SERMON MARCH 26 2017
Here’s a bit of background to the reading from John’s gospel. The way John writes his account of Jesus has been likened to a court case. It is as though he is building up the case for Jesus being the Messiah. Just before the passage we heard there is a whole segment that uses language of testimony, witness and judgement. The Pharisees are in opposition, but there are also those whom John describes as the Jews who believed him, but who could not move into a relationship of love for God that Jesus says would set them free from simply holding on to their birthright as children of Abraham. Even though they could see what Jesus was doing and be moved by that, they were trapped by their tradition.
Now John will highlight this situation very clearly and rather movingly. I think John must have enjoyed writing this story. He presents it like a drama. We can picture it: Jesus sees (note the word) a blind man. The disciples, gathered there around him, ask Jesus about who has sinned that this man has been born blind. Isn’t it such a human tendency to try and find answers to difficulties by finding someone to blame? So we can imagine the scene of Jesus bending down to spit on the dust to make mud with it and spread it on the man’s eyes. It’s an action that connects back to the creation story in Genesis where God forms Adam from the dust and then breathed life into him. “Go and wash” he says. So our blind man hurries off, with his still-blind mud-cakes eyes, washes, and goes home, seeing.
The scene shifts to the neighbours, who huddle around: Isn’t this the blind man?” He can’t be surely. He only looks like him. So our no-longer blind friend comes out of the house and says “Yes. I am the man”. What happened? The man they call Jesus healed me? Where is he” I don’t know.
So the whole thing escalates. Of course it has to be brought to the Pharisees. They have to get to the bottom of it. The whole drama escalates as the man is brought in. Throughout it all he patiently tells his story, quite simply. But that will not do. The parents are dragged in. they become very afraid in all this fuss, because this could mean that they would be thrown out of the synagogue if something untoward has happened. And then their lives would be tarnished for ever. So they pass the buck back to their son, who is now therefore in danger of being divided off from the parents who have cared for him since he was born. He remains steadfast in what he knows to be true. He has been healed. He even begins to ridicule the Pharisees in their inability to accept what is plainly evident. “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples?” In return, he is ridiculed. The more it goes on, the more the man realises that what has happened to him has come from God and that his powerful accusers will never accept it. So he is thrown out.
Before, he was an outsider because of his blindness and because lurking around that was the whole question of sinfulness. Now he can see, both physically and spiritually. He has been freed but has been cast out, out of the security of belonging, out from the rituals and traditions of the community, out from his family circle. Out into what?
Out into the extraordinary new horizons that emerge as Jesus comes back to find him. The man sees things differently now and it leads him to worship in a whole different way. It is worship that comes from seeing how God is at work. He sees that in Jesus. The fact that he is an outsider is no longer important because it is on the outside that he has found the one who brought him healing, who he now calls “Lord”.
What does it mean to be an insider or an outsider? The way this drama has played out, we can see the boxes, if you like, that people are in. The Pharisees have been trying to protect the big box of their beliefs, of the Law indeed, as they have come to see it. But they have become blind to how God is at work, and when the blindfold is lifted slightly at the edge, the light that comes in is too threatening to the order of life. This is why Jesus condemns them because they are not really blind. They are guilty of having glimpsed God at work and deciding to close their eyes again, because it was too hard to see beyond their self-imposed limitations.
The neighbours are boxed in by their expectations that cannot make room for something as big as a blind man, whom they have known since he was born, suddenly seeing. Even the evidence of the man before them was not enough. They couldn’t allow their habits of belief to be changed. It would be too uncomfortable.
The parents, likewise are even more challenged by this threat to everything they have known about their son and everything they have been told to trust in by their religious leaders. They are forced into making a choice. It is tragic that they choose their security with the authorities and with their neighbours over love for their son.
Looking from our distance it is easy enough to see what is going on, to make some sense of the drama that goes on when individuals and groups speak to defend their own positions. We see how the no-longer blind man comes to be cast out. It is sad, but we recognise how powerful the desire is to protect the status quo of the religion and the culture. We are being shown how it can happen that there are those who apparently belong on the inside and there are those who don’t, who can’t, because their difference can find no place in the insider box. All this comes close to home, even where we are and in our own times.
Maybe the language of “boxes” is not very helpful, because most of us don’t feel that we live in a box. We are, rather, all products of our own upbringing, our own culture. What we do, the ways in which we think, the habits of our lives are all “normal” for us. In this multicultural society that is part of life, though perhaps no so obviously in this part of Sydney as many others, there are many different ides of “normal”. The gospel always address the way we live. It always asks us who we see ourselves, how we hold that in relation to Jesus and to our neighbour. It is always breaking through our expectations and our restrictions. It is always offering us a way to find the things in life that are truly life-giving.
But, these days, it seems that much of what we see around us is not life-giving. So much is about becoming more strongly defended, not more open. We can see very clearly today how lines are drawn to exclude those who don’t belong. It is hard to escape this in the world we live in. The fear of not belonging that John describes is multiplied so many times over in our times where so much is framed in the language of terror. We don’t like it and it makes us deeply concerned for the future. The challenge for us in today’s reading is to see how blind we have become to what lies behind what is happening. It is not just something far off. It is about how we perceive others and how we respond to the hardship and desperate need of so many. It is hard to keep our eyes open. When we do, we can feel overwhelmed, disempowered and we may also glimpse how easily we are roused to fear and suspicion of those who are different. And so we become blind to much of the story.
As we journey through Lent we are always being asked to slow down, to see what are the things that can limit our love. The story of Jesus and the blind man, and those around him, is, like so much in the gospel about love and lack of love. We are asked to hold our limits, our fear of differences and our need to protect ourselves, over against God’s unlimited love, shown to us in the unswerving journey of Jesus towards Jerusalem.
This reading today shows us, if we take off our blindfolds, that for Jesus, there were no boxes into which people must fit and no rules about belonging. There are only those who were prepared to look, see and allow themselves to be changed by what they see. What they were being shown was love, healing and renewing love. There are no insiders or outsiders in God, there are just people, of all kinds and all cultures, God’s people. God’s power doesn’t need the protection of a box with which people have, through the ages, felt they had to defend God. John, in describing the healing of the blind man whose life is recreated, has shown that it doesn’t matter how strong an argument may be made that Jesus is the Christ. If people don’t open their eyes to see the proof around them and open their hearts to the love that Jesus offers, then their lives will always be limited and held down. And “people” there means us.
God’s heart of love yearns for all to come together on the journey, accepting, as the blind man did, that God works in often surprising ways. These ways will often challenge our notions of what is right and what is wrong. They will push back against our self-protective instincts. My Glaswegian Presbyterian grandmother always used to say: “There’s none sae blind as those that will nae see”. May our prayer be that we are open enough to look with eyes of love, on ourselves and on all around us as we walk towards Jerusalem.