William Barter – Lent Four – Year A, 2017

Making light out of mud?

There are obviously so many directions one can take with this lengthy miracle story from John’s Gospel.) Today I like to focus on three basic points. 

First of all, when we look at the epic social failures that surround this gospel story and the man born blind, we take from our story a cautionary tale about the society and the church in which we live, and even the intimate relationships that we forge. Secondly, the story begs the question of whether we have to be able to explain the miracle to experience the miracle. And third, the response to the miracle by everyone except the man born blind and Jesus lays bare our preference for the status quo, in this case sitting in the dark.

Our man born blind is the object of some pretty striking societal and religious failures. Now keep in mind that this is John’s Gospel. The community around this gospel, the last of the four Gospels, had been expelled from the synagogues and was in conflict with the Jewish community. This is reflected in many aspects of John’s Gospel. We recall for example that the reason given for the disciples locking themselves in the upper room after the crucifixion was, “for fear of the Jews.” This is a detail added not for historical significance or accuracy, but as a reflection of the political and religious realities of the Johannine community. I only say this because there is a certain harshness to the indictment of the religious and social structure in today’s gospel. There is a direct reference to expulsion from the synagogue in today’s narrative, as a case in point.

But lest we only attribute the political and religious dimensions of today’s gospel to the tribulations of John’s church in a Jewish world, in all honesty we must see the shortcomings encountered by Jesus and his blind friend in the light of our own capability of behaving badly as a society.

The first epic social failure is that no one knows who the blind man is. This is a man who was born blind, presumably within this community, and no one knows him. He is unrecognizable, entirely marginalized to the point that he simply does not exist in the collective memory. I really don’t think that with this congregation I need to connect those dots all that much, when all we have to do is look around at those who are marginalized in today’s society. Often times, the response to someone who is marginalized or “other” is to simply render them invisible. Good Lord, why did it take us until 1991 to make it the law of the land that buildings should be wheelchair accessible? People who use wheelchairs were very much treated as “other” in the pre-ADA world.

The second epic failure is that of the religious leaders. It is their role, after all, to interpret the relationship between God and humanity. Their misinterpretation of that relationship led to an understanding that something like a birth defect was either the result of the sin of the parents or the sin of the child. Yes, believe it or not, one possible explanation for the man being born blind in that mindset was that he may have sinned in his mother’s womb. (Beware the rogue fetus, engaging in antisocial behavior for nine months, emerging with its punishment preordained!) We laugh at this misinterpretation of the God-human relationship, and yet we see examples of this all the time as well. Hurricane Katrina was punishment for the people of New Orleans for their bad sexual behavior. The earthquake in Haiti was punishment for the so-called “pagan” religions of the indigenous and Afro-Caribbean peoples. And just about every other disaster is blamed lately on the gays being allowed to marry.

And speaking of epic failures, what about those parents? The two people that one would expect to be the most supportive of this blind man totally buy into the religious and social structures. They are so afraid of those structures that they disown their son as much as possible, every step of the way. They barely admit that he belongs to them, and even after he is cured, there is no support from his parents, only a fearful and disdainful distance.

Epic failures of community, religion, and family bonds.

Into the midst of these failures steps Jesus Christ. Jesus not only interprets the God-human relationship, but he embodies it in the new covenant. He sees a person born blind as a person. Imagine that. And unlike the community in which this young man lives, Jesus does not marginalize him; this man is far from invisible to Jesus. And while his parents keep their distance, Jesus embraces him with a loving care of a brother. So yes, this miracle is cautionary as to the society, the religion, and the relationships that we embrace. But the gospel hope of this story is that we need only know Jesus Christ to find our consistent true hope and grace. In a society, a church, and even families that behave badly, we ask the fundamental question, “Who is Jesus?” For the Christian the answer to that question leads us to the clear understanding of who we are, and what sort of world, and what sort of relationships we are meant to foster. Now to the second point.

Evidently, one man’s mud is another man’s miracle. I honestly have to say that if you came to me and told me that someone rubbed mud and spit on you to cure your blindness or your arthritis or whatever condition afflicted you, I might be just a little bit skeptical. The man whose sight has been restored is caught in a terrible dilemma really. He has just experienced this wonderful miracle of sight for the first time in his life, and it is probably one of the most difficult things to explain. Added to that, according to the narration, he really has no idea and thus cannot figure out how Jesus even pulled this off. He simply knows that he can see. And there is a lesson for us here as well.

Science is necessary and wonderful. Believe it or not, it still explains things like climate change and disease. However, the flipside of science is that we have to be able to explain everything, even when such an explanation is neither possible nor necessary. All the man knows is that he was born blind and now he can see. He does not need to be able to explain the miracle to experience it or to celebrate it. Our church has a wonderful history of trying to explain all kinds of things. And while we were debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, we were murdering Muslims during one of many bloody periods of Inquisition and crusade. We have this amazing ability to distance ourselves from things like grace and miracles, and even the goodness that we see witnessed in our lives all the time, and we do this through the art of the over-explanation. For this man, the miracle is real, and it really bears no explanation. He can see. That’s quite enough, thank you very much.

And lastly, for my final point, I will regale you with a telephone company story, many of which you will hear over the coming years. One of the iterations of my life was as a long-distance telephone operator the 1970s. This was back in the days of the Bell System and corded switchboards, when it took 200 long-distance operators a day to keep telecommunications going in Portland Maine. I worked the overnight shift so that I could take classes at the University during the day. From 11 PM to 7 AM we were a skeleton crew at 45 Forest Avenue in Portland. About 15 of us handle all the telecommunication needs of Portland and the surrounding area. It was our practice to dim the lights as soon as the last of the late-night operators went home and we, the skeleton overnight crew, stayed. We did this, because to work in glaring florescent light for eight hours overnight was the worst kind of eyestrain for such visual work. Invariably, when the first morning operators would come in at about 5:30 AM, they would flip on all the lights and shout “Good morning!” while we grunted something back. But the worst thing was that bright light. It was as if someone had thrown sand into our eyes. From 5:30 in the morning until 7:00, it was almost impossible to keep one’s eyes open and to focus on the small print on those long-distance telephone tickets and the dials and the tiny strips of light on the switchboard. You see, we had grown accustomed to the dark, and the light was uncomfortable.

This being accustomed to the dark is, I think, what plagues the characters in this gospel the most. Here is Christ, the light of the world, and here is a society and a religion intent on living in the dark recesses of life as they know it, rather than life as it really can be. The dark is not always a bad place. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a wonderful book a couple of years ago entitled “Learning to Walk in the Dark”. We do have to acknowledge that things happen in the dark, and in periods of darkness we can have insight and profound experiences. But for our purposes today, the darkness encountered by Jesus and the people in John’s Gospel is the status quo. The darkness embodies a condemnation of the other, and the lack of ability to even consider a holistic relationship between God and the world which God created. In this context, to prefer the darkness over the light is to prefer what is customary and comfortable over what is possible. In the face of such a wonderful miracle, the people are not ready for light. Darkness has been their way of life, and ironically it is the man born blind who comes to understand light in a way that no one would have dreamed possible.

What am I comfortable with? When have I chosen to sit in the dark when it had the opportunity to embrace light and share the light of Christ? Jesus Christ is the light of the world. That sounds great as a theological construct and a biblical narrative, but unless that light shines in all that I say and do, I might as well spend my days in a cave somewhere.

The light of Christ does not shine in the world unless we do it, and the ways in which we can bring Christ are constantly evolving. Complacency is its own darkness, but we need not stay there when Christ lives in us, when Christ shines in us, and when by word and example we enlighten the world around us. We don’t need to worry about being the light; we just need to reflect the light placed inside of us by this Jesus who can make brightness out of mud.

Thanks be to God.