Plymouth United Church of Christ

Sermon, Year A Lent 4, April 3, 2011
Plymouth United Church of Christ , Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber, 2011

Focus Scripture: John 9:1–41 (Jesus gives sight to a man blind from birth)

A comedy came out in the early 80's called “Young Doctors in Love” about a bunch of medical students on their internship or residency in a hospital, learning the ropes of being doctors. Most are pretty incompetent, but the one played by Michael McKean is a real crackerjack hotshot, knows his stuff, brilliant doctor, but he has no real interpersonal skills and neither does the doctor that’s training them. And though it is a comedy, there is one scene that depicts some tragedy in the wonderful way that only comedy can do. Comedy is so good at speaking truth, because it does it by making it funny. Tragedy and comedy are so close to one another, intertwined. The comedy can open wounds, but do it in a way that releases laughter and thus brings healing.

Well, in this scene, they are all together in a ward, a large room, with patients lined up along a long wall. The lead doctor is taking them from patient to patient showing the trainees their medical charts and listing off symptoms and asking for diagnoses from the students. In this scene, usually the patients are not given names, they’re just called “the patient” and the doctors never speak to them, they just speak about them with one another as they stand around the bed. They come to one patient, and the lead doctor reads a list of symptoms and asks the trainees to diagnose. They name progressively worse diseases, but keep being wrong. The patient is listening to all their suggestions with growing concern. Then the Michael McKean doctor speaks up and names some horrible disease. The teaching doctor stops, looks at him, and asks him, “Can you prove that?” and McKean’s character says, “No. There’s no way to know until the autopsy.” The teacher says, “You’re right!” and they all walk away leaving the patient there, alone with his death sentence, an unnamed man who’s nothing more than the academic problem of his terminal disease.*

I think that’s what the man in the gospel felt. Sitting there all these years, begging, waiting. Perhaps hoping someone would ask for his story, see him as something more than a blind beggar who’s become just a part of the background, someone you maybe toss a coin to out of pity but not out of a sense of shared humanity. Waiting and hoping while the religious leaders and others probably discussed the same question the disciples asked: “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”

I can picture them having their lengthy debates as they stood right next to the man, discussing him as a symptom, in the third person, as though his only purpose in life was to be a treadmill for the theological exercise of priests, or whoever felt like a discussion. But they do nothing with him or him... nothing to know him or address him as a human being.

The disciples are no different. They see a blind man — and probably in that order: blind, then a man. “Oh my God, this thing is blind. And it’s also a man.” Maybe blind beggar man. As though his identity in the universe was “blind” and not “man.” They don’t say, “Sir, tell us about yourself, tell us your story” or “How can we help?” Compare their reaction to this man with Jesus’ reaction to the Samaritan woman we read last week. Jesus talks to her and knows her. The disciples speak away from this man to Jesus, and they’re not really asking, “Why is this man blind?” which could be a legitimate question if done out of curiosity or compassion. But, they already know why. They declare it in the way they ask the question. The why is because of someone’s sin. They just put it in the form of a question, perhaps to appear more holy or polite. Passive-aggressive at its unholy best. “Clearly this blindness is because of sin. We all know that. That’s simple. These silly, less-informed people around us might ask, ‘Why is he blind?’ But we are smart. We know it’s because of sin. The only question is, whose sin is this the fault of? His or his parents?” These are the only two possibilities in their world-view. They ask it as though by answering that question the faithful will have done their duty to humanity, even though the man will continue to be blind, left behind to beg another day, and perhaps listen again as his neighbors perform yet another verbal autopsy on him. And why not? They’ve already denied him life by denying him his humanity. Might as well keep performing autopsies.

But Jesus denies the entire construct. He destroys such a narrow world-view. “His blindness has nothing to do with sin! He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” The blind man is an instrument of God. Jesus said this man is to be a sign. Then Jesus does a very physical thing: he spits. He gets some dirt, and makes mud; reaches out and touches the man, physically touches, makes contact, and puts the mud on the man’s eyes. This is a God who gets down in the dirt with us, in the grime of our humanity and the substance of being alive. And the man who has always been blind is given sight! It’s a miracle! ... but not quite. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ acts are not miracles, they’re signs. Signs are greater than a miracle. This is not the story of a man given sight, it’s the story of how people missed a sign; a sign that points to God’s glory, that points to the presence of the kingdom in the here and now.

A miracle story would end when the man gains his sight. But his story continues, because he’s a sign. His neighbors protest, the religious leaders protest. He was healed on the Sabbath! That’s awful, and completely improper! And what was the pedigree of the guy who gave him sight? And how did he do it? It’s totally against the corporate policy they’d spent hundreds of years perfecting. They’re still running autopsy on the guy! They don’t see the sign at all; except to see it as a sign of another sin. He was blind because of sin; clearly he has sight because of sin.

Jesus gave sight to the man, and by giving him sight, he also gave him a voice. A voice to say, “Seriously? Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind; and you’re worried about policy? All you care about is whether the proper forms were filled out and given to the proper people and approved properly.” And they destroy him. Toss him out of the synagogue. They denied him his humanity, now they deny him access to God. Maybe he can go to Samaria and hang out with the folks who got God last week. They’d probably let him in. They understand the mystery of conversion and grace; what it means to be touched by God in ways outside expectation.

“I was blind but now I see.” “How” is irrelevant in the time line of life. There’s a time “before” – a life spent in a certain world-view – and then a moment, or moments, when a man spits and makes mud and reaches out to touch you, putting it on your eyes, and amazing grace pours in.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.

And you don’t know how it happened... How do you explain a mystery? You don’t. “I was this, then God did something (who cares what!) and now I am this and it is so much better! I became a new person, reborn into a new life. I captained a slave ship, now I’m a minister. I was a woman outside of grace, but after an encounter at a well, I’m an evangelist. I was the youngest son and a boy, now I’m anointed a king. I was blind, now I see. I don’t know what happened, but it was grace, and isn’t it amazing? And if you’d rather toss me out because of it, then go ahead.”

So they tossed him out.

And Jesus sought him, found him, and said, “You are not out. You are deeply, deeply in.”

Let us pray:
Intimate, holy God, you know our story, you know who we are. Touch our eyes, we ask, to see your kingdom more clearly. Touch our ears to hear your voice more carefully, Touch our mouths to speak words more purely. Touch our hearts to love more recklessly. Remove from us all the barriers we create that limit our view and keep your presence at a safe distance. Change us, convert us, take us from what we are into what we are becoming, through your amazing grace. Amen.

* please note that I wrote this synopsis totally from memory after not having seen the film for a good 20 years, so I'm sure I'm not quoting accurately, but the gist of the scene is correct. I did not have a copy of the film handy to strive for complete accuracy.

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