Saturday, March 1, 2008
How's and Why's--or the sermon that had to be written before I could preach the REAL sermon
The past few weeks we have been hearing the Gospel of John. We have heard the story of Nicodemus who was a religious leader who came to Jesus with a theological conundrum in the middle of the night because he didn’t want to be seen consulting with an itinerant rabbi. We heard last week of the Woman and the Well, a Samaritan woman who debated the issue of Living Water with Jesus. And today we hear the story of the Man Born Blind.
In all of these stories we hear not only the experiences of Jesus; we hear the experience of John’s community. The Gospels are not factual histories—that genre of writing had not been invented yet. The Gospels are the stories of Jesus seen through the eyes of a specific community of faith. And so in hear the stories from the Gospel of John we need to what is going on in John’s community that would cause his Gospel to be so different from Matthew, Mark and Luke’s versions.
John was writing sometime at the end of the first century or in the early second. It was a time when there was a total upheaval going on in the religious world of the Middle East. Because the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed in 70 AD, Judaism was in major disarray. There was no place where the sacrifices were being offered. There was no need for a priestly ministry in Judaism any longer so the Sadducee Party had no meaning. Much of the Torah which discussed the priestly duties was no longer relevant to people’s faith. And in the Pharisee community, rabbinic Judaism was providing the center of that faith.
And in all communities that are trying to conserve their faith—conserve the past for passing on to the future—there became a serious retrenchment movement a foot. This is what John often expresses in his Gospel.
I am very sensitive to the use of the word “Jew” as it is often used in John’s Gospel. It often carries with it 2000 years of anti-Semitism that developed between the writing of the Gospel and the present day. And I would suggest that whenever you read John, you keep in mind that Jesus is not casting aspersions against his own people. It is John who is using terms that were defined differently than we do today.
Today’s story is about a man who was healed of his blindness by Jesus on a Sabbath. Once again, this is a story that has so much in it that I could preach 5 or 6 sermons just on this one passage. And each time I read this passage I find something more. But I would like to touch on the issue of Spiritual Arrogance because I think we see it highlighted in this story.
Evidently the Babylonian Talmud makes no provision for healing on the Sabbath except for those in danger of death. I have a sneaking suspicion that Jesus, from Nazareth and not part of a people who were the remnant of the Babylonian exile, might have been a rabbi who found the theological constraints upon Sabbath work somewhat stuffy. Part of the job of a rabbi was to argue and discuss the decisions of other rabbis. Jesus does heal on the Sabbath in violation of an interpretation of Jewish law. But this story has little do with the kind of work’s righteousness that Christianity has laid at Jewish theological feet for thousands of years. Jesus did that which was practical, humane, pastoral and faithful because he understood God as a God who loved.
Over and over the religious officials ask the blind man, his parents and bystanders how this miracle happened. How is an interesting question—how could a person who has violated one of the Ten Commandments like Jesus had, heal? “In Jesus' culture, people thought of light as a STUFF, a substance that radiated out from itself, a kind of fire that, when present in the human body, could flow out of a person's eyes and allow them to see Someone who couldn't see just didn't have the stuff in them; their body had darkness in it instead of light” so says Dylan Bruer of Sarah Laughed.
Like the scientists of our own day, HOW Jesus had healed was more important to the religious leaders than the more spiritual question: WHY had Jesus healed the blind man? How the man was healed had no meaning except for those who needed to control what was going on in the community. Throughout the Gospels we find that Jesus has come to teach us of the love of the Father. The whole of John’s Gospel is a book of Signs—manifestations of God’s love for the world.
The religious authorities in the Gospel of John are always ones who want to exclude, make boundaries, ask the HOW’s of life, when the questions of WHY are left unasked. Invariably, the religious authorities are seen as those who would try to make theological proofs for the miracles of faith.
The encounter of faith—the encounter with God is a deeply individualized and profoundly personal meeting. It is not a matter of following certain steps, magical formula or various methods. God touches us in remarkably private ways. Often they are fairly mundane ways—so ordinary that we are likely not to even note them.
But all too often we church folk become rather spiritually arrogant. We want everyone else to look like us. We cannot sit still to hear the spiritual experience of others because it isn’t like ours. Whenever I have had to listen to church fights, I have found people unwilling to listen to others. I have also heard those saying more or less “you have to experience God the same way I do to be a member of MY church.” I have heard this in my own denomination. I have heard it among Lutherans. I have heard it from one congregation to another. Underneath such statements, is not strong faith. Underlying this need for sameness is not a living faith. It is a need to be right. And I would suggest to you—from my experience there is no right—in faith. There is only relationship.
Moralism is not faith. It may be religion—but I do not necessarily equate faith and religion either. It may be the HOW’s of the relationship with God rather than the WHY’s . The WHY’s are always about God’s loving. Even in the most confusing aspects of our lives are in the why God is working out his salvation for us. It is always about God’s love for us.
Whenever we get to the place when we know we are being spiritually arrogant, it is time for us to ask why God is doing whatever in our lives. We need to ask ourselves if we can see God’s love like the blind man could see. It is through the seeing of our own blindness that we come to know God in that awesomely mundane way. We begin to see God’s work in the smallest detail of creation and it takes our breath away.
In the mud and saliva of healing we find intimacy in the pragmatic. God makes God’s self apparent not in the how’s of life but simply because God is love because God wants us to know wholeness.