Friday, March 3, 2017

Lenten Sermon

I Was Blind and Now I See
March 26th 2017
JOHN 9:1–41
Jesus Heals a Man Born Blind
9 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was.
Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”
But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”
10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.
11 He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”
12 “Where is this man?” they asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said.
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”
16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.
17 Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”
The man replied, “He is a prophet.”
18 They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. 19 “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”
20 “We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. 21 But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24 A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”
25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”
26 Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
27 He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”
28 Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”
30 The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. 32 Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
34 To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”
37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”
38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.
39 Jesus said,[a] “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”
41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

Exploring the Scripture
I don’t always  appreciate John’s gospel account as much as the synoptic gospels because it was such a late account and is so different from the synoptic gospels. The writer of John’s gospel saw Jesus as completely different from that of the synoptic gospel writers. 

But this account of the healing of the blind man is storytelling at its best: It has a complete cast of characters, a detailed dialogue, conflict, and resolution. But a long story like this can easily tempt us to address every facet of the account and its implications for modern life. It would be more suitable for us to choose one feature of the story and the day’s theme provides a place to focus: on the contrast between the man who is blind, but is healed and gradually comes to understand who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing to change the outlook of their society; and the religious leaders who are portrayed as collaborators and as remaining blind.

But first we need to first recognize a couple of points: First, today we understand the physical causes of visual problems, but in the ancient world many assumed that such conditions were the result of personal or generational sin. Jesus rejects this explanation in verse 3. Then second, when John refers to “the Jews,” in this story, he is referring to the religious leaders of his time, not an entire people. We need to note that every character in this story is Jewish (including Jesus!).

As the story progresses it becomes obvious the man’s physical blindness offers Jesus an opportunity to open other’s eyes. 

However, the larger purpose of the story was to show how the man gradually came to see who Jesus was and to expose the spiritual blindness of the other people in the story. The blind man first refers to Jesus as a prophet in verse 17, but by verse 22 we are told that he may have confessed that he understands Jesus to be the Messiah. Later in verse 28 he is seen as a disciple. In the final passage Jesus asks him if he believes in the Son of Man. The man is still not sure and asks who that is. When Jesus states that he is talking to him, he responds with the words, “Lord, I believe” and becomes a follower.

The first hearers of this story may have been members of a congregation in a cosmopolitan city, several generations after the resurrection, for whom the author of John wrote his Gospel account. Historians believe the Jewish-Christian members of the congregation faced persecution by local Jewish religious leaders because of their confession of Jesus as the Messiah. The Jewish people had an entirely different concept of the Messiah. They believed the promised Messiah would liberate their nation from the oppression of the Romans. Jesus, on the other hand, was among them to teach them a different way of living and of dealing with the oppression. He used parable and metaphor to illustrate that. But the Jewish Christians never came to understand that. 

They likely related to different characters in this story. Those who were afraid to confess publicly Jesus as the Messiah could probably understand the blind man’s parents (v. 22). Those who had been expelled from the synagogue likely identified with the blind man (v. 34). The story not only affirms Jesus’ power to help people to understand his message, but also shows how fear of persecution was preventing some of them from seeing they, like the first disciples, were also betraying him although in a different way.

It is then not surprising that this story has been chosen for the Lenten season, a time when we are challenged to examine our lives and confess our failings. And like the audience that first heard this story, we sometimes find it frightening to share our faith in God with others. 

The season of Lent is traditionally understood to be a time for reflection, contrition, and consideration of the sacrifice Jesus undertook for our sins. It has been, as you know, traditionally recognized for the forty days leading up to Easter. Preceded by Shrove Tuesday, upon which Christians are to prepare to confess their sins, Lent is entered into as a holy season of penitence.

Of course, all that is contingent upon a belief in the atonement theory of the crucifixion by which we accept that Jesus died to save us from our sins and bring us into eternal relationship with the divine being, God. If our belief in that story has cracks in it, the idea of Lent can become nonsensical. Why would we need to be penitential if we are considering the death of a man who didn’t die for our sins? Or if we didn’t believe in the idea of sin as it was constructed in the early centuries of Christianity? Why would we consider an act of contrition the appropriate response to an act of barbarity and violence?

The seasons of the Christian year and the festivals and traditions that are celebrated within them are usually based upon doctrinal or theological premises that may be difficult to discern at first blush. Communion often feels like a beautiful, communal meal. The doctrinal assertions that undergird it, however, are considerably different than many assume. Similarly, Lent can be thought of as a meaningful time for reflection and the consideration of love, justice, and kindness when the doctrinal beliefs upon which it is built no longer synch with contemporary understandings elicited through the study of the historical Jesus or the evolution of the idea of God.

If our understandings have shifted and we no longer believe that Jesus died for our sins, something I do not believe, does that mean, however, that we should give up on the idea of Lent? I do not think so. Sometimes setting aside a period of time for intentional reflection on life, on love, and on the things that flow from the often challenging intersection of those two things, can be a very important discipline to undertake, particularly in the busy craziness of twenty-first century Western society.

This is prescribed period in which to do this. Forty days feels good to me. And giving something up for Lent, an idea that is built on the practice of fasting, again, an act of penitence, can be worked in, if you like, by way of breaking a bad habit, or building up a good one.

As with other ecclesial practices and understandings, however, I invite you to leave behind the exclusively Christian word associated with it And so I invite you to undertake a course of reflection and study if that is your wish and to set aside the term: Lent…. If to hold onto it continues to overshadow your period of reflection with a bleak and dangerous interpretation of a tragic story. I am not suggesting that you deny others their right to use the word or to critique them for it. My thought is simply that you practice without it and see if it feels okay for you. You don’t need the doctrinal interpretation to reap the benefits of reflection and a sabbatical time away from the daily grind. And I would be willing to bet that if you share the news of your intentional forty-day practice with someone who is not involved in church – someone at work or a family member – they will be far more likely to want to know what it is you’re doing and why.

If you’re at a loss as to what you would do if you weren’t self-examining, here are some ideas. Think about what one or another of them would elicit in and from you. Would it make your life or the life of another more meaningful? If so, it is certainly worth trying. But the list is simply to stir your own imagination and see what you might undertake against the backdrop of your own life. Consider, make a pledge to yourself, and, if you can, keep track of how to feel as you move through your time.
Some suggestions:

• Keep a Journal

• Sign up for a poetry blog or buy a book of poetry and read a new poem every morning when you get up and the same one every evening before retiring. Better yet, write a new poem every day!

• Tape these words of commitment,  up next to your bathroom mirror. In the morning, consider how they can affect your day positively; in the evening, acknowledge what you might have done better and celebrate the good you made happen.

As I Live
As I live every day,
I want to be a channel for peace.
May I bring love where there is hatred
and healing where there is hurt;
joy where there is sadness
and hope where there is fear.
I pray that I may always try
to understand and comfort other people
as well as seeking comfort and understanding from them.
Wherever possible
may I choose to be
a light in the darkness
a help in times of need
and a caring, honest friend.
And may justice, kindness, and peace
flow from my heart forever.

• Write a thank you note to someone every day. Such as that person down the street who you don’t know but who gifts the community each year with a beautiful garden or Christmas light display.

• Think of a charity you’d like to support. Every day, place an amount of money you’d like to contribute to it and a note to explaining why you want to support it (yes, a different one each day!). Read the notes when you’re done and, if you feel like it, send them in an envelope with your check.

• Subscribe to the daily TED talk and learn something new every day. Follow up on stuff that really intrigues you.

Break the mold that Lent has been and release the new you that you’ve not yet met! And don’t forget to celebrate you while you do it!

Sometimes we are challenged, like the healed man, to testify to others of the good God has done in our lives. Like them, we can have our physical and spiritual eyes opened as we expect the coming of the light of God into our lives not only at Easter time but every day we live.

We are often unable to see how fear inhibits our faith and witness. Others may challenge us to share the good news as we understand it with them. The light of God can open our eyes to see how God’s works are revealed in each of us. So let us ask ourselves, “With whom do we identify in this story?” Also when have we been hesitant to discuss our personal beliefs in God and our personal understanding of who Jesus really was? Then when have we taken a risk to share that understanding and discuss it? 

Bob and Karan and I belong to a group that meets twice monthly to watch a Living the Questions video. We meet in the homes and watch this progressive video and afterward spend an hour sharing our thinking and then sharing refreshments.  No one has any answers and we all know it. But we all have opinions and comments and sometimes sharing those opens our eyes to new ideas or even new truths. We invite the congregation to join with us if you wish. 

During this season of Lent, let us ask ourselves “What is difficult to look at in ourselves, in our families, and in our congregations? And in what ways does the presence of God in our lives help us to see our personal failings and to learn to accept knowing about and accepting God’s love?

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