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SEEING AIN’T BELIEVING I SAMUEL 16:1-13 Fourth Sunday in Lent PSALM 23 Refreshment Sunday, Laetare EPHESIANS 5:8-14 March 26, 2017, Year A JOHN 9:1-41

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SEEING AIN’T BELIEVING

I SAMUEL 16:1-13 Fourth Sunday in Lent PSALM 23 Refreshment Sunday, Laetare EPHESIANS 5:8-14 March 26, 2017, Year A JOHN 9:1-41

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SEEING AIN’T BELIEVING (The preached portion of the sermon is in bold!)

The late humorist Erma Bombeck, in one of her books, told the story

of a grandmother who “took her grandson to the beach one day,

complete with bucket, shovel and sun hat. The grandmother dozed

off and as she slept, a large wave dragged the child out to sea. The

grandmother awoke and was devastated. She fell to the ground on

her knees and prayed, ‘God, if you save my grandchild, I promise I’ll

make it up to you. I’ll join whatever club you want me to. I’ll

volunteer at the hospital, give to the poor and do anything that

makes you happy.’ Suddenly, a huge wave tossed her grandson on

the beach at her feet. She noticed color in his cheeks and his eyes

were bright. He was alive. As she stood up, however, she seemed to

be upset. She put her hands on her hips, looked skyward, and said

sharply, ‘He had a hat, you know.’”

Thank goodness that is not the response of the man born blind from

birth in today’s Witness from the Gospels in John, another

installment of these extremely long narratives we read every three

years in the lectionary cycle in Lent in Year A. I use this Bombeck

story to kick off today’s sermon because this might very well be the

only case in which Jesus heals someone who does not make a request

of him, asking to be healed. The recipient is minding his own

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business, content or otherwise, an innocent bystander simply,

innocently sitting beside the road without a care in the world while

carrying all the weight of the world, beggar’s cup in hand, hoping for

the next handout, the only possible living a blind person could carve

out in the ancient world. Suddenly, out of nowhere, this poor

seemingly lost soul becomes the center of a great controversy, a

theological whirlwind swirling around him, threatening his peace

and tranquility, not to mention his way of life. It is a reminder that

there is always a consequence, there is residual when touched by

Jesus. Nothing will ever be the same again! Jesus was not executed

for playing nice, for being politically, socially, or theologically

correct, but was crucified a change agent, a visionary, stepping out,

standing out, speaking out against social injustice in any of its nasty

and toxic forms, and speaking for the myriad expressions of the

“little guy.” Any kind of change always means there is gain and there

is loss. The proof is inevitably found in which is the better result of

the two realities. The hope is that change will always impact a system

in a positive and productive way, making a situation better. So it was

then; so it is now!

John’s story begins with the disciples spotting the man by the curb

as they travel, evidently in their ever intellectually curious frame of

mind. Seeing the man, they inquire of Jesus, asking the age old, the

timeless question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that

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he was born blind?” Inquiring minds want to know! It was a good

theological question, the subject of many a systematic theological

debate and discourse in any a reputable seminary today. In ancient

Jewish theology, there was a certain quid pro quo at work in the

minds of the faithful. It really was simple and could be boiled down

to a basic formula. Sinners were punished and the righteous were

blessed, and the difference was obvious to everyone. Though a

fallacious argument (see the Book of Job for a strong and clear

rebuttal), “The rain falls on the just and the unjust,” it was the

prevailing assumption grounded in the law, the sacred Torah. And,

this principle was not only germane to the individual in question, to

his or her wayward behavior, but the Hebrew scriptures,

particularly in Deuteronomy 5:9 if you care, took this idea even

further, extending punishment to parents and grandparents, and

even great-grandparents, to the third and fourth generations of the

offending little tike, ever expanding and extending God’s retributive

justice, God’s vengeance, to what seems perpetual infinity for the

acts of a solitary individual. No wonder it says in holy writ, again

from Deuteronomy in 21:18-21 if you are keeping score, that a

recalcitrant, rebellious son, should be stoned to death. By the way, it

was always about the boy, for only the male mattered in ancient

Judaism. I guess girls got a pass on this one, escaping this potential

fate. No parent in their right mind would dare want to risk

generational punishment! Evidently, up to now Jesus had not

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addressed this long-held belief with his disciples, and so once again

we are privy to a teachable moment with his eager beaver

apprentices. Perhaps Jesus figured that they had already figured this

one out based on their up close and personal observations, their

experience with Jesus’ loving, gracious, merciful, and 23rd Psalm like

spirit. And, of course, Jesus was not privy to the latest research in

family systems theory that suggests that heredity does indeed play a

significant role in human behavior, children frequently repeating

the missteps and mistakes, as well as the model behavior of their

parents. My guess is that many of you in this room could testify to

that fact! My, how the ancients really did know their stuff, wise

beyond their years! Of course, at this point we are veering off course,

moving from theology to psychology, and that takes the God

equation right out of the picture. But, I digress; I often do! Jesus

answers the disciples’ inquiry with crystal clarity and conviction,

declaring unequivocally, “neither this man nor his parents sinned,

he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” It

is the kind of articulate precision that Jesus seems to save solely for

his disciples to be assured of their comprehension and retention of

his message. This is no time for rhymes or riddles, what we call

parables, those allegorical stories dripping with metaphorical

meaning and the richest symbolism, tales that always seemed to

stump the thick-headed Pharisees among other self-righteously

narrow minded sectarian religious zealots.

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So, in response to the disciples’ observation of our suddenly infamous and

unwitting subject in today’s story, Jesus approaches the unaware man,

idly shaking his beggar’s cup, pleading for a token of human compassion

in the form of a coin. Sadly, this was the best he could do for himself, the

only available occupation. Affirmative action was not exactly an ancient

custom. Neither were social service agencies! Pitifully pathetic persons

such as these provided opportunities for personal benevolence, for

religious folks to practice their piety. That is why the best place to do

business was near the entrance to the Temple or the synagogues. Givers

are most vulnerable and most attentive and attuned when their focus is

channeled toward religious devotion and acts of sacred duty. This poor

soul had carved out a living, and in the twinkling of an eye, a mere

nanosecond, Jesus ruined the whole enterprise by giving the man his

eyesight. We do not know the age of this gentleman and thus we do not

know how long he had been blind. But, it was familiar. He was accustomed

to it. In a tragic, if not pathetic, pitiful, even sadistic way, it had become his

security blanket because it was his meal ticket. His identity was wrapped

up, enmeshed in his blindness. It was a part of his very being! Sure, we

cannot imagine that he enjoyed his status in life, but he had learned how

to navigate and negotiate, how to manage it. He had adapted, but back in

the day, that was not really living, opportunities ill afforded a sightless

person. And, he had no reason to ever expect that anything, particularly

his vision, would be any different. This is how life is and the way life goes.

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His deck was stacked. His box of chocolates was eyes that could not see.

Today was just another day in the life of a blind beggar. Until . . . .

You would have thought that it would have been a joyful day, a day

of celebration and thanksgiving, a day of great rejoicing, Laetare all

around. I had to get Refreshment Day, this high and holy festival day

in Lent into the mix somehow! And, I am certain that the recipient of

this impromptu healing, this grand gift of grace, was appropriately

grateful, surprised, even shocked at his sudden ability to see

everything that had been nothing but mystery all his life. But, sadly,

one of the first things he gets to see with his newly acquired 20/20 is

the worst in human behavior. He gets to see how blind the world

really can be! Well, here’s mud in your eye! Barbara Brown Taylor,

in her sermon on this text, A Tale of Two Heretics, says that this poor

man is besieged as if he had just received a grand jury subpoena, the

inquisition staggering in degree. “How were your eyes opened?

Where is the man who did it? How could he do that? What did he do

to you? How did he open your eyes? What do you say about him since

he opened your eyes? Not one living soul said, ‘Alleluia,’ or ‘Thank

God!’ No one asked him what it was like to see for the first time in his

life, or whether the light hurt his eyes. Just ‘How’ and ‘Who’ and

‘Where’ and ‘What.’” It really was an inquisition? Talk about twenty

questions! The scene must have looked like the old Abbott and

Costello routine, Who’s on First? That, or one of any number of Three

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Stooges gags. But, to use some Greek imagery, it is much more

tragedy than comedy, however! Blind folk do not just suddenly see.

Something is wrong here, something is amiss. We have to get to the

bottom of this. Was this the work of a demon, perhaps? I hear that

they call this so-called Rabbi “Beelzebub” the prince of darkness. I

have heard that! This is scandalous, not according to the book. Is it

sorcery, witchcraft? Is this man a magician? Surely this healing is but

a ruse, fake news, or some kind of alternative facts! (I have been

waiting a long time to use those lines in a sermon!) That’s it, it is a

conspiracy. This man and this Jesus are in cahoots. We have had the wool

pulled over our eyes. We have been taken for fools, swindled! This man is

a fake, a fraud, a phony, and has been stealing right out from under our

very eyes, uh noses. And, this Jesus, just who is this carnival barker, this

charlatan, this scammer? This man was never blind, but only pretended

to be, a swindling shyster merely masquerading as a man with a disability,

sitting on his lazy butt living off our welfare and good will, playing us like

a fiddle. He is able, not differently abled! The very idea! The audacity! I’ll

bet he has made a mint from our charity and benevolent kindness, no

doubt calling us idiots, fools, morons, suckers with every gift we

generously, selflessly give to him. It is obvious that Jesus and his low-class

lackeys, this infidel entourage, a band of hooligans all, no doubt paid off

this man, probably paying an exorbitant amount, rewarding him

handsomely to fake the receiving of his eyesight. Why, I have seen that on

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TV preacher healing shows! It is a trick as old as a televangelist faith

healer. Oh, wait, we don’t have those yet!

The man is bombarded with questions and accusations, the

Pharisees were desperately trying to trip him up, to rip holes in his

story. They make him repeat himself over and over and over again.

Strange to the story is that Jesus leaves the poor soul to his own

devices, is suddenly nowhere to be found, totally out of the picture.

The man formerly known as blind is now left to fend for himself. You

should wonder what his thoughts were at this horrific display of

hostility toward him when he had done nothing to warrant its

onslaught of rebuke and condemnation. Ironically, there was

compassion when he was an ineptly blind dependent, but now there

was open vitriol, unbridled, untempered anger being heaped upon

him now that he could see. What gives? Part of the problem we are quick

to discover is that once again, as is often the case—to the point that we

are beginning to think it intentional—is that Jesus has failed to check his

calendar before carrying out this impromptu healing. This just happened

to be a Sabbath day and healing was considered work and thus a “no no”,

labor forbidden, totally prohibited on the day of rest. Baptist preacher

Paul Duke says this poor man was “blind all his life and (now) he’s healed

on the wrong damn day.” The Pharisees condemn him, ironically as if in

their mind, he was not already condemned as a sinner responsible for his

own predicament, his own sightless situation because of his or

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somebody’s sin. Do not interfere with the ways of God! You just could not

win in their shell game because they kept or even made the rules! As

keepers of the gate, guardians of the tradition, the Pharisees job one was

to maintain status quo, same old, same old, rut and routine at all cost.

Sadly, the parents of the man once blind are brought into the conversation

and they strangely become silent, failing to validate that he was once

blind, fearful that they will be thrown from the train known here as the

synagogue. Well, the Pharisees do disfellowship the once blinded one

because he has somehow violated a law of much import. What that was

remains an irrelevant mystery. Quick sidebar: You will remember that

John’s Gospel is written about 70 years after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE

and the subsequent removal of Jesus’ Jewish followers from the

synagogues. This is the context coloring this narrative. Now, back to the

story. All of this is happening, and just like Elvis, Jesus has left the building,

nowhere in sight, nowhere to be found. The responses to the Pharisees by

the man born blind but now seeing are priceless. John’s writer does a

brilliant job contrasting one who had never seen, but was given his vision,

and now sees three dimensionally, against the religious authorities who

were supposedly gifted with 20/20 theological insight, but could not see

beyond the end of their noses, their own small minded, short sighted

sectarian self-serving interests. I mean, when the man asked the

Pharisees if they would like to become Jesus’ disciples, now that is a gut

splitting moment. I love biblical humor! The man stands his ground

with his adversaries, amazingly so, defending himself and Jesus,

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despite their vain attempts to discredit them both. The man holds

his own because he is innocent and open, honest, and transparent,

with clearly nothing to hide, because he sees what he sees and he

now knows what he knows, taking him far beyond mere 20/20

vision. His newly minted ability to see is the stuff of x-ray like quality

that only comes from the still speaking Spirit of God. He now sees the

full spectrum of God’s love, becoming a visionary in his own right,

seeing a divine kaleidoscope of all that is, a vast rainbow of colors

reflecting all the still speaking Spirit’s beautiful creation, especially

and particularly the human aspect of it. All this, despite the

negativity overwhelming him, circling around him like water going

down a drain, uh toilet!

Suddenly, Jesus returns, hearing that his patient had been

unceremoniously kicked out of the synagogue. The man sees Jesus

for the first time, at least in the flesh! He had long gotten the vision!

Perhaps he became a disciple. Who knows? He needed a new line of

work anyway! The Pharisees continued to dig in their heels refusing

to embrace any of what they had also clearly seen and could verify.

That is what Pharisees are programmed to do! It reminds me of a

1986 Moody Blues line from the song I Know You’re out There

Somewhere, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”

Great line! The problem for the Pharisees is that they were too far

down their own dead end road, the pay and the perks too great, the

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comfort to easy. Sadly, Jesus came seeking them just as much as

anyone else, just as much as the man born blind, but now seeing.

Jesus was always about the task, the work of “extravagantly

welcoming”, expansively including, always radically hospitable,

even to those who meant him harm. The salvation offered to one was

the same salvation always freely offered to many. The sight offered

to one in a real, literal, tangible way was the sight offered to

everyone in every way imaginable. But, it was not to be . . . at least

not on this fateful day.

I think what intrigues me most in this story is that it is clearly Jesus who

seeks out this individual. It is the very “enfleshment” of parables like the

ninety-nine plus one sheep, the lost coin, and of course, the prodigal sons.

It is the story of the good shepherd who is always about the task of seeking

out the lost sheep, and Jesus is certainly the main player, the mover and

shaker, in the lost and found department. The only problem is our

reticence and reluctance as sheep, an animal prone to wander far from the

fold, often failing to follow.

The Psalm for today is the most familiar 23rd. It really is a shame that

it is usually only read, reserved for funeral and memorial services, a

type cast that limits its beauty and brilliance to only the deepest,

darkest, deadliest moments of our lives. It certainly provides a

much-needed salve at times like that. One of the things I love about

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the Psalm is that it does not make empty promises, telling me that

everything in this life and this world is going to be just “hunky dory”,

is going to be okay, that any of us, even the faithful, are immune to

life’s dangers, difficulties, and disasters. Evil and suffering will find

us no matter how good or not we are. Once more, as the good book

tells us, prophetically declaring, “The rain falls on the just and the

unjust.” And, once again this week, for the third week in a row, a

record in preaching perhaps, we lean into the words and onto the

comfort offered by Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall

be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” (See Revelations of

Divine Love, 1395.) That, my friends, I believe to be the essence of the

Psalmist’s words. As long as God is the great shepherd all will

eventually, inevitably be well in our midst. If David did indeed write

these words, and he very well may have penned them, he paints a

picture of a tormented soul, someone experiencing life at its deepest

and most poignant level of pain and agony, the raw edged afflictions

of life, grabbing him at the depth of his being. Rather than being

jaded, skeptical, or even cynical like say the writer of Ecclesiastes

elsewhere, David, or whoever it was, maintains a steadfast faith in

the steadfast love of God, convinced and assured that God would be

with him, that he was not alone, that God was somehow, even still in

control, and that nothing could separate him from the love of God,

grounded in God’s being, surely safely harbored in that warm and

wonderful womb. Our world continues to experience levels of hurt

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that rival those experienced by humanity down through the

centuries—there is nothing new under the sun. Human blindness is

as rampant as ever! The solutions to our dis-ease seem far removed

from our reality, a salve nowhere in sight. There is no magic wand,

no Pollyanna answer to our cries and our crises, no divine rescuer in

this life delivering us from its slings and arrows. Nothing, can and

will sustain us my friends, other than our faith and hope and trust in

God and our faith and trust in one another as beloved faith

community. We are who we have! And, by choice, not by force or

mandate. We are to be shepherd one to another!

So, on this fourth Sunday in Lent, this day of refreshment, even as the

realities of our world invade our air space, with wars waging and

terrorists plotting, with illnesses ravaging and friends and loved

ones dying, we find our faith and our voice. And, in so doing we find

a way to rejoice, to always rejoice, to rejoice always. Laetare all

around, ever abounding. On some days, when things seem far out of

hand, when all our best efforts seem in vain, and God’s presence and

social justice seems so very far away and far from realized in our

midst, there is nothing we can do. Until deaf ears hear, until blind

eyes see, our hope is in our great shepherd God, and in each other.

Even so we continue to strive to make a difference, seeking to live

lives that matter, making a difference in our world. That is all that is

asked of us as followers of this one named Jesus. And, while we travel

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a road, making a journey alone and, thank God, together, we know

we are on a path that leads from darkness to light, from blindness to

sight, from confusion to understanding. The gospel of Jesus, words

from a Psalmist, all are as timely now for us as they were on the day

they were written. Words of refreshment! Rejoice, again I say

rejoice! Laetare! Laetare! Laetare! Thanks be to God!

In the name of the One who creates, redeems, and sustains, and gives

us sight, the vision to see beyond often shortsighted selves, and the

voice to rejoice, to always rejoice. Amen and amen.

Timothy W. Shirley SouthShore United Church of Christ Sun City Center, Florida 33573 © March 26, 2017