Imagine with me for a moment that you are watching a movie and the scene is at a beach on a beautiful sunny day. There is a large crowd on the beach, some picnicking, others sunbathing, others tossing a ball or a Frisbee, but no one is in the water. You notice a large sign, just at the edge of the water that says, "No Swimming." You notice that there is a lifeguard on duty. Just as the opening credits fade away, there is a scream from the water. Someone is trying to swim despite the sign, and they are in trouble. The lifeguard doesn't move. He looks towards the drowning man and yells, "You should have read the sign! Who told you to go in?" Then someone jumps up from the beach, jumps in, and saves the person about to drown. Do you think he is treated as a hero? No, not at all. In the next scene, the lifeguard and a group of his buddies are yelling at the swimmer, "You didn't read the sign either! How dare you go to the water?" One turns to another and says, "How are we ever going to have any order around this place?"
Absurd, you say? Of course it was absurd, but no more so than our Gospel lesson from the ninth chapter of John, that part we just heard. There are several ways of dealing with this passage. One is from the perspective of the blind man. We can ponder what it means to be blind, the difficulty of getting through the day, what it means to be cut off from family and friends. We are faced with not only the struggle to cope, but with the guilt that overwhelms you when they try to convince you that you sinned to cause your blindness, or the anger when you are told it was something your parents did. If we follow the blind man, we deal with a journey from being a sinner in the eyes of the world to a believer in Jesus as the Messiah.
Another perspective we can take is the role of the religious leaders, the guardians of tradition, the pillars of the community, that stood between God and the people. We might ask, "Are they not more handicapped by blindness than the man who was healed?" for this is a story of two kinds of blindness. One is physical--it's a tragedy--but one that can be dealt with through courage, determination, and education. It calls for our support through research, compassion, and consideration. The other is spiritual, for which there is no excuse. Spiritual blindness can be overcome through the extravagant Grace of God in our Lord Jesus; and if we are honest, for most of us this is the one we have to deal with.
This chapter in John is a reminder to who writes life's script. Those who sought to place the blame for the blindness were blind to the effects that their charges had on others. Charles Bartow, in the book God's Human Speech wrote, "Moses did not plant the bush that burned and was not consumed. He came upon it, or he was led to it." He points out that when Jesus asks, "Who do you say I am?" that did not mean whatever one might want it to mean. Our faith is a revealed religion, a gift to us, not merely fabricated by us.
You might ask, "Why is this important?" For one thing it helps to free us from the danger of being closed in mind and heart when God calls on us. When we are trying to control the scripts of our lives, we are like the religious leaders in our Gospel today; if God doesn't fit into our expectations, we slam the door.
At any point in our life and our faith journey, there is danger in thinking the process is over, that our faith is a complete package, as if our finite minds can ever capture the infinite wonder of God. The Rev. Dr. Jimmy Allen, former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, leader in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and a preacher on Day One, wrote following a tragedy in his life, "I don't know nearly as much about God as I did when I left seminary, but what I have learned about God is so real that it will take your breath away. Sometimes we learn about God only through going through something that takes life out of the safe and comfortable and into the unknown and challenging."
There are times in life that we are challenged to deal with that which is beyond our understanding. John Wimber, an early leader in the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, said the first time he went to church he expected dramatic things to happen. After attending for three Sundays, he was frustrated. Following the service he approached an official looking guy and asked him, "When do they do it?" "Do what?" was the reply. Wimber said, "The stuff." Again, a question, "What stuff?" To which he replied, "The stuff in the Bible." Again another question, "What do you mean?" "You know the healing of the sick, the multiplying of the loaves and fish, feeding the hungry, giving sight to the blind, that stuff." Then came the answer, "Oh, we don't do that, we believe in it, and we pray about it, but we don't do it."
Our call to follow Christ is never merely to think about it or talk about it. At some point we have to step up to the plate. For some this means responding to a call to be in ministry and mission, for others it may mean to be a volunteer in the mission and ministry of their church, for others it may mean to be involved in the community to help liberate people from the bondage of poverty. It may be as simple as reaching out to a lonely person; the list could go on, for it is as individual as each of us. But the challenge is to step forward where God would lead and for us to risk.
There is wisdom in knowing our limitations in what we can do alone or together. Let our prayer be that of Reinhold Niebuhr's Prayer of Serenity:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Too many times we don't take the critical step to see where we can make the difference, to use our talents, our time, and our treasures in the most effective way possible. God has not called us to lost causes, but to help build his kingdom.
There is danger when we draw our circles too tight. The reaction of the religious authorities to the man with his sight restored reminds us that, for too many of us, newness is a threat. Newness is a reminder that things are never completely in our control. It reminds us that we don't know near as much as we thought. It reminds us that we can be blind of heart to what God can do and is doing in our world and in our lives. Drawing the circle too tight can rob us of the joy of knowing and experiencing the power of the Living God in our lives.
Longfellow, writing into his late 70's, early 80's was asked how he continued to be so creative. He pointed at an apple tree older than he that was still producing fruit. He challenged, "See the little green on the wood, from that comes the flower, then the apple. The apple grows on the new wood, and I make sure that I have some new wood every year." In the third chapter of John, Nicodemus couldn't see drawing the circle larger and starting over. In the fourth chapter of John the woman at the well only found Jesus when she stepped outside of the circle that had been drawn by those who judged her. Let's be honest. At times we, too, draw a circle around another, just as Nicodemus did around Jesus, or the neighbors did to the Samaritan woman, or in today's lesson the religious authorities in the blindness of heart did to the blind man and his parents. Who gave them or anyone the assignment to draw the circle anyway?
Let's be honest, we, too, have a hard time when God gets beyond our neat little world, when we are pushed to think in new ways, to go a different path we don't want to see. In the novel Revelation, Peggy Payne tells of a Presbyterian minister who experiences a theophany. One afternoon, while grilling steaks in the backyard, he hears the voice of God speaking to him. It's a revelation. It's the kind of revelation that will change his life; he will never be the same again. The rest of the story tells the price he paid for telling of the revelation. Do the leaders of his congregation rejoice with him? Not exactly. They do provide free psychiatric care and paid administrative leave.
Look at our Gospel lesson for today; it takes only two verses for the miracle and thirty-nine for the reaction. Be honest with the modern church; at times we have been pretty good at investigating irregularities, but not so good at acknowledging the power of God that cannot be contained by any religious dogma or principle. It is easy to have the sympathy of the Pharisees. They were only attempting to do what many of us have been trained to do: observe, describe, and explain.
It would be much easier for us if all suffering had a direct cause that we could easily see and assign the blame. It is true that in some cases we can point to a choice that makes all the difference, just as in the fact that one billion, yes, I said one billion people will die this century because of a choice to use tobacco. Other suffering we know is caused by things far beyond our direct control, such as climate change and storms, or war and terror, but we can still see a cause. But there will always remain unintended results such as deaths from automobile accidents.
But given all this, there will be suffering for which we can see no direct cause and thus cannot assign blame, perhaps as with the blindness of the man in our lesson.
The challenge is not to find who to blame, but how do we reach out to those who suffer and bring hope and comfort to their lives. For when we start to blame and judge others, without intending to do so, we add to their burdens. Think for a moment how the parents must have felt when they were told by the religious authorities that they were the cause of their son's blindness. We add so much to the burdens of others as we judge and accuse.
Blind to the pain others suffer, too often we draw lines where God did not intend. We make things seem so simple when which direction to go may be a very difficult decision. We must not add to the burdens of others who have made choices we do not agree with. We must not be lost in our own little world that we don't see their needs.
In the church there are caucuses and groups that judge others and divide the Body of Christ. They see issues in terms of black and white. Like the authorities in our Gospel lesson, they are always right and the others always wrong. Within the Body of Christ we need to be one in the Spirit. In the church there needs to be room for diversity of understanding but unity in love. Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, "I have sheep not of this flock." There will be diversity, and we must be careful to let God to set the boundaries.
We are challenged to see the very hand of God at work in our lives. Listen again to the great statement of faith by the man once blind, "One thing I know, I was blind but now I see." The authorities were afraid of what would happen when God got involved and they were no longer in control, and for that reason there was a price to pay. The man with new sight's profession of faith came with a great cost. He was cast out of the synagogue, cut off from his family. That was the ironclad certainty of the law.
There is the loneliness in our lesson's final scene when Jesus and the man converse outside the synagogue. We wait for God to write a new ending. Once we have seen with our heart we can't go back to the same world. When we have experienced the mighty power of God we see people differently, we see issues differently. We can not expect everybody to see as we see.
In our own world there are those who would make single issues the litmus test of whether one is a follower of Jesus. Let us make sure that as a church, and as believers we need to have "Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors." For none are so blind who think they can see without God's grace and mercy. Amen.
Let us pray. Gracious God, forgive us in our foolishness when we think we see more than we do and help us to see as you would have us to see, that we may not be blind in our little world to see the kingdom that you're building for us. Amen.