Monday, April 4, 2011

Sermon: I once was found, but now am lost

Sermon preached 4/3 at Montclair Presbyterian. The texts are Ephesians 5:8-14 and John 9:1-41. The John passage was read as a monologue. It's the story of a blind man receiving his sight.

This story is not easy. For one, it’s a miracle story, and we who are so well-educated often have an alarm system set up for miracle stories. Someone we know could be telling a perfectly reasonable story, and we’re listening and nodding, but the moment they seem to suggest that something unseen intervened, the bells tend to go off. MAGIC ALERT! SUPERSTITION AHEAD! EXIT CONVERSATION IMMEDIATELY!

The problem with miracle stories is that if we believe they are literally true, they change the way we view the world. If the world is a place where blindness can be healed by spit and dirt and water, then why is Lisa still blind? If we could heal ourselves simply by praying and believing, then why would I have to spend 5 months on crutches? The miracle stories don’t always fit into our understanding of how the world works.
Some people would say I’m throwing out a dangerous amount of bathwater here, but I will say that in the case of this story, the point is not “miracles happen.” In Jesus’ time, people didn’t question that miracles could happen. The question was whether or not Jesus could perform one. The gospel writer spends only two little verses telling how the healing actually happened. No fireworks around it. The miracle was not the point. The lessons of the story can be found instead in the conversations about the healing.

One useful lesson we can all learn from these conversations is that it’s hard to argue with someone who believes he’s experienced a miracle. This man is interrogated time and time again, but he won’t change his mind. I was blind – and now I see. That’s his story, he’s sticking to it, and we shouldn’t deny him the right to tell his story. Many of us probably have friends with unbelievable stories which are very important to them. This bible story might not convince you that their miracles are real, but at least let it show you that it’s futile to argue about another person’s subjective experience.

At the very beginning of the story, Jesus is tempted to enter into that kind of argument – arguing about another person’s life. His disciples ask a very tricky question. Whose fault is it that God is punishing this man with blindness? If it was his own fault, was he sinning already, before he was born? The disciples tempt Jesus to treat the man like an object, a question, a puzzle to be solved. Show off your brains, Jesus, explain it!

Jesus rejects their invitation to this intellectual performance. He says no – there’s a man here, not a puzzle, and his blindness is just one way in which we can learn about God. The disciples have challenged Jesus to take a seat on the high throne of judgment, but instead he kneels in the dirt to take care of a blind man – an alleged sinner. Jesus was always doing things like that, and people always had a hard time understanding why.

From then on, Jesus disappears from the story for a while, and we have two counter stories. The one is the blind man’s story – coming from darkness into light. He not only receives his sight, but also gains confidence in who Jesus is. He becomes more and more sure, as the story goes along. He begins to speak freely.
On the other hand we have the Jews and their representatives the Pharisees. Their story is the exact opposite. They become more and more close-minded, more and more hostile as the story progresses, until finally Jesus calls THEM blind.

As I said to the children, when Jesus came close to people, they changed. What I didn’t say with them is that apparently not all of them changed for the better. Some of them had their eyes opened and things were good, and some of them shut their eyes as tight as possible and tried to make Jesus go away. When Jesus came close to them, they changed – but not all for the better.

Jesus spoke of this in terms of light and darkness. He said he was the light of the world. He said that he came into the world so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.
That isn’t easy to stomach either! The first half is great – healing – light – yes. The second half is like a dark and ominous shadow creeping over us. Those who see will become blind.
The problem is that it seems very dualist. There’s a sharp dichotomy between light-dark. Good-bad. Acceptable and unacceptable. Where are our precious shades of grey? We know from hard experience that black/white dichotomies lead to extremism in religion and politics, intolerance in communities, and misery in our own thoughts and minds. It is important to us that we can think in relative terms, rather than absolutes.

Here at first glance Jesus doesn’t seem to be helping our cause. He’s separating people into two camps. And we all probably have, at least somewhere in back of our mind, a scary picture of Jesus as a big cosmic judge. He has a desk in the clouds, with an “in” box and an “out,” full of happy souls and tormented ones. Michaelangelo painted it well. Jesus is seen as the last absolute – where there are no more shades of grey. This is not a helpful picture for most of us. But it is the picture that is painted in a lot of Christian history as well as in the book of Revelation.

Revelation says that it is authored by John. The gospel of John actually doesn’t say it’s authored by John, but that is the tradition that developed around it. Both the revelation to John and the gospel of John were probably not written by anyone named John. That’s our first mistake, but a rather harmless one. It doesn’t really matter what his name was. But there is a particularly bad mistake, that many have made, to think that these two books could have been written by the same person. In fact, they were probably written in contrast to one another. (C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, p 210). They can be seen as two sides of a great debate. The question is whether or not Jesus is a judge.

In the Revelation we find (20:11-15) Jesus on a throne, holding the book of life, with people’s names written in it, and everyone whose name isn’t written there gets kindly tossed into a lake of fire. Classic.
In the gospel of John, we hear Jesus say “I did not come to condemn the world” (3:17) and even “I judge no one.” (8:15). That’s very different. And we see that side of Jesus in this story. He won’t stand in judgment over the blind man. He refuses.

So the gospel of John gives us a glimpse at a less judgmental Jesus. He did not take the throne of judgment – but still, we see people getting separated. The blind would see, and those who saw would become blind. Something about Jesus caused people to either embrace his message, or to try to stone him – very few people fell in-between. When Jesus came close to people, they changed – in one direction or another.

We know how to speak about the one who was lost and is now found – the man who was blind, but now can see. What can we say for the one who thought she was found, and now finds herself lost, or for the pharisee who could see, but now is blind?

It can be important to get a little lost – on the way to getting found. We know this from experience. A good relationship often needs a good argument, to shake things up and clear the air. Sometimes we need to get a little lost in order to get really found.
But it looks like the Pharisees are getting more than a little bit lost. They’re not just taking a pleasant stroll through the green pastures and the valley of the shadow of death and back again. No, they’re headed straight for that valley, and not looking back. They are bound and determined to reject everything Jesus stands for.

Unfortunately many of us can resonate with that part of the story. A lot of us know what it’s like to slip down into depression, or anger, or despair. Sometimes we are brought into the light, and we shrink back because it’s so bright. Maybe we reject something that we think is too good to be true. Sometimes we just head toward the valley of the shadow of death because it’s easier to roll downhill. And as we roll, our hearts get harder, and meaner, and mainly more miserable.

In this story, there are very few shades of grey. Whatever might be grey at the beginning has been distinguished into bright light and dark shadow by the end of the story. You’re either skipping up the hillside of light with the blind man, or you’re heading down to the dark valley with the Pharisees.
But if the good news were only good to the children of light, it wouldn’t be truly good. If God’s welcome table only seated those who are happy and joyous and free, it wouldn’t be much of a welcome.
And we believe that Jesus preached good news that was – truly – good.

“God so loved the world that she gave her only son.” Familiar words, in a way. Hear them again after I tell you a bit about that word – the world. In the gospel of John “world” is a very dark thing. It is opposed to God. The world is God’s enemy. Hear the verse again. God loved the god-hating world so much that he gave his only son. God so loved her enemies, that she sent them her child.
The Pharisees seem to be Jesus’ enemies. But it is for them, too, that Jesus came. The light does not shine in order to pick out the bright things and throw away the darkness. The light shines so that what is dark may become light. The first scripture we heard today, the mystical passage from Ephesians, says that “everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.” (we can shelve our objections to the science here, because we’re not reading the Bible to learn physics). Anyway, the way the writer uses “light” is to say that whenever light is present, the darkness is driven out. Anything that is uncovered ceases to be a secret. .. If this entire sanctuary were completely darkened, and then one candle was lit, it would not be dark. Everything that the light touches is transformed into light – it shines in the darkness and thus the darkness is gone.

No matter who you are – a lifelong friend of God, or a sworn enemy – the light of God is for you. It shines on your brightness, and on your shadows, and it is far more powerful than even your darkest secrets.

No matter who you are, this table of welcome is for you. Seated at it you will find prisoners, and sex workers, and Pharisees, and Republicans, and Democrats, and the beautiful, the foolish, and the insane. No matter how dark the path that you’re walking, this table of welcome is for you.

No matter who you are, Jesus is the one who steps away from the throne, and comes and kneels at your feet, offering healing, and light, and whatever he can give of his very own self, for your benefit.

The light shines in the darkness. And the darkness HAS NOT overcome it.

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