Sermon ~ Patti Ulrich ~ Guest Preaching ~ Sunday, March 26, 2017
The Message – Washing in the Life-Giving Water
Lent draws the faithful – sometimes kicking and screaming – to a period of spiritual preparation and renewal in anticipation of the coming jubilance of Eastertide. Throughout the history of the church, candidates for Holy Baptism would often engage in rigorous study, prayer and fasting during Lent. (while we give up things like chocolate) It was also the time when those who had committed “notorious sins” and were separated from the church would reconcile with God and one another in order to be restored to communion in time for Easter. Lent was, and remains, a time in which all Christians are called to reorient themselves from the distractions of sin, apathy and mundaneness, and return to the life-giving will of God.
The Gospel of John calls the faithful to do the same. It stands as a powerful and provocative witness to the fact that in Jesus Christ, God has revealed Godself to the world. John’s gospel begins by calling Jesus, simply but profoundly, “the Word.” In that first chapter, John employs powerful theological phrases in reference to Jesus, calling him the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”
The Gospel of John describes Jesus, not simply as a miracle worker or faith healer, but rather a worker of signs, each pointing beyond itself to a larger truth. Here in Chapter 9, Jesus works a sign by healing a man who was blind from birth. As word of what Jesus did begins to spread, some Pharisees puff their chests, saying, “If Jesus really was from God, he would have known that the law prohibits such actions on the Sabbath.” But in questioning the legality of what Jesus did, those Pharisees miss the larger point. They focus on the action itself, and not the larger truth that the action reveals.
The blind man receiving sight isn’t the point of the story – at least, not entirely. The man’s physical traits are only a part of the larger narrative. What is more to the point, however, is what the blind man’s relationship with Jesus teaches us about our own relationship with Jesus. John Chapter 9 is a sign that calls attention, not to the story’s resolution, but to the ways in which we find ourselves caught up in the midst of the story. Jesus affirmed the full humanity of this man born blind by treating him with the same compassion and respect that he treated everyone around him.
The disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” They assumed, as most people did in those days, that suffering was the result of sinfulness. As the disciples’ question meets our ears, we may find ourselves thinking, not of physical blindness, but of other scourges that plague us. We watch helplessly as the news reports yet another terrorist shooting. We weep as we hear of yet another life cut short by bullying. We feel inexplicable anger at the grim prognosis of a young mother stricken with cancer. “What have we done to deserve this?” we wonder. “Is God punishing us?” we ask. Suddenly, we realize that the disciples’ question is familiar because it is one that we have all asked of God ourselves.
And yet Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question – to our question – is unwavering: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”
Just a few weeks ago, we learned that our niece’s fourth child was born with Down Syndrome. The road ahead will be difficult for them as they grapple with a new reality for their family. But did they do anything to deserve this?
In our Gospel reading today, both the disciples and the Pharisees encounter a “man born blind,” and instead of seeing him as a person, they see him as an object, a lesson to be learned, a morality play to be performed. First, the disciples observe this man and ask Jesus, “Who sinned?” They equate physical disability with moral imperfection and punishment. The Pharisees hone in on Jesus’ apparent violation of Sabbath law by healing this man on a day of rest. But no one does what Jesus does. Neither the disciples nor the Pharisees actually see the human being in their midst. Their treatment of the man born blind exposes their own inability to see.
The history of people with disabilities in the United States follows a similar course. People with both physical and intellectual disabilities have been denied access to health care and education and even spiritual care for centuries. They have experienced physical suffering and social isolation. The general population has suffered the loss of their presence among us, even if we have failed to notice their absence.
On the day that President Trump took office, the White House website underwent a transformation. President Obama’s website had a page dedicated to people with disabilities. President Trump’s does not and in recent weeks, the Trump administration has sought to deregulate education and health care laws that protect some of our most vulnerable students and citizens. Once again, we are in danger of pushing people with disabilities out of view. (†)
And as our niece’s young family and all of our families start to receive love from people like their daughter, Ellyn, people whose gifts are not always valued by our culture, we can start to believe that every human being has gifts to offer, if only we have eyes to see.
Yes Jesus reminds us that the axiom is true, indeed: Sometimes bad things happen to good people. But Jesus goes beyond platitudes: “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus shows the disciples and all of us that, even in the midst of things we cannot understand, God is at work.
And to prove it, Jesus works a sign. He gives the man sight, yes, but he also gives him something much greater. The man couldn’t quite put into words what had happened to him. He didn’t know exactly why it had happened. But he knew the Savior’s voice! And so, when Jesus says to him, “Go, wash,” he does just that. He hears the Savior’s voice, he follows it, and at long last, he sees Jesus. And he cries out, “Lord, I believe!” as he falls down and worships at Jesus’ feet.
This is the story that Jesus invites us into. Who among us has not experienced spiritual blindness in one form or another?
When we put ourselves before others, we are blind.
When we hold grudges and refuse to forgive, we are blind.
When we do what is easy instead of what is right, we are blind.
Blindness affects our communities, as well. Economic, social and political systems turn a blind eye to the poor, the disabled, the outcast and the marginalized in every corner of the world.
And who among us has not experienced suffering at one point or another? Depression, anxiety, abuse, neglect, broken relationships, illness, lost jobs, fear – the list goes on.
The powerful and life-giving truth of the gospel is that our suffering and grief will not have the last word. As our souls and bodies desperately cry out for relief, we hear the faint yet clear voice of the risen Christ calling us; reminding us that, through the cross, death and its trappings have been swallowed up in victory. The final word rests, not with suffering and blindness, but with life and peace.
And then we hear the most sublime words imaginable, “Go, wash.” And as the cool and refreshing waters of life wash over us, our eyes and our hearts are opened to behold the living Christ, standing as the chains of death and hell lay broken at his feet. And our voice cries out at last, “Lord! I believe!”
(†) Source:“Vulnerability: The Gift Not Fully Valued (John 9:1-41) By Amy Julia Becker”
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