Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent: Seeing the Palestinians

Gospel: John 9:1–41
 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  2His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"  3Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.  4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world."  6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes,  7saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.  8The 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?"  9Some were saying, "It is he." Others were saying, "No, but it is someone like him." He kept saying, "I am the man."  10But they kept asking him, "Then how were your eyes opened?"  11He 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."  12They said to him, "Where is he?" He said, "I do not know."
             13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.  14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  15Then 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."  16Some 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.  17So 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."
             18The 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  19and asked them, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?"  20His parents answered, "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;  21but 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."  22His 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.  23Therefore his parents said, "He is of age; ask him."
             24So 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."  25He answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see."  26They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?"  27He 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?"  28Then they reviled him, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.  29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from."  30The man answered, "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.  31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.  32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.  33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."  34They answered him, "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" And they drove him out.
             35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?"  36He answered, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him."  37Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he."  38He said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped him.  39Jesus 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."  40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?"  41Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains.

Greetings to you in the name of Jesus Christ,

Quite some time ago now, the movie, “Men in Black” came out. In this movie, about a special unit of a human police force dealing with aliens, there is a scene that stands out. In this scene, Will Smith, the star of the show has been brought in to a special center to take a test to see if he could become one of these special officers.

As a part of this test, the group who has been brought in to take this test is confronted with a street scene from the city where they have to use their weapons and take out all the bad guys. When the test starts, the group, apart from Will Smith, begins unloading their weapons on all the strange looking aliens. When the smoke clears, Will Smith, who’s been calm the entire time, sets his sights not on the aliens, but on the little girl who is holding a calculus text-book. He explains himself by saying that what is unusual about the scene is not the aliens, but the supposedly young girl, who’s not scared, and who’s reading a calculus text.

I was reminded of this scene as we hear today’s Gospel from John. When we hear about the blind man receiving sight, we can get caught-up in seeing this story as primarily about that healing. But when it comes to Jesus, this is pretty normal fare.  

This story is really about our own human sin, and the power it has over us, blinding us to the presence of God, and the renewing work God is doing, right in our midst. What’s really odd about this story, is not the miracle that Jesus performs, but the reactions of the various groups to this healing.

This story should get us thinking: What is wrong with these people, including the seeing man’s parents, that they react with fear, suspicion, scorn and violence to this miracle. Why are these people reacting so negatively to someone like Jesus who is doing works that show that he must come from God.

What is wrong with these people is sin, and this sin comes in the form of their blind prejudice. Their lives have been built on this prejudice. This is the prejudice that causes the Men in Black recruits to just start shooting at the aliens that look different, and not take into account the whole scene. This is the kind of prejudice that would say someone is born blind because of sin. This prejudice, helps those in control, maintain that control by saying that their place in society has been the result of their own merits, and those who are disadvantaged are in this place because of sin. Not surprisingly, when these prejudices are challenged, indeed when they are shown to be not the truth at all, the reaction is not acceptance of the truth, but an oppressive backlash meant to keep the system in place, and people in line.

The Good News is that today, 2000 years later, by the grace of God, the truth has not faltered, but has even opened our eyes in some regards. Today, we are learning to receive and share in the gifts of many who are differently abled, rather than cast them off. Today, we are even learning that our minds work differently, and are starting to do away with labels like lazy, stupid, crazy, or aloof. And by growing in the way we understand and treat all people, we are able to celebrate the grace God pours out in vessels of all shapes, sizes, colors and capacities.

Yet, sin still blinds us, and our prejudices still cause us to cast off entire groups of people, including a group who is living in the same place where Jesus was literally making the blind to see. These people are the Palestinians, a people who were living in this land long before Jesus was there, and a people that has lived under the rule and authority of occupiers through their long history.

Today, when a person says Palestine, or Palestinian; for many people, images of terror and religious extremism comes to mind. Or an idea of someone who is a threat to the people of Israel, and also the United States. And, there are even those who would judge that a Palestinian means an enemy. There is indeed conflict in this area of the Holy Land, and with this conflict is a great deal of blind fear and prejudice.

Going back to our reading for today, we hear the disciples ask Jesus about whose sin it was that made the man blind, was it his or his parents. It seems to me, that in the western world, when we comment or talk about the ongoing conflict in the place where the Prince of Peace was born, we are quick to place this same perspective on the Palestinians. From a western point of view, we blame the Palestinian people for the losses of land they continue to suffer, the walls that go up which isolate, surround and cut them off from each other and the rest of the world, and for the humiliating check-points that people like a classmate I had in seminary, must endure to move about. From our point of view, the actions of some Palestinians would justify the oppression of all. We have generalized to the point where Palestinian and terrorist are used by some interchangeably, sort of like blind and sin in Jesus’ day.

This past week, I had the opportunity to see our fellow Lutheran, Pastor Mitri Raheb, in Hartford, and hear him talk about his people, the Palestinians. He talked about how the world has become blind to the fact that his ancestors have lived in the land we today call Israel, for thousands of years.  He asked us to take into account that these people we read about in the Bible, like Jesus, aren’t sworn enemies of the Palestinians, but instead share a heritage with them.

Indeed, the Palestinian people have a story that continues to this day, but that much of this world is blind to. It is a story tied directly to the land and people who we read about in the Bible, and a story that testifies to the creative work of God. In other words, Dr. Raheb told us, that the Palestinians, regardless of their religious affiliation, have a story, like the blind man had a story. A story tied directly to the land and people who we read about in our Bible.  A story that isn’t defined by sinfulness, but by God’s mercy and love as shown to us by Jesus.

And Jesus, is still active and alive in these people, in their suffering, in their hopes for peace, and in their calls for justice. And Jesus is with these people like he was with the man born blind, he is with them for us, as a symbol of the renewing work that God is doing. Jesus is with them, so that our eyes may be opened and prejudices disbanded, Jesus is with them so that we can learn to see those who sin calls us to cast away from our presence.

And Jesus is also with us. In the waters of Baptism, Jesus has given us his life, his very vision, so that we may see with his eyes, eyes that see the entire picture. Eyes that do not see according to sinful prejudices and unjust systems, or with condemnation and punishment, but eyes that see with a view of peace, justice, and love for all people.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

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