The Man Born Blind, The Pharisees, and Jesus

The Man Born Blind, The Pharisees, and Jesus

John 9

Preached at New Hope UCC, Deland,FL on January 19, 2014

 

I want to start by thanking you, and your pastor, for inviting me to speak today. I recently meet your Associate Conference Minister, Sara Lund. When she learned I would be in your Conference, she asked if I would willing to preach and speak about UCC Disabilities Ministries, the UCC Mental Health Network,and the UCC’s  commitment to be “Accessible to All” or A2A. I told her that I would.

I bring you greetings this morning from the UCC Disabilities Ministries Board. I also come to you as a person born with mild cerebral palsy, which mostly manifests as a mild speech impediment; as a person who has acquired disabilities; as a person who has been a caregiver for people with disability; as one who has been a support system for persons with mental health concerns. And I come to you as an ordained minister, a hospice chaplain, an activist, a scholar, and yes, there is yet more they I could say. I share these aspects of myself not to toot my own horn, not only to give you some introduction of who I am but also to show you that no one person can be described in any one way.

When it comes to our text for this morning the notion that people are very complex and have many attributes to share with the world is something we want to keep in mind. Our scripture this morning is a very complex text. It was traditionally a text used to teach about Baptism in the early church (1). But what kind of text is it? Is it a healing story? Is it a miracle? Is it about a sinner being being saved? Is it about blindness? I think those are all good questions. However, I do not think those are questions I will strive to answer today. Instead I would like to talk with you about who the people in this text are. The man born blind, the Pharisees, and Jesus. All of these persons are complex, just as we are.

Let us start with the man born blind. We know more about him than we do about most of the people whom Jesus encounters in the gospels. We know he was born blind.

We know that he was at least of an age to be considered an adult. We know both his parents were alive—they too appear in the text. We know that he begged for a living.

We know that he was known to the community even though he was excluded from the community because he lived with blindness, thus his need to beg. And we also know that through this encounter with Jesus this man had a spiritual conversion and came to understand who Jesus was.

But there are also some important things that we do not know. We do not know if he had ever heard of Jesus before this event. We do not know if he wanted to be sighted–This is one of the few instances in which Jesus heals a person without first asking permission, or being asked, to do so–and we do not really know what happened to this man after he became sighted.

For many people with disabilities, the things we do not know about this man are very important to think about. In the UCC we talk about churches becoming “Accessible to All” and while this means that we want our worship spaces to physically accessible, it also means that we want our church congregations—our people to be accessible, and welcoming to people with disabilities as well. In this sense A2A is as much about the understanding and hospitality with which we greet one another as it is about our buildings.

One of the mottos of the disability rights movement which you will hear in the UCC is “nothing about us without us”. This means people with disability want to be consulted about the things that affect them. So we wonder how did the man born blind feel about becoming sighted? He was not consulted before hand. We do not know how it changed his daily life,the text does not tell us that we only know how it changed his spiritual life for he proclaimed Jesus a prophet to the council of Pharisees. Which was a very bold thing for someone of his social standing to do. Some say his response to the Pharisees shows his wit and intelligence traits he had that were not related to his disability or that he developed as survival mechanisms living with blindness. (2) Perhaps one of the most important things this text tells us about the man born blind is that it was his encounter with the person of Jesus, and not his physical healing that led to his conversion and understanding of who Jesus was.

It is through the man born blind’s discussion with the Pharisees that his understanding of who Jesus is made clear. So who are these Pharisees? The Pharisees in the text are the religious authorities who are expected to uphold the laws and traditional customs. They question not only the man who had been born blind, but his parents.

It seems strange to us that after talking with the man himself the Pharisees call for his parents but it may be according to social custom. There are many places around the world where to this day people with visual impairments are not qualified to be legal witnesses because they are blind and it is assumed they cannot identify the perpetrators of crimes against them (3). This may play a role in why, globally, women and girls with visual impairments are statistically the most likely to become victims of sexual violence. (4)

Certainly this group of Pharisees is behaving as a legal board, for they call the man born blind back a second time. This is when the story turns sour—at least as I read it.

After the Pharisees question the man and his parents, this time they start with an imperative command “Give Glory to God!” It is a statement which puts a knot in my stomach not because the man is being asked to Glorify God, but because it sounds like a self-righteous command. It was the role of the Pharisees to see that all things glorified God, but the text bothers me because there is no dialogue here. In the text, it is a council of authority ordering around a person whom the community considered to have no legal standing, because he was blind, to do something.

This interaction of the man and the council of Pharisees reminds me of a youth in San Diego who maintains a blog and documents each time someone comes up to him in public lays hands on him, prays, and demands that he stand to walk. (Most people don’t realize this still happens, it does.) Not only when the Pharisees issue this command but when they go on to suggest that the man born blind was born in sin we should feel uncomfortable. For this is a clear example of bullying a person because of their disability and the text tells us it done by the religious structure itself.

To often we sit in church, we read parts of scripture that are uncomfortable and we think, thank goodness we don’t do that in our church. The problem is we do. Well meaning church going people too often find themselves bullying others especially people with disabilities. One Sunday, when I was still using a cane and preaching at my home church one of the trustees, who I’d know for years, came up to me and said “stop using that cane, you don’t need it”. He did not know the specifics of my medical needs. He was a bully.

Last summer I was on the delegate floor at the UCC Synod. One of the resolutions we were to vote on at Synod was becoming an anti-bullying church one of the other delegates who knew I was representing UCCDM at synod said to me “you don’t really have a disability, but its nice that you speak up for those who do.” I told him I did have a disability his reply was “no you don’t”. So we had to have short tense conversation. I told him he was a bully.

It did not feel good to me to have that conversation at church. But it reminded me that even in our churches we are not as aware of the hidden disabilities of our church members as we should be. When you know the small needs of another you are truly in community.

There is another person in this text—its Jesus. It seems to me that in this text we see one of the stranger things Jesus does, it is a Sabbath day when no work is to be done, Jesus walks up to blind man and puts mud on his face and tell him to go wash in the pool known in Hebrew as “sent” (5). We understand why the early church may have used this text to talk about baptism.

But then Jesus disappears for much of this text. It is not until after the man born blind has been questioned and driven out of the  community that Jesus reappears. And what Jesus does is sit with the man who had been born blind Jesus welcomes the man and sits in community with him to tell him about the Son of Man and Son of God.

Jesus soothes the stings of exclusion. Jesus’ words about the those who see becoming blind seems to be an admonition to not be so self assured, to not be so self-righteous that one becomes exclusionary.

It is Jesus in this text who shows us the way to be church, the way to be loving and community minded. It is Jesus who is not only welcoming but seeks out those excluded because they may have a history of disability, or any other reason. It is Jesus who reassures the man that he too has a place in the Kingdom of God, and that Jesus has come into the world to assure him of this.

It is Jesus my friends who calls us to radical hospitality and radical welcome. It is Jesus who sends us all in search of new vision. It is Jesus who comes to be with us when we feel we have been driven out for following proclaiming his work in our lives.

So my, friends, it is because of Jesus’s work in our own lives that UCCDM seeks to encourage all settings of the UCC to be “accessible to all”, to include people with disability and mental health issues, not only in our building but in our fellowship and leadership. It is because of Jesus that I ask you to join in this work to open the way to full inclusion in your local church for the local church is the heart of the church. This where inclusion welcome matters most.

So thank you for including me today, thank you for thinking about your building, and thank you for considering all aspects of accessibility (A2A) and joining in this journey to inclusion with us.

####

Endnotes:

(1) Black, Kathy. A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability. (Abington: Nashville, 1996.) 76.

(2) Ibid, 72.

(3) Ibid, 70.

(4) Women with disabilities presentation at the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network Pre-Event, General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea, October 29, 2013.

(5) Black, 68.

 

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Holding Fast to God: Lent 4

There is so much richness in the lectionary for this week that it is hard to know where to start. What strikes me in the texts for the third week is that both Psalm 23 and the story of the Man Born Blind (John 9:1-41) have very little to do with one another and yet in the end they both point us towards holding fast on to God even when that seems irrational and all else is seeming lost. In the depths of these texts I sense that there is a calm center—the welcoming of God, Godself—in the midst of the chaos that surrounds the central character of each text.

I doubt I will ever forget a seminary afternoon I spent in Psalms class taught by Dr. Kristin De Troyer, an amazing scholar and teacher! This particular afternoon we were looking at Psalm 23, and going through it line by line examining the poetic stress and how the word pairs worked to enhance the meaning of the text both in translation and in Hebrew. A text that has almost come to seem cliché jumped out at me. As Professor De Troyer took us through this text it became clear that it was not only not a simple text, but also that it was far from the pastoral text the images depict. This is perhaps one of the most familiar texts in the Western world. “The Lord is my shepherd…” The words themselves are so calming to even think. (Although I must admit that after encountering the Vicar of Dibley series I found myself giggling every time I heard the opening of this Psalm because it had become such a lead into comedy for me. But I digress…) However, as I think back to that day in seminary, in the long warm conference room, I think of how sad it is to me that this text is so misunderstood and so misused. As the professor unpacked the word pairings of the text and went through the images of the text with us in view of its ancient origins, it came alive for me in new ways. Professor De Troyer led us on a discovery that this text is one of flight and seeking refuge. The table which God is said to prepare in this text is not just a meal table, not a welcome table but rather the alter in the tremble where one might seek refuge—the one place that a hunted or chased person may find refuge, for no army and no official could lawfully seize a person who had to the ram’s horn on the altar of God. And not only is the text one of safety for the person in peril, but it is also one of vindication.

I thought on that day, how strange it is to use the text of Psalm 23 as a text for the time nearing death. It seems to me that the context of death is the one in which Psalm 23 is often used. I remember thinking to myself on that day in seminary, that I would uphold the integrity of the poetics of the text and not use it in the context of death because in my class I was learning that really the text is more appropriate to the situation of the immigrant running from immigration officials than it is for the death bed! But such can be the arrogance of pure academic scholarship mixed with inexperience. As a chaplain I quickly learned that despite the meanings unearthed by the poetics of this text, the fact that this text brings meaning and comfort to people in various situations but particularly at time of great illness and approaching/at death cannot be ignored. As a poet, it first pained me to use this text in the context of illness/death. However as chaplain—and even as a poet—there is something more important than intent to tend to. There is always at the heart of all matters the meaning and care for others that must be considered. In my experience as a chaplain I have learned that even people who are not religiously affiliated will ask for Psalm 23 to be read at time of death. It has become easy, both for the scholar and the poet within, to allow my poet self to read Psalm 23 in the context of illness/death. This is true not only because it is caring to read something that has meaning to those who request it at these times, but also it is true because of the death/dying process itself. The death/dying process itself is one of letting go of all we love—be it things, people, places, and how we identify ourselves. In this sense the death/dying process is one of seeking refuge in the only place we have left to turn when all else falls away—God, or our understanding of the sacred. In some small way Psalm 23—which is really more about refuge from the world than death—is in a way one of the perfect and most simple texts to turn to for reassurance, whenever we need it, and often that is the time close to dying.

The paradox of this struck me this week as I taught Sunday School to the four and five year olds—and Psalm 23 was the text for the week. Here Psalm 23 was in no way connected to ideas of death and dying, there was no thought given the notion of fleeing for one’s life or seeking refuge, but rather the image of the shepherd became the focal point for discussions of care, compassion, and God’s love for us. It was a bit odd I admit for the hospice chaplain to be teaching Psalm 23 to a group who, God willing, will long outlive me. But it was also a moment in which I found wholeness. For, as we first learn Psalm 23 (particularly if we know what a sheep is only though books and we have to learn what a shepherd is) we learn that God is present with us at all times and that God cares for us through others who feed and tend to us when we are sick. There is omnipresence, we are never alone. God holds fast to us so we may hold fast to God.

By now you may be thinking that at the outset I mentioned this was also the case in the gospel for this week, in the story of the man born blind. Well it is. This is one of the “healing stories” in the gospel, and generally I find these complicated and problematic. This story from the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, however, is one that important and liberating to a point. It is in this text that Jesus clarifies for all those around that sin is not the cause of disability for Jesus says “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed through him” (John 9:3). This is very liberating to people with disabilities because it separates sin from disability, in the words of Jesus, and long before science would show this to be true. Rev. Dr. Kathy Black points out that this healing story is different than others found in the gospels because whereas other healing stories end with the person with disabilities being integrated back in the community, in the case of the man born blind Jesus’ healing of the man results in his being expelled from the community. (A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability, Abington: Nashville, 1996, 72-73.) The blind man’s encounter with Jesus and his healing lead to controversy within his faith community. The man not only proclaims the work of Jesus to his community but he also calls Jesus a prophet! Like a good shepherd, Jesus seeks out the man when the community expels him and then the newly-sighted man accepts Jesus as the Son of Man. The healed man held fast to his experience of God, even when he faced losing his community because of it, and Jesus came to him there.

Whether we struggle with fault/blame, change, leaving, or how to approach the other this Lenten season let us hold fast to God with the hope that God holds fast to us as well.