A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 30, 2014 (IV Lent, Year A)
Everyone loves a good scandal. It’s why we can’t help but sneak a peek over at the tabloids while checking out at the grocery store or watching TMZ when no one is looking. What could be more entertaining than watching the downfall of the high and mighty? Or the public exposure of cheats and hypocrites? Sports, Hollywood, politics — every arena has its version of Lance Armstrong, Paula Deen, Anthony Wiener. The list goes on and on and we just can’t get enough.
I’m not saying this is a positive trait of the human condition but it’s certainly nothing new. This story from John’s gospel begins with a search for a scandal. As the disciples are traveling down the road they spot a blind man and they ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”
Maybe there was some salacious scandal involved. Perhaps the man was born out of wedlock, the result of a steamy affair. Or maybe the man himself had engaged in sacrilege of some sort — though that would have been difficult since it’s made very clear that he was born blind. But who doesn’t crave a little holier-than-thou moral rubber necking?
There’s an assumption here that someone must have really screwed up to have caused this man’s blindness. It’s not even a question of whether someone sinned, it’s a matter of where to assign the blame. No one is asking “Did someone sin to cause this man’s blindness” they want to know “who sinned to cause this man’s blindness?”
It’s important to note that it’s Jesus’ own disciples who ask this question. It’s not the Pharisees trying to trap him in his words or cause him to publicly blaspheme, as they so often do. So we see that this whole notion that someone’s sin had caused this disability was the prevailing notion of the day.
To be disabled was to be cursed; and to be cursed was a result of sin. Someone had to be at fault since surely God would never willingly afflict someone in this way. If we’re “made in the image of God,” there’s no place for someone who is deformed or somehow less than the human ideal of perfection. To do so would imply that God was not perfect.
And to be blind or lame or mentally challenged or to have leprosy was in many ways a death sentence. There was no disability to collect; there were no public hospitals or Mass Health; and quite often families disowned those who were not physically whole. The religious community banished them as ritually unclean and so they were not only reduced to begging, they were also turned into pariahs and ostracized by society. It’s hard to imagine the isolation, desperation, and utter hopelessness of this blind man sitting in rags by the side of the road.
And yet, despite the fact that this guy was precisely the kind of person an upstanding citizen would avoid at all costs, where does Jesus spend most of his time? He certainly wasn’t hanging out at country clubs drinking cocktails and mingling with the upper crust. He spent his life among the poor, the lame, the outcasts, the downtrodden, the “least of these.” And so by virtue his actions alone, Jesus was making a strong statement about the dignity of every human being.
Yet Jesus isn’t just doing a nice thing for these people. He’s not simply a do-gooder who takes pity on the vulnerable. Jesus is challenging the deeply held societal norm that assumed the marginalized were outside the realm of God’s favor.
But he doesn’t stop there. Jesus makes the bold proclamation that God doesn’t just care for this man, he is actively working through him. He was born blind not because his parents had sinned, not because he was cursed, but so that “God’s works might be revealed in him.” That was shocking! A stunning turnaround! From the assumption of sin to the presumption of blessing. It’s hard to overstate just how radical this was. Jesus is offering those who have literally been cast out of society, blessing, dignity, and a new understanding of their lives.
This Lent we’ve been exploring the issue of poverty in our Lenten series and raising awareness and inviting action through the Outreach Committee’s Lenten Initiative on homelessness. And while it’s not popular to voice, many of us in some deep-seated way ask the same question about the poor. “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Passing a poor person on the street we may well think that this person brought it upon himself. He’s lazy, shifty, trying to work the system. Well, perhaps, just as perhaps the blind man or his parents had sinned in some egregious way. But the end result is not related.
You may be familiar with what’s been called the “preferential option for the poor.” It’s a phrase that’s been misunderstood and celebrated and maligned over the years but at its essence, it’s consistent with Jesus’ teachings and actions. Basically it states that in God’s eyes the needs of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable come first. It’s precisely because God loves everyone equally that we can’t sit around idly in the face of poverty, injustice, and oppression. When human dignity is violated we have a a gospel imperative to work for justice.
As Gustavo Gutierez, the Liberation theologian who first coined the phrase, put it, “God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will.”
Yes, God desires wholeness — but it’s not the idealized wholeness of body so desired by Jesus’ contemporaries and, more subtly, by us. As Jesus points out, you can be physically whole but spiritually blind just as you can be physically blind but spiritually whole. Throughout this season of Lent we’ve been trying to open eyes and hearts in our own community. It is so easy to do nothing, to remain neutral in the face of human suffering, to stay in our respective suburban bubbles. That’s the true sin we confront on a daily basis — the sin of going about our business while so many of our brothers and sisters both locally and globally are hurting.
We’re all guilty of it to some degree and this is the sin Jesus continually challenges us to transcend. Because apathy in the face of suffering is just as bad as participating first-hand in the structures that perpetuate it. And so I encourage you first to simply be aware — be aware of your surroundings and the circumstances of those beyond your own circle of friends and acquaintances. Then act. It can be, in many ways it must be, a small step. Eyes must be opened before hands can be extended but be extended they must. We have much work to do as individuals and as a community of faith.
But as people who walk this Lenten journey, we have little if not hope as we journey toward the cross and resurrection. Sometimes, if we seek it, we’ll see glimpses of the resurrection even in the darkest moments. We simply need Jesus to open our eyes to the possibilities — as he does both literally and metaphorically — to the moments of grace that emerge out of the darkness. And then do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those around us.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck