Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sermon: Hearing and Seeing

John 9:1-41
Hearing and Seeing
James Sledge                                                                                       March 26, 2017
John’s gospel is often misunderstood and misused by modern Christians who do not realize that John writes to Jewish Christians. His congregation is in conflict with synagogue leaders who threaten to throw them out over their non-orthodox beliefs. When John speaks disparagingly of “the Jews,” he does not use the term literally (true of many terms in John). It refers only to those powers-that-be who are threatening his community.

As he walked along, (Jesus) saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
“Why is this man blind?” ask the disciples. “What caused this?” Of course they already have assumptions about the causes. When they look at that blind man, they see him in a certain light.
“Whose fault is it that this man is blind?” It must be someone’s fault. There’s some reason that the only way he can survive is to stand on a street corner begging, like those people with their signs that I pass all the time in my car. Who’s fault is it?
The disciples look at the world and see it a certain way, and so they see a man who deserves his fate in some way, at least indirectly. If he hadn’t caused the problem himself, he was the product of bad family background.
Jesus seems not to see the world the same way the disciples do, that I do. He shows little interest in determining fault, but he does see an opportunity to show God’s love moving in the world, to be light in the darkness while there is the chance.
It’s an odd interaction. There’s spit and mud and a command. “Go to Siloam and wash.” The blind man hasn’t even asked Jesus for any help, but when Jesus speaks to him, he does just as Jesus says. And then he can see. Regardless of why he was born blind, regardless of why he’s there at Seven Corners with his sign every day, this is a wonderful moment. He won’t have to beg any more. Everyone that knows him will be celebrating.
But many of his neighbors don’t seem to recognize him anymore. He looks vaguely familiar, but he’s not a blind beggar. It must be someone else.
Way back when I was in elementary school, a girl with some significant learning and emotional challenges sat next to me. This was the 1960s, before there was much sensitivity to such things. She had few friends and struggled to keep up in class. It seemed likely she would have to repeat the grade.
One day we had our weekly spelling test, and Cathy was excited because she had spelled all ten words correctly. I knew better. I had seen her glancing at my paper, and I told the teacher. The classmate behind me agreed, and the teacher had her take the test again. She got them all correct again.

13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
Now the authorities get involved. It turns out that Jesus has not followed proper procedures. It’s a remarkable story, but clearly something is amiss. Jesus has used unapproved methodology. Something funny is going on. False claims are being made. An investigation is needed to get to the bottom of this.
Witnesses are called to testify, even the man’s parents. How’d this happen? What’s going on? No one seems to have an answer. “Yes, he’s our son and he was blind,” say the parents, “but that’s all we know.”
You’d think someone would be happy about this, would be celebrating this remarkable event, at least his friends and family. But almost no one seems able to see what has happened. No one sees the life that’s been changed. No one sees God at work.
24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
The investigative committee is getting frustrated. They have to prove that God doesn’t work this way. God, of all people, doesn’t break the rules. God would not upset our religious traditions. God is bound to robes and sanctuaries and organ music. God does not undermine a well laid-out committee structure and bylaws and the Book of Order. “What do you mean God changed your life, gave you new life? Tell us what really happened.”
A curious thing happens as this investigation proceeds. The authorities become more and more sure of their assumptions and certainties, more confirmed in their blindness, while the former blind man sees better and better, comes to a deeper understanding of what is happening. First he thought Jesus was a prophet. Now it is clear to him that Jesus is from God.
The investigation is at an impasse. The man is clearly deranged. He cannot have encountered God in the manner that he said.
35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
Jesus heals blindness but his presence renders others blind. The light that shines in the darkness is too much for some. They squint and shield their eyes. They cannot see.
Jesus continues speaking with the Pharisees well beyond our reading for today,  and he makes two more of the “I AM” statements that are a fixture of John’s gospel. We can’t hear it in English, but John’s first readers would have heard echoes of the divine name. “I AM the gate for the sheep… I AM the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me… They will listen to my voice.”
Apparently encountering God, encountering Jesus, is about hearing as well as sight. The blind man did as Jesus commanded before he ever saw him, before he ever realized who Jesus was. He heard, and then he was changed.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this is what happens when Jesus calls people to follow him as disciples. “If we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps. The first step, which follows the call, cuts the disciple off from his previous existence. The call to follow at once produces a new situation. To stay in the old situation makes discipleship impossible.”[1]
That’s exactly what happens to the blind man. He does as Jesus says, and he is changed. That change makes him unrecognizable to many. Even his family is ambivalent about this change. But the blind man sees and believes and worships Jesus.
Most church people that I know want to get close to God. That was probably true of just about everyone is or scripture reading today. But many of us – and that includes me on many, maybe most days – aren’t sure we can hear Jesus much less see him. Like the Pharisees, the best we can do is read the Bible a little, get some idea of what God wants, and then do the best we can on our own.
If someone says to us that they have heard God speak, we are suspicious, as perhaps we should be. But Jesus insists that through the Spirit, he will abide in us. The Spirit will speak to us and guide us, a light leading us to abundant life, to deeper relationship with God.
O Christ, give us ears to hear. Touch our eyes so we are not blinded by your light, but see you clearly and follow where you lead us.

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995, 1937) p. 62.

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