Sunday, March 30, 2014

Phil Kniss: When blindness goes viral

Lent 4: Encountering God through anointing
John 9:1-41

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Despite the title given to this morning’s theme,
    “encountering God through anointing,”
    you’ll have noticed there is an even stronger theme
        running through everything we’ve done so far.

The first thing we did, before the prelude,
    was sing a prayer, “Come and be light for our eyes.”

The 23rd Psalm has played a big role in the service,
    with its affirmation that God is one
        who leads us through dark valleys,
        guides us into a place of peace and knowing.
    We contemplated on that Psalm four times,
        in John’s prelude,
        singing “Shepherd me, O God,”
        listening to the children’s time,
        and reading it in unison.

And in our call to worship,
    we praised the brilliant light of God that leads us to sight,
        even while we stumble in the dark.

Then we experienced the telling of this amazing Gospel story,
    the healing of the man born blind, from John 9.

And now we just sang, in Spanish and English, this prayer,
    “Abre mis ojos!” “Open my eyes.”

So . . . I will come back to this matter of anointing—
    which comes from Jesus “anointing” the man’s eyes
        with a mud paste,
    and Psalm 23 saying, “you anoint my head with oil,
        my cup overflows”—
    but first I invite us to focus more on the obvious theme here,
        this move from darkness to light,
        from blindness to sight.

So I begin with John 9,
    the longest healing story in the Bible.
    It only takes 2 verses—6 and 7—to tell the whole healing story.
        Jesus spits on the ground, makes mud,
            smears it on a blind man’s eyes,
            the man washes it off,
            and he sees for the first time in his life.
    The rest of the story—all 39 verses—
        is people reacting to the healing, one way or another.
        This is a story driven by dialogue, not action.
            There are 31 shifts in the dialogue,
                back and forth, from one speaker to another.
            But Jesus has only a few words at the beginning,
                and a few at the end.

    This is unique in all the Gospels.
        No other major story is driven by dialogue,
            where the main speaker isn’t Jesus.
        Another way of saying it,
            this is a very long argument between people.

    So let’s see what the argument was about.
    There are six separate dialogues in the story,
        follow along in John 9 if you have your Bible.

    The first exchange, vv. 1-5, is prior to the healing,
        and is a theological discussion
        between the disciples and Rabbi Jesus.
        The disciples see the blind beggar, and ask,
            Was it sin that made this man blind?
            Jesus says no, it’s not sin.
            He’s blind so that the work of God might be displayed.

    In the next two verses, 6-7,
        the blind man gets healed.
        The one and only action sequence in the story.

    The second conversation is between
        the formerly blind man and his neighbors, vv. 8-12.
        The neighbors say, “That’s the man born blind.”
            “No, it isn’t, just looks like him.”
            “Yes it is.”
            “No, it isn’t.”
        The man keeps saying, “I am the man.”
        But the neighbors want proof.
            How can you see? Who did it? Where is he?

    The third interchange, 13-17, is when his neighbors
        take him to the Pharisees to get the facts.
        He tells his story again, and the Pharisees say,
            “Nope, something’s fishy here.
                The facts don’t add up.”
        See, it was the Sabbath when Jesus healed the man.
            So some said, obviously, Jesus can’t be from God,
                because he doesn’t keep the Sabbath.
            Others said, obviously, he can’t be a sinner,
                because God doesn’t listen to sinners,
                so there couldn’t have been a miracle.
            This was some kind of fraud.
            So they sent for his parents.

    Which sets up the fourth dialogue, vv. 18-23.
        “Is this your son? The one you say was born blind?
            Then how can he see?”
        “Well, we know he is our son. We know he was born blind.
            But as to how he can see? Ask him. He’s an adult.”
        The parents refused to be pushed into a corner.
        If they claimed Jesus cured their son,
            they would be accused of believing Jesus was Messiah,
            and they could have been expelled from the synagogue,
                “excommunicated,” so to speak.

    So we move to dialogue #5, vv. 24-34,
        the most remarkable argument of all.
            It takes 11 verses.
        The Pharisees drag the man back in again,
            and say, “Give glory to God!” Or in today’s English,
                “Give us a break! You know and we know!
                    Jesus is a sinner.”
        The man says, “The only thing I know,
            is that I was blind, and now I see.”
        And it goes on, and on.
        You don’t even have to embellish this.
            This is straight-up biblical comedy.
        “So what did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
        “I already told you . . .
            You sound awfully interested.
            You wanna be his disciples, too?”
        That was too much to take, and they start hurling insults.
        The man comes back with a little theology lesson
            which they can’t dispute.
        All they can say is, “How dare you lecture us . . . sinner?”
            and they throw him out.
        Don’t you love it?
        A blind beggar, who spent his life on the social trash heap,
            gets into an argument with religious scholars,
            and the beggar wins.

    Then we have the final interaction . . .
        we’re back to Jesus and the man born blind.
        The man confesses his belief in Jesus as Messiah.
            And bows down in worship.
        And Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world,
            so the blind will see and those who see become blind.”
        Some eavesdropping Pharisees then ask,
            “What? Are we blind too?”
        And Jesus has the last word.
        “If you were blind, you would not be guilty;
            but since you claim you see, your guilt remains.”

Six different dialogue scenes.
Six different debates.
    All talking about Jesus and his act of healing the blind man.

But . . . did you notice what was missing from all this dialogue?
    Nobody but Jesus showed any concern for the man himself.
    Everyone else looked straight through the man,
        as if he wasn’t even there,
        and tried to get their issues resolved.
    The disciples tried to resolve a theological issue
        about the connection between sin and birth defects.
    The neighbors had an issue with the evidence:
        was or wasn’t this the man who used to sit and beg.
    The Pharisees were obsessed about the issue that this healing,
        if proven,
        would unravel their tidy theological system.
    And the man’s parents said as little as they could,
        to avoid having an issue with the synagogue.

Nowhere, in these 41 verses of dialogue,
    did someone walk up to the man who was healed,
    and ask him, “What’s it like to see for the first time in your life?”
    No one seems interested.
    No one simply and sincerely praises God,
        for showing his love and mercy to this man.
    One would think even sworn enemies of Jesus,
        would find something positive
        in someone broken being made whole.

    But God’s action to save and heal
        completely escapes them.
    Instead, they turn inward, attending to their own needs and issues.

The story began with one poor blind man,
    surrounded by people who could see.
And it ends with one man who finally sees,
    surrounded by the blind.
It seems the man’s blindness spread like a virus.
    The blindness was going viral.

This story could hardly be more appropriate, and timely,
    given the conversations, debates, and conflict
    in our Mennonite churches over the ethics of same-sex relationships,
    and how we will live together in unity across our differences.
        How . . . or if.

As in the Gospel story, so it is with us.
    When fear takes hold, and anxieties rise . . .
        when categories and convictions are threatened . . .
        conversations tend to generate more heat than light . . .
        people move apart, instead of toward, each other,
        and this condition we all share, called “partial blindness,”
            gets worse, instead of better.
        One person’s fear intensifies another’s.
        One group’s anxious words or actions,
            spark counter-words or actions.
        And blindness spreads like a virus.

    This is true in families, among friends and neighbors,
        it is true in political discourse at every level,
        and it is true in the church.
    In the same way that a long, cold, and damp winter
        creates perfect conditions for the growth and spread
            of an influenza virus,
        so do high fear and high anxiety
            create ideal conditions for viral blindness.

For the Pharisees, who were genuinely good and righteous people,
    this miracle they witnessed created a theological crisis.
    Jesus did this healing work on a Sabbath.
        Some scholars have suggested this wasn’t a simple matter
            of the Pharisees being unreasonably picky.
        They suggest Jesus was intentionally being provocative.
            Many very precise physical activities
                were expressly prohibited on the Sabbath.
                One of those was kneading with your hands.
            Jesus could have quietly spoken a word, to heal the man,
                and perhaps the offense would have been overlooked.
            But in the sight of all,
                he got down in the dirt,
                and purposely engaged in an act of physical labor,
                    mixing and kneading the mud into a paste,
                as if to say, so what are you going to do about this?

    Whether or not that’s the case, doesn’t really matter.
        What I’m saying is that Jesus’ act, did, in fact,
            create a genuine theological crisis
            for people who were only trying to do the right thing.
    Because they believed—sincerely and without malice—
        that doing labor on the Sabbath was sinful,
        and because they believed—sincerely and without malice—
        that God does not listen to the prayers of sinners,
            the fact that this blind man claimed to be healed,
                as a direct result of a sinful act,
            created a moral and theological and intellectual crisis.
        Something did not add up.
        So questioning, examining,
            categorizing, insulting, and expelling . . .
            became the mode of operation.

Perhaps . . .
    if there is a lesson in this Gospel story for the church today,
        it is to walk with open hearts into the tension,
        in order to listen more deeply to all our brothers and sisters
            caught in this crisis,
        to hold onto this seemingly irreconcilable difference
            longer than may be comfortable for us,
        to be a C.O. in this battle—
            to conscientiously object to
                cutting off relationships, or
                condemning people categorically,
            to conscientiously object to
                turning people into issues,
                or making them into cardboard characters
                    representing a “position.”

    But rather . . . rather . . .
        to model a way to live together as the body of Christ,
            with sacrificial love and mutual respect,
            while we continue to listen to the Spirit,
                and discern what obedience looks like.
        No matter how long it takes.

There is a better way to deal with crises in the community of faith,
    than the tragic circus that unfolded here in John 9.
And there certainly is a better way to deal with our differences,
    than the way modeled for us by our culture.
    We don’t have to buy into any assumptions, or any methodologies,
        that have become par-for-the-course in the culture wars.
    We don’t have to, in fact, we must not,
        caricature people, and thus de-humanize them,
        which makes it far too easy to do violence to them,
            in words or action.

I am not, I assure you,
    implying the fault lies only at one end of the spectrum . . .
        or the other.
    Especially in this age of social media . . .
        at the slightest provocation,
        or in response to something we consider stupid,
            that some person said
            or some organization did,
        we feel justified when we respond
            by lobbing harsh and condescending words like a grenade,
                into the public square.

    From left to right and in-between, believe me,
        no part of the spectrum has a monopoly on being
            narrow-minded, mean-spirited,
            manipulative, and intolerant.
        And yes, I have to watch myself carefully,
            so I don’t follow my own tendencies in that direction.

    But that is not the way followers of Jesus are to behave,
        even on Facebook and Twitter.
        I think I’m going to invent a new Christian bracelet, WWJT,
            “What would Jesus tweet?”

    At every point on the theological and political spectrum,
        we all must—in no uncertain terms—reject all words and deeds
            that cut us off from each other,
            or that dismiss, demean, or bully others,
            or in any way undermine the grace-filled Gospel of Christ.

That won’t solve all the conflicts, of course.
    Because it does not remove the fact
        that serious and genuine theological differences remain.
    We do have different ways of reading scripture in the church,
        which result in different convictions and priorities.

This is why we, as the church, are called to the task of discernment.
    We are called to be in a body where we hold on to each other
        with a stubborn love,
        based on our baptismal covenant.
    We are held together
        not by a precise uniformity of doctrine
            or uniformity of behavior,
        but by a grace-filled covenant to walk with one another,
            in forbearance,
            come what may.

    Does doctrine matter? Of course it does!
    Does behavior matter? Of course it does!
        But the fact remains that in our particular body of Christ
            there are sincere variations on these things,
            held by sincere followers of Jesus.
        And we are, by virtue of our baptisms,
            in covenant with each other
            to stay on a shared journey toward
                God’s kingdom of truth, love, and justice.

    We are called to live in a body
        where genuine mutual discernment can take place,
        where life-giving mutual accountability can thrive,
        where we together engage in the practices that form us
            to be faithful, whole-hearted, disciples of Jesus.

This is what I believe was being modeled by our denomination’s
    Constituency Leaders Council nine days ago in Kansas,
        which Barbara spoke of so movingly last Sunday morning,
        and which was reported in a news release from MCUSA.
            Most of you got that by email.
            The rest have hard copies in your mailboxes.
                Extras are in the foyer.
    I think CLC has set a good example for the church.

    I also think there are ways we here at Park View Mennonite,
        can work at valuing our covenant with each other,
        while valuing the differences we bring to the table.
    Some of us in leadership have been talking specifically
        about what this might look like here.
        I think you’ll be hearing more in due time.
    As you know, we are deeply, deeply connected to the larger church.
        That is part of our congregational DNA.
        And being a congregation that embodies great diversity
            is also part of our DNA.
        So these stresses in the larger church do affect us.
            Can we both prize our differences,
                and strengthen our covenantal bond,
                at the same time?

Yes, I think we can.
But not without embracing two key elements of today’s Gospel story.
    We must all, each one of us,
        admit our blindness.
            It’s not that we can’t see anything.
            But we cannot see all things clearly.
        To be a human follower of Jesus,
            is to admit partial blindness.
        As Jesus said to the Pharisees,
            if we do not admit our blindness, our guilt remains.

    Secondly, as the blind man did,
        we must open ourselves to the anointing
            of the one who heals blindness.
        Our partial blindness will always be with us, in this life.
            That is a fact . . . but not a virtue.
        The light of Christ is, now, shining upon us through the Spirit.
            Jesus the healer, the bringer of light,
                seeks, continually, to anoint our eyes,
                and open them to ever-expanding sight.

I realize I’ve used up my 20 minutes.
    Bear with me for 2 more.

About this anointing.
    We aren’t going to have an anointing service here, this morning.
        But what I want to do,
            is invite us all to consider anointing—actual anointing—
            in the near future, in another venue,
                with whatever group of persons
                    we are in covenant with.

        Let’s consider how we might offer up, to the healing of Christ,
            our own partial blindness,
            including the blindness we don’t realize we have.
        Wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing,
            if instead of girding for battle
                with parties in the church we are at odds with,
            we might instead, gather together to anoint each other,
                to offer up, for healing,
                our individual and collective blindness.

        Maybe this is something you can plan for, in the near future,
            in your Sunday School class,
            with your small group,
            or with any group of persons you wish to share this ritual.

        Anointing is nothing magical.
            You don’t need a duly ordained priest.
                We are a priesthood of believers.
                Any of you here can do this, together with others.
            You don’t need holy oil.
                Jesus did it with mud, made from road dirt and spit.
            You don’t need a formal liturgy.
                You only need to know how to be humble
                    and cry out for healing of our blindness.
        It’s not magical.
            But this kind of shared ritual is powerful.
            Because of the meaning and intentionality behind it.

    I would also add,
        maybe there is another kind of anointing you need—
            for reconciliation with someone, or with a group,
            or for healing of some deeper wound, or trauma,
                or illness of mind, body, or spirit.
        If you don’t feel you have the strength or resources
            to pull it off without help,
            speak to one of us pastors or Elders.
        We can help shape the ritual, and lead you through it,
            if you so desire.

Let us all, as a body,
    eliminate the conditions where viruses thrive,
    and instead, admit our blindness to each other,
        and offer it to God for healing.
    And let us all confess our deep and abiding desire
        to walk as a child of the Light.

Let us sing together from STJ 95, I want to walk as a child of the light.

—Phil Kniss, March 30, 2014

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