Sermon - 3rd April 2011
Healing the Blind Beggar
Scripture - John 9:1-12, 35-41
The miracles of Jesus often contain hidden depths; there are often deeper meanings behind the stories which the gospel writers give us clues about, and challenge us to think about.
Today’s story from John’s gospel is one of those which has many layers, not least because it has many characters and they all deserve to be watched and thought about as the story unfolds. It is one of those gospel stories which benefits from the use of our imaginations so that we can try to get the feel, the smell and the noise of the event, as if we were in the crowd watching Jesus.
So, from our vantage point in the crowd, look at the man who was born blind and who regularly comes to this place to beg for money. He has been excluded from normal society for virtually his whole life. Why? Well, the disciples’ question gives a clue: there is a belief within the culture of the time that this man’s disability is a punishment for the sins of his forebears. The disciples ask, ‘Who sinned, this man or his parents?’ Jesus firmly declares that the man’s blindness is not a result of anyone’s sins and affirms that God has a place in this world for him.
The unspoken message of those words is, ‘and if God has a place for him, why does his community reject him as worthless, make him beg, and keep him in poverty?’
If this man were shown love by those around him, instead of being discarded like a broken vessel, that love would heal many of his illnesses. It would not restore his sight, but it would restore his dignity and his belief in the goodness of human nature. And instead of living hand-to-mouth as a beggar, he would start to give something back, he would reflect the love he was shown, and he would enhance the lives of the people around him.
Jean Vanier, who founded various communities for disabled people in France, tells how he founded his organisation to ‘be good’ and to ‘do good’ to people with disabilities; but, he says, ‘I had no idea how these people were going to do good to me!... The people we are healing are, in fact, healing us, even if they do not realise it. They call us to love, and awaken in us what is most precious: compassion.’
Then, in our story, Jesus touches the blind man. Some of the miracles we read about were achieved by a word of command; but here touch is important, because to someone who is blind, voice and touch are extremely important and very revealing ways of making contact. Instead of seeing the tenderness and compassion in Jesus’s face, the man experiences them no less sincerely through Jesus’s words and through his touch.
The next thing we become aware of, from our place in the crowd, is the commotion from the various onlookers as the man’s sight is restored.
The custom at the time was that a miraculous healing had to be confirmed by the local religious leaders: enter the Pharisees, the ultra-conservative upholders of religious tradition.
It’s fascinating to watch how they react - almost the first thing out of their mouths is, ‘This Jesus has broken the rules’. There had already been confrontations between Jesus and the local religious authorities; to the Pharisees this was just more trouble-making by a dangerous maverick, and these goings-on were dishonouring the sanctity of the Sabbath.
And here the gospel-writer sets up his great dramatic contrast, because while the Pharisees say of Jesus, ‘We know this man Jesus is a sinner’, the beggar says, ‘All I know is that I was blind, and now I see.’
The Pharisees continue to challenge the situation: on one side of the debate the Pharisees defend the letter of their religious law and view everything through a lens of sinfulness; on the other side, the beggar says, ‘I don’t know what happened, or why it happened, but I was blind and now I see’. It’s the classic religious conflict between ancient tradition and new revelation.
John’s readers are led by the hand into asking the question, ‘In this situation, who is really blind, and who can see enough to know the truth?’ And from our vantage point in the crowd, we can look at all the characters and ask, ‘where is God in this’?
Is God enshrined in the religious traditions, rules and observances of the Pharisees, or is God in the response of the man whose life has been changed forever through a loving touch and an intimate word?
When we step out of that Jerusalem crowd and back into our own daily lives, I suspect we still see examples of the misjudged priorities which John holds up for scrutiny in this miracle story. We certainly still hear about that conflict between tradition and revelation.
In a number of Christian communities – even some whole denominations - a new clarity of vision has revealed to them that sometimes the best candidate for a particular position, even that of bishop - may happen to be lesbian or gay. And, thank God, they have recently been following this revealed understanding. The modern day Pharisees in the wider church have been telling them that they’re breaking the rules, and have been trying to exclude them to prevent their sinfulness being caught by other parts of the faith community. But these churches have found the courage to say, ‘We see God in this; this is a new revelation; our Christian faith is alive and evolving; we were blind, but now we see.’
In many respects, this church to which we belong and which we support with our time, our talents and our gifts, started as a new vision to gather, to touch, and to show Christian love to people who were excluded - people who were accused of being born in sin; people who had no place in the rulebooks of traditional churches.
The Metropolitan Community Church has spent its first 40 years being a revelation to the world, showing by our actions and our inclusive teachings that God is at work in and among the lgbt communities, blessing, healing, speaking, touching and giving new life - just as Jesus did with the blind beggar.
But the Pharisees are still out there, using punitive traditions to condemn us, ready to exclude us from their communities, arguing that they are duty-bound to label us as sinners who fall short of God’s ideal. They are not that far removed from the generation of Pharisees whom the gospel-writer brought face to face with Jesus in this story while gently asking the question, “who is blind, and who can see”, and “where is the God of love in this”?
And when we answer those questions for ourselves, surely our only way forwards, as followers of Jesus, is to carry on for the next 40 years as a new revelation of God’s love, gathering, including, touching, healing and revealing new insights into this journey towards God which we call life.