Monday, April 4, 2011

Sin: The Barriers We Put Up

(A sermon on John, Chapter 9, preached at All Saints' Littleton on 4/3/2011)

This morning we get a rare occurrence: an entire chapter of a Gospel.

(This makes for a long Gospel reading. Good thing UCONN won late last night: its likely only the afterglow of victory that’s powering the Deacon this morning...)

The action of John’s account centers on the healing of a blind man. Those in our All Saints’ Bible studies encountered this in Mark’s Gospel: complete with mud and spit. John has taken Mark’s account and has expertly expanded it for the sake of his reader’s insight.

This story hinges on it’s opening question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It is my hope that this is a repugnant question to your ears: thankfully very few people still believe that someone being born blind has anything to do with sin. Unfortunately, the mentality still exists: whether its someone saying Japan or Haiti deserved the earthquakes that devastated the countries, or if it is someone’s individual struggles is seen as punishment from God. People are quick to recognize brokenness, (especially in others), and use the term “sin” to both assign blame to individuals and suggest that God is controlling the situation: that the bad thing happening is somehow just and deserved.

My understanding of sin is this: it’s “the things that we do, say, or believe that isolate us from God and each other.” That immediately rules out things like earthquakes and medical realities, although our reactions to such events can produce sin. The things that we do, say, or believe that isolate us from God and each other are particular to individuals or perhaps a group of people, and it’s worth noting that these things may or may not be “bad things” in and of itself, nor do they universally cause sin.

Here are some examples: Alcohol is commonly seen as sinful, but in truth can isolate one person and not another. Television, while not inherently bad, can numb as well. Even something good like religion itself can clearly divide us instead of bring us together. Also, it is often the failure to do, say, or believe that causes isolation in people. The point is: sin is not punishment from God, but is instead the barriers we place between us, God and the rest of humanity.

Fortunately, the overall Gospel message is really clear: no barrier that we put between us and God can isolate us forever. Grace, God’s gift of love and reconciliation, ultimately cannot be unearned or blocked by sin.

I think that’s what Jesus means this morning, when he adeptly says to his disciples “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus rejects a simple understanding of blindness as related to sin: someone did this so God did that. Instead, for Jesus, the reality of blindness provides for an opportunity to see God at work.

So Jesus does what he does, and the blind man is now able to see.

Ironically, it is now where sin enters this Gospel story. Everyone around this formerly blind man loses their sight: by which I mean their ability to see God at work. First off, his neighbors fail to recognize the man. “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” If one was to ask “who is this man”, the first, and perhaps only thing most of his neighbors would have said is “well, he is blind.”

I’m afraid there is a certain reality demonstrated here: difference from what one perceives as normal is often all we see about someone. The truth in this story is that no one really knew the blind man, except for the fact that he was blind. No one said, “Wait, this is so and so. He’s friends with George and Larry, Sarah is his sister. His birthday’s in June, and he loves sharing stories, especially during cool summer evenings.” No longer blind, his defining characteristic gone, people are not sure who they now see.

The Pharisees, as a group, fail as well to see God in this moment. They are looking for any reason to condemn Jesus, so they focus only on what might be wrong with this situation: that Jesus healed on the Sabbath. When those among them still insist that this still a sign from God, they attempt to clarify the situation, bringing in the man’s parents.

“Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but 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.” His 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.

First off, a word about John’s use of “The Jews.” Everyone in this story, including Jesus, is Jewish. The words “The Jews” refers to the leadership of the synagogue, which includes the Pharisees in this story. So when John’s Gospel says “The Jews,” he is referring to those who had the power to speak and make official decisions on behalf of the synagogue. When we say today that “The Church did this”, we are speaking in the same way: the leadership acted in a particular way, not everyone who is part of the church.

Certainly it is sad to see the leaders of the synagogue abuse their power: clearly this is a major point Jesus makes during his ministry, well illustrated throughout the Gospels. But what is heartbreaking in this story is to see the parents of the blind man choose to protect themselves, instead of stand with their son. Understand that the pressure was intense, and that they were clearly fearful, not spiteful; but it is tragic that what should have been the hour of rejoicing for the formerly blind man and his family was instead a moment of new barriers.

So the story reaches it’s climax:

“For the second time (the leaders) called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that (Jesus) is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He 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?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes....Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

This should have been the moment of restoration between the man and his religious community. Instead, in the midst of fear, sin does indeed happen: the barrier is thrown up, and the man is cast out.

It is important this morning that we see not only the isolation present from a time past, but how easy it is today to give into fear and throw up barriers...

As in last week’s Gospel of the woman at the well, the story ends with Jesus speaking plainly.

“Jesus heard that they had driven (the man) out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.”

This morning’s tale is one of joy, freedom, and caution: Jesus is here today to break down the barriers that exist between us, God, and each other. As they come down, things always change...and business as usual is often not possible.

The choice to be made is this: will we embrace a world where everyone matters, or will we construct new barriers to replace the old ones?

Thankfully, the Good News does not depend on our choice: regardless of any barrier we put the end...we cannot keep God, or anyone else, out.

Thanks be to God.

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