“Rabbi,” they asked, “who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” And Jesus answered, “You’re asking the wrong question… look instead for what God can do.” (The Message)
Needless to say, there’s a whole lot going on in the text we’ve shared this morning from John; no matter what the translation! First and foremost, it’s one of the great healing stories of the gospels, in which a man born blind has his sight restored by Jesus with a mud salve made from his own saliva. But it’s also about what theologians refer to as “retributive justice,” the attitude that things like sin and righteousness can be quantified by cause and effect – in other words, if you (or perhaps even your parents!) do bad things, then rest assured that bad things will happen to you – and how by this act of healing Jesus turns that expectation upside down and inside out! And ultimately, it’s about how no one – not the Pharisees, nor the people, nor even the man himself – can begin to wrap their minds and hearts around that kind of grace!
There’s actually enough stuff going on in this passage to fuel several sermons (!), but for me this morning it all starts with Jesus’ deceptively simple response to the disciples’ question: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned… but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
What’s interesting to me about this story is that at its heart, it’s first about perspective: ours, on the one hand, and God’s on the other. I remember once back when I was a student pastor, there was a man in our community who had suddenly passed away and was in need of clergy to say prayers at a graveside service for him. One of the other ministers in town had been asked to officiate, and he’d agreed; but here was the problem: the man who’d died was for lack of a better term, indigent; one of the nameless, faceless people that every town seems to have, someone who perpetually dwells in the shadows of the community; that person who everybody in town seems to know, and yet no one really knows at all. And so the minister, at a loss of what he might say at the service, came to our clergy group meeting and asked all of us what we knew about this man!
I never forgot this, because though I was new and really knew nothing at all about the man, it turned out that the other clergy types in that room each had a different story to tell! There was the ultra-fundamentalist pastor who described a hardcore sinner of the lowest order based on a litany of rumors that had long circulated around town: drinking, gambling, carousing, you name it. Another spoke up that while he didn’t know about all that, he’d heard that the man had lived in poverty and squalor all his life, and had to scrounge for anything and everything in order to support a family; which, though it didn’t qualify him as a saint, certainly didn’t automatically make him a criminal, either; maybe he was simply another failure of the system and another unfortunate person who had fallen “through the cracks.”
But then there was the young Methodist minister who spoke of the ragged old gentleman who had always greeted him warmly when they passed on the street; and told how he’d always made a point to say “thank you” for a Christmas basket the church women had brought, and who had tried to reciprocate by shoveling out the church walk on a snowy morning. And still another mentioned how this man actually had a deeply spiritual side; and described the many occasions over the years when they’d talked together about prayer and of the strength and hope that had come to him from God. On and on it went, story after story; and it soon became clear that though we still really didn’t know him at all, it turned out that most of our pre-conceived notions of this man may well have stood in utter contrast to who he really was… at least who he was by God’s grace and in God’s vision.
It really is matter of perspective, isn’t it? So often what we see in others doesn’t even come close to what’s really there. Truth be told, most of us tend to see things merely on a surface level; and then, so much of that is viewed through the filters of culture, psychology and our own biases and fear. Our vision does not often penetrate below the surface to get to the heart of matters or of people. Much like the disciples in our gospel reading today, we see someone born blind (or in trouble or in poverty or in the midst of countless other situations we could name) and we are tempted to speculate on what he must have done, or even what his family must have done for him to deserve such a fate without really considering who he or she really is beyond those difficulties. To put it another way, you and I are generally content to judge a book by its cover, because that’s all we ever choose to see!
However, what we hear in scripture today is that God is different. God sees things not as we do, but as they really are; God’s vision is not clouded by human limitations and misguided concepts of justice and judgment: God sees far below the surface level of our perception! God sees in each person all that they are, but moreover, God sees in each person what they can be. In God’s sight, a man born blind is not regarded as some object lesson against sin, but rather as the opportunity for glory to be revealed and light to come into the world. Likewise, in God’s sight, we are much more than we could ever believe ourselves to be. God sees things differently than we do – God sees us differently than we do – and sees each one as part of a larger purpose, part of an on-going plan for the sake of his kingdom and his people.
And what, you may be asking about now, does this have to do with stewardship at East Congregational Church?
Just about everything!
You see, for me there is good news in abundance in this passage; and on a couple of different levels! First of all, it’s a reminder to us that we must be very careful not to write people off who we’ve perceived to be different or wrong or hopeless, because God doesn’t view them that way (that’s something that all of us, especially you and I in the church, would do well to remember). But it’s also – and here’s what I want to talk about for a moment – the blessed assurance that we need not write ourselves off that way either!
As you know, the theme of our stewardship effort this year is “Blessed to Be a Blessing,” affirming that each and every one of us here have been blessed by God and asking what sort of blessing each of us might be for the work of our church in 2015. The trouble with all this, however, is that all too often you and I tend to think in terms of liabilities rather than blessing; we dwell on what we perceive as weaknesses within ourselves, before others and before God. To be fair, some of this is externally motivated: given the economy and an uncertain global situation, we don’t know if we’ve got enough to survive, much less to share. But if we’re honest about it, a whole lot of our uncertainty comes from the inside; our reluctance – our fear, really – that we don’t have what it takes to be any kind of blessing to anyone; and so we won’t take that step of faith that any kind of stewardship requires.
But here’s where the good news comes in: whatever you and I perceive as our liabilities in this life; whatever we see as our weaknesses before others and before God; no matter what it is we fail to recognize of value in ourselves, God does see something unique and special in each of us; and beloved, God won’t rest until He’s found a way, somehow, for his glory to somehow be revealed in and through us. We are blessed; blessed with the vision of God’s own purpose for our life and living. We are truly “blessed to be a blessing,” and that makes all the difference for you and for me and for all of us together as the church of Jesus Christ here on Mountain Road. In other words, our story – the story of our blessing – is just getting started!
This morning we also read that wonderful and very familiar verse from the Book of Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” That actually comes from the King James Version of the Bible, and elsewhere it’s translated as, “Where there is no prophecy, people cast off restraint,” (NRSV) and, in The Message, “If people can’t see what God is doing, they stumble all over themselves.” It’s a reminder to us that having God’s vision before us, and then heeding that vision (because remember, it also says in that verse, “happy are those who keep the law”) is an essential part of our living as God’s people. So yes, this is a verse about prophecy, and purposefully living unto that future that God is providing; certainly an important part of stewardship. But I also think that having “a vision” also means being aware of and embracing God’s vision of us as that future plan unfolds.
I say this because within each one of us here at East Church there is this incredible “vision” that is from God, a “vision” that if properly embraced will open up a wide range of possibilities for service in the name of Jesus Christ; countless opportunities for God’s works to be revealed in new and miraculous ways. The thing is, friends, is that we have been blessed as persons and as a people; we have been blessed in life and health and food; we have been blessed in community, with fellowship and by love as part of this church family; and perhaps above all, we have been blessed with vision – God’s vision – for his kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Stewardship, you see – our stewardship of life and living, and yes, our stewardship of the work of this church – ultimately comes down to this: what will we do with the vision? Will we embrace it for the sake of God’s purposes, or will it go unshared and perish?
When Lisa and I were first married, one of the gifts we were given was… a can of seeds! It was actually kind of neat; this was a coffee can sized container of wildflower seeds – direct from L.L. Bean (!) – from which, when properly planted and nurtured, would grow a variety of flowers both annual and perennial. I remember that written on the side of can was this long list of flowers that were supposed to be included, but when I looked at the seeds inside the can I could never have told the difference between one seed and the next; they all looked alike to me! And yet, when we planted those seeds in a garden plot outside our home, we were amazed again and again with what grew all that first summer and for several years to come: beautiful, fragrant flowers of every size and shape and color you can name. I didn’t even know we even had that many flowers in this part of the world; but that was the wonder – and the fun – of it!
It seems to me that as God’s people here at East Church, we’re a whole lot like that can of seeds; in that in many ways we’re pretty much alike, and though our individual circumstances might differ a little bit, we’re all facing the same kinds of joys and concerns and struggles in this life. But it’s also true that each one of us, by God’s grace and in God’s vision, have been blessed in ways that are special and unique; blessings that when fully embraced and properly nurtured are even now ready to burst forth in amazing ways for the sake of God’s purpose and plan in the world.
When all is said and done, that’s what we’re asking you to consider through your support of the work of this church and our shared ministries in the coming year: what kind of blessings are about to burst forth from you?
All I can say is what an amazing thing it will be for us at East Church to see and experience the beauty and wonder of what will grow from the many blessings of vision we have in this place. And I know it will be… because I’ve already seen the blossoms! So what a garden it’s going to be as it really starts to grow!
Let us give thought and prayer to that this week; and as we do, may our thanks be unto God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry