Sunday, March 26, 2017

Jesus, Grace, and the Battle for Truth

March 26, 2017 – The 4th Sunday in Lent
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
Yesterday, as I drove into Moulton on my way to Camp McDowell, I noticed a sign that not only welcomed me to that fair city but also proclaimed Moulton as the birthplace of Jesse Owens. Although I knew that he was from around here, I hadn’t realized that Moulton was the place that he called home. Perhaps, that is in part because Moulton isn’t actually the place he called home. Owens was from Oakville, Alabama, a tiny unincorporated community in southeast Lawrence County halfway between nowhere and nowhere else. You can’t get to Oakville unless you try, so I suppose that it’s ok for Moulton to add Jesse Owens’ name to its sign since hardly anyone would ever see if it was restricted to its Oakville counterpart, though I wonder whether anyone in Moulton bothered to ask the residents of Oakville before they made that proclamation.

When I saw the sign, I started thinking about Jesse Owens and what he represents to the world. Of course, history remembers him best for his performance in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, at which he won four gold medals, ascending to the top of the medal podium that Adolf Hitler had built for his own Aryan athletes. Initially, Owens was criticized for taking part in the 1936 games because it seemed to lend credence to the Nazi attempt to show the world that everything was just fine under Hitler’s regime, but the result spoke for itself. Two truths collided in those Olympic Games—one a belief that only a racially pure society could rule the world and the other a belief that the best athlete in the world might even be a so-called “colored man” from rural Alabama—and Owens won the gold…four times. You couldn’t make it up any better than that.

Two different truths collide in today’s long gospel lesson, and the implication for us is just as profound. The miracle itself—a man who was born blind receiving his sight—gets hardly any mention. We read only a rather earthy depiction of some spittle and some mud and the waters of the pool of Siloam. John is far more interested in the interrogation that ensues. It turns out that Jesus had healed the man on the sabbath, which was a clear violation of the fourth commandment. The sabbath had been set aside by God himself as a day on which no work was to be performed. By keeping the sabbath as a holy day of rest, God’s people honor their creator, who likewise rested on the seventh day. Although exceptions are always made when someone’s life is in danger, healing a man born blind is without a doubt a violation of the rules. That’s the kind of thing that can wait until Sunday. That’s the kind of thing that real Jew, a truly faithful child of God, would always put off until the sabbath was over. But Jesus didn’t wait.

It was quite a conundrum. “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind,” the man remarked near the end of the episode. “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” But, if he were from God, as the formerly blind man was suggesting, he surely would not have done this work on the sabbath. That seems just as clear as the now-sighted man’s vision. So which is it? Which framework wins out? Which truth is operative—the belief that a truly godly man would keep the sabbath day holy or the belief that only a godly man could heal someone who had been born blind? It can’t be both.

Well, as they say, the proof is in the pudding, which is to say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We know how the story ends. We know that Jesus did what no one else had ever done. We know what John is trying to tell us—who is really on God’s side. But I wonder whether we actually believe what we know. Although we may side with Jesus and call ourselves his disciples, I wonder whether we really accept the implication of this story. I wonder whether we’re willing to see and believe in the truth that Jesus gives us.

I’d like to ask you to do something for a moment that may not come easily. I’d like you to set aside everything you know about God and Jesus and sin and blindness and try to think your way through this story as a first-century Palestinian might have thought through it. I want you to go back to the beginning of this passage and hear it with all of the theological and scientific enlightenment that the ancient world had to offer: “As Jesus 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.’” Nowadays, we know that some babies are just born blind. There’s no moral judgment behind that. It just happens. But what did they know back then? What did a man born blind represent to Jesus’ contemporaries?

Again, at the end of the exchange between the man born blind and the Pharisees, we see what our twenty-first-century eyes cannot perceive. With no small amount of irony, the man who had spent his whole life in darkness began to lecture the religious experts about sin. “We know that God does not listen to sinners,” he said, “but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.” The Pharisees rejected not the man’s argument but the one making it: “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” To them, a man born blind was truly a lost cause. They didn’t need to know who sinned, this man or his parents. What was certain to them was that this man’s life was defined by sin and the darkness that came with it.

Keep in mind what the world thought about a man born blind, and ask yourself what it means that salvation would come to him. What does it say about how God works that healing and true sightedness—the kind of sightedness that in the bible represents salvation—come not to the Pharisees but to a beggar who had been blind since his birth? What did the blind man do to deserve his sight? He did not ask Jesus to heal him. He did not profess his faith in Jesus before the mud-paste was spread on his eyes. In fact, even after he had been healed, he didn’t know anything about Jesus except his name. He was just a blind, good-for-nothing beggar. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were the religious leaders that everyone looked up to. They were the ones who not only kept the law but went beyond what was required of them, dedicating their whole lives to God. “Surely we are not blind, are we?” they asked Jesus, genuinely confused about the nature of salvation itself. “If you were blind, you would not have sin,” Jesus replied. “But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

This miracle story isn’t about a man who was born blind receiving his sight. And it isn’t even about a controversial rabbi performing a miracle on the sabbath. This is about two diametrically opposed schools of thought hurtling towards each other, and it’s about us deciding which one will govern our lives. On the one hand, there’s the belief that salvation comes to those who deserve it, that God loves those who love him, and that God saves those who have proven themselves worthy of that salvation. And then there’s the belief that God’s salvation is revealed first and foremost to those who haven’t earned it; that God loves us regardless of whether we love him back and regardless of whether we love our neighbors as ourselves; and that the light salvation comes to those who don’t deserve it one bit. It can’t be both. We have to choose. We have to choose which truth will govern our lives. Will we believe in the salvation that Jesus represents, or will we choose the option that makes sense to us—the way that says that people get what they deserve?

The hardest thing about following Jesus is giving up our need to be rewarded for our hard work. The hardest thing about being a Christian is abandoning our hope to be recognized for what we have done. For our whole lives, we have been told that hard work pays off, that trying our best is what counts, and Jesus comes to show us that that just isn’t true. Salvation comes not to those who know that they are holy but to sinners who know that they need God’s help. That’s the true power of unconditional love, but has that love taken hold in our lives?

Jesus doesn’t see a blind sinner, begging on the side of the road. He sees a vessel for God’s grace. What do we see? In the man with the cardboard sign, sitting by the entrance to the grocery store, what do we see? In the mother with five children, using food stamps and a disability check to pay for her groceries, what do we see? In the guy who staggers toward the checkout, clutching a six-pack of malt liquor under his arm, what do we see? In the man or woman who passes them by, offering nothing but a condemnatory thought, when we look at that person in the mirror, what do we see? Do we see a lost cause or a vessel for God’s grace? I know what Jesus sees. Will we see it, too?

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