March 30, 2014
“One Thing I Do Know”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
These last few Sundays of Lent we have been invited by the Gospel of John to listen in on some long conversations with Jesus: Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus and THEE Samaritan Woman. Today Jesus and the Man Born Blind. These notable texts all can lead a preacher and congregation down the path of exploring metaphors (Born Again, Living Water, Light of the World) and pondering deep theological questions about salvation, and belief, and providence, and sin. But when you string these encounters with Jesus together, when you find yourself drawn into this conversation and then that conversation, and then other one, and another one, the characters talking to Jesus grab more attention and invite some fresh discernment. Nicodemus, who so quickly fades out of the conversation but hangs around the edges seeking to see the kingdom of God. The Samaritan Woman who rushes off from the longest recorded conversation with Jesus, dropping her bucket and becoming the first in John’s gospel to testify to the Messiah. And here this morning, the man blind from birth who Jesus sees as he walks along. The one whom Jesus heals with spit and dirt. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asks all the way at the end of chapter 9. “Who is he? Tell me so that I might believe in him” Jesus tells the man that he is the one, or in bible-speak “the one speaking with you is he.” “Lord, I believe” is the formerly blind man’s strong affirmation of faith. And he worshiped Jesus.
“Lord, I believe” But of course the man born blind is better known for “one thing I do know…I was blind, now I see.” I once was blind but now I see. Everybody knows that line. Who hasn’t sung that line? Blind now I see. The one thing. And the man doesn’t even say it to Jesus. He says it to the Pharisees. Actually, he doesn’t say much to Jesus. Another one of these chapter long encounters but this time Jesus and the main character, they don’t say much to each other. The man doesn’t cry out to Jesus asking to be healed. He doesn’t acknowledge Jesus right up front with a title that would imply a faith that precedes healing. In fact, the only thing here in the beginning of the story that Jesus says to the blind man is “Go and wash in the pool of Siloam.” Jesus gives that instruction and then disappears from the page until “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
It became clear in the presentation of the text before you this morning. When it comes to John 9, all of John chapter 9, Jesus says very little. And much of what he does say (“he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him…..I am the light of the world… I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind”), much of what Jesus does say leaves the disciples, the Pharisees, the church, you and me, scratching our collective heads.
Clearly, when it comes to the man born blind and the bulk of his story, Jesus has little role to play. Well, he healed him and yes, that’s a big deal. But John spends SO much time writing about the man born blind and the neighbors and his parents and the Pharisees. The miracle, one presumes, the spit, the mud, the washing, the miracle happened in the blink of an eye! But John just goes on and on. John goes on and on telling of the man’s growing confession and understanding of Jesus. First he knows nothing (no shout out from the side of the road here). Then with his sight restored he makes reference to a man named Jesus and tells the neighbors he had no idea where Jesus was. Then the man tells the Pharisees about the mud, the washing, the seeing. He is a prophet, he tells them when they demand to know what he says about the one who healed him. Then when the Pharisees call him a second time, and as things must have started to sink in during their interrogation of him, he says If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Finally, after he had been driven out and Jesus goes after him and finds him, in that last exchange with Jesus he confesses faith in the Son of Man.
John goes on and on to show the man born blind’s evolving view of Jesus. Just as his brain must have had to catch up to his newfound ability to see, his heart was gradually catching on to this Jesus. As he was seeing more and more, the Pharisees were seeing less and less. First they are divided; worried less about the healing and worried more that Jesus was working on the sabbath. Then, “we know that this man is a sinner!” And by the end, their exasperation wins out claiming to have no idea where this man Jesus even comes from. They see less while the man born blind sees more. With his growing sight comes his expanding response to the Pharisees. With each interrogatory his answer and his attitude grows. Until, as John tells, it they reviled him. That’s a harsh word. They reviled him and drove him out.
In the Salvatore Dali museum in Sarasota, Florida, there are several of Dali’s floor to ceiling, huge paintings. One of them is a painting of a naked woman, viewed from the back looking out over the sea. As you would expect from a Dali painting there are lots of shapes and colors; things to catch you eye. But the dominant image is the woman in the foreground with the sea in the distance. As we looked at the painting from close up, the docent invited us to walk to the other side of the gallery, all the way across the room for another look. “If you wear glasses, take them off and if you don’t try squinting just a bit”. And with that, the painting turned into a picture, clear as day of Abraham Lincoln. It was one of the artist’s optical illusions. The title of Dali’s painting is “Gala contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at 20 meters becomes the portrait of Abraham Lincoln.” Think of the skill of an artist; that from a few steps back, there was a whole other meaning.
One New Testament scholar describes the 9th chapter of this gospel as John’s “ultimate artistry.” Generations of preachers like me have been taught to stand close to the text. To zero in on Jesus’ words and try to figure out and then explain what Jesus meant in the beginning and at the end. To dig in and try to get in the heads of his parents who must have been so worried about those in power and those who make rules, religious power and religious rules, that they would deny their own son. To stand so close to the text that you find yourself distracted by that first question about sin and blindness and the challenge of translating Jesus answer, so distracted that that this infamous encounter with Jesus becomes less meaningful and relevant to any who seek to live the faith and more fitting for an all night dormitory argument where two sophomore roommates are solving the problems of the world, coming up with a theory of Grand Design, and believe in that moment that they are smartest people in the world.
And just about then, with his artistry, John invites us all to take 20, 30, 40 steps back and look again. Take a step back not just for an overview or a summary, like somebody in the office saying “let’s keep it at 30,000 feet”. No, take a step back for a whole other meaning. The man born blind was seeing more and more. The Pharisees were seeing less and less. And with Jesus playing the overture and the reprise; Jesus at the beginning and the end, what comes to the fore is the man born blind’s interrogation by neighbors, parents, and Pharisees; by pretty much everyone! What comes into view is the bombarding cynicism, the barrage of mistrust and questions, and the flat out trial of the man born blind. The interrogation coming not because of the miracle that gave the man sight, but because of his increasing faith in the Messiah and his growing ability to see the kingdom of God.
Rabbi Feldman and I as the elected leaders of the Princeton Clergy Association were invited this week over to the offices of the Princeton Regional Schools to meet the new superintendent, Steve Cochrane. As he shared with us his own hopes for this new work, he told us that he believed schools should be committed while educating our children to instilling a sense of “joy and purpose.” He actually said it much more eloquently than I just did. The Rabbi told him it sounded downright theological. Around here we strive to teach our children the stories of Jesus and God’s never ending love for them and how they are created in the image of God and how they are precious in God’s sight and how God calls them to see the face of Jesus in the other and work for all who suffer. Well, it’s college admission season; the culmination of a brutal process that proclaims a whole other message to our young people. Try talking to a college senior about joy and purpose and God’s love for them when thanks to the wisdom of the nation’s brightest and best colleges who now do this process electronically, they find themselves rejected by 5 schools in less than 5 minutes. Schools who have been telling them since they took the PSAT that they were the best thing since sliced bread. The powers and principalities bombarding and interrogating young people who yearn to see the world in a different way, faith-filled way.
Back in January, an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times started this way, “In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million—and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I just wanted more money for exactly the reason and alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.” Few things interrogate our faith more than what the world thinks about money.
Years ago I was serving at a wine tasting in Joy Saville’s backyard. It was a fund raiser for Housing Initiatives of Princeton. The rector at Trinity and I, enjoy participating as pourers at the spring event. Sometime after all the whites and early into the reds, one the guests at a table called me over, not for a fresh pour but for a comment. “30 years I have lived in Princeton” he announced in a loud voice, “and I have yet to find anyone who believed in the resurrection of the body!” Now there is actually a long and rich debate in theological circles and I have had many conversations over the years about what on earth “resurrection of the body” means. But I can tell you his tone didn’t reflect a question. And with me standing there with two bottles of wine in hand and a napkin over my arm, I think the belittling intent was clear. Few things interrogate our faith more than the world’s demeaning sneer.
One of our high school kids came to me near the end of the week down at the Montreat Youth Conference and told me she just didn’t think she was doing enough when it came to living out her faith. After a week of challenging sermons and compelling examples in keynotes of life-changing, world-changing, kingdom serving activity, one could understand how she could feel that way. Whatever I said, I wish I could have do-over. Because this morning I would say to her that living the faith on Monday morning when we get back, that’s enough. And then getting up on Tuesday and choosing again to live by God’s grace, that’s enough. And then on Wednesday, finding ways to witness to God’s love, that’s enough. And on Thursday, praying that you will be able to see just a bit of God’s kingdom, that’s enough. And Friday, rising to remind yourself that you are child of God and nothing will separate you from God’s love. That’s enough. And Saturday, finding a voice to speak for God’s justice. That’s enough. And on Sunday a voice to sing God’s praise.
Because when it comes to the life of faith, and our witness to the gospel, and our service to the kingdom, there is such an interrogation going on. The world seeing less and less and you seeing more and more. And, let’s be honest, come Wed or Thursday, it’s a whole lot easier to not worry about it. And, let’s be clear, my point isn’t about Sunday morning sports or religious nostalgia or some great conspiracy against the church. No, it’s much more personal than that. For you and for me, at the office, in the classroom, at the neighborhood gathering, in the voting booth, around the dining room table, at the cocktail party, talking to your kids, caring for your parents, on campus, in the boardroom. All of it, long about Wednesday.
It’s much more personal, because you see, there’s this one thing. One thing you know. It all starts with only one thing.
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