TEXTS: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; John 9:1-41
It was a typical Sunday morning at Methodisterian Church of the Holy Sepulcher by the Wayside, not too far from here. Pastor Finklestein was leading the congregation solemnly through the service as he did every Sunday, according to the long standing tradition in the church of doing “everything decently and in order”. In fact it was a special day that day, as there was a baptism scheduled during the service; the great-granddaughter of one of the longest tenured and oldest members of the congregation. As the congregation was solemnly singing through the fourth verse of their solemn opening hymn, two raggedly dressed teenage boys, one obviously being led by the other, came rumbling down the center aisle of the sanctuary with the first excitedly, and far too loudly, saying to the second, “Look Harry, there it is, just like the man told us!”
As the congregation stood by in shocked disbelief, the boys stumbled up to the baptismal font which had been placed out in the middle of the chancel and began splashing water from the font into the eyes of the second boy whose name, we must assume, was Harry; eyes that seemed to be liberally smeared with a rather nasty looking mud.
Just as Pastor Finklestein was about to get his voice back, the second boy proclaimed loudly, “I can see Sam! Just like the guy said! I can see! I can see you! I can see me! Look at everything! It’s so beautiful! And the two boys hugged each other and hopped up and down with glee.
Pastor Finklestein, who at this point had turned just about as red as a beet, exploded with righteous indignation, “Gentlemen! What is the meaning of this invasion of our solemn act worship?!”
To which the boy named Sam replied, “Well we were headin’ down tot he park when there was this guy walking at us see, with a bunch of other guys talking about somethun’, and then the guy he stopped us and then he spit on ground and made some mud from the spit and dust and smeared it on Harry’s eyes. Harry couldn’t see by the way, not since he was born. And the guy, he smear the stuff on Harry and tells us to come here and the wash stuff off in a big bowl of water at the front of the room.”
“So, cut in Harry, We did what the man said, and I was figurin’ ‘Hey whatta I got to lose?’ and we found your place just like man said and washed off the stuff and now I can see! This is so cool! I can seem like everything!”
Now my friends, let us hit the pause button on our little scene at this point. I want you now to put yourselves in the place of Pastor Finklestein who, it seems to me, has at least a couple of very important choices to make at this moment; decisions that could affect him and his congregation very deeply and for ages to come. The first choice, the first decision that he (you) must make: Do you welcome these boys into your midst and ask them to stay and worship with you; or do you call you’re your ushers to march them out of your sanctuary immediately, telling them not to come back to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher by the Wayside until they learn how to conduct themselves properly during a service worship? The second choice to be made, the second thing to be decided: do you proceed with the baptism that has been scheduled that morning using the now muddied water that is in the font or do you have the altar guild thoroughly clean and disinfect that font while the service proceeds with whatever level of dignity you and your congregation are now able to muster?
The greater question for all of us, outside the little drama that I have painted for you might be: How often do we let our religiosity, our adherence to perceived rules and proprieties of the church, get in the way of our faith? Or, as I like to put it to myself, how often do I find myself tripping on the hem of my own pulpit robe?
In today’s story of the healing of the man born blind, Jesus performed a powerful sign, an unbelievable miracle, yet we find that, as the story progresses, not only the miracle itself but the man who was healed are increasingly rejected by those who are supposed to be the faithful members of the community because the miracle just didn’t fit within the acceptable religious boundaries and parameters that the people of the blind man’s community had set upon themselves and others.
I love the way John lays the story out like a staged play (Act 1, Scene 1; Act 1, Scene 2). In the early acts of the story, the may born blind was the one who was mystified, and yet as the story unfolds we are allowed to see more and more through his eye of faith as his spiritual sight improves. The man’s spiritual sightedness becomes sharper and more focused, as it were, culminating in his full recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and his act of worship and honor directed toward Jesus. At the same time, the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the community seem to be going in the other direction, as their spiritual sightedness decreases and becomes more like tunnel vision, to the point that they cannot see the power of God when he stands before them making bold proclamations.
Meanwhile there are other players in the drama, such as the neighbors and the young man’s parents, who seem to understand and have at least a limited vision throughout the story, but who, out of fear that their comfortable lives may be made uncomfortable, refuse even to participate in the drama. (There seemed be universal agreement among our Bible Study group this past Tuesday that the parents of the man born blind threw their own son under the bus in order to protect their own station and status in the community.
The opening question in today’s story, “who sinned this man or his parents?” sets the tone for the entire drama, for in the eyes of the people of Israel calamity, illness, injury and even lifelong handicaps were a direct result of sin. And there was a firm belief that the sin of the parents could follow families to “the third and fourth generation”. Now while we may consider ourselves far too sophisticated to outwardly believe such superstitious rot as this, haven’t we all looked toward heaven in the midst of some calamity or some illness and said silently, “What did I do to deserve this?” There is, I believe, and always has been that little place of darkness our hearts that believes that our sins will be punished in this life or that we may be paying now for the waywardness of our parents in a sort of spiritual cause and effect relationship with God. In a similar manner, we celebrate God’s goodness to us when we hit the lottery jackpot or narrowly escape an accident or stay healthy when everyone around us falls ill. And isn’t that celebration tinged with just a bit of smugness in the knowledge that our good fortune is due, at least in part, to the fact that we are good little boys and girls? Jesus though clearly responded to his disciples questions by stating emphatically that the situation with the man born blind had nothing to do with sin and that, at the same time, the situation had the power to help reveal the mighty work of God in their midst.
And with that we begin John’s story that shows us that the work of God has the power to restore sight and the power to blind, the power to set free and the power to bind up, the power to elevate and the power to bring down; and all at the same time and as part of the same act. It was the power of God working through the Son (Jesus) that caused all these things to take place by bringing physical sight to a man who had never before had sight. It was then the power and decisions of the people who surrounded the man born blind and the decisions of the man himself that brought spiritual sight or blindness, that set the man free even as it bound and imprisoned the Pharisees and other religious leaders, that elevated those who saw the event as the miracle that it was, while bringing down those who could not get past the fact that the miracle did not comply with their understanding of faith.
So where are we in the midst of all this? Do we have the faith and freedom to celebrate the miraculous work of God whenever and wherever it presents itself before us; even when that presentation may sometimes seem quite unorthodox? Could we, as a congregation here at Zion Church, recover from our collective shock in a situation like the one that I presented if it were to happen here? Could we recover enough to invite Harry and Sam to join us as we collectively gave thanks for Harry’s miraculous healing as it was presented before us? Could we, if we were the family of that little one that was to be baptized that day, have allowed Pastor Finklestein, or Pastor Schroeder, to baptize the child with the muddy water in that font? (Water that may have been just that much more holy for what it had accomplished that day?) Or would we have rejected the whole business as a hoax? Would we have decided that Harry was never really blind, or that maybe the one in our midst was not Harry at all, but just looked like him?
What do you think?