Sunday, March 26, 2017

(Lent 4) The troublemaking healer

Lent 3: We thirst
John 9:1-41

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We get this healing story once every three years in the lectionary cycle.
I’m always glad when it comes around,
because it’s got almost everything that a good story should—
surprising reversals,
snappy dialogue,
Almost everything.
Except action.
The act of healing itself that Jesus does,
takes 2 verses to tell.
The other 39 verses are talk.

If this was a movie, the critics would say something like,
great dialogue, but it was slow-moving.
I thought of the movie “Fences”—
just won an Oscar for best supporting actress Viola Davis—
Irene and I watched it this past week,
and it dawned on me that we were
about an hour into the movie
and the only thing happening so far, was dialogue.
Non-stop, but compelling,
and often witty and emotion-laden dialogue.
The scenes changed, but no real action.
The movie started with two co-workers talking,
on the back of their garbage truck,
and it continued as they got off work,
all the way into their back yard.
Other characters moved into and out of the conversation,
but that’s all it was—conversation.
Yet, it was gripping, edge-of-your seat, conversation.

That’s the kind of story John 9 is.
Gripping conversation.
Jesus is almost a minor character,
in this longest healing story in the Bible.
Jesus has a few words to say at the beginning,
and a few words at the end.
And he performs the healing for those two verses.

But oh, what trouble he stirred up,
with those few words, and that simple act.
The rest of the story is people reacting—
with emotion,
with passion,
with strategic maneuvering,
with cutting sarcasm,
with religious bullying.
What a story! I’d give Jesus an Oscar, too.
For best supporting actor.
He clearly doesn’t have the lead role here.

So let’s unpack this Gospel story,
and see what sort of Gospel truth is in it for us.

It helps to look at this story as a series of short debates.

We might even say the first debate is among Jesus’ disciples,
before the healing, when they first saw the blind man.
It set up a theological Q&A.
Who sinned, that caused this man to be born blind?
Had to be a culprit.
The man? or his parents?
Jesus pushed back on that idea.
Said it was nobody’s sin.
And then he healed the man, in order, he said,
to reveal the works of God.

But, as it turned out,
it wasn’t a simple healing miracle.
Jesus had some trouble-making up his sleeve.
Some trouble he wanted to start.
And which he succeeded at, quite nicely.
I’ll get to that in a minute,
but let’s look at these debates that unfolded.

The first one was,
“Did this really happen?”
A man who was born blind, could now see.
It simply made no sense.
There was no precedent for this.
It did not fit in to anyone’s view of the world.
Someone said, “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,
“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.

Debate number two.
The curious neighbors take the man to the Pharisees
to get the facts straight.
He tells his story all over, and the Pharisees say,
“Nope, can’t be. It doesn’t add up.”
See, it was the Sabbath when Jesus publicly healed the man.
So Jesus can’t be from God,
because he doesn’t keep Sabbath.
Well, others said, Jesus can’t be a sinner,
because he couldn’t perform a miracle like that.
The only explanation? This was some kind of fraud.
So they send for his parents.

Third debate.
“Is this your son? Is this the one you say was born blind?
Then how can he see?”
“We know he is our son. We know he was born blind.
As to how he can see, ask him. He can talk for himself.”
The parents weren’t about to be pushed into a corner,
and get on the wrong side of the religious authorities.

Fourth debate. The big one.
The Pharisees drag the man back in again,
and ask him to swear that Jesus is a sinner.
The man says, “I can’t do that.
All I can say, is 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?
Oh, you want to be his disciples, too!”
The Pharisees start hurling insults at this poor man,
and the man—no power, no position, no training—
gives them a theology lesson they can’t dispute.
So now, they’ve been backed into a corner,
and their only way out is to shame and dismiss him.
“How dare you lecture us on theology?” and they throw him out.
Which, technically, probably means
expelled him from synagogue worship.
Excommunicated him, to use Christian lingo.

Don’t you love it?
A blind beggar, who spent his life on the trash heap,
gets into a debate with religious scholars, and the beggar wins.
In a fit of rage and embarrassment,
they throw him back on the trash heap.

Then in the final debate, Jesus shows up in the story again.
Jesus and the man speak.
The man affirms his belief in Jesus as Messiah.
Jesus says,
“the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
Some Pharisees overhear, and ask,
“What? You saying we’re blind too?”
And Jesus has the last word,
“If you were blind, you wouldn’t be guilty,
but since you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”

Now, let’s think about this trouble Jesus stirred up.
No question—Jesus intended to do more here,
than show compassion to a man born blind.
This was strategic healing,
aimed, yes, at helping one poor man,
but aimed even more directly at healing a sick religious system.
This was the work of a trouble-making healer.

Jesus could have waited a day.
The man was an adult.
He was born blind.
For at least 20 years, maybe more, he coped without sight.
He sat in the same spot every day,
depending on the compassion of others, and surviving.
It was the Sabbath.

This was an in-your-face kind of healing.
It was an act of a trouble-maker.
In complete view of the public,
Jesus knelt on the ground,
and using dirt and saliva,
he “made clay,” the original Greek says,
which he kneaded into a lump presumably,
applied it to the man’s eyes,
and asked him to go wash in the Pool of Siloam.

There was a long-standing religious law that prohibited Jesus,
and any other practitioner of the healing arts,
to perform their craft on the Sabbath.
Furthermore, there was an official list of physical movements
explicitly prohibited on the Sabbath.
One of those movements was “kneading” with your hands.

Why, you may well ask, did Jesus do what he did?
On multiple levels, he went beyond the necessary.
We know some persons Jesus healed from miles away.
Other blind persons, Jesus healed with only a word.
Some he healed with a simple touch and a word.
Most, we assume, he healed on the other six days.

Let’s get it straight!
Congenital blindness is not a health emergency.
The man had done okay there in that spot for over 20 years.
The next day would have been fine.
Jesus could have healed him from a distance,
after he passed by,
without even being identified as the healer.
Or Jesus could have healed with only a word,
and probably escaped the worst of the Pharisee’s anger.
But no, Jesus chose the Sabbath.
Jesus chose the public interchange with the man.
Jesus chose a path of action that required him
to break the Sabbath twice over—
to heal, and to knead clay.
This was purposeful confrontation.

Jesus was taking aim here at a deeper level of brokenness
than one man whose eyes never functioned.
And yes, I meant “taking aim,” as in brandishing a weapon.

Jesus was not 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.
It was an act of a trouble-making healer.

By this act, Jesus confronted a system of religious legalism
that had become an insurmountable barrier to the kingdom of God.
The Pharisees were obsessed about ritual purity,
worried over every little religious infraction.
In the process, they lost sight of God’s bigger agenda:
justice, mercy, compassion, shalom for all people.

On another occasion, Jesus let loose on the Pharisees,
with a string of merciless metaphors—
you strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel,
you are whitewashed tombs, filled with bones of the dead,
you polish the outside of a cup, then fill it with filth and drink it.

In this healing, Jesus was going to battle against
the filthy stuff inside the cup.

So here, maybe,
is something that points to a Gospel word for us from this story.
Yes, let’s be involved in the ministry of healing and compassion,
reaching out to meet human need where we encounter it.
But are there deeper layers of brokenness
we might be missing in the process?
Is there deeper healing, and restoration, and justice-making,
that God calls us to,
that we pass by
because we don’t want to make trouble?

First-level healing ministers to the hurting individual,
and is non-confrontational.
Second-level healing confronts the powers of this world.
It’s a weapon of the kingdom of Christ.
Its principles embody the character of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
It’s a non-violent weapon,
characterized by self-sacrificing love,
and respect for the image of God in the other,
but nonetheless confrontational and powerful.

First-level healing feeds the hungry.
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.
Second-level healing confronts the evil in a system
that keeps homeless people out of sight and out of mind.

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

First-level healing sponsors refugees.
Second-level healing raises a collective voice of righteous anger
at international policies—
including those of our own government—
that cause or make worse the wars,
the humanitarian crises,
the religious violence
that force people to flee their homeland,
and then close the door when they flee our direction.

First-level healing offers public prayer for healing in our worship,
for those who are sick, or struggle with depression,
or have a failing marriage, or are wounded by sexual abuse.
Second-level healing moves beyond praying for individuals,
and takes the risk of providing an different way to live together
in genuine Christian community,
that defies our western culture of individualism.
Second-level healing provides the kind of Christian community
that can make marriages stronger,
and prevent abuse,
and foster mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
Second-level healing is when the church 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.

We need to provide first-level healing ministry
wherever that is needed.
But if we are going to be healers in the name of Jesus,
we should probably be willing to be trouble-making healers.

Especially now,
when other systems in society—political and economic systems—
are failing miserably to bring deeper healing,
maybe we should have the courage to ask ourselves,
how can we, as the church,
be the church God intends us to be,
be the church that is a healing community for all,
even when those healing acts cause trouble.

We may have opportunity for that these days, more than we like,
or more than we are ready for.
But healing in the name of Jesus requires it.

—Phil Kniss, March 26, 2017

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