Reforming-Renewing: Unexpected Grace – The Struggle of the Faithful Part I
Rev. Leta Arndt Behrens
Sermon Scripture: JOHN 9:1-41
1As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The 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?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He 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.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
Read the Sermon Here:
Our story today of a blind man healed is one of several throughout the gospels and It has been suggested that the origins of denominations occurred when the healed blind men met each other. At first they were all excited about the miracle of sight that Jesus had given them, but as they talked about how Jesus had healed them, they began to discover some significant differences. For some, the healing came with simply a touch from Jesus as in Mt 9 and 20. In Mark 10, Another proudly boasted that he had enough faith so that Jesus didn’t have to touch him to perform the miracle. In Mark 8, Another meekly exclaimed that Jesus not only touched him twice, but also “spit on his eyes” in order for him to see clearly. The final one really felt embarrassed to admit that even though a touch wasn’t part of his healing, Jesus’ “spit” wasn’t enough. Jesus had mixed his saliva with dirt and put the mud on his eyes and then told him to go and wash in some pool of water. Since each one thought his healing was normal and better than the others, they divided into spittites and non-spittites; muddites and non-muddites; touchites and non-touchites. Thus- the denominations were born.
While this story is meant to be tongue and cheek and poke fun at ourselves for our different flavors of Christianity, it highlights the struggle of the faithful— the struggle that it can be to live, to tell, to articulate our own story and experience of God while hearing and honoring the story and experience of God in another. What do we do when our theology–how we think about God–runs into conflict with an experience of God? For instance, we may believe that God heals the faithful, but then our experience may not include divine healing — even after a multitude of prayers. The theology of others may believe that miraculous healings were things of the past (if they ever really happened), but they may experience unexplainable healings for themselves or for others. (Citing Brian Stoffregen)
This is the tension that the Pharisees found themselves in. The Pharisees were a part of a Jewish sect that had strict adherence to the laws. Through this, they had a lived experience of God, rituals and doctrines, and rules and ways of living that in their hearts and in their minds connected them and kept them close to God. These were not wrong in and of themselves. Jesus pushes back and calls them blind not because of their practices but because they cannot open their eyes to another lived reality of God in the world. The Pharisees draw the conclusion that because Jesus healed on the sabbath–and healed a man who had been blind from birth so it really was not any kind of emergency–he was breaking a law that was a part of throw they defined God and therefore he could not be from God. Notice that the majority of the story is not about the healing, but it is about the interrogation that followed. They looked for any and all reasons that this blind man was not who he said he was and that this Jesus was not from God and must be a sinner, one who has fallen away from God, and so must the blind man be a sinner because he and his experience did not fit into their definition, their box, their field of vision for how God acts in human life. And the blind man, he just simply answered, I don’t know if he is a sinner, I just know what happened–that I was blind and now I see.
While we are not Pharisees, we may find ourselves being pharisaic–those who live a shared experience of God as a community and uphold certain theologies and doctrines through the lens of our experience and may not be able to see, at least not immediately, the experience of someone new, or with a different background, or a different idea of who God is and how God comes to us in this world. One of the best parts of being a pastor is when we have the privilege of being with and getting to know someone new to our community. I had that gift this week as I had lunch with a couple who has been worshipping with us for some time now and plans to become members this spring. Hearing their story of how they came to be with us, what experiences of community, church, faith make up their past and what their hopes are for the future was a reminder that every time we worship or gather in Bible study or come together in service, we are inviting ourselves to be changed. Not just by those who join us as members or who sit with us even for those first time today in the pews, but by opening ourselves to the word of God that is still speaking today, we are open to be changed by those we encounter in our daily walk of life.
When I was in like my 6th or 7th year of seminary (long story, took me awhile to get that degree-I blame the children) I took a class at George Fox Seminary in Portland, Oregon where I lived at the time. I was the only Lutheran in the class, everyone else was a Pentecostal of some form or another. This was quite the experience because not only did I have to really know my theological point of view and be able to articulate it well, I also had to listen really well and find the places where we had common ground in some way. As a lifelong Lutheran, grace is a pretty big deal. And I remember clearly every time I started with grace, there would either be a sigh, an eye roll, or a blank uncomprehending stare. One of the ‘doctrines’ of my tradition that I am not going to let go of even in a room full of those who believed that we must live by certain laws or God will not accept us into heaven. And at the same time, since one of my core beliefs is that we are saved through Christ by grace, I had to practice it in every single class by extending grace to them in our interactions. But here is the thing, it was not that my classmates did not see grace. It is just not where they started. And once we came to a place of understanding, that I would start with grace every time and they would eventually get there, we were able to have solid, strong conversations that influenced and changed us all in a way that opened my eyes further into how the lived experience of God takes hold of hearts and actions and lives in different ways.
Another story for you of something that happened in your church today and I was lucky enough to hear about before giving the sermon! Today one of our high school students was hanging out with a friend a Starbucks. When they left, they saw a young woman, who was holding a sign that she is homeless. This is the text I was sent: we helped a homeless girl today who is pregnant. Jackie said we shouldn’t because she caused the problem herself. But I said, well she needs to know more about grace. So we went into Sprouts and bought her food and talked to her and wrote down the names and numbers of shelters and other places she could go for help and told her our church would help her too. This is being grounded in grace, theology, knowledge. This comes from worship, Bible study, confirmation, and having a community that walks alongside you teaching you and helping you live into the baptismal promises of working for peace and justice in God’s world. This is being taught not just about serving, but seeing it, knowing the agencies and who to call and having eyes open to the light of Jesus calling you forward to be brave enough to act on what you know and to start with grace.
This is living into the both/and of the struggle of the faithful. Because we are all spoken to in many and various ways by the Holy Spirit, because we each have ways that we see and ways that we are blinded, because regardless of what words we use what we respond to on the deepest level is what affects our own lives and who or what is put on our path. For the blind man it was being able to see, for someone who is hungry is receiving food, for someone who is cold, a warm place to sleep, someone who is young, along and pregnant on the street it is a full belly and kind words and a direction of help, for someone who is in grief, a place to be heard and held. One of the key questions we are invited to ask ourselves is What will speak the loudest, tell our story of grace, faith and love from God the best to the needs of our community? And what is the one thing that our community will know best about us?
Perhaps the central place of blindness for the Pharisees in this story was their inability to allow their grounding and their roots to be a gift that would move them into the future. They never stopped referring to the man as blind, even after he had sight. They could not figure out how to reconcile their past experience with a new lived and seen reality. The man and Jesus were the only ones taking the risk of a renewed life with God. The unexpected grace for the blind man was his physical sight and his ability to walk into a new life saying, I don’t have all the answers, but I know where God was with me today and I will walk towards that light. The unexpected grace for us is that whether we are mudites or non-mudites, whether we are hearing our millionth sermon or our first, whether we practice our faith the same or in our way, we are claimed as beloved and Jesus does not deny our past but calls us into a future that step by step, little by little opens us to see God again and again–grounded in the gift of faithfulness and called forward, not to know all the answers or live in denial of where we are blind–but to walk in the light of Jesus and be brave enough to say, God help me see you today