March 26, 2017

1 Samuel 16:1-13; John 9:1-41
[Based on the sermon series “A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series” WJK Press]

In the news, when someone is described primarily with a physical quality, it implies there is nothing more to be said about a person. For example, during the presidential campaign, one of the candidates described a ‘differently-abled’ reporter emphasizing his disability. In the old days, a patient in the hospital may have been described as “the gall bladder” in room 317. The actress Hedi Lamar (google that name youngsters) might be described as a starlet, gorgeous, beautiful, as opposed to intelligent, scientist, or inventor.

In today’s readings we hear of men with miraculous power, king makers and sight givers, literally changing the destiny of two other men and possibly the Hebrew people. Samuel goes to Bethlehem to anoint a king, one who doesn’t seem to have too much going for him except pretty eyes. Samuel goes on God’s orders, the story tells us, and the people of Bethlehem are terrified when this man of power comes among them. Rejecting Jesse’s older, stronger, and upon first glance more qualified sons, Samuel anoints a shepherd boy with pretty eyes as the one who will be the king. It is not clear how that is to be, especially when you look at this kid, but that is the story we have. At this moment, it is as if David is the worse possible illustration of the power of God.

In the gospel reading, the blind man also begins as an illustration in a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. The disciples ask Jesus about the effects of Sin across generations. Jesus responds that sin has nothing to do with the man’s blindness, but “that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

See the old thinking was that if someone is disabled or disfigured or the victim of some tragic event, they must have done something to deserve it. They, or their parents, must have brought this upon themselves. It is a pattern as old as Job’s conversation with his so-called friends.

It is tragic when we do this to ourselves. I have heard many, many times, someone cry out “what did I do to deserve this?” When my oldest son Paul was born with significant birth defects, not visible, but significant enough to be on a ventilator for the rest of his life, Becky and I tortured ourselves asking, “What did we do to cause this?” The pediatric intensivist was wise enough to respond to our questions by saying, “nothing, now stop it.”

It is even more tragic when people define others in these derogatory ways. When I was a seminary student I completed a chaplaincy internship at Homestead Village in Lancaster. At my first meeting of the independent living council, they were considering a resolution to bar walkers and wheelchairs from the dining room. “Those people belong in a different level of care.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Most of them were one slip or fall away from a walker themselves. Historically, women have been treated this way as have minorities. This derision is born out of an ignorance or unfamiliarity with the people, the human beings, in question.

We might call into question, as Samuel did, the accepted conventional thinking about what is normal, respectable, well, or whole. It is good to question our assumptions about people, because Jesus does not come to see if we are good. He comes to disturb the caked conventions by which we pretend to be good” (Rev. Robert Farrar Capon). Nadia Boltz Weber, the pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saint’s in Denver, is tattooed and fond of the descriptive power of coarse language. She is not a ‘normal’ pastor, thanks be to God.

Her newest book, “Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People,” expands on her trademark exploration of finding God in the unexpected.

“When it comes down to it,” said Bolz-Weber, “the church is for losers. We connect to each other and to God through our shared brokenness, not through our personal victories and strengths and accomplishments. This is why it’s hilarious to me when people sort of write me off as hipster Christianity. You have definitely not been to my congregation. It is not hip.” [Jesse James DeConto, Why Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber Thinks Church Is For Losers,” Huffington Post, 10.04.2015]

The blind man is defined by others as a sinner in his very being, because he is blind. We don’t know if he contests that identity or not, we do not know. It seems as though the category of blindness was intractable in that time and place, attached to a set of assumptions that unquestionably defined a human being, like disability, race, gender, or sexual orientation in our time. Now Jesus has empowered him to redefine himself, to abandon the label others might assign. So who is he?

One Biblical Scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer remarks on her blog:

It may be that the most damning point this Sunday’s gospel has against Jesus’ accusers is one that we easily miss: they did not know the blind man who was healed.

He sat and begged there daily, and every day they walked by him, but when the time came, they couldn’t be sure of who he was — others had to fetch his parents before they could be sure of the identification

We do not get a complete answer of who he is, but we know, because we know something about the human condition in general, that both the healed blind man and the anointed David remain flawed human beings. But that is not all they are.

In the gospel, Jesus said,

“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

I want to suggest to you that one of the biggest challenges of our day is to rid ourselves of the categories and superficial identities we use to label others. We need to get to know people who seem different. If we see as Jesus calls us to see, and, if we live as our faith drives us to live, then it only makes sense that we will live differently toward others.

I am increasingly convinced that one reason that we have such a hard time giving up assumptions and judgement about other people is that we have a hard time doing this for ourselves. Our disdain for others is a compensatory tactic against our own self-judgment. If we cannot see ourselves as whole and chosen in God’s sight, it is nearly impossible to see others this way.

But we can do this. We can see ourselves as worthy of God’s love and so see others this way too. This is made possible, of course, when we redefine ourselves, when we shed those old definitions that play in our heads – those perhaps, that have been thrust upon us by others – and claim the identity that God has given us, defined by the power of God working in us.

For, if we revel in singing the words “I once was blind but now I see”, we should also live as children of the light, because we have been healed and set free, named and claimed, by the immense and unending grace of God.  Part of this life is recognizing this in others, and refraining what we think and believe about them.