Seeing and Sinning – a homily on John 9:1-41

 

The Gospel of John contains this amazing story, that’s actually pretty famous. Jesus heals a blind beggar. This story has been on my mind for a couple of months, because of its themes and the question at its heart, the question, “Who sinned?” I’ve been writing this sermon in my head for a couple months and I realized recently that this text just so happens to be the lectionary for this Sunday, so I thought it would be as good a time as any to finally put it out there.

This story comes from John chapter 9, and it begins by saying, “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.” Now right from the outset, we’re clued in to one of the major themes of this passage. Jesus saw a man who was blind (a person who can’t see.) This passage is going to be about seeing: who can see, who can’t see, and what it means to really see. After Jesus sees him, his disciples ask him the key question of the rest of this chapter: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This passage is about seeing, and about sinning.

This question was based on an ancient belief, that actually has its roots in the Old Testament, that a physical disability was linked to sin, perhaps your own, or the sins of your parents passed down to multiple generations. Now, this isn’t a universally held Old Testament belief, I would actually argue that the overall witness of the Old Testament speaks against this belief, but it’s important at this point and at every point to remember that we can often all be looking at the same scriptures and reaching very different conclusions. That was true in Jesus’ time, and it’s true today.

And what is this scenario? A disabled man is sitting by the road begging. Now, if you know much about me, you might understand why this passage has been on my mind for a few months. For almost the last year, I’ve begun a new career working in Hollywood for a drop-in center for people experiencing homelessness. It was a steep learning curve and I’ve tried my best to keep up with how to engage with and ultimately help people who live and suffer on the streets, very often with physical or mental disabilities. As I’ve interacted with people at my work, and especially with my friends and peers in talking about my work, this passage has come up over and over in my mind.

Most notably, this question of “who sinned?”, and Jesus’ response, always jumps to the front of my mind; mainly because, in some form or fashion, I hear this question a lot. People ask me something along the lines of, “How do people become homeless?” This can be a very innocent question, or it can be an extremely loaded question. One one hand, it’s important to know how it happens that someone comes to live on the streets if we want to work towards preventing it in the future. But more often, the intent behind this question is more akin to what the disciples were asking Jesus: “Who sinned, that this person ended up this way?”

My suspicion, is that the reason we ask that question, in that way, is because we see something we know to be awful… a person experiencing unimaginable suffering, and we try to make sense of it by blaming someone for it. And unfortunately, that someone is usually them. If we can pin their circumstances on themselves, then we no longer bear the responsibility of helping them. If they are guilty, they become unworthy of our assistance. We use sin and shame to free ourselves from the responsibility of bearing one another’s burden.

The truth about homelessness is that there are a lot of ways to end up there. Asking how people become homeless is like asking how people end up in the hospital. There are a lot of avenues, some of which are irresponsibility, negligence, violence, accidents, bad luck… but you can’t imagine a doctor saying, “Well, it’s your own fault that you’re here, so you’re on your own!” Sure, it might be useful for a doctor to ask how you ended up with your injury or illness, it may in fact help them treat you, but it should not be a determining factor to whether or not you are treated, or how much treatment you receive. Whoever ends up in the hospital deserves to get well, just as everyone who ends up homeless deserves to be sheltered. The question of how they ended up there is at best a distraction, and at worst it’s a life sentence for a person to continue in their circumstances indefinitely.

But not to Jesus. Jesus responds to the question “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” by saying, “Neither.” Now… this should get our attention. As good, doctrinally sound Christians, we know that Jesus can’t be saying that this blind beggar, nor his parents, had never ever sinned. We know better. So when Jesus says neither, he must be instead saying that neither this man’s sin nor his parents are determining factors in his fate. Jesus refuses to look to the past to evaluate present or future circumstances. To Jesus, this blind beggar’s future is not to be determined by the past, nor the present. Remember, this blind beggar was overlooked on a daily basis; the intentional irony here is that the blind man was invisible; to everyone but Jesus, who threw the act of seeing will cause the blind man to see, and expose the blindness of others. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.

Jesus says, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Now, we can sometimes get hung up on this between denominations because it sort of sounds like God made this man blind so that Jesus could heal him later and make a big deal out of it. I want to reject that reading on a couple of grounds: one, it sure makes God seem pretty awful to cause a man to be born blind just so that many decades later Jesus could get a good miracle out of it. I think God could come up with something better, and less cruel. Second, it’s not good news to anyone else if this was all some cosmic setup. This man was born blind so that Jesus could heal him and impress everyone… what good is that to others who are blind or in need of healing? Jesus’ healings, if you choose to read it that way, are about showing off what God can do only when God feels like it.

I think instead, we should read it in this past-present-future sense: The disciples want to know who did something wrong in the past to dictate this man’s present circumstance, and have (in doing so) essentially decided this man’s future. Jesus’ response says that his future is glorious, that God’s works have the potential to be revealed in him regardless of anything past or present, and then he brings that future glory into the present moment by opening his eyes. He dismisses even a conversation about the past, and rewrites the present, all because he chooses to see an alternative future, where sin and shame have no bearing on God’s ability to do works of mercy and glory.

I wish that I had more time to go into what happens in the middle part of this story, because there is a lot going on with where Jesus sends him to wash, and it being the Sabbath and how much that ticks off the Pharisees, and just how clever he is in his testimony to them. His parents even get dragged into it, which always complicates things. There’s this powerful moment where they don’t even recognize him and argue amongst themselves whether he’s that same guy they walked past every day. We’re reminded again that they never truly saw him like Jesus did. If they could stand to look at him, they only saw sin, that they were assuming and projecting onto him, so they could ignore him in good conscience. You also wonder if they didn’t recognize him because he had so changed by being able to see. Have you ever seen someone finally let go of a burden or kick a habit or recover from an illness, mental or physical, and they just look like a completely new person? This middle part is also where we get the beloved verse of Amazing Grace from, the “Was blind, but now I see.” Seriously, take the time to read this whole story, slowly, and you won’t be disappointed.

But I have to jump to the end, because as it pertains to “seeing” and “sinning”, the author here is building to a big punchline. The Pharisees ultimately reject the blind beggar and send him off, declaring that he was “born in sin” and has no right to teach them anything. Even with healing staring them right in the face, they are unable to see what has happened, that Jesus might be the Son of God. So Jesus goes and finds the formerly blind man and leads him the rest of the way into understanding, and says this perfectly crafted sentence to really drive home the point: “‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

As a result of Jesus’ ministry, so many people see and understand and are freed and healed for the first time. And, on the other side of the coin, many who try so hard to get it right become blinded because they just can’t get past this fixation on sin. I know that all of you know Christians like that, who think that the Gospel is more about tracking down and weeding out sinners rather than celebrating the life and mercy and glory of God. This is nothing new, it is the tragic tendency of religious insiders to push people out who are the very ones Jesus is intent on healing. The outsiders are brought in, and the insiders hold a sin summit to determine why they shouldn’t be there. Previously, in John 3, Jesus said, “God did not send his son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.” But here, just six chapters later, Jesus begins to bring a little condemnation and judgment in… but not for the typical perceived “sinners”. In John, the judgment comes for people who can’t see “sinners” for what they truly are… a canvas for God to paint a picture of mercy, glory, and endless possibility.

The passage ends with the Pharisees saying, “Surely we are not blind are we?” And Jesus delivers the punchline: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains.”

The chapter began with the disciples looking at a blind beggar, languishing on the streets, and asking “Who sinned?” The passage ends with Jesus telling only the Pharisees “your sin remains”. In Jesus’ worldview, the way Jesus sees, it’s better to be a blind beggar, knowing that you are blind and desperate to see, than to be a fully seeing religious person who believes the way they see the world is how it is and has to be.

When we cast judgment; on the poor, on the persecuted, on the marginalized, when we intentionally elevate ourselves morally over someone else, claiming that they are getting what they deserve, and so are we… we are subject to the judgment of God, far more than if we were that other person. The healing they need is far easier to treat than ours, because the hardest thing to heal is someone’s theology. God’s grace, of course, is without end, and it extends to the lowest of circumstances, and to the highest of high-horses. God’s grace abounds even in our theological weakness.

But we are remiss if we ignore the bold teaching of this passage. That moment when we, in good faith and with good intentions, look at someone, decide they are sinner, and declare them as such, and blame them for their circumstances… When we see pain and ask, “Who sinned?”… the answer, in that moment… is we did. We sinned.

Grace and peace to everyone. Thanks for listening, and may God gives us eyes to see like Jesus, to see everyone we encounter with open and hopeful and glorified futures, and nothing less.

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Theology of Diversity – A Sermon on Genesis 11:1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

The Word of the Lord.

More than ever before, I fear we need a nuanced theology of diversity and unity. This week, thousands are marching in the streets of Baltimore to show the world that things are not the way they are supposed to be. We need a nuanced theology of diversity and unity, and I believe we have the earliest renderings of one here in the story of Babel. But just like so many texts before it, certain readings of this story have done more harm than good, and led many to believe that diversity is a curse rather than a blessing; or they reduce the story, to condemning merely pride, and not the deeper sin at work – isolationism, fear of the other, uniformity. As we read this text closely, I hope that we can all see that unity and diversity are meant to be held together in God’s beautiful creation, and that God does not punish but corrects the course that creation was intended for all along – a creation teeming with difference and complexity, but which comes together in service to one another and the Creator. A creation where particular races are not unequally punished; where churches don’t wall themselves up from a world they call unclean; where we stockpile fewer weapons and open more food-banks. I’m sorry to begin this class on such a dour note; but I believe that these real world issues are at stake when we approach scripture. And in our text this evening, at stake is our understanding of God’s desire for unity, diversity, and identity.

I love these early stories in Genesis, because they are so fundamentally concerned with those issues that cut right to the core of who we are. Genesis 1-11 is called Primeval history by biblical scholars because it contains these pre-historical, fantastic stories that have less to do with telling us specific things that happened back then, but rather these amazing tales about the same things we still ponder now. Where do we come from? Why are we here? Is there any justice in the world? What is evil? What is family? How do communities form? These basic philosophical and sociological questions are met in Genesis with theological responses, giving glimpses more than answers; opening our eyes wider rather than focusing our gaze. This story, maybe more than the others, invites us to see ourselves and our world through its lens. Although it names the city Babel, there are no other names in this story. Instead, the phrase “all the earth” is used five times, and I believe that “all the earth” is meant to include us. The way it describes humanity, and how God responds, will be just as true today as it was for those earliest communities. It is, in many ways, a parable more than an origin story. It is about issues we face today.

When we read the text closely, we see that Babel is more than a tower, but a City, and the City is far more concerning to God. Think about it: this story is usually called: “the Tower of Babel”. This symbolism becomes an analogy for human pride and arrogance, when we try to construct something that makes us seem like god, we compare it to this story. But let’s hear their building plans again, and see where their priorities really were: “Come let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; OTHERWISE we shall be scattered abroad on the face of the earth.” That otherwise is important, it’s the whole reason for their building. They’re afraid to be scattered. What does that have to do with the tower? Their main goal is not to reach up to heaven, like so many readings have said, but they are building because they want to all stay together, safe and secure. The tower seems like an afterthought – not only to them, but especially to God! Ironically, despite their best attempts to put the top of their tower “in the heavens”, God still has to “come down” to see it. It turns out that the tower was little threat to God’s superiority. But God is very concerned about their holing up in a City: “Look, they are all one people, and they all have one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do.”

And we have seen the dangers that come when we unify in fear. Nazism, racism, sexism are all built on this same foundation as the City of Babel – that to be safe we must fear the things and especially the people who are different and separate ourselves from them – either by eliminating them, persecuting them, subjugating them or building walls between us and them. When we shut ourselves off from the other, evil takes root. How can selfless love exist in a place where everyone looks like ourselves? In Genesis 11, God is not condemning the Tower. God laughs at the Tower. But God fears what will happen if they follow through with their isolated City, and we have certainly proven God right in that case.

Keeping this in mind, we see God deal with this City; not through an act of punishment or cursing, but a corrective in line with the original plans of creation. Way back in the garden, God commands the first humans to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. God gives this commandment again after the Flood, to the family of Noah. So twice now in Genesis the command has been given to fill the earth, but in this story we try to do the opposite. We want to wall ourselves up and stay safe, making sure we all speak the same way, look the same way, think the same way. This was never God’s plan, as we see in the beautiful diversity of the rest of creation. God creates ALL the birds of the air and creatures of the sea and beasts on the land – and as we have discovered this amazing planet throughout history we find more and more unique and amazing things. God does not want one people, one nation, one language – on the contrary, the Book of Revelation envisions: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

At Pentecost, there is this beautiful picture of the coming of the Holy Spirit, where instead of uniting everyone in language, using the logic of Babel, instead everyone hears the message in their own language. They don’t leave all speaking the same tongue, but encountering the Gospel in their own distinct articulation. Like a great musical number that can be played by different instruments, in different rhythms, and with multiple harmonies, so the creation of God deserves to be encountered and expressed in ever-new ways. When God scatters them with new languages, it empowers Creation to encounter God in new ways, and to experience God’s best gift to the world: unity, within our diversity! God does not curse the world with new languages and nations. God blesses the world with diversity, whether they like it or not!

We have been given glimpses of this idea, of diversity and unity held together as companions and not adversaries. Creation, Pentecost and Revelation, in these big moments of past, present and future; a multitude of unique creations sharing a creator and a purpose; many languages hearing one Gospel; and finally every nation and tongue singing one song. This imagery permeates scripture. Even Paul, in describing what it is like to be in the community of God, says it’s like one body with many different parts. No one part should wish that it is a different one, or worse, think that another part is less important than they are. But as one body, we exist as a collection of parts moving toward one purpose. The City of Babel would have a body made up of only heads, babbling in vain, or a body of legs walking around in circles. As funny of an image as this is, we know there is more at stake. When our theology of unity and diversity is not robust enough to celebrate both, the City of Babel becomes Nazi Germany, or the Jim Crow south, or Westboro Baptist. The Bible celebrates the complex interplay of diversity and unity because if we lose sight of it, we quickly lose ourselves; or, worse, we lose each other.

The only name in the story is Babel, and we are told that it is named after its confusion. They wanted to make a name for themselves, but they are named after their ironic failure to do so. What will we be named for? As we build our cities, whether our City is a small group or a Seminary or a committee or even a Church, what will our name be called? If we fill our cities with people who are just like us and shut the door behind them, perhaps we need God to enter in and scatter us about again. God may bless us by shaking up our “cities”, whether we like it or not. The truth about names is that, just like at birth, we do not get to name ourselves. The more we pursue a great name for ourselves the faster we will lose it. Like so much irony in this story and in the Gospel itself, a great name is a gift given to those who don’t even want it. What name will we be given?

As I close tonight, I want to leave us with this benediction: May we become settlers who love to be scattered, unifiers who love diversity, and builders of unfortified cities with open gates. May we be a Church that rebukes the world for building Cities of Babel and carrying out its laws. May God enter swiftly in as at Babel, as at Calvary, to save us from ourselves and the desperate situation we are in. And, more than ever, may we never use God’s name in vain for our selfish tendencies. And until the day when we will have learned these lessons in full, may we pray for God’s mercy for fewer casualties along the way. Amen.