of apparent absence, God is present, and God is at work.

 

My learning is not, of course, the answer Jesus offers.  If you listened carefully to this text, you noticed that Jesus does answer the question from the disciples straight away:  “it was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”[2] 

 

On the basis of this response, one might want to suggest that God has somehow done this to the blind man in order to make a greater point. You may then be lead to believe that this story is not so much about logical consequences as it is about a ‘teaching moment.’ 

 

Remember that for most of this story, Jesus is absent.  The man asks for no assistance and Jesus calls him to come.  The man has no miraculous demonstration of fidelity with Christ, but is healed.  And then, he suffers because of it.  This does not sound like a teachable moment to me.

 

The time of Jesus’ absence is no picnic. In fact, the man born blind could have said understandably to himself more than once, “I never asked to be healed. If this is what it means to be blessed of God, I think I am willing to relinquish some divine favors.” Perhaps no biblical story illustrates quite so dramatically the truth of repeated experience: God’s favor more often leads into than away from difficulties. A relationship to God does not remove one from but often places one in the line of fire. Those who preach faith as the cessation of pain, suffering, poverty, restless nights and turbulent days are offering false comfort. Notice what happened to the healed man during Jesus’ absence.

 

In the last scene of this rather long pericope, the man is grilled a second time and more intensely. The authorities, faced with the irrefutable evidence of the healing, try to make the man denounce Jesus as a sinner. The poor man, armed only with his experience and sound logic, cannot believe a sinner could have the power of God. Anger and frustration rule: the man is denounced along with Jesus and expelled as a sinner. A few days previous the man’s life was blessed by Jesus and now his old friends disregard him, his parents reject him, and he is no longer welcome at his old place of worship. What a blessing!

 

 

We may be predisposed to focus on the fact that this man was healed through the spittle of our Lord and a little dirt from the street, and be moved to sing a verse of Amazing Grace.  But the emphasis for St. John was not the miracle, but rather the mission of Jesus.  Jesus comes to enlighten the ignorant, and confound those who think they know.  Not everything is as you think it is, or should be.

 

The last line confirms this.  “Now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”[3]  That is all to say that not everything is as it seems; and, as for the ways of God, if you haven’t been surprised in a while then you haven’t been watching.  The opportunity here is not for the man born blind to see the world in  a new  way, but rather that everyone else see the world in a new way…illuminated, as it were, by Jesus, the light of the world.

 

So, let’s be honest, we, too, have a hard time when God gets beyond our neat little world, when we are pushed to think in new ways, to go a different path we don’t want to see.  In the novel Revelation[4], Peggy Payne tells of a Presbyterian minister named Swain Hammond who experiences a theophany.  One afternoon, while grilling steaks in the backyard, he hears the voice of God speaking to him.  It’s a revelation.  It’s the kind of revelation that will change his life; he will never be the same again.  The rest of the story tells the price he paid for telling of the revelation.  Do the leaders of his congregation rejoice with him?  Not exactly.  They do provide free psychiatric care and paid administrative leave.   

The Blind man in the Gospel lesson gets similar treatment, not for preaching, not for any claims of a religious experience, but only for telling the truth about what He’s experienced.  There is the loneliness in our lesson’s final scene when Jesus and the man converse outside the synagogue.  We wait for God to write a new ending.  Once we have seen with our heart we can’t go back to the same world.  When we have experienced the mighty power of God we see people differently, we see issues differently.  We cannot expect everybody to see as we see.

 

Like all the accusers and naysayers in our story, blindness is not defined as the absence of sight. It is rather the absence of vision.  In our own world there are those who would make single issues the litmus test of whether one is a follower of Jesus.  Let us make sure that as a church, and as believers we “never put a period where God has put a comma.”

 

And that is why, this week, I’ve come to like the phrase, “God is still speaking.”

 

Amen.

 

 

 

[1] Thompson, Deanna A. “Suffering through Lent,”  The Christian Century, March 22nd, 2011, p. 12-13.

[2] John 9:3, RSV

[3] John 9:41, RSV

[4] Payne, Peggy, Revelation, Banks Channel Books, 1995


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