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In July of 1741, Congregationalist minister Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It was a typical sermon of the so-called “Great Awakening” period of religious history in our nation, and it emphasized the belief that Hell is a real place. Edwards hoped that the imagery and language of his sermon would awaken audiences to their deep sinfulness and the horrific reality that he believed awaited them should they continue life without devotion to Christ. I often wonder how the coffee hour went after that sermon.
Edwards was just the prime example of a theology which has long shaped the church in the United States and elsewhere, with it’s assertion of our lives being ones of depraved sinners, with the acceptance of Jesus as our Lord and Savior as our only chance to escape hell becoming the dominant expression of Protestant Christianity, certainly in all of our lifetimes. But it is not the only expression. There’s another place we might go to seek a different take on the nature of sin, the reality of God’s love and the role of Jesus. The Bible. The Gospel of John, chapter 9, to be exact.
I have said this a thousand times, but here’s one more – I do believe that we are, as a culture, in the midst of some sort of reformation. The late Phyllis Tickle is credited with saying that about every 500 years or so, the church has a great big rummage sale and tries to “clear out” some of the stuff that ain’t working anymore. Only that’s not limited to the church – culture does it, too. And I happen to think that the Spirit is at work right now, trying to tell us all that God is still speaking and setting before us, as scripture has taught, the ways of life and death, and then pleading with us to choose life. I don’t know what that looked like in the past, but right now I think that looks like this – we must care for the planet, or none of our theologies will matter. We must embrace and enable God’s great diversity, for we cannot compartmentalize any longer, the stakes are too high. And we must comes to some new terms with sin – for the myth of purity that has so tainted the practice of Christianity leaves us really unable to contend with our real sins, sins of division and judgment…it sends us seeking what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace without reflection, recompense and reconciliation coming before any transformation that might be out there for us.
One of the things that keeps the various bodies in this story from accepting, or even acknowledging, what has happened to the blind man is their unwillingness to reflect on their own sin of hierarchy, to offer recompense for the ways they have been unjust, or to reconcile their desire for power and control with their obvious marginalization of a fellow human being, perhaps even a member of their own tribe or family, severing the bonds of creation which were made by God. And we still do this – the big cultural “we” – thinking that our connection to God is actually enhanced by some sort of purity – religious, cultural, racial or otherwise – when the reality is that God is calling us to a blindness to our artificial boundaries – a blindness that would give us new sight.
Note how sin is addressed in this passage. The man’s blindness, clearly the focal point of the story, is either sin, or a direct result of sin…because God rewards sinlessness and punishes sinfulness, right? The disciples ask the question that is on everyone’s mind – “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And it is Jesus’ answer that ought to help fuel our reformation today – “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Or, in other words, the cause and effect explanation is the wrong direction, instead we ought to look here (and in all places) for the possibility of God’s action, for the expectation of the Spirit, which is always moving in and through us, making all things new.
The Pharisees carry this further, assuming they already know how the man got blind, they focus on the fact that Jesus healed him on the Sabbath…not that Jesus healed him, mind you, but when he did. Think of it this way – in the midst of millions of people needing heath care – some desperately – the solutions are limited because some need to make sure who gets the credit, who gets the “win”, who gets the political capital from appearing to care for another human being. Where, Jesus asks and we might ask, too, where is the sin?
As Russell Rathbun says in his commentary on this text – “…the author [John] uses [the whole thing about healing on the Sabbath] to make a point about the Pharisees’ understanding of God in contrast to Jesus’. The Pharisees, in John, see God work as restrictive. Jesus sees God’s work as permissive. They see sin as transgressing the restricted, Jesus sees sin as limiting the continuing of God’s work of creation, that work which is imaged from Genesis forward as bringing light into the darkness.”
Two very different visions – and one characterized as blindness by Jesus for we cannot forget the metaphorical healing that takes place as Jesus gives sight to the blind man who was just as trapped as the Pharisees in this false “cause and effect” theology of God. He sees a new world now, physically and spiritually, as his imagination for what is possible from a God who surpasses all our expectations and self-imposed limitations is revealed. Like a parent who finally learns to see their marginalized child for who they truly are, or an anti-immigration activist who gets a chance to meet some real immigrants and has a change of heart, or an ex-military “hater of Islam” who comes to the mosque in town to protest and ends up becoming their security guard – all of which are real stories of God’s action right here in our town, right now.
The blind man is healed in the “pool of Siloam”, which the text says means, “sent.” Our own blindness must be cured in the same way, not by inviting others in the club, but by being sent, going to the places where there is this supposed sin, encountering the people who we have named untouchable, not God, and finding out where the sin truly lives. Sin is not a list that God keeps so God knows exactly what to punish us for, but rather the things that we do, which keep us away from the things that God would have us do and be. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God, all due respect to my Congregational colleague from almost 300 years ago, but rather sinners in the hands of a loving God, who would have us love more, give more, hope more, trust more, and help create the world that God set in motion for us all – ALL of us, blind or not.
God, you see, is not found on the other side of our sin, our “missing the mark”, not found in some kind of purity, but right in the middle of our mistakes, our divisions…as the little bit of light that still shines through the cracks of the doors we slam shut in the name of ideology or because of our sense of righteous indignation or vengeance. It is God who meets us, no matter how many years such misguided efforts have blinded us and says – Go and see with my eyes, so that you…you who have thought that you see so well, may be blinded with love.
Blind like Jesus. Amen.