Sunday, June 14, 2015

Neither

Neither
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 14, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 9: 1-12

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.
Amen.

9 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” [1]

Chapter 9 starts like so many earlier chapters have, with a miraculous healing from Jesus, and like the others this one causes quite a stir amongst the Jewish leadership, and like the others it occurred on the Sabbath. One thing that is different in this story is that there is a ritual associated with the healing. Jesus spits on the ground, and makes enough spit, to stir up a little mud, he picks up the newly made mud, saliva mixed with dirt, and rubs it, spreading it over the man's eyes, and then sends him to the pool of Siloam, which the Gospel writer points out to us that the pool's name, Siloam means, sent. . . so Jesus sends the blind man with his eyes covered with saliva and mud to the sending place pool, and he regains his sight. This sending to the pool allows for Jesus not to be around when the healing is discovered, much like earlier with the man who was paralyzed and healed. The people that become angered by the situation hear about it second hand. . . from the newly healed person. . . so from him we get to see the healed man's proclamation of Jesus as a healer, as a prophet, as the son of God, and of course then see the reaction of all of Jesus' most harsh critics.
What stands out in this passage, and what has been the most interesting to me is the deeply theological question that the disciples ask Jesus about this blind man. They want to know why he is the way he is. They want to understand why God would make this man blind. Why God would curse him with blindness, why a God who they know to be just would punish someone with blindness without sin being the cause, and since they can't imagine that a "good" God, a Just God, a compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding with steadfast love God could do such a thing for no reason, it must be that someone sinned. Was it him, or was it his parents? An interesting question for sure, especially when you take the idea that the man was blind since birth. . . if it was him who would have sinned to earn his blindness, then that would suggest some pretty radical ideas about sin and punishment. One would be that we can sin in the womb, before birth, that we can be earning punishment before even the beginning of our own discernment. Imagine an idea like that and what it would mean. The other possibility would suggest a kinda time machine punishment factor, that God could punish us now for sins that he knows we will commit later. Imagine that for a second. It works in Back to the Future and other science fiction time machine dramas, but it doesn't really seem like Justice, because wouldn't the punishment then become a contributing factor to the behavior later. Someone shaped by and through the bitterness of hardship to sin. . . it's circular, and maybe entrapment. It's like a Oedipus situation, fated, and miserable, again it doesn't sound like God to me.
The flipside of it though is parents. .  . could it have been the sins of his parents that cause his blindness. . . If we look at the Sins of the Parents being reattributed on children in future generations, it is not a concept that is foreign to the Biblical tradition. Erick read for us in Numbers. .  .
18     ‘The Lord is slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression,
but by no means clearing the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
to the third and the fourth generation.’
19 Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now.”
20 Then the Lord said, “I do forgive, just as you have asked; 21 nevertheless—as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord 22 none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors[2]


There is that steadfast love and forgiveness, but also the sins and guilt of the parents being carried out against the children to the third and fourth generation. . . but you also have forgiveness. . . the glory of the Lord. . . and people not being able to see the land. . . interesting when juxtaposed with this morning's passage. . . So even though this is a challenging theological concept, too, it has some basis within the Biblical Tradition. . . but strangely, Jesus doesn't give an answer that either of those posited questions as accurate, but instead his answer, "neither."
Neither, it is not about sin, but so that God's works would be revealed through him. Now this is an ancient question. Why do bad things happen? If God is Good, and God created this world, why is the world not good? Is it because of something that we did? Is it because of something that our parents did? It must be because getting what we deserve is justice, justice right, and justice is good, eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, now we kinda can understand mercy when it comes to subverting justice, like when the hand of justice decides that a second chance is valid, and gives it, like the kind of mercy that makes Jonah so bitter when God spares Nineveh, or the second chance of getting to the promise land after messing up in the desert, being led astray, all the grumbling, lacking of faith, but God's steadfast love and mercy comes to play, and we understand that it happens that way sometimes, we get the mercy side. Justice is one thing, we desire it, but we do sometimes get mercy and we can accept it, and understand it, but we can't though comprehend when bad things happen to good people. . . someone always needs to be blamed for it to be right. We are always looking for those answers. How can a just God work that way? Someone must be to blame. This is the basis of the question  the disciples ask.
And it's nothing new. Job, one of the oldest books in the Bible works through this question. . . and also offers points of view like the disciples question. Job, your world has fallen apart. . . death, sickness, loss of property, drought, starvation. . . its like the old joke, I think it's Flip Wilson, about coming home from being away. . . and he comes home asks what happen, and the guy answers, well not much but your dog died. . .
Yeah he ate the bad horse meat. . . .
yeah cuz the barn burnt down.
Fire started in your house
Candles from the funeral
Your mother in law,
Your wife ran off. .   .
It's like bad things happen and they pile on. . . it was that way for Job. And everyone showed up and told him why exactly he was suffering. . . they told him it must have been his fault, something that he did, something that had shown his faithlessness, and therefore he deserved it, but it's not true. . . God has more going on. . .  it's a mystery. . . . God is Good, God is just, but we don't understand. . . can we be humble enough to admit that? These days?
There is a great poem about the plight of man, Alexander Pope wrote it, called the "Essay on Man" it has famous lines in it, and I quote it often, but my favorite part is the end of the first section. . . it goes like this. . .
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right. 

In other words, whatever is, is directed by God. . . in our world. . . lumps and all. . . people being blind from birth, not because of sin, but because of some blessing, or some aspect of God's glory that is unknown to us. There is mystery there, there is faith there, and there for us to wrap our minds, which are so clouded by the sadness, and the pain, the seeming injustice, and all of the hardship, to wrap our minds around that, we really need to start with humility, that we just don't know the answer, and can be satisfied without one, that the answer to who is to blame is neither, because who is to say that the struggle is a curse and not a blessing.
I put an old Chinese proverb in the bulletin today about the lost horse. . . it is about the problem that people have with perspective. . . that even though we think we have all the answers, there is much of the world surrounding us that is well beyond our understanding, and we misconstrue the good for the bad all the time. . . Like my anthem, "Unanswered Prayers" we don't always know in the moment, what is good and what is not. Just so in the story it's all connected. . .
This farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbors came to condole over his terrible loss. The farmer said, "What makes you think it is so terrible?"
A month later, the horse came home--this time bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbors became excited at the farmer's good fortune. Such lovely strong horses! The farmer said, "What makes you think this is good fortune?"
The farmer's son was thrown from one of the wild horses and broke his leg. All the neighbors were very distressed. Such bad luck! The farmer said, "What makes you think it is bad?"
A war came, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only the farmer's son, because he had a broken leg, remained. The neighbors congratulated the farmer. "What makes you think this is good?" said the farmer.

God is an artist, and a poet, and a creator, and his masterpiece that surrounds us is bigger than we are, and though we do not understand. . . it is good, and working itself out with God's own hands towards his glory. . . and Jesus gives us a glimpse of God's glory to us, by giving sight to someone who did not have it before. . . Jesus could not have done that unless the man was blind. . . just like he cannot save us without our sin. . . don't you see, that in both cases it is not about sin, but about God's glory. . . therefore humble yourself enough to not need all the answers, and still live.



[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 9:1-12). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Nu 14:22-23). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.