Sunday, March 30, 2014

Blind Spots

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Deacon, Seminarian
The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A/ March 30, 2014

Some of the most difficult and important moments of my life have been the times when I have been called up short. I might describe these as moments in which I realized I had a blind spot. It has happened in moments when it became clear that I was being careless with another person’s feelings, or letting my critical voice dominate, or assuming too much, or giving off vibes of entitlement. Moments like these have given me new eyes to see what others see in me and in themselves. These moments have made me feel guilty, but they have also revealed God’s presence in my life. Every time I discover a blind spot, I learn yet again that I am a sinner and that I am in need of healing.

Occasionally, I have heard people say that the Episcopal Church is “soft on sin.” That is, some Christians think we don’t take sin seriously enough—as if we thought it didn’t really exist, or at least that it had minimal consequences. In our defense, I think we have earned this reputation by being both polite and compassionate. We know that we all sin, not only accidentally but also intentionally. So we want to be gentle with people who also have this problem. We don’t want to appear judgmental, because we take Jesus’ words to heart: “Judge not, so that you will not be judged yourselves” (Luke 6:37).

But it is not judgmental to talk about sin, or to commiserate about the fact that sin is a real problem for every one of us. Sin can refer to individual wrong acts, or to our seemingly perpetual state of separation from God. Sin carries consequences, both in our lives and in our relationship with God: it increases the distance we perceive between us and our source. We cannot overcome this distance ourselves. But luckily, our salvation does not depend on whether or not we sin. We can repent of our mistakes and strive to do better next time. And here’s the really good news: the solution to sin is not punishment, but healing. This is the situation we find in today’s gospel.

“Who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” Now, unfortunately, this is a question that we humans still have not stopped asking. I think it has to do with our urge for control in a world that all too often feels out of control. We want to believe that everything happens for a reason. It may be a comforting thought, but I’m not convinced that everything happens for a reason—at least, not for any reason we could ever wrap our minds around. Did the Malaysian jet go missing for a reason? Did the mudslide in Washington State swallow up dozens of people for a reason? On the other hand, if these things happened for no reason at all, then doesn’t that feel pretty hopeless? Dare we believe that the universe is just a bunch of stuff that happens?

Luckily, Jesus doesn’t allow us to fall into either desolate extreme. He gives an explanation for the man’s blindness, but it’s not the one anyone was expecting: “So that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Now, I’m not sure that God said, “I think I’ll make this baby boy blind, so that Jesus can give him sight decades from now.” That would just be cruel. But whether or not blindness represented any sort of plan for this man’s life, Jesus did heal the man. And two thousand years later, we continue to learn from the experience.

The people who know the man are completely flummoxed by this event, and they bring him before the Pharisees. Whatever just happened, it must have happened for a reason. So what is the reason? You can see the Pharisees’ overly logical minds whirring, trying to take it all in, and returning the same answer over and over: “Does not compute.” Their theological truck is stuck in the mud, and all they know how to do is grind it further down. By refusing to see that a blind man sees, the sighted men have blinded themselves. Those who think they are so close to God find themselves facing Jesus across a gigantic chasm. When backed into a corner, they accuse the formerly blind man of having been “born entirely in sin.” Yet who is closer to God now?

The chasm of sin can be overcome. Sometimes we have the power to overcome it ourselves, by swallowing our pride and asking for help. But when we don’t have this power, God comes to us instead. This man’s lifelong blindness was, indeed, a perceived separation from God, and I say “perceived” because it wasn’t a separation from God’s point of view, but only from a human point of view. Humans understood blindness to be a punishment for sin. As long as everybody believed this, it kept the blind man from knowing that he could come close to God at all. He may have wondered all his life what sins he was being punished for. Since the man is unable to reach out to God in this state, God comes to him—in the form of Jesus. With new, God-given eyes, the man can see that the Pharisees, God’s supposed gatekeepers, have no real authority in this situation. His direct encounter with Jesus’ healing touch allows him to see that God has been right in front of him all along.

Jesus also offers healing to the Pharisees. But he doesn’t force it on them, because he knows they have the power to pick it up themselves. He informs them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” He calls them up short and leaves them to chew on his words. If they can bring themselves to admit that they have a blind spot, healing will be available to them. But their pride has swelled to the point where it will be very hard to swallow. This is the difference between curing and healing. The blind man was cured against his will, just because he was there, and he benefited from it without even asking for it. But you can’t be healed if you are blind to the need for healing.

So Jesus demonstrates that we all need healing, whether we are the downtrodden or the powerful, the poor or the rich, the disadvantaged or the privileged. We all have our blind spots! If we are honest with ourselves, we know only too well how much we’ve screwed up: even happy, stable lives are far from perfect. We commit sin all the time just by being a part of a broken, fallen world. We can’t ever be perfect—and that’s precisely the point. It’s because we can never be perfect that we are ever in need of healing. Only once we understand that we are sinning all the time can we truly understand our need for God’s redemptive love.

But this isn’t a reason to feel guilty all the time, either. The solution to sin is not punishment, but healing, and Jesus’ healing touch comes in many forms. Have you felt distant from God lately? Whose doing is that? Have misguided people told you that God is not available to you? Or do you need to swallow your pride and accept God’s forgiveness? In either of these circumstances, the solution is the same: If you don’t feel that God is there, you have found a blind spot. Pray. Do not lose heart. When we reach out to Jesus, he responds and works to heal us, even if it takes a long, long time. When we are shunned and driven out, Jesus comes to us. When we live humbly, understanding that we are sinning even when we don’t notice, we will notice our blind spots more often. This isn’t a pleasant feeling, but it is real, and it is in itself the healing, for it brings sight. Any time we turn toward God, we are strengthening the most important relationship in our lives, a relationship with the one who is still creating us, who knows us better than we know ourselves, who feeds us every day, who heals us perpetually, and who, even in our blindness, will never leave us. Amen.


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