— A Sermon by Gary L. Bagley —
John 9:1–7 (1-41); Ephesians 5:8-14
There once was a blind man who decided to visit Texas. When he arrived on the plane, he felt the seats and said, “Wow, these seats are big!” The person next to him answered, “Everything is big in Texas.”
When he finally arrived in Texas, he decided to visit a restaurant. Upon arriving, he ordered a drink and got a mug placed between his hands. He exclaimed, “Wow these mugs are big!” The waiter replied, “Everything is big in Texas.”
After a couple of drinks, the blind man asked the waiter where the restrooms were located. The waiter replied, “Down the hall, second door to the right.” The blind man headed for the restroom, but due to a number of people in the hallway, he skipped the second door. Instead, he entered the third door, which led to the swimming pool; he fell into the pool by accident.
Scared to death, the blind man started shouting, “Don’t flush, don’t flush!”
Things aren’t always what they may appear to be. Soon after the shooting in the Orlando nightclub three summers ago (June 12, 2016) that killed 49 people and wounded another 53, two similar quotes appeared from two pastors of Christian churches (one in California and another in Arizona) making comments in a mainline news organization that they weren’t sorry. “It just meant that 50 less perverts will be on the streets,” they each responded. Such was embarrassing for me that two people in my own profession—my own Calling—could be so ignorant and stand so far from the Way of Jesus!
A year before the Orlando mass-homophobic killing, twenty-one year old Dylann Roof, white supremacist from Columbia, South Carolina, murdered nine African Americans and wounding three others inside the Emanuel A.M.E. Church of Charleston (June 17, 2015). From his personal journal, photographs, and a website manifesto, Roof espoused racial hatred.
Just over a month ago (June 28, 2019), Neo-Nazi James Fields, Jr. plead guilty of ramming his car into a crowd of anti-racism protestor in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing 32-year old Heather Heyer and injuring thirty-five other people.
This morning, I want to talk about how our lack of understanding things combined with our lack of compassion and civility have contributed to issues that have plagued the Church, our American society, and the world community for a long time.
The story in today’s gospel lesson is quite interesting. Jesus and his disciples walked past a man on the street that was a beggar and was blind. His disciples’ first reaction to the circumstances was to talk theology. “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents causing him to be blind?” “Neither…,” Jesus said. “You’re asking the wrong question. There’s no cause and effect here. Instead, look for God in such circumstances.”
With that, Jesus spits in the dust and makes a paste of the spittle and dirt, rubs it on the blind man’s eyes, then, tells him to wash his eyes at the Pool of Siloam. For forty-one verses this story goes on.
Some who see the man after his sight is recovered question whether it is the same man who sat on the street begging. If it is, how did this healer restore his sight?
Others quickly wanted to know who healed him…and on the Sabbath! The healer has broken Jewish law by healing on the Sabbath.
Still, others don’t believe it is the same man who was on the street blind and begging. They go to his parents, who verify that this person is indeed their son who was blind. Then, they return and repeat their questions with the beggar. On and on these “beside-the-point” comments go.
Generally, things we don’t understand make us uncomfortable. First century people didn’t understand blindness. The only way they understood such, or any illness in that pre-scientific, pre-modern medical period was to think that such a deviation from the norm was due to sinfulness on the part of the blind man or his parents.
Many of us seem to forget that our nation’s beginning (beyond the wonderful, legendary Pilgrim stories), included exploiting the land of native Americans while bringing African slaves to one of our first colonies—Jamestown.
We have a hard time understanding other races, other cultures, and other faiths. 98% of our nation’s population (from the 2015 census) are descendants from countries other than North America. Only 2% are native Americans. We were never founded as a Christian nation; we were founded as an experimental nation on democracy. Our government was patterned after the connectional and balancing Scottish Presbyterian polity. Yet, we forget that that new government comprised of European immigrants with some African slaves proclaiming “freedom and justice for all” invoked the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, relocating native Americans to reservations west of the Mississippi River. And, we forget that we kept legal the owning of slaves until 1863.
We’ve had a hard time understanding gender preference and orientation. I heard the late Phyllis Tickle say about seven years ago: “Until we come to an understanding (as a Church and a society) of what it means to be human, we will continue to wrestle [and be divided] with these issues.
In Jesus’ day, people didn’t understand blindness. I don’t understand what it is like to be blind. I don’t understand what it is like to be left-handed because I’ve always been right handed. I don’t understand what it’s like to be in a minority race or a “person of color” because I’ve always been white…and I’ve always been able to see. I don’t know what it is like to be homosexual or bi-sexual or transgender.
In the last three verses of this full passage (John 9:39-41), Jesus said that some people are physically blind and some people are spiritually and intellectually blind and insinuated that both needed to be healed and brought into the light of day. I would add that only those who know they have some blindness are capable of understanding things as they really are. The rest of us just go on being blind until something begins to open our mind’s eye. Maybe this issue has as much to do with prejudice as is does with our mental and spiritual blindness.
First, I want to commend this congregation for having dealt with some of these issues so healthily and continue moving beyond divisive factors. I heard Bob Prim, our pastor, say in a children’s “sermon” that the doors of this church are never locked…”we probably don’t even have a key,” meaning and symbolizing that everyone is always welcome at Nacoochee Presbyterian Church.
Yet, I want to make a few comments about the orientation of homosexuality, one of the Church’s and our nation’s biggest challenges. From the best scientific knowledge we have, gays and lesbians are born with that biological orientation. It is part of their DNA. As one gay male school teacher in Tampa, Florida, said in tears to me years ago, “As hard as society can be on gays, do people think we choose this orientation in life?” As hard as society used to be on people born left-handed—forcing young kids years ago to write with their right hands, having a far smaller selections of left-handed golf clubs, left-handed custom guitars…why would someone choose to write with their left hand rather than their right hand…unless they have come to the healthy conclusion that “that is the way God created me and I will rejoice and be glad in it…I will celebrate my left-handedness, the color of my skin, my ethnicity, my gayness…, and who I am.”
Years ago in the mid-1980s at a small gathering of clergy in Tampa, one young, male, senior pastor spoke of the dilemma he was in. One of his male staff members had confided in him that he was gay. The pastor offered an alternative to asking for his resignation. His “life-line” to continue ministry in that church was to submit to a gay-to-straight rehab program in California—conversion therapy, as it is sometimes called. I had never heard of such a program at the time and when I asked about it this minister described a regiment of humiliation, condescension, and name-calling for the “patient.” Guilt was the tool used to try to change this person to be attracted to the opposite gender rather than the same gender. I became nauseated as I listened to the “Christian” approach to gender-orientation counseling. Would Jesus have anything to do with this, I wondered? Would Jesus have anything to do with such social conformity, rather than honoring the way they had been created?
The percentage of people who are genetically homosexual is about one in ten people; the percentage of people who are genetically left-handed is about one in ten people. Five of the last eight presidents have been left-handed—Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Yet, over the centuries left-handers have been accused of criminality and dealings with the devil, as well as being subjected to “re-education.”
What passages are often quoted when homosexuality is being condemned? The Old Testament has four passages usually quoted for this purpose (Genesis 19:1-11—the city of Sodom quote, Judges 19—a repeat of the Sodom and Gomorrah story, Deuteronomy 23:17—a mistranslation of the Hebrew (male prostitute) into the King James Version (Sodomite) of scripture, and Leviticus 18 and 20—a call for Israel to be different from others in the holiness to God). (Interestingly, those who use the Genesis 19 and Judges 19 quotes to condemn male homosexuality skip the fuller passage that condones a father offering his daughters to be raped in order for the male guest in his house to be protected from rape [sodomy] by the townsmen, who didn’t like any foreigners in their city.)
The New Testament contains two oft-quoted Pauline verses (Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11) and three other non-Pauline quotes (Timothy, Jude and 2 Peter). The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Luke’s Acts never mention the issue of homosexuality. You would think that if Jesus had been concerned about such it would have shown up at least once in what comprises about half of the New Testament. But, it doesn’t.
An interesting bit of biblical history comes from the 5th century B.C.E. when the army of Judah was defeated by the army of Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar (586 B.C.E.). The only Jewish interpretation as to why their chosen nation was defeated and taken into exile for three generations was that God was punishing them because of their unfaithfulness, particularly their lack of racial purity due to intermarriage.
At the defeat of the Babylonians by the Persians about a hundred years later, the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem. This time, they determined as they began rebuilding Jerusalem, that they would be obedient and rigid in ritualistic requirement so as not to face the wrath of God ever again. Such a compelling argument produced strong national pride and religious zeal and ushered in the eras of Ezra and Nehemiah. As Jewish pilgrims returned to Jerusalem one of the ugliest periods in Jewish history resulted. They began enforcing a racial, ethnic, and religious purity. Every Jewish man or woman married to a foreign spouse was to banish the spouse from Jerusalem. And, every half-breed child was to be like-wise banished. Bloodlines were checked for ten generations back, according to Deuteronomy 23:3. Foreign elements were to be purged. Judah was to be for Jews only. We call that xenophobia today—the fear of foreigners. This kind of racial purity unfortunately still exists in parts of Israel…and Arab countries, and other countries in the world, including our own United States of America. Think Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis, as a starting point.
There was, however, one person in Jerusalem who was sufficiently disturbed by this prevailing prejudice. This unknown person wrote a powerful story that halted the process and turned the nation around to some degree. The story was that of Jonah. You are familiar with it. The book of Jonah has never been about whether Jonah was swallowed by a whale or a fish; the story is about a Jewish man God spoke to. God wanted Jonah to go to the people of Nineveh and preach to them. Because Jonah despised any race other than his Jewish race, he refused to do so until the captain of the ship during a storm had all the passengers draw straws to determine (in their pre-scientific mentality) who on the ship God was angry with, and the short straw was drawn by Jonah.
Willingly, Jonah was thrown overboard to save the ship and the other passengers…he was swallowed by a great fish, then regurgitated on dry land. Jonah relented to God and agreed to go to Nineveh hoping no one would repent (change their way of thinking) and respond to his message about God’s love; only, they did beyond Jonah’s wildest imagination. Angry at the Ninevites for responding positively to God, he went out alone on a hillside. God caused a lone tree to grow up to protect Jonah from the sun during the day and from the wind during the night. During the night, God sent a worm to bore into the trunk of the tree causing it to wither and die. The next morning, Jonah discovered the tree had died and he wept inconsolably. The closing words of this story are those of God speaking to Jonah. “Jonah, you have the capacity to weep uncontrollably for this two-day old tree, yet you have no pity or love for the 120,000 people who live in this city of Nineveh.”
The genius of this writer of the story of Jonah is that he helped the Jewish people see their erroneous ways and they began to change. The call to inclusiveness has always been part of the heritage of the Christian church, whether heeded or not.
So who’s blind: this man or a multitude of the rest of us?
On November 22, 1963, I was sitting in a high school U.S. History class when the school superintendent interrupted the entire school over the intercom to let us know that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. I painfully remember my best friend saying under his breath: “That’s what he deserves.” Then he used the N-word, “…that n**** lover.” My best friend! I felt I didn’t even know him!
The end of that story took place twenty-five years later when that same high school friend, Bill and his wife Sheila, unofficially adopted a failing African-American high school student who practically lived on the streets. Bill became his unofficial father and Sheila his mama. He graduated from high school and went on to college and became an outstanding football player at the University of Georgia.
Helen Keller said, “My darkness has been filled with the light of intelligence, and behold, the outer day-lit world was stumbling and groping in social blindness.”
“Who sinned, this man or his parents?” one of the disciples asked Jesus. “Neither…you’re asking the wrong questions…looking for someone to blame for his being different. Look instead for what God is doing…[among us].” So may it be. AMEN.
1 Talkingpointsmemo.com, editor, Joshua Marshall.
2 Perri Klass, M.D., “On the Left Hand, There Are No Easy Answers,”March 6, 2011, The New York Times.
3 John Shelby Spong, Living in Sin? (New York, HarperCollins: 1990), 23-39.
8For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
9As 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…