lost and found

seeing though blind

“In a church I served,” so begins Richard Lischer, professor at Duke Divinity School, “one of the pillars of the congregation stopped by my office just before services to tell me he’d been ‘born again.’”[1]

“You’ve been what?” I asked.

“I visited my brother-in-law’s church, the Running River of Life Tabernacle, and I don’t know what it was, but something happened and I’m born again.”

“You can’t be born again,” I said, “you’re a Lutheran.  You are the chairman of the board of trustees.”  He was brimming with joy, but I was sulking.  Why?  Because spiritual renewal is wonderful as long as it occurs within acceptable, usually mainline, channels and does not threaten my understanding of God.”

He tells another quick story, and I think I like this one even better.

1 seeingLischer continues, “In her novel Revelation, Peggy Payne tells of a Presbyterian minister who experiences a theophany.  One afternoon, while grilling steaks in the backyard, he hears the voice of God speaking to him.  It’s a revelation.  It’s the kind of revelation that will change his life; he will never be the same.  The rest of the story tells of the price he pays for revelation.  Do the leaders of his congregation rejoice with him?  Not exactly.  They do provide free psychiatric care and paid administrative leave.”

It is hard to fault the skepticism aroused by claims of visions and voices.  I imagine many of us have met people who said God worked in their lives that defied knowledge.  We might think, “They’re off their meds.”  Or maybe they’re on certain other meds!  Let’s put it this way: there are varying levels of credibility.  Still, the Bible and church history, not to mention claims from other faiths, are filled with such testimonies.  I might put myself in that category.

One summer night in 1985, when I was 20 years old, I was reading Isaiah 55.  While I was at college, my interest in things religious (especially Christianity and Zen) was awakened.  These words jumped out at me: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (vv. 8-9).  For someone who put a lot of stock in his own thinking, that was indeed a revelation.

I felt like I had been plunged into an ocean of love.  I lost track of time.  Words fail to express it.  And a year later, when I was 21, I was plunged into the waters of baptism.

Our scripture text from the gospel of St. John is chapter 9, in its entirety.  It is filled with the kind of experience I just mentioned—and so much else.  I won’t pretend to address all of it.  It is truly a masterpiece.  It contains majesty, wonder, narrow minds, disbelief, social commentary, sarcasm, humor, testimony, and an almost Zen-like conclusion.

What I want to focus on is the theme of eyes being opened, of the discovery of vision (and perhaps the rediscovery of vision!).

As we begin, Jesus and his disciples come upon a man blind from birth.  The disciples ask a question that, sadly, would not be unexpected.  He’s blind; he’s had some terrible tragedy.  Who sinned—he or his parents?  The idea was that somebody had to be at fault.  How do you explain it?  Jesus says nobody sinned; now watch what God will do.

2 seeing

I find it interesting that the idea of the man sinning while in the womb was considered an actual possibility.  Apparently it could happen.  (Maybe the fetus could give the mother some extra sharp kicks!)

Anyway, with mud and spit, Jesus applies the pasty stuff to the man’s eyes and tells him to go wash it off.  And when he comes back—ta da!—he can see.

Can you imagine how that would be?  He had never seen.  His eyes had always been closed.  Something like “color” would be a meaningless term.  Philosophers and scientists have delved into how those blind from birth experience what the sighted would call visual reality.  But let’s not worry about that now.  Suffice to say, it had to be awesome!

However, upon his return, the reaction he receives is, suffice to say, less than awesome.

People are wondering.  “Hey, isn’t that the blind guy who’s always begging?  How is it that he can see?”  “No, no.  He looks like him, but that’s not the same guy.”  “What are you talking about?  I’m telling you—that’s him!”  All the while, the ex-blind beggar keeps saying, “That’s right.  It’s me!”

They keep pestering him, and then they bring him to the Pharisees.  They also wonder how he could be the same guy, but there’s another factor involved.  Jesus healed him on the sabbath.  So Jesus has to be a sinner.  He didn’t follow the proper guidelines.  As we saw earlier, healing and renewal are great—provided they occur within acceptable channels and do not threaten our understanding of God.

(A couple of quick notes.  Regarding the Pharisees: they’re usually portrayed as bad guys in the New Testament.  They actually were brave defenders of the Jewish people in the face of outside powers who wanted to oppress them—including the Romans.  And regarding John’s use of the term “Jews,” we have to understand the context.  In his time, the church is undergoing persecution by certain Jewish elements alarmed by the rise of the Christian faith.  The Greek (ιουδαιος, ioudaios) might be better translated as “Judeans.”  The use of the word “Jews” has led to centuries of persecution by Christians!)

Sarah Dylan Breuer points out something interesting and unfortunate.  It appears that none of the people around “know the blind man who was healed.”[2]  That helps explain the fighting over his identity.  “He sat and begged there daily,” she says, “and every day they walked by him, but when the time came, they couldn’t be sure of who he was…  For whatever reason, they’d never looked him in the eye or really noticed his face.”

They haven’t seen him.  They’ve only seen his affliction.  He doesn’t have a name; he has a label.  He is “beggar.”  He is “blind beggar.”  They don’t see.  It looks like our friend isn’t the only one who’s been struck by blindness.

That’s too often the case with us.  We look at each other, but we do not see each other.  We use labels.  We use shorthand, thinking that explains.  We are conservative.  We are liberal.  We are addict.  We are convict.  We are disease.  We are New England Patriots’ fan.  (Sorry about that last one.)

What does that say about our vision?

The rest of the chapter has the Pharisees’ disbelief, the disbelief of the powers-that-be.  It has the man’s parents being interrogated, the man making fun of the Pharisees, and then his being expelled from the synagogue.  Jesus finds him, and lays some mind-blowing truth on him.

However, I want to focus on the Pharisees’ second interview of the formerly blind beggar.  They order him to say how he really regained his sight.  “Give glory to God,” they say.  Speak the truth.  “We know that this man is a sinner” (v. 24).  Verse 25 is priceless.  He answers, “I do not know whether he is a sinner.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  There’s the inspiration of probably the best-known hymn in the English language.

The movie Amazing Grace, which came out in 2006, has some great performances.  Ioan Gruffudd plays William Wilberforce, the British member of parliament who pushed for the abolition of the slave trade (as well as supporting other causes, like ending cruelty to animals).  Among some other talented cast members, there is Albert Finney, playing John Newton, the former slave ship captain.

4 seeingThe deep friendship between the two men is shown, and toward the end of his life, Newton’s eyesight is failing.  Wilberforce goes to Newton’s church for a visit—and guidance—during a trying time.  However, he finds a man tormented by his past.  He agonizes over his nameless ones.  “I wish I could remember all their names,” he cries.  “My 20,000 ghosts, they all had names, beautiful African names.  We’d call them with just grunts, noises.  We were apes; they were human.”

But there’s something else.  “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly.  I’m a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”  And with a nod filled with irony to his now physical blindness, “I once was blind, but now I see…  Well, now at last, it’s true.”

Verse 25 is often considered to be the linchpin of this chapter, of this story of the blind beggar.  His comment, referring to Jesus, “I do not know whether he is a sinner.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see,” is about more than the amazing grace that was shown to him.

The Pharisees are dumbfounded.  They know Jesus broke the rules and yet, somehow, God acted through him to heal this man.  Our nameless friend mocks them.  “You’re supposed to be our teachers, but you can’t explain what’s going on.  It looks like I’m the only one here who can see!”

When his eyes are opened, he sees with more than physical vision.  He sees the poverty and the weakness of the system that has been constructed.  Gracia Grindal says, “The former blind man was driven from the synagogue because his new sight caused him to question people in authority.  When we ‘see’ Jesus, we see everything around us in a new light, too, and the consequences of this can be astonishing.”[3]

When we “see” Jesus, we can move beyond the either/or, my team versus your team view, and see a third way in which we are shown a new vision.  This is a vision that doesn’t defiantly reject structures, but can see how they are meant to lead us to something greater.

And that’s the seeming paradox at the end.  Jesus says, “‘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’” (vv. 39-41).

Those who are blind can see.  Those who can see are blind.  Or maybe better, those who confess their blindness can see.  That seems to get to the heart of it.  Our blind beggar testifies!  “I do not know whether he is a sinner.  I’m not sure about all the whys and wherefores.  I do know what he has done.  He has opened my eyes.  He has set me free.  He has given me a name.”

That’s what we here need to do.  We need to testify to the light the Lord has given us.  It’s true, we still only see in shadows; we only see in part.  We often need to light a candle in the darkness.  Still, can we sense the light just about to break above the horizon?  That inexplicable vision of God is ready to be unveiled.  Our blindness will become our sight.

 

[1] www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=604

[2] www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/02/fourth_sunday_i.html

[3] Gracia Grindal, “New Sight, New Life: Lenten Gospels,” Word & World 16:1 (Winter 1996), 95.


losing to be found

By now, most of you know that Banu and I lived with my mom during almost all of 2015 and a little bit at the beginning of this year.  It was a learning experience for each of us.

The Nashville area was flooded in 2010.  That included my mom’s basement, which took an extremely long time to dry.  Her house contains many possessions, with a huge percentage of them in the basement.  So if you combine abundant moisture, very little light, and plenty of items, including carpets on the floor, what do you get?

My sister and her sons had already done some hauling out of moldy stuff and cleaning of walls.  But rest assured, there was still plenty for us to do.  Open space began appearing in the basement.  There was room to breathe.  The energies of feng shui became more harmonious.  However, the garage had hardly been touched.

Items disappeared, some under mysterious circumstances.

Rummaging dog

We were justly accused of clearing out some stuff which, truth be told, contained little mold.  But we did need some walkways!

Here’s to my main point.  There was a box of tapes and CDs, containing some of my mother’s beloved music, including the bluegrass and gospel musician, Doyle Lawson.  Amazingly, it had vanished.  The finger of blame was first turned toward my sister, who had no idea where it was.  After she successfully argued her case and being cleared of any wrongdoing, the eye was turned toward Banu and myself.

Intent on proving our innocence, Banu led my mother on a search of her bedroom, which also had a pretty good number of…artifacts.  Lo and behold, the long-sought box was discovered.  Not unlike the woman in our gospel text who was overjoyed to find her lost coin, so was my mom after discovering her own treasure.

So, speaking of things lost and found, of Luke 15 it’s been said, “If the Gospel of Luke comprised only this one chapter, it would still be precious beyond all estimate.”[1]  Very high praise!  Precious beyond all estimate, like something lost and found.

Here’s the scenario.  We see a motley crew gathering around to listen to Jesus.  This crew is featured by tax collectors and sinners, folks who are relegated to the category of undesirables.

This crowd hasn’t escaped the attention of some Pharisees and scribes.  They are simply indignant at the attention Jesus gives them.  They are grumbling.  One translation says that they are “murmuring their disapproval: ‘This fellow,’ they said, ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (v. 2, Revised English Bible).  If he wants to have any influence among the people that matter, this crap has to come to a screeching halt!

So, who are these tax collectors?  The disgust toward them goes well beyond the occasional (and perhaps frequent) irritation we might have about the IRS.  No, this is on a whole different scale.

These tax collectors are instrumental in funding the hated Roman government.  They could rightfully be called traitors.  It would be bad enough if it were simply a matter of helping keep the imperial machine going.  The Romans tell them how much they need to raise—so just get it done!  As you might guess, this tends to lead to corruption and extortion, to plundering the poor.

The Pharisees also despise them for the same reasons.  The New Testament usually gives the Pharisees a bad rap, but they really do want justice for the people.  They are no friends of the empire.  But they also have other reasons for looking down on the tax collectors.  These guys also violate religious obligations and spiritual sensibilities.

Now, how about these “sinners”?  As for them, Walter Bowie says they are “the general run of people: not notorious evildoers, but the careless and unconcerned about religious proprieties,” earning the disdain of “the sanctimonious.”[2]  The sinners aren’t necessarily bad people.  That label doesn’t mean they engage in, for example, slander or thievery.  Sometimes the rules are stacked against them.

But there’s something praiseworthy about these folks.  Unlike the elites, when the sinners are drawn to Jesus, they do so out of a felt need to seek more.  They’re done with pretending.  When they come to Jesus, they mean it.  When they ask him questions, they really want answers; they’re not doing it to be argumentative or to play games.

Jesus addresses that earnest desire by telling two parables.  And like the story about my mother, he uses examples from everyday life—things that people can relate to.

The first one is about a lost sheep.  He asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (v. 4).  At first glance, that might seem to be wrong way up.  Why risk the ninety-nine to search for the one?

Regardless of practicality, it does speak to the value of each individual.  Every single sheep is treasured.  Every single one of us is treasured.  Jesus says, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (v. 7).  And yes, Pharisees, I’m looking at you.

Lost and found

The second parable is about the woman who loses a coin.  She’s desperate, and she turns her house upside-down until she finds it.  She’s searching; she’s tearing stuff apart.  And when she does find it, she calls everybody together and says, “Let’s have a party!  I found my coin!”  (And wouldn’t you know it?  She finds it in the last place she looked.)

Doesn’t it seem like a lot of trouble to find a single coin?

Again, this is where Jesus knows his audience.  That silver coin is half of the temple tax that was paid every year.  And for that woman, that coin would be a big chunk of whatever savings she might have had.  “To the poor, therefore, the loss of one coin could be a major calamity.”[3]  Jesus knows all about being poor.

And again, he brings his point home.  “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (v. 10).  There is joy when someone comes to Jesus.

There’s a quote which I’ve heard attributed to St. Dominic, St. Francis, and St. Thomas Aquinas.  (Who knows, there may be others.)  As the story goes, one of them is visiting the Pope.  The Pope gestures at the treasures in the Vatican, and says, “We no longer have to say, ‘Silver and gold have I none’” (3:6).  He’s quoting St. Peter from the book of Acts.  The response to him is, “No, and neither can we say, ‘Rise up and walk.’”

If we depend on our possessions, if we become complacent, we lose our joy; we neglect our power in the Holy Spirit.  Our worship and prayer become lackluster.  Possessions don’t always have to be physical things.  They can be a feeling of safety, of comfort.  Do we become satisfied with our relatively stable well-being?  Are we unaware or indifferent to what has slipped away?  I have a sneaking fear that, too often, that might characterize me.

“[J]oy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life” (v. 10, Common English Bible).  Do we rejoice when a sinner, one just like us, comes to faith or has a recommitment of faith?  Does it move our hearts; does it stir our spirits?  Have we ourselves ever had such an experience?  Have we lost something precious?  Do we need to tear apart the house of our lives in order to find it?

“I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.”

Today is a day of “recovenanting.”  I’m not sure about the origin of that, but “covenant” is a word filled with meaning.  It’s not simply a contract; it also has the sense of something solemn, something sacred.  It’s about two parties entering into an agreement in which they make pledges to each other.  It isn’t businesslike.  It has the elements of artistry and beauty.

We might, and indeed do, fail to keep our side of the covenant.  But the covenant remains intact.  God is faithful; God keeps faith.  God does not break promises.  For that reason, our faithlessness does not nullify the covenant.

It might make sense to “recovenant” with each other, but with God, there’s no need to re-invent the wheel.  The covenant with God is one and everlasting, beginning with Adam, and extending through Noah, through Abraham, through David, to Jesus Christ.

In our baptism liturgy found in the Book of Common Worship, the language of covenant is front and center:

“Through baptism we enter the covenant God has established.  Within this covenant God gives us new life, guards us from evil, and nurtures us in love.  In embracing that covenant, we choose whom we will serve, by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ.

“As God embraces you within the covenant, I ask you to reject sin, to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which we baptize.”

It’s a covenant in which we celebrate being lost and being found.  That’s the upside-down, inside-out, backwards-forwards way of Christ in which the first will be last and the last will be first.

Spock

This past week, the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek was observed.  The first episode was aired on September 8, 1966.  This enterprise has been fifty years of pushing the envelope in issues of ethnicity, gender, nationality, and ethics, among others.  (Though I think the recent J.J. Abrams movies have fallen a bit short in that regard!)  One of the best-loved characters has always been Spock, the Vulcan who quotes words of wisdom based on his philosophy of logic.  One of the Vulcan principles is that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

This business of risking the ninety-nine in order to find the one, according to that way of thinking, clearly doesn’t make sense.  It’s just foolish and irresponsible.

And this matter of tirelessly rummaging around to find a single coin might be deemed as much ado about nothing—similar to a woman who, amid her numerous possessions, is focused on finding her treasure trove of music.  (Though I suppose referring to it as a “treasure” might explain the concern!)

Yet, that is exactly how it is with God of the covenant in the kingdom of God.  God will not let us go.  God will pursue us relentlessly.  Because God’s love does not depend on what we have done or left undone, we can rest in the promise that those who are losing will always be found.

 

[1] Walter Russell Bowie, The Compassionate Christ (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 202.

[2] Bowie, 202.

[3] Bowie, 205.