It was an ordinary day, a Sabbath, just like this one. Jesus had been in the temple, seeking to teach, but ended up in the most frustrating exchange with the scribes and Pharisees about knowing God and being faithful. The listeners became so enraged that “they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.”
And with the next sentence, “As he walked along…” our Gospel passage begins. Jesus sees a blind man, and the disciples, use this ordinary event of seeing someone by the side of the road to ask Jesus about the question of sin. For many Jews, as indeed for many Christians today, illness and disability were seen as punishment for sin. Who sinned, the man or his parents? Who’s at fault? Once, a parishioner who suffered a sudden and paralyzing stroke, lying on a gurney in the hospital, said to me, “One minute I was drinking my coffee, and as I brought the mug to my lips, this happened. Why is God punishing me?”
It is so easy to divide life’s challenges into worlds of good and bad, right or wrong, sin and redemption. And much of today’s gospel gets divided into such simple black or white categories:
those who sin and those who don’t,
those who know and those who don’t,
those who see and those who don’t.
The disciples wonder about who is the sinner, meanwhile, showing no compassion for the man’s blindness since birth. The neighbors get so caught up in whether or not he’s the man they know or someone who just looks like him, that they cannot rejoice with the blind man who is no longer blind. The parents are so afraid of being judged that they fail to support their son and leave him dangling in the wind alone before those very judges they fear. The Pharisees are so absorbed in knowing where Jesus comes from, what was done and how he did it, that they fail to celebrate the glory of God’s blessing of sight upon one who was born blind! Everyone is caught up in the external questions, and only the one who was healed – with spit and dirt – is eager to give praise.
In this journey of Lent, it is very easy for all of us to fall into the path of the disciples and the Pharisees – to ask the questions about whose right and wrong, who sinned and who didn’t. Have we kept our Lenten discipline or eaten that chocolate that was so tempting? Have we attended weekday services, or forgotten about them. Have we read the daily e-mails of lessons and reflections or been too busy and just deleted them so that they don’t remind us of all we’ve “left undone that we ought to have done.” Are our minds and hearts crowded with all of the misery of being sinners in need of repentance. Is that what Lent’s all about?
We have been called to “the observance of a holy Lent,” and I would like to propose a path that concentrates on blessing rather than on sin or faults and failures. We have looked at the behavior of the disciples, neighbors, and Pharisees who behave just like most of us. Asking the obvious questions that comprise our daily concerns. But what about Jesus? What does he reveal?
First, he sees the blind man. The blind man has done nothing to attract Jesus’ attention, waving his arms madly, or shouting, “Hey, Jesus, over here; I need your help!” Nevertheless, Jesus sees him. He immediately has compassion, spits on the ground and puts mud on the man’s eyes. He then offers the man the opportunity to be an equal participant in his own healing. Let me repeat this, for it is a very important part of the story. He then offers the man the opportunity to be an equal participant in his own healing. “Go, wash…”; and it is only after the man does this that he is able to see. The healing is a communal experience – Jesus, the blind man, creation (the water), and God. Out of an ordinary day, an ordinary walk; out of spit, dirt, water; out of one man’s compassion; a blind man is born again, a new creation, a new life.
Is not this the path for the observance of a holy Lent? How do we apply this path to our Lenten journey? Since I’ve only had twenty-four hours to reflect on this sermon, and four hours to write it, with house guests occupying my time, please allow me to take the easy path and share a bit of my own journey. Last Monday, in the rush of getting several errands accomplished, I went into the pet store to get some toys for the new puppy in my household. While checking out, the woman at the cash register says, “Would you pray for me?” I’d never seen her before, didn’t know her name, but that didn’t matter. The intensity and sincerity of her plea made me pause, remain still, and listen to her story. Her son, she told me, was in MCV, having been shot on the street. Since she had said she was not allowed to talk about how it happened, I assumed a gang war or drug crime was involved. The doctors had told her that he would not live, but she didn’t want to believe them. “I need a miracle, pray for my son,” she exclaimed. I said I would, and asked his name.
Every day I prayed for the woman and her son, and every day I read the obituary pages. Four days later, his name appeared in the obits. Sadly, though many children, friends and family members were mentioned, his mother was not listed as one of the survivors. The mother, so frantic for a miracle for her son, had she been forgotten, estranged, overlooked, rejected, or ignored? I don’t know the answer; I can only imagine that her heart is doubly broken and that she is still in need of a miracle – one called compassion. I’m now praying that she has gone back to work and that I can see her again – see her with eyes that look beyond the surface and seeks the heart.
In Lent, especially, we can get consumed with the issue of sin, and who’s done what wrong, or the omissions we’ve committed along the way of life. It’s tempting to follow the example of the disciples and ask ‘Who sinned, this woman or her son?’ Whose fault is it that he’s dead at too young an age?’ There is a different path we can choose, one revealed by Jesus in today’s lesson, which is to ask, ‘Can I bring healing into this woman’s life? Can I give her blessing and hope? Can I be God’s love in this ordinary world of errands and checkout lines, where there is such pain as fear and death? I can try – with God’s help.
But, first I need to see life as blessing and not curse. If our main theological perception is that we are born in sin and need redemption, then we all too often focus on the sin, the sinner, what’s wrong and how to beg God to fix it. An alternative is to see our creation as original blessing rather than as original sin, then our focus is shifted to giving thanks, to be about the work of creating new life, to sharing all that we have, to being a blessing unto others, and to giving thanks for all the blessings we have received.
Lent then becomes a journey into transformation, seeking ways to create Easter moments of new life, of resurrection, in the ordinary moments of our daily living. This is what Jesus did for the blind man. Jesus raised him from the death of blindness and exclusion, (sinners were ostracized); to a new life of sight and inclusion in his community. A resurrection experience that transformed the man’s world and life. He becomes a new creation of blessing and thanksgiving, proclaiming “I believe.” May our Lenten experience be such a journey so that, when we come to Easter, we too may proclaim (that no-no word in Lent): “Alleluia! I believe!”