Lord, uphold thou me, that I might uplift thee. Amen.
[We are now over halfway through Lent, a season in which confession is especially appropriate, and so I am going to make one to you now: even though I am on the older end of the generation known as the millennials, when it comes to music, I am such a baby boomer at heart. Bob Dylan may not technically be the voice of my generation,
but his songs are deeply meaningful for me. And even though I often reach for Blonde on Blonde or Nashville Skyline instead of his more “Christian” albums, I have always found that his scripture-soaked lyrics stir something in me. With fierce authenticity, they have shown me Christ, which is the aim of all music in worship. I would never want to give up our beloved 1982 Hymnal to sing Dylan songs in church every Sunday, but I just want to say that I think it’s really, really cool that the work of this poet who frequently calls us to a life of discipleship in his songs, has found a place in our worship life here. So thank you, Virginia, Mark, guitar ensemble, and West Gallery Choir]
Turning now to our gospel lesson for today, in that whole long story about Jesus and the blind man and the Pharisees, there was one word that, by my count, we heard eleven times: ‘know’. To begin to understand the importance of this story, we must investigate the concept of knowing: who knows something, what they know,
and how they know it.
We learn very quickly that many characters in the story think they know what sin is and how sin works. The opening question the disciples ask Jesus shows that they know that a physical difference such as blindness is obviously a punishment for someone’s sin, they’re just not sure whose. Jesus immediately shoots that theory down,
but it is a deep-rooted way of thinking and doesn’t die easily. When you’ve known something for a very long time,
it can be difficult to accept that maybe you don’t actually know what you thought you knew. If the disciples seem ignorant here, the Pharisees come off looking even worse. But I do feel for them a bit.
The Pharisees were the guardians of a precious, sacred thing called Shabbat. Our society has almost totally obliterated the idea of Sabbath, and that’s too bad. Here’s what the Pharisees knew: They knew Sabbath was a gift from the Lord, a day set apart each week to rest and worship. They also knew that it was expected of them as faithful Jews. Keeping the Sabbath was a commandment, one of the 10 commandments given by God to Moses
to commemorate the day God rested after completing Creation in six days. According to Torah, those who broke Sabbath were to be banished from the community, or even killed. So when Jesus comes along and seems to
break the Sabbath by giving sight to a blind man, the Pharisees know that he is clearly a terrible sinner. They knew that non-worship activity on Shabbat was sinful. The formerly blind man points out that only someone sent from God could have accomplished such an astonishing miracle, and so the healing probably actually should be
considered worship activity, and therefore Sabbath-appropriate. But the Pharisees can’t hear him, because
when you’ve known something for a very long time, it can be difficult to accept that maybe you don’t actually know what you thought you knew.
So, most of the characters in the story are busy knowing what they’ve always known. But one character is discovering that he no longer knows anything that he thought he knew. One moment he knew darkness
and a life of asking for handouts. Then a stranger wipes mud on his eyes and sends him to wash. After that, the only thing he knows is sight, for the very first time. Nothing else is certain. This infuriates the Pharisees, because when they interrogate him about the Sabbath-breaking trouble-maker, his response is: “I don’t know.” “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They ask, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” “I have told you already. I. don’t. know.”
What do you know, absolutely and without a doubt, to be true? And what would you do if it turns out that you really don’t know something you thought you knew? Do you say, “I don’t know?” Or do you dig in your heals and just keep knowing that thing you’ve always known?
Until his death last week, there was a man in Topeka, Kansas who knew that God hates certain people and that God punishes certain behaviors. Fred Phelps and his followers from the Westboro Baptist Church have picketed military funerals and other events to try to get more people to know what they know.
Their hate-filled rhetoric caused massive amounts of agony for grieving families. It is unlikely, even on his deathbed,
that Fred Phelps questioned the things he knew, the things he had spent his life trying to make other people know. What if Fred had, at some point, stopped and said, “I’ve always thought God hates certain people, but I don’t know for sure.” We hope and trust that in death, Fred has learned to know something different about God. Perhaps now, Fred knows that God does not hate anyone. Perhaps now Fred knows that God loves gay people and Jewish people, and even Episcopalians!
And if I find myself “knowing” that Fred Phelps is spending eternity outside the pearly gates because of all the pain he caused, well, I might eventually find that I don’t really know what I think I know. There is so much we do not know about God. But every indication is that God’s capacity for love and grace is so much bigger than mine and yours and Fred’s.
What happened next for the man born blind was really quite astonishing. When he answered “I don’t know” to all the Pharisees’ questions, they couldn’t accept it. They expelled him from the synagogue community because they knew that he must be a sinner. And they knew that the man who performed the miracle on the Sabbath must be an even bigger sinner, because when you’ve known something for a long time, it can be difficult to accept that maybe
you don’t actually know what you thought you knew. When Jesus hears what happened to the man he healed, he finds him again, And the man born blind knows something and someone he’d never known before: the Messiah.
And so begins a life of discipleship.
Now, I do not think the Pharisees were anything like the Westboro Baptists, but like all of us, they clung to what they knew about God, at the expense of what they might have learned about God. For example, you and I might say that Fred Phelps was wrong (and I fully believe he was!) because we know that God is not a God of judgment, but a God of love. Then we look down again at our Gospel lesson, and see these words near the bottom: “Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment…” Huh. When you’ve known something for a long time,
it can be difficult to accept that maybe you don’t actually know what you thought you knew. But we’re learning to say “I don’t know.” And so we dig a little deeper. And we consider that maybe Jesus did “come into this world for judgment…” but maybe God’s judgment works differently than our experience of judgment.
As the women in my bible studies have heard me say a million times, if God is a parent to us, then God’s love for us functions a lot like a parent’s love for their child. Ask any parent and they’ll tell you: sometimes love looks like hugs and hot chocolate with marshmallows, and sometimes love looks like timeout. Sometimes love looks like reading one more story before bedtime, and sometime love looks like turning the car around and going back to Kroger to apologize for stealing the Snickers bar and then paying for it out of your allowance. We think of God’s judgment as this wrathful, terrible thing, but God’s judgment is always rooted in love. Sometimes that love is comforting and sometimes it is challenging, but its always present.
But none of us are God. We get into trouble when we start acting like we’re God, and acting like we are the judges.
Because, as human beings who are not God, we’re not always capable of keeping our judgments rooted in love. This is what happened to the Pharisees. The things they thought they knew turned out to be not very loving. But they couldn’t stop knowing these things without admitting that they really didn’t know very much at all.
The bad news about all of this is that we also really don’t know much at all and we’re also terrible at admitting it. But the good news? The good news is that even though we don’t know much, we are known. We have a patient God
who knows us inside and out. A God who knows how to gather some spit, and a little dirt, mix it together, and apply it to us with care. We have a God who is not afraid to get his hands dirty to help us see better. We have a God who, for some reason, keeps loving all of us know-it-alls. Thanks be to God and Amen.