Unbearable Lightness

2015_1201_seven-eleven-500x330

John 9:1-41

 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”

 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”

But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.

 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”

 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Today’s scripture reading is one of those texts you can read dozens of times and always find something new. It’s a long text, obviously, with many details.

When I read John 9 this week, the detail that captured my attention is one I have never noticed before. This week, I noticed:

The man born blind didn’t approach Jesus

The man born blind didn’t ask for his sight.

There’s absolutely nothing in this story to suggest that man knew who Jesus was or wanted Jesus to do anything for him.

The man born blind was just minding his own business. He couldn’t see, but he wasn’t deaf.

He probably heard the disciples ask Jesus about the sin they though caused his blindness.

The blind man didn’t say a word to defend himself or his family. The blind man said nothing. Did nothing.

All of what happens next is Jesus’ idea,

It is totally Jesus’ initiative.

It is Jesus’ idea to spit on the ground, and rub saliva and dirt onto the man’s eyes.

He could have just touched the man with his magic Jesus hands, right?  But he doesn’t.

Jesus uses spit and dirt.

Let’s just stop for a moment and think what it felt like for the blind man.Unknown

Not only is Jesus intruding into the man’s personal space doing something the man didn’t ask him to do,he is also touching the man in a way that had to have felt totally weird at best, and painful and frightening at worst.

Think about it.  Having dirt and spittle suddenly and unexpectedly rubbed into your eyes can’t feel good. If you’ve ever had an eyelash stuck in your eye, or a piece of sand, or sweat and sunscreen running into your eyes, you can imagine the physical discomfort of the blind man. You can imagine having mud and spit rubbed into your eyes by a complete and maybe crazy stranger.

The blind man didn’t ask for it. But Jesus did it. And after washing the mud out of his eyes, the man blind since birth could see. For the first time.

In the gospel of John, these miraculous actions of Jesus – turning water into wine, feeding multitudes, raising the dead, walking on water, giving sight to the blind – are not referred to as “miracles,” but as signs.

The blind man’s sight is not a miracle to marvel over, but rather a muddy, messy sign pointing us to a deeper understanding of Jesus, and who he is and who he calls us to be in the world.

And it tells us something about the way in which Jesus moves in the world, even now.

If Jesus wants our eyes opened, he will not wait for us to ask or cooperate.

And the process might sting a little.

I read an opinion piece yesterday by Peter McKay from the Post Gazette. He wrote about the virtual world of “Pokemon Go.” If you know a kid with a smart phone, you’ve probably heard of Pokemon Go.

I have a 15 year old son with a smart phone who has, indeed, caught Pokemon Go fever. In fact, we just got back from vacation and my teenager and his cousins saw most of Disney World, Savannah and Charleston, S.C. through the lens of their smart phone cameras.slim

Peter McKay described the Pokemon Go phenomena.  Players of the game use their smart phones to find virtual Pokemon characters that can be seen only by peering through the phone’s camera.  Pokemon Go has gotten so big that this month it overtook Twitter for number of daily users.

McKay says he knows he should be telling kids that Pokemon Go is a tremendous waste of time.

On the other hand, he says, spending time in the virtual world of Pokemon Go seems highly preferable to enduring the actual world of Summer 2016.

Maybe it’s better, says McKay, to withdraw from all the violence and fear and anger. Better to chase a Pokemon character at the bus stop,or turn off the television completely, or turn on old episodes of the Lawrence Welk show and hope the bubbles will drown out the sense of dread.

The virtual monsters of Pokemon seem highly preferable to the real ones that seem to be lurking under our beds or outside our door. Or in Munich, Nice, Baton Rouge, St. Paul or Orlando or any number of places that have been ripped apart by violence this summer.[1]

I get what McKay is saying. The impulse to tune out is strong. Sometimes it seems safer, saner not to look. Maybe that’s what you’ve decided to do this summer. Shut down and shut it all out.

The Pharisees in the text are blind-sided by the man whose sight has been restored. They cannot see what Jesus has accomplished.  They cannot see what Jesus is about. All they see is sin and broken rules. The Pharisees hide so deeply in their piety, they can’t perceive the possibilities of Jesus.

The man’s parents are blinded by fear. Even the neighbors cannot wrap their minds around what has happened.

“It’s too impossible.

Him? He’s been blind forever.

Are you sure it’s the same guy?

Maybe he’s faking all of us out.

Don’t ask me. Ask him.”

Nobody wants to see. Nobody wants to know. Nobody believes.

In the midst of all the commotion and controversy, stands a man who once was blind.

All he knows is that his world was turned upside down when Jesus touched him.

For better and for worse.

He will be ridiculed. Not believed.

He will be turned out and rejected by everyone he knows.

But for the first time in his life, the blind man sees what is real. What he sees is Jesus.

The man who was once blind now sees and believes. Over time, he confesses Jesus as Lord.

In the gospel of John, Jesus is introduced as the light of the world. And throughout the Gospel, the light of Jesus leads to conversion, at least for some. It leads to a moment in which the world turns upside down and nothing is ever the same again.  At least for some people.

Others in the gospels encounter the light of Jesus and miss it. They believe only what their blind eyes tell them.

Mud is mud is mud.

Water is water, and wine is wine.

A couple of pieces of bread and a few fish are only enough to feed one little boy, not thousands of hungry people.

After all, everyone knows the dead stay dead and blind people stay blind.

And if one day a man shows up and tells you a prophet gave him his sight by rubbing mud in his eyes,

you can believe or not.

You can rejoice, or question the man’s sanity.

You can hear his story and allow your eyes to open. For better or worse. It might sting a little.

I have learned how blind I am the hard way, and more than once in my life.

In fact, it happens all the time to me.

Jesus shows up and rubs mud into in my eyes.

And sometimes the light feels unbearable.

Hearing the story feels uncomfortable.

How has it felt for you, brothers and sisters? Has Jesus rubbed mud in your eyes? Have you felt unbearable lightness?

Jesus did it to me last week. While I was on vacation, a friend who is a pastor posted a testimony on Facebook.

I didn’t ask to see it. I didn’t want to read it.

In fact, my plan for vacation was to focus only on vacation. I planned to unplug everything except my family, an Alexander Hamilton biography, and perhaps learn a bit more about Pokemon Go.Unknown-1

I heard this testimony from my friend and colleague, a pastor who leads a congregation in Knoxville, a hilltop neighborhood on the South Side that has seen more than its fair share of tragic shootings and deep brokenness. In fact, a 6 year old girl was shot and killed there last week. But that wasn’t the story my friend Rev. White told on Facebook.  Here’s his testimony, edited by me but only a little:

So Saturday started like most Saturdays.

Kids up asking for cereal, wife sleeping in, and me on my way to 7eleven for coffee and a plan to finally wash my car. I was engaged in conversation with a member of my congregation about the events in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Minnesota as I pulled into 7eleven via my hands free mode, and remained in the parking lot for about 15 minutes concluding the conversation before going in to get my coffee.

When an Ohio Township police cruiser pulls up next to me, the officer gets out his car, nods to me and he goes into the store.

A few seconds later he comes out the store and he approaches my driver’s side, and says to me, “Sir what are you doing?”

I reply, “I was talking on the phone and am about to go in and get coffee.”

Then he hits me with the words every black man dreads “Well we got a call. I’m going to need to see your license and registration.”

“For what?” I ask?

“Well the employee inside called and said you were out here in the lot for 45 minutes and she was afraid. “

How’s my sitting here in my car on my phone in full view of the stores exterior cameras threatening this woman? What gesture was I unaware of? What action off putting?

I am in my car outside the store on my phone in a place I have lived my whole life, no hoodie, no bb gun, no loud music, big rims, or gold chains.

I wasn’t selling CDs or cigarettes;

I wasn’t fresh out of a high speed chase in a stolen car

I wasn’t speeding nor did I have a busted tail light.

I was present and Black.

police_gunAnd apparently in the times we live that’s all it takes for a call to be made and for me to be talking to an officer with his hand on his gun. waiting for me to comply with his request.

To many of you this might seem like a simple request.

Just give him your license and all will be fine.

But the distance between that and the truth is as great as what seemed like the miles between my driver’s seat and my book bag on the floor of the car which contained my license,  or the universe between me and my glove compartment which contained my registration.

The truth is I did nothing wrong but I didn’t reach.

The truth is I had no evil intent towards this officer but I didn’t reach yet.

The truth is I in no way threatened anyone but I couldn’t reach yet.

Because the certain reality for me as a black man in this situation is this.

What I do next may very well determine if my children ever see me again.

That may not be your reality. It is my reality.

What I say

how I move

what I do

will determine the answer to this question:

Can I live?

“Officer my ID is there and my registration there. CAN I get them?”

“Just give me your license!”

 As he walks away to his car and I ask myself why are you nervous?

And I realized in that moment that my fear is now turning quickly to anger.

I don’t have to be guilty of anything to die here for talking on my phone in a public place in a town I have lived in all my life where we raise our kids in a county where we pay our taxes, in a city where I pastor a church and work in the community at a store I visit once a day, in a country I have served as a member of the military.

Ten seconds the officer comes back to my window, hands me my license and walks away.

“Hold up wait a minute officer What did I do wrong in the first place?”

He turns and pauses. A look comes across his face that I can only describe as an angry man trying to calm himself.

He turns and says to me:

“She was afraid and had a right to call.”

And I said to myself

I am afraid and I have a right to live.

Can I?

Can I live?

 

Ouch.

That wasn’t just a little mud in my eyes.

 

Rabbi, who sinned?

The fearful white employee in the 7-11?

The fearful police officer with his hand on his gun?

The fearful Reverend White who was born with black skin?

All of them. All of us. They and you and me and we have all been born blind and sinful, steeped in prejudice and privilege and fear.

The good news is we are loved despite all of it.

The good news is because we are loved, Jesus keeps showing up and opening our eyes.

The good news is God’s work might yet be revealed in us and through us, thanks to the light that is Jesus Christ in the world.

The light of Jesus Christ in our families and in our churches. In Ben Avon and in Knoxville. In our workplaces and even in 7-11 parking lots.

Sometimes, it is unbearable light that we do not want to acknowledge.

We are free to look away or deny it or even give in to fear.

Or we can let the light of Christ reach us, and teach us, and draw us ever more closely to the heart of God.

The light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Peter McKay, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 7/23/16, “Go, Pokemon God, and take me with you.” Downloaded on 7/23/16http://www.post-gazette.com/life/2016/07/23/Peter-McKay-Go-Pokemon-Go-and-take-me-with-you/stories/201607230040

Leave a Comment