Repent! (Sermon 3/30/14)

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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.

*****

I don’t know for sure, but this might be the longest Lectionary text in the whole three-year cycle. Maybe it isn’t, but it sure seems like it. It’s really tempting to cut it short, and just highlight one snip of it or another. But I usually try not to do that, because really, the whole thing is such a great story. I mean, there’s a little bit of everything in there – a miracle, drama, intrigue, family dysfunction, people covering their own butts, powerful people behaving badly, and there’s even a little humor thrown in as the healed man tweaks the noses of the religious leaders, just as icing on the cake. It really is a great story – but it’s more than a story, too; it’s full of enough theological issues and questions to stir up more than a month’s worth of sermons. Does God really give people ailments or problems to punish them for their sins, or the sins of their parents, as the disciples think? Would God really make someone suffer a lifetime of being blind just to make some point some day when he’s an adult? Couldn’t God figure out a more humane way to make the same point? Why did Jesus need to make mud with his spit to heal the man? Besides the fact that it’s just gross, he seems to have been perfectly able to heal other people without any special props or theatrics. And what about the blind man himself? In other gospel passages, Jesus isn’t able to work any miracles because the people don’t have enough faith, but this poor guy doesn’t exhibit any faith at all. He just seems to be sitting around begging, minding his own business until Jesus comes along and heals him. It isn’t until the very end of the story, after everything else plays out, that Jesus seeks the man out again and he actually expresses any faith in Jesus.

Since repentance is today’s theme on our “Cross-bound” Lenten journey, I tried to consider where repentance might show up in this story. I suppose we could assume that the blind man decides to repent from the sinful aspects of his life, as part of his believing in Jesus and worshiping him. But really, repentance just doesn’t seem to be a big thing in the blind man’s story. Maybe his story is a better reflection of how God comes to us seeks us out, before we ever seek God, or ask God to come to us or help us, before we can even see God. Maybe Jesus’ healing of the blind man is a way for us to understand why we baptize infants and small children, like we’ll do in the 10:00 service today – that baptism is a sign of God’s coming to us, and making a covenant with us, not the other way around – that baptism is not a sign of what we’re doing, but what God has already done.

Still, as I continued to think about this story, I the idea of repentance does come into play, but in a reverse way, a negative way – it shows up in the repentance that doesn’t happen, on the part of the religious leaders in the story.

So what’s going on with them? We’ve heard this story and others like it so many times, we’ve been trained to automatically understand the religious leaders, the Pharisees, the scribes, of Jesus’ time as the bad guys. As soon as you hear them mentioned, you can almost hear ominous music in the background. Picture Jews in black cowboy hats or something. But if we take ourselves out of our normal frame of reference for just a minute – if we take off our “Jesus glasses, if we look at the story without imagining these religious leaders on one side, and the healed man and Jesus on the other side, and knowing that we know we’re always supposed to be on Jesus’ side, what were these religious leaders saying? What were they doing? All they were doing was trying to uphold the standards of the faith that had been handed down to them. All they were doing was trying to maintain the sanctity of the Sabbath, and to honor the clear content of the scriptures. Jesus healing this man on the Sabbath was a violation of the multiple, clear-cut prohibition of working on the Sabbath. This was one of the primary moral rules of the faith, so if Jesus didn’t uphold it, how could he possibly be of God? Surely he had to be opposed, in order to stand up for the holy lifestyle that God calls us to in the scriptures.

These religious leaders weren’t really bad people. They were actually what most of us would consider good people – honorable, religious people who thought that what they were doing was right in the eyes of God, that they were upholding an important moral standard in the name of God. But no matter the fact that they had good intentions, Jesus still ultimately criticized them, and called their actions blind, and sin.

It’s easy for us to read this story and understand with perfect hindsight that Jesus was telling them that they were missing the point; that by paying such rigorous attention to the letter of the Law in the scriptures, that they were blinding themselves to God’s actual purpose behind it all – that of God’s love and mercy, and extending that love and mercy to others. In this miracle, and others as well, Jesus made the point that love and mercy and grace the real goal, even when that meant bending what was so clear-cut in the black and white of the written scriptures. Jesus’ point in this story is that they needed to repent from their rigid and counterproductive ways, in order to see God’s real intent.

It’s easy for us to see that in this story. But the truth is that this same story has played out time and time again throughout the history of our faith. Time and time again, we, both as individuals and as the church, have had to learn the same lesson that these well-intentioned religious leaders in Jesus’ time had to learn. Time and time again, we’ve had to repent for our clinging to form over substance, to Law over Gospel. And the closer it gets to our own time, and our own lives, here and now, the harder it can be to see.

There’s a Christian charitable organization called World Vision, which does wonderful good works for the poorest, neediest of children around the globe. World Vision found themselves in the news this past week when they announced that even though as an organization they were very conservative theologically themselves, they had decided to change their hiring policies to permit the hiring of gay and lesbian employees, even those who might be part of a legally performed same-sex marriage. In their announcement, they said that while they maintained their scriptural interpretation that these potential employees were living in sinful ways, they realized that not all Christians agreed with that traditional interpretation. And that, in fact, in some way or another, we were all living in sinful ways. And they wanted to show the spirit of Christian unity even within the broad diversity of the faith, to show that very different people can come together in this faith to share Christ’s love with others.

Unfortunately, that new policy didn’t sit well with a lot of World Vision’s financial supporters – people who had signed on to help sponsor the care of a needy child somewhere in the world. They accused World Vision of throwing out the Bible with the bathwater, of not upholding the clear moral teachings of the faith. Some of them even went so far as to say that based on this decision, they weren’t even really Christian anymore. And in their moral indignation, in order to take a stand for what they saw as God’s standards, these supporters decided to pull their funding. They chose to stop supporting the children they’d made a commitment to, to stop supporting the good work of a good organization, because in their eyes, the charity was violating the clear teaching of scripture. The blowback was so intense that within just one day of their announcement, World Vision announced that it had changed its mind, and in order to make its critics happy, it would continue in its discriminatory hiring practices.

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.

As we continue through the Lenten season, this Sunday we think about repentance. Repentance within ourselves as individuals, when we make the same mistake as the religious leaders in this story, paying more attention to Law than to Gospel. And repentance when we do the same thing collectively as the church. This Lenten season, let’s pray that where we’re blind, that Jesus would heal us, and be the light of the world for us, and give us vision just as he did with the blind man in this story. And let’s pray that the vision we would have for the world would be Jesus’ world vision, and not someone else’s.

Thanks be to God.

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Whose World Vision Is It, Anyway?

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(Image shamelessly lifted from World Vision website)

Yesterday, World Vision – an Evangelical Christian organization which does truly great and meaningful work with children around the globe – announced that in the spirit of recognizing theological diversity within the church, and in an attempt to foster Christian unity within diversity, it had revised its discriminatory employment regulations to allow the hiring of individuals who are part of a legally married same-sex couple. Conservative Christian backlash was immediate and vitriolic, full of claims of apostasy and threats to withdraw financial support. Read that again: these people who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ were so worked up that the organization would merely allow the hiring of gay people who are legally married, that they would choose to withdraw funding for the food, clothing, and shelter of the poor, the starving, the diseased, the crippled, the neediest of the needy in the world in order to protest the new hiring policy. As a result of this appallingly misguided and hateful blowback, World Vision reversed its decision today, claiming that they had erred, and that effective immediately, they would resort to their original position of engaging in legal discrimination against people in the name of religion. This is simply tragic. I pray for the day that World Vision would have the courage to take the stand it took fleetingly yesterday, but this time for good. I pray for the day that the admirable, genuinely Christlike concern that they have for, and extend toward, others around the world, would also be extended toward those fellow Christians in the LGBTQ community who feel called to work in mission as part of the World Vision organization.

This situation is absolutely mind-boggling to me. It’s a perfect illustration of precisely the kind of self-righteous, Pharisaic hypocrisy that throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus saved his most vehement criticism for.

Of course, the organization also gained new supporters yesterday – people who support LGBTQ equality and who wanted to simultaneously do something good for poor children as well as show support for this Evangelical organization which had stood up against conservative religious conventional wisdom and made a stand – a proper stand – and for all the right reasons. However, in contrast to the obscene decision to defund the organization – no, that’s too sanitized; the obscene decision to defund starving children, supposedly in Jesus’ name – I’ve noted not a single call for the new supporters to engage in a similar defunding in the wake of the reversal. To the contrary, I’ve only seen comments that register disappointment in World Vision’s decision, while simultaneously calling for continued support for the good work that they do in spite of the organization’s return to its discriminatory policies.

The hypocrisy here is just overflowing. First, there’s the hypocrisy of every single one of the self-righteous people who feel it would in some way taint their supposed holiness to help children through an organization that didn’t discriminate against married gays and lesbians. I wonder how many of them work for companies that hire LGBTQ folk. Is their holiness besmirched, are they complicit in immorality, if they engage in commercial operations with gay and lesbian coworkers? Does helping to earn a profit for a company that hires and therefore financially supports people engaging in such supposed immorality mean that they’re working to advance godlessness and impurity? How many of these people work for companies that sell their goods and services to members of the LGBTQ community? Should they renounce somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of their annual salaries, an amount commensurate with the percentage of the population that’s LGBTQ, so they aren’t enjoying financial gain through providing those people goods and services, and thereby supporting their supposed decadence? Should they demand to know the sexual orientation of everyone who provides them with goods and services, so as not to be in league with Satan by patronizing these people or their organizations? I mean really, if these people are so dead-set on maintaining their purity and not being complicit in supporting what they view as a grave sin against God and their faith, let them take a stand just as rigid as they demand of World Vision. Let them refuse to pay their taxes, and refuse to accept any governmental and public services, since some portion of those taxes would go to pay the salaries of LGBTQ government workers, including police, EMTs, and firefighters. Let their houses burn to the ground so they can remain holy by not having to worry whether some of the firefighters are gay. Let them refuse any help from the police force when their homes are robbed, their spouses raped, their children abducted, so they can remain theologically pure by not having to rub elbows with a lesbian police officer or social worker. Let them refuse to accept anything – any healthcare, any professional services, any consumer products, any performing arts, any sports, any retail operations, any food service, any hospitality, any… anything – where people who are LGBTQ are actively employed, because such engagement equals complicity.

And the hypocrisy of World Vision is almost as bad. If they truly think that their short-lived experiment in non-discrimination was actually an error, and that they must discriminate in order to be properly Christian, then the organization should, despite any wishes to the contrary of the actual donors themselves, refuse to accept any contributions from donors who are LGBTQ, or who support equality and non-discrimination. Accepting money from the likes of these supposedly awful sinners, giving them even a bit of moral cover to their sinful lives, just makes the organization complicit in shoring up and supporting what they have stated is an  immoral lifestyle choice.

Of course, neither World Vision, nor the hypocritical conservative Pharisees who brought the hammer down on the organization, will do anything remotely like that, because neither group is wiling to confront the absurdity of their self-righteousness by taking their position to its logical extension. Neither group really believes the full implications of what they claim to believe; they only want to apply the alleged religious/moral principle asymmetrically in order to justify discrimination against a particular group. Neither side would really apply the moral principle they claim to be upholding, because on all fronts, it’s really all about money, and not about a moral principle at all. Maybe that’s the driving world vision of the organization, and that of the conservative Christians who would rather pull the funding of children than accept the reality that there are indeed LGBTQ Christians, and that a Christian mission organization can do its job effectively and faithfully with some employees who might happen to be gay. That might be their world vision. But it sure doesn’t seem to be the world vision of the Jesus I meet in the gospels.

(Note: the original blog post mistakenly identified the name of the organization in question “World Vision International.” It has been corrected to its actual name, “World Vision.”)