Sunday, March 19, 2023 – Lent IV
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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.
Nine years ago today, the Rev. Fred Phelps died. And when he did, most of the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Fred was the founder and pastor of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas – a congregation committed to this one message: God hates sin and because you are a sinner, God hates you. This congregation is well-known for its protests at the funerals of fallen soldiers, whose deaths, they say, are America’s punishment for sin. But so are dead children. They gleefully protested at the funerals of the murdered children of Sandy Hook. They are regulars at the burials of LGBTQ people, the subject of much of their anger. Even Mr. Rogers could not escape their judgment. When he died, they stood in the cemetery with signs thanking God that Mr. Rogers was in hell.
Fred Phelps did a great deal of damage in this world. But before the damage, Fred actually did some good. I was shocked to learn that before Fred became a hate monger, he was a civil rights attorney. He was well-known for taking on those cases that no one else wanted, and winning many of them. At one time, Phelps’s law firm made up one-third of the state of Kansas’s federal docket of civil rights cases. Even a local chapter of the NAACP honored him with an award.
So, what on earth happened to Fred? How did this one so full of promise become so full of hate? I don’t know the whole answer to that, but I do know that religion had a lot to do with it.
Religion has a lot to do with the hate that sets our world on fire, day after day. People use religion and their sincerely held beliefs for all kinds of evil. And if there is anything that causes me to struggle with my faith and my calling, it is that.
Of course, religion as a weapon; as a means of accumulating power and control is nothing new. It’s as old as time. And Jesus was well-acquainted with it.
There once was a man born blind. And in that world and in that time, everyone was sure that someone was to blame for such misfortune. Their religion had taught them that. Even the disciples of Jesus wanted to know whose fault it was, this man or his parents, that such a tragedy had befallen him. Imagine their great shock when Jesus replied: “It’s nobody’s fault. It’s not because of sin. Instead, this illness will be an avenue for the glory of God.”
Then Jesus did a very odd thing. He spat on the ground, mixed the saliva and dirt, and made a muddy poultice. Then he rubbed it on the man’s eyelids and told him to go wash it away in the spring-fed Pool of Siloam. And when the man did, lo and behold, this one who had never seen his own face, saw himself clearly in the cool water. Oh, and by the way, all of this happened on the Sabbath.
When his neighbors saw the man with the sparkling, curious eyes, they didn’t recognize him. Even when he told them who he was, they didn’t believe him. And so, they took him to the religious authorities to have his story checked out. And that’s when all hell broke loose - because the man described how Jesus had made some mud and rubbed it on his eyes. And kneading mud with one’s hands was one of thirty-nine things expressly forbidden on the Sabbath. And choosing mercy over the rules was proof to some of these religious gatekeepers that Jesus could not possibly be from God. And furthermore, maybe this was all a ruse. Maybe he had never been blind at all. So, they called his parents in for an interrogation. “Yes,” they said, “he was born blind. But how he can now see, we don’t know. He’s an adult. Ask him.”
And so, they asked the man again. But this time, he answered their questions with increasing confidence. And that’s a really interesting part of this story, because it demonstrates a healing of another kind. Jesus restored his sight and Jesus restored his self-respect. -- But the man’s confidence in his own experience angered those who thought they knew what everyone’s experience of God was supposed to be. And so, they kicked him out and told him never to come back!
What a day! His neighbors called him a liar. His parents abandoned him. And the religious authorities abused him. Who knew that miracles could be such pain in the behind?!
It was at very that moment that Jesus, who had been absent from this story for 27 verses, reappeared looking for the man. And Jesus and the man had a conversation about who Jesus was. And the man believed. And the man worshipped Jesus – the only time in the entire Gospel of John that anyone worships Jesus. -- And then Jesus made this rather enigmatic statement: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
In the Gospel of John, seeing is a metaphor for believing. And believing is not intellectual assent to some theological ideas or about knowing and following the rules. It’s far more visceral than that. Belief or faith is about trust and trusting those things we cannot see. So, for example, do we trust God’s ultimate love and mercy, not just for ourselves, but for everyone else?
Which takes me back to Fred Phelps. Fred seems to be a poignant example of the second part of Jesus’s statement about those who see becoming blind. How else do you explain a Civil Rights lawyer becoming a perpetrator of hate?
We much prefer stories that go the other way. We want stories about people who gain their sight, not about people who are blinded by the light. Wouldn’t this be a better sermon illustration if old Fred had started out as a bigot and then, through the grace of Jesus, become a civil rights attorney? Then we could all feel good and praise God together for the miracle of sight.
But the hard truth is that not everyone responds to the light of Christ with increased insight. Some people, in the blaze of all that glory; in the light of all that mercy; in the brightness of that universal love – shut their eyes and refuse to see. Because it’s just too much of a challenge to the way they think things ought to be. They cannot believe in a God who would not follow their rules. And so, they choose the darkness of their own opinions.
But then again, sometimes so do I.
I’ve been remembering all those times I hated Fred Phelps. I hated him for what he said and the horrible damage he did and the grief he compounded, all in the name of God. I hated him for making the Christian faith a mockery, and for giving Baptists such a bad name. And when he died, I remember thinking that perhaps Fred deserved the hell he so delighted in consigning others to.
But truth be told, I have no idea how God dealt with his lost son, Fred. But this I do know: when Fred died, suddenly he could see. Fred was in the presence of the Light of the World. And the mud of his prejudice and vitriol and hatred and personal pain was washed away from his eyes by the clear water of mercy. -- And I can either trust that’s possible for everyone – even Fred. Or I can choose to be blind.