March 30, 2014 – Lent 4A
© 2014 Evan D. Garner
The audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I want to introduce you to a lineup of seven individuals.
First is John. Like the man in today’s gospel lesson, he was born blind. He’s in his late forties, now, and has spent the last ten years perfecting the art of convincing strangers to give him money. He sits on a folded up piece of cardboard on the sidewalk at the intersection of two busy downtown streets. Thousands of people walk past him every day. He never asks anyone for money, but he quietly sings old gospel hymns and listens for the change to fall in his shoebox. When the box gets too full, he dumps the change into a zipper-top bag. At the end of a day, he has made more than enough money to buy himself some food and a small bottle of something else before heading home to his apartment.
Next we have Rebecca. She’s a younger woman. She’s only twenty-five but the lines on her face and her ill-fitting skin make her look fifteen years older. She has tattoos on both arms, running all the way up until they disappear beneath her black tank top. She wears baggy clothing on her emaciated frame and can’t seem to stop scratching the inside of her forearms. If you look carefully enough, you can see the remnants of a black-eye that has mostly faded.
Next is Demetrius. He’s even younger—only nineteen—and he wears a bright orange prison jumpsuit. We don’t really know much about him. He doesn’t say a lot—keeps mostly to himself. He must be well-behaved because he spends most days working outside of the prison, cleaning the floors and taking out the trash at a local community center. He does what he’s asked to do and never causes trouble. In fact, he is so clean-cut and gentle in his mannerisms that the jumpsuit looks like it belongs on someone else.
Fourth is Madison. She is almost sixteen but has pretty much forgotten what it means to be a teenager. Her parents took her out of school last semester. She’s cute and smart. Even though she isn’t allowed out of the house, her parents spent a lot of money on nice maternity clothes. Her distended belly looks strange on a girl as young and petite as she. Her mother wanted her to end the pregnancy, but her dad found out and refused to let that happen. She’ll give the child up for adoption before she even has a chance to see the life that has been growing inside of her.
Fifth is Michael. He is old enough to have three grandchildren even though his current wife isn’t. Always well-dressed and well-groomed, Michael projects an image of success. He owns two businesses and several pieces of commercial property in town. He goes to church most Sundays and is one of the more generous donors in the community. He is a shrewd businessman who has positioned himself as the leading provider of landscaping services in the community.
Next is Gorge. He works for Michael and has for four years. In that time, he has demonstrated an unbelievable capacity for physical labor and a genuine sensitivity for the needs of his coworkers. Because of that, he has been promoted and now heads up three of the work crews. He came to this country illegally and sends half of his pay back to his wife and children in Mexico. His boss pays him under the table, and no taxes means more money for his struggling family back home.
Last is Carol. She is a second-career Episcopal Priest. She first felt the call to ordained ministry when she was in college, but, back then, women weren’t allowed to be ordained, so she worked as a school teacher for twenty-five years before finally telling her rector that she felt like God was calling her to be a priest. She’s been ordained for nine years, now, and is loved by her congregation. She’s never been married, which seems strange for a woman as sweet and attractive as she is. Like all ministers, she has secrets that she would never tell her congregation, but, for the most part, she’s happy and so are the people she serves.
What does sin look like? Which of these seven looks like a sinner to you? Which ones wear their sins on the outside where you can see them? And which ones hide them where you can’t? How many of them are living out the consequences of their sins? And for which ones is it only a matter of time before their sins catch up with them? That’s the funny thing about sin. Sometimes you think you can see it, but you can’t. And other times you don’t think it’s there when it’s actually right below the surface. That’s because sin rarely looks the way we think it should.
Jesus and his disciples walked past a man who was born blind, and then the disciples did something that was as natural as a six-year-old asking what’s wrong with a person who lives in a wheelchair: they saw something they didn’t understand, and they asked a question about why. Why was this man born blind? Why did that happen? Did his parents do something wrong to deserve that? Is he being punished for something he did—even before he was born? Why would God cause a little child to be born without his eyesight unless he or his parents or someone else in their family had done something to deserve that?
If that seems like the kind of thing people used to think “way back when”—the kind of thing people don’t believe anymore—stop and ask yourself why you feel uncomfortable when it’s your six-year-old child or grandchild who asks that question. We still live in a world where “different” means “wrong.” We see something different on the outside and unconsciously assume that something must be wrong on the inside. Why? Because sin is easier to deal with if it looks a certain way. As long as sin comes with tattoos, piercings, and baggy pants—as long as we can dress it up in a bright orange jumpsuit—then no one thinks about the sinner inside the Italian suit or the Donna Karan dress or the clerical collar. As long as we can compartmentalize sin by sight, we can ignore the kind of brokenness that we can’t see in the mirror. But for how long?
When God looks at us, what does he see? As the reading from 1 Samuel reminds us, “the Lord does not see as mortals see. They look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” When God looks at our hearts, what does he see?
In response to their question, Jesus said to his disciples, “This man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” That’s a bold thing to say—to declare to someone who had spent a lifetime living out the tragic result of the genetic lottery that there was divine purpose in his disability. But Jesus said it, and he meant it in a way that only God himself could mean it. When God looks upon us, he sees not our brokenness but the wholeness that is offered to us through his son, Jesus Christ. Whether our sins are visible or invisible, whether we are surrounded by struggle or projecting an image of luxury, God sees who we really are. And he sees each and every one of us as the exact same opportunity for his works to be revealed. It doesn’t matter who you are or what sins you carry inside of you. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got it all together or have everything falling apart. God sees you as a work in progress—as an opportunity for his glorious work of redemption to take hold. Amen.