Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

seeing God's kingdom clearly, 3.30.14

John 9:1-17

As Jesus walked along, he 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.”

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.”

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.

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.

Before we really dive into this story, let me say a word about John’s Gospel in general. The way John talks about Judaism is a stumbling block for many people and has even encouraged anti-Semitism at different points in the church’s history. John often talks about “the Jews” in his writing. What he really means is the religious leaders.

John isn’t opposed to Judaism. He wasn’t prejudiced against Jewish people. After all, Jesus and most of the early church leaders, including John himself, were Jewish. John does have a bone to pick with the leaders of the religious establishment. The religious leaders opposed Jesus from the beginning. They had Jesus arrested and executed. Religious leaders later persecuted the church. When you hear John talk about “the Jews,” substitute “Religious leaders,” and you’ll be on the right track. That keeps us from getting hung up on what sounds like anti-Semitic language.

It also helps us hear Jesus’ challenge to the leaders of his faith community as a challenge to us as well. People who are committed to the church, like us, face some of the same temptations the religious leaders in Jesus’ time faced, so we need to hear Jesus’ words today too. If we’re honest with ourselves, we fall into some of the same traps the religious leaders in this story fall into. This is a story about healing, but it’s also a story about how we get stuck in our point of view.

Let’s start by being fair to the religious leaders. They get a bad rap because they oppose Jesus, but they deserve to be heard too. The Sabbath commandment isn’t some tiny detail in religious life. It was one of the major things that set Jews apart from their pagan neighbors. Also, like the way Sunday dinner unites many families in the US today, the family rhythms of the Sabbath tied families and communities together in Jesus’ time.

Under Roman occupation everything that supported Jewish community life was crucial. Without the ability to rule themselves politically, the religious rules were more important than ever for the people of Israel. Leaders worried about all the pressures that encouraged Jews to leave their uniqueness behind to fit in with society. This day set apart for worship, family and community strengthened the Jewish community in a challenging time.

The Sabbath isn’t just a human tradition either. God commanded Israel to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. The Sabbath was a big deal. Jesus wasn’t just disrespecting the Pharisees: he seemed to be trampling on God’s law.

The religious leaders are faced with a difficult situation. On the one hand, Jesus has obviously performed a powerful miracle. He’s freed a man from blindness and from a life of begging to survive. On the other hand, he has completely disregarded God’s commandment to rest on the Sabbath. The leaders feel confused; they don’t know what to make of the situation, but they feel threatened.

I imagine these leaders worrying that this disobeyed commandment will be the first step on a slippery slope. If they allow this traveling rabbi to heal on the Sabbath, other people will start ignoring the commandment too, and little by little the religious structure that held the community together would be worn away. Jews would start acting more and more like gentiles, and God’s chosen people would stop being the unique and blessed community God called them to be.

For many Christians same sex marriage is a lot like the Sabbath commandment was for the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. For many, the Bible is clear about sexuality, and same sex relationships are not included. Like the Sabbath in the story, marriage is crucial to the structure of the family and society, so the stakes are high.

Opponents of same sex marriage worry it will weaken heterosexual marriage and thus weaken the family structure as well. They also worry that marriage equality is one more in a seemingly endless string of changes that weaken the influence of scripture on the church and the church on society.

I can see where that fear comes from. Society does feel unsettled. We see so many families torn apart by divorce. We see shocking levels of crime and violence and poverty that break down our communities, and we know families are important in the health of a community. The world feels unpredictable, and that makes us nostalgic for a past we imagine, a past that looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. The church has an important perspective to offer society in terms of love and family and grace, and for many Christians, supporting marriage equality is a compromise of Christian values to fit in with society.

For the leaders in our story, even though they could see something special about Jesus’ power to heal, he didn’t fit into their understanding of how God worked. His actions didn’t fit the rules, so they had to oppose those actions. In the same way, for a lot of Christians they see that gay and lesbian couples love each other, but homosexuality doesn’t fit the rules as they know them, so they have to oppose it. There’s a conflict for many people about love that seems good in one way, but in another way doesn’t follow the rules.

Jesus turns things upside down. He doesn’t reject God’s Law, but he makes us look at law and faith and scripture very differently. In this case Jesus isn’t rejecting the Sabbath, but he is rejecting any religious observation that stands in the way of healing and justice. It’s not about observing or not observing the Sabbath; it’s about loving our neighbor. Everything is about loving our neighbor and loving God.

Supporting same sex marriage isn’t about rejecting traditional marriage; it’s about expanding marriage so it can be liberating and life-giving for more people. Marriage is a covenant of love, and love knows no boundaries. LGBT couples getting married will not weaken the family; they will broaden the range of families blessed by the church. Families today don’t all look like the Norman Rockwell painting. They are often more complicated than a father, mother, 2 kids and a dog. But every family built on love is holy and beautiful and blessed by God, no matter what the church says.

Of course, this passage isn’t about sexuality; it’s bigger than that. Jesus invites us to look beyond the easy answers in every part of our life, both together as a church and individually. I believe that adults in loving relationships should be free to marry regardless of their sex. I believe in marriage equality both for civil marriage and marriage in the church.

I also believe that you don’t have to agree with me on that or anything else, for that matter. There are many areas where faithful people disagree, and one of the great blessings of our Presbyterian system is that we seek God’s will through prayer and conversation together. We need different opinions and perspectives to hear God’s will clearly. I promise to respect and protect your right to express you opinion in a loving and respectful way regardless of whether I agree.

The real problem with the religious leaders in this passage isn’t that they took the Sabbath too seriously. It’s not that they disagreed with Jesus. The problem is that when they felt threatened they settled the problem with power. First they bullied the man who had been healed; then they kicked him out of the community. He hadn’t done anything wrong, but he was raising questions that made them uncomfortable. Instead of sitting with that discomfort and reasoning together, they used their power to silence the question.

That temptation isn’t a conservative temptation; it’s a universal temptation for people in power who feel threatened. For instance, many liberal academics protested at the University of Minnesota and Rutgers University because those schools invited former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to speak. They didn’t like her viewpoint, so they tried to silence her. In communities like this one, we’re much more at risk of silencing a conservative viewpoint than a liberal one. If we truly value diversity, that should include theological diversity as well. If everyone is welcome, all voices need to be respected.

That’s a delicate balance because discussions of sexuality can feel like an attack on LGBT people very easily. This community needs to be a safe space where all people are valued. It especially needs to be a safe space for LGBT people and others who are not always heard and respected. But with grace and love, there can be space for honest discussion, even when it’s hard.

This summer our denomination will debate two overtures about same sex marriage. The realist in me expects that the discussion will be predictable and without much grace. Conservatives will make a biblical case against marriage equality. They will talk about the dangers of following secular culture too closely. At worst, they will say ugly things about LGBT sisters and brothers.

Liberals will make a case for same sex marriage. They will talk about the power of love and equality. At their worst they will equate conservative theology with bigotry. Both sides will basically dismiss the other position; both sides will leave the debate more convinced than ever that they are right and the other side is wrong. By a few votes either way we will have a narrow decision for or against same sex marriage.

I hope and pray for something better. I pray we will listen to each other. I pray we will actually discuss what the Bible says and what it means for us today. I pray we will talk about real couples and what marriage means for them. I hope we will actually seek God’s will for the church because both sides have something to offer.

Conservatives are right that the church isn’t always careful enough about following God. We are not supposed to mirror secular society; we are called to bear witness to God’s loving kingdom with our words and our actions. Liberals are right that love makes a family, and that discrimination has no place in the church. If we actually listen and learn from each other we will come out stronger and more faithful, still perhaps with a narrow vote, but with deeper love and respect for people with whom we disagree.

The truth of this passage for us goes far beyond marriage or theological discussion. The heart of this passage is that Jesus wants to open our eyes, because we’ve all got blind spots, and we all need healing. The more we are convinced that we see clearly, the more convinced we are that we are right or righteous, the more likely we are to have it all wrong.

Where do you need Jesus to clarify your vision?

Are you closing your eyes to some uncomfortable truth in your own life?

Where are you refusing to see a different point of view?

What easy answers are you still clinging to?

Jesus wants to help us see a righteous kingdom full of love and grace, but we can’t see it if we’re already sure we see it all.

Thanks be to God.

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