Greg Garrett: Out of the Darkness

[A Sermon preached by Greg Garrett at St. David's Episcopal Church, Austin, Tx, for the 4th Sunday of Lent, on John 9:1-41, The Healing of the Man Blind from Birth.]

Holy One: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer: Draw our hearts and minds ever closer to you we pray. AMEN.

Sixteen centuries ago, Augustine of Hippo stepped into the pulpit after this long gospel lection had been read, and he remarked, "A day would be insufficient to consider all the theological lessons in this reading." In fact, it seems to take most of a day just to read it. As we've seen in recent weeks, the lectionary lessons from the Gospel of John incorporate long stories with action and conversation, and knowing where to jump in can be a challenge. Is it here? Here? Here?

So we ask: What is this story about? Some, over the years have approached this passage as a theological discussion of suffering, because that is something all of us deal with, and some may be experiencing right now. Why do people suffer? Is it because of their sin? The sin of their parents? Or is there another explanation?

Jesus answers that suffering is not the fault of those who suffer or those around them, but is something that can reveal God at work in the world, although that may not feel like comfort to anyone who this morning feels broken, betrayed, sick in body, mind, or spirit. As someone who has been both a sufferer and a comforter-sometimes on the same day-let me assure you that I know "It's part of God's plan" is nigh on to useless as spiritual wisdom when you are in intense pain. But hang close: I don't think "It's God's will" ends up being our spiritual lesson today.

Others over the years have used this story's depiction of the Jewish leaders' rejection of Jesus and the man he heals to condemn the Jewish people in toto. The Gospel of John uses an idiomatic phrase that is often translated simply as "the Jews," and more anti-Semitic teaching has probably grown out of John than anywhere else in the Bible. But this story is not about a contest between Moses and Jesus-please note that Jesus himself never even weighs in on that debate. Nor is it a contest between wicked Jews and faithful Christians. Every single character in this story is a Jew. The skeptical Pharisees, the questioning neighbors, and the cowardly parents are Jews. So too are the blind man, the disciples of Jesus-and Jesus himself.

Most scholars agree that the anger we find expressed toward Jewish leaders in the Gospel of John closely reflects the situation of the Johannine community who gathered around this gospel. We think that these were faithful Jews expelled from the synagogues because they confessed Jesus as the Liberating King, the Messiah of Jewish tradition. The fate of the blind man-cast out of the synagogue-is expressed in a Greek word that appears three times in the Gospel of John-but does not appear again in the Christian Testament, or for that matter, in any other Jewish or Christian text we know. Being cast out of the community may not have been a central worry for the Jews of Jesus' time, but it most certainly was for generations who followed. As my teacher and friend Cynthia Kittredge has written, this language of anger and enmity toward "The Jews" in John "reflects the intense feelings of loss and hurt of those who had become socially separated from their kinspeople." (Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John, 53)  This story reflects that pain, but it certainly isn't the sole reason to tell it.

Nor is this a story about miracles, although it contains one. In the book of John, which depicts only seven miracles of any kind, there's little suggestion-as there is, for example in the Gospel of Mark-that Jesus is some sort of itinerant ER doctor, healing throngs of people wherever he goes. Instead, the Johannine miracles are, as we heard today, elaborate dialogues, sermons, if you will, about where this power comes from and what it means. The Greek word used to describe these miracles is semeia, which means "signs," and so they are, pointing toward God instead of toward themselves. To think this is a story only about a blind man whom Jesus heals would be a little like pulling off the highway because your gas light came on and parking underneath the Valero sign instead of pulling up to the pump.

No, this story is about more and does more. In this narrative, we see stark contrasts between darkness and light, the kind of thing we observed a few weeks ago in our reading of John 3, since that is the spiritual metaphor in which the author of John delights. We also see familiar contrasts between the physical and the spiritual, and discover the Johannine Gospels' continued enjoyment of the thickheadedness of people who constantly try to understand spiritual phenomena on a physical level.

This is ultimately a story about how blindness and physical suffering are not caused by sin; in a neat Johannine twist, instead, sin is caused by spiritual blindness.

This is ultimately a story about how God, moving in the pain and darkness of our lives, can move us to insight, acceptance, and hope.

This is the fourth Sunday of Lent, and many of us have chosen to enter into a wilderness in which we symbolically wander for forty days in hopes of emerging with more light and understanding. But others of us now are wandering literally, in deserts entered into not of our own choice-exiled by lost jobs, shattered relationships, poor health, doubts and fears, conflicts and uncertainties. If any of that describes your situation this morning, please know that we, together, are loving you and that when we pray in a few short moments, we are praying that you will know God's comfort and peace.

Please also know that this lesson from John testifies-and I stand here as a witness-that God will not abandon you.

For anyone who is in any kind of darkness this morning, our gospel lesson offers light and hope. Like the man born blind, all of us are given our lives and the blessings and heartbreaks inherent in them so that God's works might be revealed through us. Like the man born blind, we are called to pay attention to how God might move in our lives through an encounter with the living Christ, and to testify to the transformation that comes from that encounter. Like the man born blind, we are encouraged to hold tight to our faith, and to realize that, as in this story, Jesus comes seeking us when we have been thrown away and tossed aside.

In the darkest times of my own life, I came to believe that Jesus was working some sort of miracle in my life, bringing me to sight and new life, and I had no words for it other than the words of the man born blind: This is what I know: I was blind, and now I see.

I couldn't have expressed what was happening to me through logic or theology-not then, not for a long time after. All I could do was argue, as this man does, from experience: Although I don't understand it, this is what has happened. You've heard me quoting Anne Lamott describing her own salvation history: "I used to be over there, and now I'm over here. And there is no way to get from there to here."

Impossible in any earthly fashion. And yet here we stand.

When God has moved in your life in such a powerful spiritual way-whether through that rare miraculous intervention, or through the love of a person or community who has been the face of Christ for you, or through a spiritual sense of comfort as though someone is holding your hand, drying your tears-the story suggests all we can do is witness to God's movement.

I don't understand it, we might say. I don't know how to explain it.

It doesn't make sense as the world understands things, and I understand that as well as you do.

There may also be, as for this no-longer-blind man, social costs to witnessing to what God has done and is doing in our lives.

Some will think we're as off-balance as UFO enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists, people who definitely saw Elvis at a bowling alley last week, and that will smart.

People may eject us from their boardrooms, their country clubs, their bowling leagues, or their knitting circles, and that will sting.

But what we get in return is so much bigger, so much better.

Like the man born blind, we get Jesus.

And we get each other.

The deeply spiritual lesson behind this story is this: Into a world shadowed in darkness, a light is shining. We who have seen and known the light are called to testify to it, called to affirm that it is real and powerful and beyond any explanation but grace, called together to reflect it for all those who are still in any kind of darkness.

This story teaches us to move from blindness to bold confession to brave discipleship.

May we have eyes to see and ears to hear. AMEN.

[Taken with permission from "The Other Jesus," the blog of Greg Garrett. Originally posted April 2, 2011.]