Sunday, March 2, 2008

(Lent 4) Wielding the weapon of healing

John 9:1-41

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This is a most remarkable story of healing.
It stands alone in all of scripture.
For one, it’s the longest healing story in the Bible, by far.
It’s also unique in how little it say about the healing act itself.
Lots of other stories are driven by action.
For example, in the healing of Naaman, the Syrian leper
we have a intriguing plot with lots of twists and turns,
involving everyone from the King of Israel,
to a lowly servant girl.
Naaman throws around his great wealth
trying to pay for his healing.
Elisha refuses to accept payment,
and asks Naaman to wash himself in a dirty river 7 times.
And Elisha’s servant goes behind Elisha’s back,
takes some gold and silver from Naaman,
and then gets struck with leprosy himself, as punishment.

There’s the story of Jesus healing the lame man,
after his friends climb up on the roof, and tear open a hole,
and lower the lame man down with ropes tied to his stretcher.
There’s the story of the woman who pushes through a crowd,
and touches Jesus’ clothes, setting off a confrontation,
and stopping the crowd dead in its tracks.
There’s dramatic stories of raising people from the dead,
and casting demons into a herd of pigs, etc. etc.
Dramatic action drives these healing stories.
Not so in today’s story.

Just look in your Bible at the pages of print in John chapter 9.
See how it’s laid out.
Even if the words were gibberish,
you could make some observations about this story.
If you have a modern translation,
in a red-letter edition,
and paid attention to punctuation.

What you would notice is that this story is not driven by action,
but by dialogue and debate.
In modern English,
we start a new paragraph whenever a new person speaks.
In these 41 verses, there are 31 paragraph breaks.
Thirty-one times, the dialogue shifts.
Someone asks a question, and someone else answers the question,
often with another question.
There are 17 question marks, and 5 exclamation marks.
You’d also notice there’s not much red ink.
Relatively few times in this story, is Jesus the speaker.
You could conclude, without reading a word,
that this is a story about people,
who are having an intense reaction to what Jesus just did.
Who have more questions than answers.
Who have been thoroughly discombobulated by Jesus.

It’s the longest healing story in the Bible,
but only two of the 41 verses describe the healing itself,
and it’s very matter-of-fact.
Jesus spit on the dirt, made some mud, put it on the man’s eyes,
said, “Go wash it off in the Pool of Siloam.”
And that was that. The man saw. Healing accomplished.

But then, some ugly stuff hits the fan.
At first, the neighbors of the man simply don’t believe
this could have happened, and start arguing.
“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, “Hello. I am the man.”
So the neighbors demand answers.
How can you see? Who did it? Where is he? Prove it.
The man tried to tell his story, but it didn’t sink in.

So the second debate, is when his neighbors
take him to the Pharisees to get the facts straight.
He tells his story all over again, and the Pharisees say,
“Nope, we got a problem here. It doesn’t add up.”
It was the Sabbath when Jesus healed the man.
Obviously, some Pharisees said, Jesus can’t be from God,
because he doesn’t keep the Sabbath.
Obviously, others said, he can’t be a sinner,
because he couldn’t perform a miracle like this.
They figured this has to be some kind of fraud.
So they sent for his parents.

Which sets up the third debate,
“Is this your son? Is this the one you say was born blind?
Then how can he see?”
“Well, we know he is our son. And we know he was born blind.
As to how he can see, we’re clueless.
Ask him. He can talk for himself.”
The parents weren’t about to be pushed into a corner.
If they claimed Jesus cured their son,
they would be accused of believing Jesus was Messiah,
and could have been expelled from the synagogue,
John tells us.

So we move to on to debate #4,
the most remarkable one of all.
The Pharisees drag the man back in again,
and say, “Give glory to God! We know Jesus is a sinner.”
In other words, “Give us a break! You know and we know!
Just say it. He’s a sinner.”
The man says, “The only thing I know,
is that I was blind, and now I see.”
“So what did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
“I already told you. You want to hear it again?
Are you interested in becoming his disciples?”
Those were fightin’ words!
They start hurling insults at him,
And the man answers back with a little theology lesson,
which they can’t dispute.
They say, “How dare you lecture us?” and they throw him out.
Don’t you love this?
The blind beggar, who spent his life on the social trash heap,
gets into a debate with religious scholars,
and the beggar wins it.
And in a combination of rage and embarrassment,
they throw him back on the trash heap.

Then we have the final exchange, beginning in v. 35,
between Jesus and the man born blind.
The man affirms his belief in Jesus as Messiah.
And he bows down in worship.
Then Jesus says,
“For judgment I have come into this world,
so that the blind will see
and those who see will become blind.”
And some Pharisees overhear it, and ask,
“What? Are you saying we’re blind too?”
Jesus says, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t be guilty,
but since you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”

And so concludes this marathon healing story.
It’s a story not so much about healing one poor blind man.
As it is a story about Jesus confronting the powers that be.

Which got me to thinking.
I’ve preached from this passage several times,
but not until this week’s study did it hit me so clearly.
There are a couple different levels of brokenness
that Jesus would like to see healed in this story.

The first level of healing,
I think nobody could really take issue with.
And that is the healing of the ailment in the individual.
I think even the questioning neighbors and Pharisees,
if they could be convinced that this whole thing wasn’t a fraud,
would have gladly admitted that they had no problem
with the fact the blind man could see again.
On one level, if they could believe it really happened,
they could have admitted they were happy for the man.

But they couldn’t go there,
because of the deeper brokenness
that Jesus was taking aim at here.
And yes, I mean, “taking aim,” as in wielding a weapon.
Jesus wasn’t only acting out of kind compassion
for this one blind man.
He was going after a deeper sickness.
And he went after it in a confrontational way.
He used healing as a weapon of God,
to confront a systemic evil.
It was an act of confrontational healing.

In healing the blind man, he confronted a system of religious legalism
that had become an insurmountable barrier to the kingdom of God.
The Pharisees obsessed over ritual purity,
and got bent out of shape over every little religious infraction.
In the process, they lost sight of God’s bigger agenda:
justice, mercy, compassion, shalom for all people.
Jesus was great with metaphors, and used them mercilessly
on the Pharisees.
He said they strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel.
They whitewash tombs, but inside, they’re still full of bones.
They obsess over how clean the outside of their cup is,
and then they fill the cup with filth and drink it.

Jesus used the healing of the blind man
to go to battle against the filthy stuff inside the cup.
The whole reason the Pharisees opposed Jesus
was that Jesus openly disregarded some points of the law.
How could Jesus be the Anointed One to redeem Israel,
while disrespecting the law that gave Israel their identity,
that held them together as a people.
In the Pharisees’ way of thinking, based on solid logic,
adhering to the law was their only hope of salvation.
Obviously, then,
Jesus could not be God’s messenger of salvation.
The healing of the blind man
was proof positive that Jesus was a fraud.
He healed the man on the Sabbath.
And Jesus did not heal him quietly, and discreetly.
It was an in-your-face, all-out assault, on the law.
At least it seemed so to the Pharisees, and with good reason.

The Sabbath law was incredibly specific, it was finely detailed,
it was designed to be clear about every possible infraction.
The law didn’t just say, don’t heal on the Sabbath.
It was specific about the kinds of physical movements
that were allowed in the law,
and specific ones that were not allowed.
One physical activity that was specifically prohibited as labor,
was the act of kneading with your hands.
Jesus could have quietly spoke a healing word to the man.
But no, he went out of his way,
to openly and blatantly disobey the law in the process.
John 9 tells us he got down on the ground,
and using spit and dirt, he mixed up some clay,
and kneaded it into a paste.
There was no need to turn this healing
into an act of blatant physical labor,
unless he was using healing as a weapon
to confront some deeper wounds in the system.

There were powers at work, standing in the way of the reign of God.
These powers inhibited wholeness.
Inhibited justice.
Inhibited a wholistic approach to the moral life.
Jesus came to unmask the powers,
and reveal them for what they were.
He used the ministry of healing to do that.

The church of Jesus Christ was called into being,
for the sole purpose of continuing the work of Jesus in the world,
continuing to confront the powers
that stand in the way of God’s reign.

The church has been given, by Jesus, a ministry of healing.
But, like Jesus, we don’t stop with this first level of healing,
in ministering to the hurting individual.
First-level healing is non-confrontational.
It ministers grace and compassion to the wounded person,
whether the wounds are physical, spiritual, or emotional.
Second-level healing, if you want to call it that,
confronts the anti-kingdom powers of this world.
It’s a weapon of the kingdom.
A weapon that embodies the character of Christ.
A weapon that is non-violent,
is characterized by self-sacrificing love,
but is nonetheless confrontational and powerful.

First-level healing is Jesus helping one poor blind man to see.
Second-level healing is Jesus confronting the system
that blinded a whole people to the true purposes of God.

First-level healing feeds hungry people in our community,
as we do with Patchwork Pantry and other ministries.
Second-level healing asks why there are hungry and poor people
in the fertile Shenandoah Valley,
a community with abundant crops and wealth.

First-level healing provides shelter to our homeless neighbors,
as we did through HARTS.
Second-level healing is when God’s people confront the evil
in a system that keeps homeless people out of sight and out of mind.

First-level healing provides a Free Clinic,
so the working poor can get medical help.
Second-level healing is when the church confronts an unjust system
that prevents good health care from being available to all.

First-level healing sponsors refugees,
and helps them find housing and jobs in their new land.
Second-level healing raise a collective voice
of moral and righteous anger at international policies—
sometimes those of our own government—
that give rise to the war, poverty, and ethnic hatred
that cause people to flee for their lives.

First-level healing offers prayer and anointing in our worship,
or in a small group, or Sunday School,
to those who are sick, or struggle with depression,
or have a failing marriage, or are wounded by sexual abuse,
if they can muster the courage to come forward,
and name their brokenness, and ask for help.
Second-level healing works deliberately
at providing an alternative way of living together
in radical Christian community,
and in defiance of our American culture of individualism.
Second-level healing provides the kind of Christian community
that makes marriages stronger,
and prevents abuse from happening,
that fosters mental and emotional well-being,
and encourages healthy life-styles.
Second-level healing is when the church of Jesus Christ,
is not a building to come to, but a way of life,
where everyone is routinely surrounded by a healing community
where it is safe to be ourselves,
and to be transparent with each other,
where no one’s pain goes unnoticed,
where we bear each other’s burdens,
before they get unbearable.

Second-level healing doesn’t only confront evil systems
through public or political action,
although it can do that.
It also confronts the powers of this world,
when it refuses to accept
that life has to be lived on the world’s terms.
And creates an alternative community,
a contrast society.

Second-level healing is what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 5,
which was read earlier,
“Live as children of light–
for the fruit of the light is found
in all that is good and right and true.”

The powers of this world try their best to form us
into a particular set of values and practices, that, more often than not,
are opposed to the kingdom of light.
But we can choose to be formed by another reality—
by the body of Christ—
the continuing presence of the healing Jesus in the world today.
It is a body that takes its missional calling seriously,
to reach out in compassionate love to all persons who are wounded,
and, like Jesus, to wield a non-violent weapon
against the powers of evil in a dark and wounded world.
May God grant us the courage to take up this weapon of light,
and be a healing, sight-restoring people.

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