I Am Because We Are

Sunday, March 22, 2020
Fourth Sunday in Lent Year A

Focus Theme:
I Am Because We Are

Focus Prayer:
Discerner of hearts, you look beneath our outward appearance and see your image in each of us. Banish in us the blindness that prevents us from recognizing truth, so we may see the world through your eyes and with the compassion of Jesus Christ who redeems us. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
John 9:1-41

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The 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?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He 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.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then 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.” Some 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. So 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.”

The 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 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but 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.” His 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. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

So 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.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He 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?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped him. Jesus 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.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

All readings for this week:
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Focus Questions:

1. What hidden truths and realities, perhaps just under the surface, do you need to perceive in your life?

2. How much does fear influence our inquiries, our wondering, our discernment?

3. Is it easier to say that something is “too good to be true” rather than to follow a new path?

4. Where is Jesus in your life today?

5. What is the “one thing” that you know for sure?

by Kate Matthews

In this week’s story of the healing of “the man born blind,” John uses “seeing” as a metaphor for believing, for coming to perceive, past outward appearances, to the truth deep in the heart of things. (Remember his use of metaphors like “light and darkness,” and “living water” in the readings for the past two Sundays?)

The man whose sight is given to him by Jesus makes his way, like all of us, toward belief and understanding, not suddenly or easily but in the course of a long story that leads to another personal encounter with Jesus.

The former beggar’s openness and growing faith contrast sharply with the fearful, hesitant questions of his neighbors (how cynical they are not to rejoice!) and the downright judgmental reaction of the religious establishment. Curing on the Sabbath, breaking religious rules–how can this Jesus truly be “of God”?

Metaphor and irony

And yet “the man born blind” sees God’s truth so much better than those who spend all their time studying and talking about God. Metaphor, and irony. While the other characters in the story remain at the end where they were at its beginning, the healed man’s life is transformed, and he finds himself in a very different place. And Jesus is there, in that very different place.

John told this story and used these images of seeing and not seeing, believing and not believing, to help an early Christian community find themselves in that story. They knew what it felt like to be driven out of the synagogue by the religious authorities, to be expelled from their “church home.” (They were really feeling the lack of “extravagant hospitality”!)

John helps them to connect their loss with the gain of grace in their powerful experience of conversion and healing, understanding and trust.

Judgment and rejection

However, sometimes conversion, belief and sharing our story provoke judgment, rejection, and condemnation from those around us. It’s a lonely place to be, and John’s way of telling this story must have spoken powerfully to the people in that situation, reassuring them that they were not alone: they now belonged to a community that shared the same faith, and, ultimately, like the man in this story, they would encounter Jesus on their way.

John also pairs the categories of “sinner” and “not a sinner” in this story. Who is the real sinner, we might ask? (As if it were up to us to judge.) The authorities tried to judge both men, Jesus and the man he healed, and even tried to trap them both with their arguments, but the man is amazingly clever in countering them.

Jesus has done something amazing in giving sight to someone who had never seen. That alone is worth sitting and thinking about. How would you adjust to the challenge of taking in all that new information that eyesight brings? And how would you begin to thank the One who had done this for you?

A story with twists and turns

The tension in the story comes from judgment, of course, and the twists and turns judgment takes. The disciples see a blind man and right away ask for a judgment from Jesus about who the “real sinner” is–the man, or his parents. (Once that’s established, presumably they believe they can move on to “loving the sinner, but not the sin.”)

The twist comes when Jesus says “Neither” and uses the occasion, outside the religious building and the religious rules, to glorify God by healing the man, using means that remind us a bit of baptism (in a river, that is), with water and mud and rising to a new life.

More questions than wonder

That healing by Jesus causes a lot of talk, and more questions and conjecture, instead of dumbfounded wonder and praise of God. Even the man himself takes a little time to find his way to the truth, but he’s persistent in his search, and delightfully clever in his defense before the powers that be.

Richard L. Eslinger helps us find ourselves in the man’s experience: There are many “who have been baptized but who, if asked where Jesus is in their lives today, would answer with the same poignant ‘I do not know’…and even for ourselves, there are times and seasons when the honest-to-God answer to that inquiry would be the same.”

Still looking for that sin

The healing also prompts another judgment, this time from the religious authorities who, rather than praising God for such an amazing thing, start the interrogation so they can find the sin that they just know must be there. Jesus has broken the law about the Sabbath (as they interpret it), so they know that he must be a sinner.

The man he healed claims to know only one thing, that “though I was blind, now I see.” But the Pharisees “know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

A brilliant response

The response of the healed man is brilliant, of course: “Here is an astonishing thing!” (We might say, another astonishing thing, after witnessing something that had “never since the world began” happened before!) “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

The man not only grasps the truth of things more clearly than the scholars do but he can also “do the math.” And the Pharisees don’t appreciate the way things add up.

Finding ourselves in the story

Now the question for us, today, is about finding ourselves in the story. I don’t know about you, but I always prefer the role of the people Jesus helps, rather than the role of the Pharisees and whoever else is judging him. This is an especially uncomfortable question for pastors and other religious leaders, but it works for all of us inside the church.

Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon on this text, “A Tale of Two Heretics,” suggests that we might find ourselves so occupied with our own modern version of “ritual purity” and “preserving the law” that we fail to understand what really matters. We might miss the truth right in front of us, especially if we don’t expect it outside the normal bounds of what we think religion ought to be.

The folks who think they have it all together and can judge others may be well-meaning and sincere, Taylor says, but we should be careful of them and their inclination to tell us what we should believe. “They do not do this to be mean, either. They do this because they love God and maybe even because they love you too. They are doing it to protect you from believing the wrong things.”

Grace for an “unworthy recipient”

Frederick Niedner wrote a beautiful reflection on this text in the Christian Century: “The Pharisees in the story, like the Pharisee in each of us, prove stubbornly blind to the reckless dispensing of mercy that takes place. It has come on the wrong day, to an unworthy recipient, from a maverick agent whom the Pharisees can’t see for dust.”

Religion, organized or not, seems to gravitate toward structure and limits, perhaps because of the power of mystery and our anxiety and eagerness to control it. “A reckless dispensing of mercy” plays havoc with our need for order and “decent” behavior. It also goes against our subconscious conviction that in some way, we deserve what we get (if it’s good, that is), and those beggars on the street must have done something (or failed to do something) to get themselves into such a situation. The judging goes on, even today.

Niedner writes evocatively about the baptismal imagery in the healing, and how, even today, we baptized Christians can connect to the man whose life was transformed by Jesus, this stranger “buried and reshaped in the mud of the new creation, washed in the water of the sent One. Now we see as never before, but we scarcely recognize ourselves, much less those around us or even the One who healed us.”

Jesus comes looking for us

Such a long story, and yet Jesus appears only at the beginning and the end. In fact, when he hears that the man has been driven out, he goes looking for him. We might sit with that line for a little while, too, and picture Jesus hearing about what happened to the man, and setting out to find him.

It’s not a question, then, of whether we find Jesus, but of Jesus coming to look for us, and finding us wherever we are (and no matter what people are saying about us).

Hidden truths to consider

What hidden truths and realities, perhaps just under the surface, do you need to sense, in your own life and the life of your congregation? What might your church need to perceive in order to move more purposefully toward a new future, new hope, new possibilities?

Are there unrecognized leaders and spiritual guides within the life of your church who are busy, on the edges, with “tending the sheep” while the “important” matters are discussed by experts and authorities?

By what standards do we judge?

What are the standards we use to judge what we experience, whether it’s a person, a building, a mission or ministry, or whether it’s an event, such as a healing or transformation, or even a disaster? What are the core truths we depend on, as the man cured of physical blindness depended on when he reasoned that Jesus must be “of God,” since he was able to do “something that had never before happened”?

And yet even that reasoning was not enough. He needed to encounter Jesus, to understand what was happening. When–and how–does your church take time to encounter Jesus Christ and to experience the truth that transforms your life, to follow in a new path that you previously could not imagine?

Refusing to believe news “too good to be true”

Does it ever happen in the life of your congregation that there are some who question even the most wonderful turn of events–the miracles–and press for more information, details, rather than praise God and give thanks? Is it easier to say that something is “too good to be true” rather than to follow a new path?

Is it tempting to claim our identity based on what has gone before and on our ancestry, rather than on who God calls us to be, to become, today and in the days ahead? How much does fear influence our inquiries, our wondering, our discernment? How do you sense a still-speaking, shepherd God, calming your fear and calling you to a new boldness and a new faith?

What is the “one thing” that you know for sure?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles and additional reflections) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, 20th century
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

Charles Shulz, 20th century
“I cannot fail to be thrilled every time I read the things that Jesus said, and I am more and more convinced of the necessity of following him. What Jesus means to me is this: In him we are able to see God, and to understand [God’s] feelings toward us.”

Carl Gustav Jung, 20th century
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), The Blank Book, 21st century
“Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t so.”

Robert Frost, 20th century
“How many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you?”

Madeleine L’Engle, 20th century (when asked, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?”)
“I believe in God with all my doubts.”

Paul Gauguin, 19th century
“I shut my eyes in order to see.”

Helen Keller, 20th century
“My darkness has been filled with the light of intelligence, and behold, the outer day-lit world was stumbling and groping in social blindness.”
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