Livestreamed service

John 9

        I want to begin this morning by stating what may be obvious, which is that this is a very complex story. There is a lot going on here.

        Or, perhaps you’re something like me and, after a first reading or hearing, you think, this isn’t complicated at all. What is wrong with all these people? A man who was born blind can now see, thanks to Jesus. Why isn’t everyone praising God and celebrating with the formerly blind man? Why is no one shouting, “Praise be to the God who who does far more than we can ask or imagine! Thank God for healing and sight! What great thing will God do next?” Why isn’t everyone with the slightest ache or pain running after Jesus to seek their own healing? What is wrong with these people? That poor man!

        So, perhaps this is when I should share what is not so obvious about this before-and-after, dangers-of-change story: It illustrates how we rationalize putting people into boxes, andit challenges our own blind spots— our tendencies to categorize and exclude people, our attachments to control and order, and our resistance not only to changing ourselves but also to letting other people grow and become someone other than they were before.

        Which is to say, this sad story is full of warnings and traps.

        As soon as we begin to criticize all the bad actors in this story, we join them in a certain kind of blindness: the criticism that is unable to see past a particular behavior to consider the possible reasons for it; the narrow-mindedness that is unable to see all people as beloved children of God, and instead passes judgment and attaches labels; the legalism that is so focused on human rules and societal customs that it is unable to see God at work; the fear that is so afraid of losing what little control and sight it has that it refuses to see anything out of the ordinary.

        It begins with the disciples, who don’t see a person at all—just a living, breathing object lesson on what they believe happens to the children of people who have sinned or people who have sinned themselves. It continues with the neighbors, who had written off the man as a beggar, and are unable to recognize him as anything else. It proceeds with the religious leaders, who don’t seem to see or care about the man at all, but want only to know how this miraculous change has occurred and by whose initiative—so that they can condemn Jesus for violating the sabbath. It extends even to the man’s parents, who conclude that the only way to protect themselves is to pretend to be blind to what has happened and refuse to advocate for their son. It resumes with the same religious leaders who, unable to persecute Jesus for healing a blind man on the sabbath, take out their fear on the man himself and drive him out of the synagogue.

        “I was blind, but now I see,” the healed man says again and again. But no one seems to care.

        Never mind that, say the rule-enforcers.

        How did this happen? Who did this? By what authority? On what timetable? Who gave you permission to change? Who said you could suddenly be accepted?

        Not us! We don’t like your moving from one category to another, and we don’t like your attitude toward us. Out you go!

        And so the man who had been an outsider all his life because of his physical disability is declared a different kind of outcast because of his spiritual strength and clarity.

        It is so easy for us to find fault with all these first-century religious leaders trying to survive and protect their religion and culture while living under brutal Roman occupation.

        In our own context, it is easy for us to find fault with those who rail against the so-called chaos at the border, seemingly blind to the unimaginably horrible conditions that would drive people to leave their homelands and endure great danger and expense for a chance at a better life. Instead of seeing suffering people, they seem to care only about laws, borders, and the status quo.

        It is so easy for us to say, “What is wrong with you? Why aren’t you filled with compassion for refugees? Why don’t you honor their strength?”

        It is easy for us to find fault with those who want to legislate transgender youth and drag queens out of existence, so focused are they on gender binaries and heteronormative readings of scripture that they are seemingly blind to how God is honored when people are able to become who they were created to be.

        It is so easy to say, “What is wrong with you? Why don’t you praise God for making trans folks who they are? Why don’t you celebrate their courage and offer your support?”

        It is easy for us to find fault with those who ignore or deny institutional racism, soul-crushing poverty, and the complicated realities of pregnancy, and choose to believe that individuals are fully responsible for their difficult circumstances.

        But as soon as we focus on their shortcomings, we have fallen into the trap of this story: We have reduced them to stereotypes and, in so doing, become more like them. As soon as we judge them, we become blind to the very fears, anxieties, and false narratives and teachings that have led them to think this way. As soon as we write them off, we have excluded them from our hearts and our understanding of the reach of God’s mercy and grace. And as soon as we draw a circle that keeps anyone out, we, too, have hardened our hearts and grown blind to what God’s love can do.

        We fool ourselves when we think that it is only other people—those who think and vote and spend differently than we do—who are without compassion. We blind ourselves when we believe that only other people are bound by rules written and unwritten codes of conduct, that only other kinds of people are guilty of writing off entire categories of people and schools of thought and belief. So-called “cancel culture” is alive and well in this valley; sometimes I wonder if there is not in our church a kind of “silence culture” that says, if you disagree with the prevailing views, just keep quiet.

        It is so easy to see the wrong-doings of others and be blind to our own.

        As some of you know, back before the pandemic, back before we took Lucio Perez into sanctuary and made a public commitment to keeping him safe, this building was open all day. Some of our unhoused neighbors took advantage of that—especially on extremely cold or hot days—and took refuge here. And we welcomed them in. We tried to lower the barriers between insiders and outsiders, between the housed and mentally healthy and the unhoused and unwell, and we built relationships with some folks. But a few folks, including some of those we knew by name and countless conversations, abused our hospitality and misused the building.

        And so, in an effort to be clear that while all people were welcome, all behaviors were not, we devised some rules. We posted lists of those rules throughout the building, and now, more than five years after we closed our doors, those strongly-worded rules are still posted. Those signs humble me, reminding me that we, too, can appear to care more about things than people.

        One day last week, the church doorbell rang. I left my office and went downstairs to the locked back door, where I found a thin, middle-aged man using crutches and reeking of cigarettes. He told me he needed to use a bathroom and to clean his prosthetic leg. Could he come in? Would I give him some papers towels?

        I would like to be able to tell you that I let him in without a second thought, that it never occurred to me that he might be one of those people we’ve been hearing from recently who hates our “Black Lives Matter” sign and our affirmation of LGBTQ folks. I can’t. But I did let him in, got some paper towels for him, directed him to the bathroom, and told him when Not Bread Alone serves meals. I am not proud that I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw him leave the building several minutes later.

        I don’t want to be one of those people whose discomfort, fear, and attachment to rules or protocol prevents me from seeing Jesus in every person I meet.

        Speaking of Jesus, after all the drama over the blind man’s healing, he comes back into the story. After hearing that the previously blind man has been kicked out of the synagogue—which is to say, the community—Jesus seeks him out. Jesus finds the man and, unlike everyone else in the story, fully engages him, listens to him, and empowers him.

        Beloveds, it seems to me that this is the lesson of the story: To not be so distracted by unjust systems and narrow-minded people that we forget about the people they are hurting. To avoid the trap of being so focused on our own good rules and worthy causes that we objectify and ignore the very people we are called to love and serve.

        Like Jesus, let us seek out the ones that systems of wealth and power have left behind. Let us reach out to and love the ones the church has kicked out.

        May we live in such a way that we both recognize our blind spots and praise God for new sight.

        May we accept Christ’s invitation to change from an attachment to rules and comfort zones to a faithful openness to see and be God’s love revealed.