Monday, March 27, 2017

To See or Not to See -- Fourth Sunday in Lent

John 9:1-41
March 26, 2017

            When I was first living in Richmond, Virginia back in the late 1980’s, I received a catalog in the mail from a store I’d never heard of. The catalog was colorful and well done. The furniture and goods it was selling looked cool and relatively inexpensive, and along with the name of the store there was a Swedish flag displayed! Being of Swedish descent, this intrigued me. It turned out there was a physical store next to another magical place called Potomac Mills Outlet Mall. If you have not already figured it out, the store was IKEA. The catalog came on a Saturday, and the next Monday I took the catalog to work with me. I asked the other folks in my office about it, and I was told that Potomac Mills was a huge outlet mall in Northern Virginia. IKEA was located right next to it. Finding Potomac Mills and IKEA was no problem at all. Just get on I-95 and drive north for almost two hours. I would reach the outlet mall before I reached Washington, DC.
            I had nothing planned for the next Saturday, so I hopped in my car, drove north on I-95, took the exit that boldly declared Potomac Mills Outlet Mall, and there, in Swedish blue and yellow glory, stood IKEA. I had never seen anything like IKEA. Here was this huge, amazing store, filled not just with furniture but so many, many, many things. And it was Swedish! It even had a café. When I was ready for lunch, I ordered Swedish meatballs. It felt like Christmas at my parents’ house.
            That was my introduction to IKEA. I was so excited at finding it, and I wanted to introduce my parents to this delightful place as well. The next time they drove from Nashville to visit me, I showed them the catalog and suggested that we drive up there. We got in my car, and once again I headed north on I-95. We took the Potomac Mills exit and there was IKEA. My parents were as impressed and excited about this store as I was. It was in the late fall, and they were able to get some Christmas shopping out of the way which made them happy. They even found that year’s Christmas gifts for my dad’s office staff – something they put a lot of thought and time into every year. I don’t remember if I bought anything on that particular trip. It was just fun to walk around the store with them. As I had on my first visit, we ordered Swedish meatballs at the café. While we were eating, my dad asked me how I managed to find this place. I told them the story about getting the catalog, asking the people at my office, getting directions, driving my car north on I-95, and discovering a Swedish home goods haven.
            On the way back to Richmond, Dad asked me the same question,
How did you find this place?”
            I repeated the story a second time. Then a little while later, he asked me a third time. “How did you find this place?” I told him: catalog, colleagues, car, I-95, IKEA. He didn’t seem to believe me. I finally asked him,
“Dad, what part of this story do you not understand?”
            Perhaps my parents did not believe me when I told them about IKEA, or think that it was as cool as I described. But I took them there, so it was obvious that the store was real and not just a figment of my imagination. They liked it as much as did, so I was not exaggerating its coolness. I showed them the catalog. We drove in my car. They noted the exit number. Everything I told them was true. It wasn’t true just because I said so, but because it was demonstrably true. But my dad just couldn’t seem to grasp that I had found this store.
            My dad generally believed the things I told him, so I was surprised and confused that he seemed to have such a hard time believing what I was telling him them. Although he never explained his astonishment, I don’t think it was a matter of disbelief. I think I surprised him. Maybe he didn’t expect me to just hop in my car and drive somewhere new all by myself. Maybe he was still amazed that I had just packed up and left my life in Nashville to move to Richmond. Maybe it was not IKEA which surprised him, maybe it was me. Perhaps I did not seem to be the person I used to be.
The man born blind was not the person he used to be either. He was born blind, no sight, no vision at all. But one encounter with Jesus and he was no longer blind. He could see! Today we understand that blindness is not a consequence of sin. But as we read in our story, sin and sinfulness were considered the root causes of someone being born blind. So when Jesus and the disciples came upon this man born blind, the disciples responded to his condition with the question, “Who sinned?” Was this man the sinner? Was it his sinfulness that was the cause of his blindness, or was it the sinfulness of his parents? It must be one or the other. Blindness was the result of sinfulness. So, who sinned?
            Although Jesus’ response sounds straightforward, it bears repeating that every story in John’s gospel is couched in metaphor and has layers of meaning. It stands to reason, then, that Jesus’ response to the disciples is the same.
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
            Does this mean that Jesus was saying God afflicted the man with blindness so that someday when he was an adult, he could be used as an object lesson for other people? I don’t think so. I think a deeper, more accurate understanding is that the man’s blindness was just that, a sad but random happening. But Jesus knew that through this man God’s glory could and would be revealed. When Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman at the well, he spoke to her not just of water she could carry in her buckets, but of living water that would revive her soul. Jesus told Nicodemus that it was his birth, his forming and shaping, in and by the Spirit that would give him salvation and new life.  So too, this blind man would see. He would see not just the physical world around him, but he would see and recognize the revelation of God’s glory. 
            As one commentator noted, Jesus’ actions take on a baptismal quality. He spit on the ground, made mud, and spread the mud on the man’s eyes. He told the man to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. When the mud was washed away, he returned able to see, both the world around him and God’s glory. 
            Upon his return, the neighbors and others who knew him before took notice. “Wait a minute, isn’t this the guy who was blind?  Isn’t this the one we knew as a beggar; the one who’s been blind since birth?” 
            Some of the people believed that it really was him. But others said, “No that’s not that guy. It looks like him, but it’s not him.”
            Yet the man kept insisting that he was the one who was blind but could now see. He said, “I am the man.” A commentary noted that this man is the only other person to use the phrase, “I am” except Jesus. I am the man. So the neighbors asked him, “How did this happen? How did you receive your sight?”
            He told them exactly what Jesus did. He spat on the ground, made mud, spread the mud on my eyes, told me to go wash. I did and now I see.
            But it was suspicious. No one is born blind then given sight. The man was brought before the Pharisees, the religious authorities. An investigation ensued. The Pharisees, like the neighbors, asked the man how he received his sight. He repeated the story: Jesus, mud, wash, sight. Yet rather than rejoice in this miraculous healing, the Pharisees became more concerned about the timing. This happened on the Sabbath. Obviously, Jesus was not “from God” because he willingly broke the Law. No one who was truly from God would do that. But the man stuck to his story. He told the Pharisees exactly what he told the other people. He was blind, but Jesus gave him sight. He was blind, but now he could see.
            John tells us that the Pharisees are divided in their response. Jesus broke the Law, so he must be a sinner. Yet how could a sinner perform such signs? This man born blind could see. The Pharisees then questioned the man about Jesus. What does he say about him? After all, he’s the one who was given sight by Jesus. All the man will say about Jesus’ identity is that he is a prophet.
            The Jews – John is speaking of the Jewish religious authorities, not Jews in general – decided that it wasn’t possible that this man was actually born blind. So they tracked down his parents. They questioned them. “Is this your son and was he born blind?”
            The parents were afraid.  They were afraid of being forced out of the synagogue, out of the community and its fellowship. It was already known that anyone who gave credence to Jesus would suffer those consequences. So out of fear, they handed over their own son.
“We know that this is our son. We know that he was born blind. But we don’t know how he’s seeing now and we don’t know who made him see. Look, don’t bother us anymore. He’s of age. Ask him.”
            One more time the religious authorities called the man in for questioning. This repeated interrogation would be funny if it were not so annoying and so sad.
“Give glory to God,” they told him, “we know that this man is a sinner.”
This wasn’t an invitation to praise God for what Jesus had done. It was not a true call to give glory to God. It was a warning. This Jesus, this sinner must be denied, and any authority he might have, undermined. But the man refused to back down.   
            “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 
            To me this is the crux of the passage. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. The man would not let them take that away from him. He would not let his experience of moving from blindness to sight be hijacked to accommodate the power driven agendas of others. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.
            The Pharisees could not accept this. They reviled the man. They accused him of being a disciple of Jesus, a sinner, while they, the good and righteous people, were disciples of Moses. 
            The man didn’t take their bait. He even took them to task for their lack of understanding. 
            “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to the one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
            That was the final straw. They responded,
“You were born entirely in sin, and are you trying to teach us?”
The Pharisees made good on their threats. They drove him out of the synagogue and out of the fellowship of the worshipping community. Jesus returned to the scene. We don’t know where he was during this lengthy interrogation, but when he heard that the man was driven out of the synagogue, Jesus went looking for the man who could see. Jesus asked the man one question,
“Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
The man born blind wanted to know the identity of the Son of Man, so that he may worship him. Jesus answered,
“You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” With that, the man believed.  
            The man born blind could see. He could see Jesus standing before him. But he could also see the truth of Jesus and his identity. The man who could now see also could see. To see in John’s gospel is to have faith, to believe. He recognized and believed that Jesus was the Son of Man. He could see with his eyes. He could see with his heart. He could see with faith. To see or not to see; to borrow from the Bard, that is the question. Jesus gave this man a miracle, and he gave him a call. You can see the world around you, but do you now see who I am? Do you see me, really see me?  I came into the world to be the Light of the World. You were blind, but now you see. Yet those who see, or think they see, are blind.
The Pharisees did not trust what their eyes, their minds or their hearts told them. How often am I like them? How often do I not trust what my eyes, my mind and my heart tells me because the truth of what I am seeing may be a truth I don’ like? How often do I make the choice not to see – not to see Jesus in the others around me, not to see the grace and mercy that covers me, not to see the Light because the darkness is easier to bear? How often do I choose not to see?
In this season of Lent and always, we are reminded that we are called to see – to see God’s glory in his Son, to see God’s abundant grace and love, and to see that we are called to share that love, to witness to it, to testify to the hurt and brokenness in the world with our own stories, our own experiences of God’s grace and love. To repeat the good news, over and over again. Look, look! I was blind, but now I see!
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

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