A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Lent, March 26, 2017
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?”
Another long story this week. In the progression of our instruction for baptism, we have a story of a person being enlightened: literally regaining his sight, and spiritually coming to see the truth in Jesus. It’s a long, complex story with a lot of details and controversy between Jesus and the religious establishment of the Pharisees.
But we start with Jesus own disciples. These guys are following Jesus, as we follow him—and so we like to assume they would get it right. They aren’t so different from us, right? Well, actually, yes. They look at people and they make wrong assumptions just like we do. They see a man who is a blind beggar and they make assumptions that his condition is the result of something. People experience things, they look around and they decide that events are connected with one another. And generally speaking, that’s correct. People’s actions have consequences; they are connected with one another and affect other people, they affect children and neighbors and parents. And, anyone who reflects honestly on their own life and behavior has ample empirical evidence that people sin. That is to say, people act selfishly without regard to the good of others or their needs and eventually someone gets hurt because of that. What we see in the first verse of today’s gospel lesson is the next step that people often make—the disciples make conclusions about other people’s sin from results that they see. “Who sinned? This man or his parents?” It had to be one or the other, right?
Not exactly. We like to use our analysis to find the badness in something, anything other than ourselves, and to assume that the connections that we see explain everything—one or the other, the man or his parents—somebody’s a sinner. How did Jesus respond? “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” There is more to the connections between people and events than the disciples saw, or that we see.
One interpretation of Jesus’ words could be that he is referring to the healing of the man’s blindness that he is about to do. Fair enough, that certainly shows the works of God. But I think there is a more general application of Jesus’ response. In the infinite number of connections between events and people and God, there is always far more than we perceive. And certainly, if we are living in a world governed by anger or self-pity or despising some subset of our neighbors, our view and our understanding will be severely limited, indeed it can be like blindness.
This man was a disabled beggar until Jesus took the mud of the earth, like that from which God had formed the man in the garden. He spread it on the man’s eyes and sent him to be washed in the pool—not so much different from the pool of baptism. When the man emerged from the pool and was able to see, everyone was confused. He was the same man, but he was not what anyone expected. Was it that they could not believe in a healing miracle? Perhaps, though skepticism about miracles was much less common in those days than now. But if you look at the story, it wasn’t the miracle that they couldn’t recognize, it was the man who was formerly blind. They knew him when they could see him lying by the road, “Oh yeah, there he is the sinful progeny of sin” or maybe just, “poor, pitiful, blind beggar.” But standing up, walking around as a responsible and articulate adult? That’s not visible to them. It is so easy to dismiss those who are different—not powerful, not wealthy, not comfortable. But it is the Glory of God that loves and blesses every person, not just those that Jesus’ disciples might be comfortable with.
This man witnessed and explained what he had experienced: “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” The scene that ensues is actually pretty funny, because there were these very devout religious types who did not like Jesus, and they had caught him out doing something on the Sabbath Day that they thought was a violation of the rules. They interrogated this man repeatedly, and tried to get him to agree that Jesus was a sinner and not from God. But when they put it to him, this man said, “He is a prophet.” It goes on and he says, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” As they persisted in harassing him and looking for evidence against Jesus, he answered them, “I have told you already and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to be his disciples?”
This story is the story of the man’s spiritual formation and his conversion. As he spoke the truth, he was driven out by those who would not hear the truth. It is only near the end of the story that the man who was healed by Jesus actually has the opportunity to see Jesus and the conversion is made complete:
“And who is he sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
The man who was blind could see, he could see and witness to the truth; but those who thought that they could see and that they knew how things should be done and how they would work out, turned out to be blind. In focusing on their own limited set of connections and presumptions, they missed the glory of God—the mercy and compassion of healing. From Jesus we have joy, not fear. Though the man had been blind from birth, his life was filled with the witness to God’s goodness and the glory of God.
As our Epistle today says:
Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is god and right and true… Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”