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Who Sinned?

“Who Sinned?”

March 19, 2023 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole

Fourth Sunday in Lent

John 9:1-42

9 1-2 Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”

3-5 Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”

6-7 He said this and then spit in the dust, made a clay paste with the saliva, rubbed the paste on the blind man’s eyes, and said, “Go, wash at the Pool of Siloam” (Siloam means “Sent”). The man went and washed—and saw.

8 Soon the town was buzzing. His relatives and those who year after year had seen him as a blind man begging were saying, “Why, isn’t this the man we knew, who sat here and begged?”

9 Others said, “It’s him all right!”

But others objected, “It’s not the same man at all. It just looks like him.”

He said, “It’s me, the very one.”

10 They said, “How did your eyes get opened?”

11 “A man named Jesus made a paste and rubbed it on my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ I did what he said. When I washed, I saw.”

12 “So where is he?”

“I don’t know.”

13-15 They marched the man to the Pharisees. This day when Jesus made the paste and healed his blindness was the Sabbath. The Pharisees grilled him again on how he had come to see. He said, “He put a clay paste on my eyes, and I washed, and now I see.”

16 Some of the Pharisees said, “Obviously, this man can’t be from God. He doesn’t keep the Sabbath.”

Others countered, “How can a bad man do miraculous, God-revealing things like this?” There was a split in their ranks.

17 They came back at the blind man, “You’re the expert. He opened your eyes. What do you say about him?”

The man who had been blind said, “He is a prophet.”

18-19 The Jews didn’t believe it, didn’t believe the man was blind to begin with. So they called the parents of the man now bright-eyed with sight. They asked them, “Is this your son, the one you say was born blind? So how is it that he now sees?”

20-23 His parents said, “We know he is our son, and we know he was born blind. But we don’t know how he came to see—haven’t a clue about who opened his eyes. Why don’t you ask him? He’s a grown man and can speak for himself.” (His parents were talking like this because they were intimidated by the Jewish leaders, who had already decided that anyone who took a stand that this was the Messiah would be kicked out of the meeting place. That’s why his parents said, “Ask him. He’s a grown man.”)

24 They called the man back a second time—the man who had been blind—and told him, “Give credit to God. We know this man is an impostor.”

25 The man who had been blind replied, “I know nothing about that one way or the other. But I know one thing for sure: I was blind . . . I now see.”

26 They said, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

27 “I’ve told you over and over and you haven’t listened. Why do you want to hear it again? Are you so eager to become his disciples?”

28-29 With that they jumped all over him. “You might be a disciple of that man, but we’re disciples of Moses. We know for sure that God spoke to Moses, but we have no idea where this man even comes from.”

30-33 Then the formerly blind man replied, “This is amazing! You claim to know nothing about him, but the fact is, he opened my eyes! It’s well known that God isn’t at the beck and call of sinners, but listens carefully to anyone who lives in reverence and does his will. That someone opened the eyes of a man born blind has never been heard of—ever. If this man didn’t come from God, he wouldn’t be able to do anything.”

34 They said, “You’re nothing but dirt! How dare you take that tone with us!” Then they threw him out in the street.

35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and went and found him. He asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

36 The man said, “Point him out to me, sir, so that I can believe in him.”

37 Jesus said, “You’re looking right at him. Don’t you recognize my voice?”

38 “Master, I believe,” the man said, and worshiped him.

39 Jesus then said, “I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind.”

40 Some Pharisees overheard him and said, “Does that mean you’re calling us blind?”

41 Jesus said, “If you were really blind, you would be blameless, but since you claim to see everything so well, you’re accountable for every fault and failure.”

At the beginning of Lent we started this series called “Seeking: Honest Questions for a Deeper Faith.” And right from the beginning I began encouraging you to ask questions. I said there is no such thing as a bad question. That any question asked honestly is one that forms a starting place for a deeper relationship with God. You see, throughout this season we are trying to pry ourselves off the idea that faith has to be equated with certainty. We are trying to open ourselves up to mystery and let ourselves be pulled out of rigid mindsets where there is room for wondering and exploring between the black and white of certainty.

After that introduction, it’s ironic then that the question we’re using to center today’s message, “Who Sinned?” is a question from our scripture reading that Jesus specifically says is the wrong question. I thought we said there were no bad questions? Here’s the thing: Jesus doesn’t say it’s a bad question. He says it’s the wrong question and this is what he means by that.

A man was born blind. And in the 1st century and in the religious traditions of that time, this meant that society as a whole saw this man’s blindness before they saw him as a man. His blindness relegated his life to one of poverty and begging in a culture that made very few accommodations for people who were different. His blindness was seen as a problem, a glitch, a brokenness. And so as Jesus and his disciples approached this man, they ask the question that is ingrained in their understanding of God and the causes of brokenness. Someone must have done something very bad and that’s why this man is blind. So, Who sinned?, they ask.

Was it an honest question? Yes. Was it the right question? Depends on where they wanted the conversation to go. Were they trying to make this man feel even more ashamed? Were they trying to save themselves from this kind of situation by knowing what kind of sin to avoid in the future? If this was their goal, then it was the right question. A self-serving, condemning line of questioning. But if you were Jesus, and your goal was not individualistic self-preservation and condemnation of the already marginalized, then this was the wrong question.

Stop looking for someone to blame. Instead look for what God can do. Ask not what will save yourself. Ask instead what you can do to understand another’s perspective.

In Japan there is an old tradition that when a beloved piece of pottery breaks it is not thrown out. There is no shame associated with its coming apart. No one asks, why did this break? Who dropped this? Instead, the pieces of that pottery are picked up one by one and mended back together, not with ordinary glue, but with a gleaming, brilliant gold. The process is called kintsugi (kent-soogi). Instead of placing blame, a different question is asked. How can this vessel, in its current reality, still be beautiful and useful? How can it be restored into the life of the household?

This practice seems so very different from the ways our normal life operates. We want things to be right and perfect so badly that we’ve designed rules that throw away, exclude and condemn when things and people don’t live up to our standards. We can be so blinded by “the way things have always been” that we can’t see possibility and restoration when it's right in front of us.

When Jesus sees this man who has only known blindness, he longs for the community to once again see this man’s worth as a human, not judge him based on what they perceive as physical limitations. He longs to see this man accepted again by his community, no longer defined by societal standards of “broken” and “healed,” but loved for who he was inside.

So Jesus made mud with his saliva, a fairly common medical procedure in that day and he wiped it on the man’s eyes and instructed him to wash himself in the Pool of Siloam, which means “sent.” He did this and afterward he could see.

I wish I could tell you that after the blind man returned to his community with sight, everyone lived happily ever after and embraced him as a beloved sibling. But the people looking on had ingrained patterns of what was acceptable and what was not. They leaned heavily into “the way it always had been” instead of seeing the possibility that was literally right before their eyes. Not only did they blame the blind man for his own blindness, they blamed Jesus for breaking Sabbath law and bringing healing on a day of rest. They said no one can be sent from God who breaks the sacred law. Even when the man who had been blind boldly testified to Jesus’ amazing compassion, the neighbors refused to believe what they didn’t want to see.

All they wanted to see was brokenness. They could not open their eyes to the new possibilities of how God might work in new and fresh ways because they were blinded by ingrained assumptions.

I wish I could say that in 2000 years of Christianity we’ve gotten it all figured out by now. That we honor this story of Jesus Christ giving the marginalized new purpose and restoration in their community as a sacred story that guides our behaviors and tears down our own assumptions and stereotypes. But we still, to this day, carry a lot of preconceived ideas about who is broken and who is not.

Not too long ago there was a man named Duane Steele born with no sight not too far from here in the Catskills. His parents taught him that he had nothing to be ashamed about, but it was the people in his church that repeatedly asked when something might be able to be done about his “condition” that made him feel like he was not accepted as he was.

Yet his family believed in him. He writes,

“My Grandma Steele sent me to my own ‘Pool of Siloam,” which took the form of the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind, a school in the Bronx that provided the best education blind children of the 1950s and ‘60s could receive. There, in addition to learning the usual academic subjects, I also became proficient in braille, I studied in a conservatory-level music program and I made many lifelong friendships.

Nowadays, most blind kids go to public school and hopefully learn similar skills while being part of diverse communities in their own neighborhoods.

For us, ‘healing’ happens when the people around us learn to heal their ignorance about us, when they learn to truly love and welcome us, when they realize that what we think and say and do matters.”

Duane went on to attend seminary after college, even though people responded to his calling to be a pastor with platitudes. “Oh, isn’t that nice.” After receiving rejection after rejection, a small Lutheran parish in Virginia called Duane to be their pastor, where he ministered for over 30 years. Duane’s testimony about John 9 brings new meaning to it.

Not only did Jesus treat a man born with blindness with dignity and respect, he gave this man a new sense of mission in his life. He gave him a sense of self-worth that bucked traditional understandings of what was “broken” and no longer useful. When his own temple rejected his testimony toward the end of the scripture reading, Jesus empowered this man to tell his story to all who would hear. He became one of Jesus’ many unnamed, devoted disciples.

What if we asked different questions? Instead of asking “who sinned” or “how did you get yourself into this situation,” we asked, “what do you need?” or “how can I help?” or “what makes you uniquely you and how can that make our community better?”

Accessibility and welcome must remain core principles in our faith. We must find who our society ignores and pay attention to them. Ask them questions which lift their agency, give them voice, and transmit visibility and purpose. Jesus knew that when we celebrate our differences, we become stronger communities. When we shed our inherited assumptions that value legalism over grace, we suddenly have the opportunity to receive tremendous gifts from those whose differences make them beautiful.

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