There is a tale that I’ve heard, an old one. I’ve heard it used as an illustration in several settings, one of them being as an illustration in Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book, The Gift of Story. The story goes as thus. The beloved Bal Shem Tov was dying and sent for his disciples, “I have acted as intermediary for you, and now when I am gone you must do this for yourselves. You know the place in the forest where I call to God? Stand there in that place and do the same. You know how to light the fire, and how to say the prayer. Do all these and God will come.”
After the Bal Shem Tov died, the first generation did exactly as he had instructed, and God always came. But by the second generation, the people had forgotten how to light the fire in the way the Bal Shem Tov had taught them. Nevertheless, they stood in the special place in the forest and they said the prayer, and God came.
By the third generation, the people had forgotten how to light the fire, and they had forgotten the place in the forest. But they spoke the prayer nevertheless, and God still came. In the fourth generation, everyone had forgotten how to build the fire, and no one any longer knew just where in the forest one should stand, and finally too, the exact words of the prayer itself had been forgotten. But one person still remembered the story about it all, and told it aloud. And God still came.
Stories. They help us remember, interpret, understand, dream & imagine. The telling and retelling of our stories provide a framework for how we shape the meaning of our lives. My understanding of myself and what I share with you, is a mixture of my own stories of growing up in the Midwest, interwoven with stories of my family’s history on Western ranches and Eastern textile mills. You can throw in the stories of our country and culture, and then wrap the whole thing with the story that brings us all together this morning, God’s story, found in the pages of the Bible. A testimony to God’s action and relationship with humanity across the generations and throughout time. A witness to God’s encompassing love. All these pieces form that framework that shapes how I look at my world and how I understand my relationship with others and with God.
At the beginning of today’s gospel lesson, we see some conflicting narratives being worked out…
[Read John 9:1-12]
The prevailing narrative of the time equated suffering with sin. If you had an illness or a physical handicap of some kind, sin was seen as its cause. It was a relatively common understanding across cultural lines, this idea that physical ailment was a punishment from the gods for committing some kind of infraction against them. It is the kind of attitude that Job’s friends have when they ask Job what he had done that so many bad things had happened to him. Sin as a virus. And so the disciples point at the man, who had been blind since birth, and try to get Jesus’ ruling. If as an infant, he had not had opportunity to sin, was this a way that his parent’s sin had been transmitted down from them to him? This is the narrative that they are working within, that suffering is caused by God as a punishment for sin. But Jesus shares a new narrative that suggests that rather than marginalization, in and through this man’s life God’s work and Christ’s light will be exhibited. A reality, I would suggest, that holds for each of us.
One of the overarching narratives of the Bible is that God uses people, all types of people, to exhibit his love, mercy and grace – to be a blessing to others. Whether it be the cheat Jacob, the stutterer Moses, the harlot Rahab, or any of Jesus’ ragtag disciples, God is able to use each in their own way. Even this blind man, who has been relegated to the margins of life as a beggar, Jesus suggests can be used to exhibit the works of God. Whoever we are, whatever our handicap, whether it be outwardly expressed in our physical bodies or inwardly felt in our emotional and spiritual selves. Jesus liberates us to understand that however we are born, we are flawed and fragile simply by virtue of being human. And that even so, God’s works can be revealed in us.
But we’re not done yet. I’ve only read twelve of the forty-one verses assigned for the gospel reading this Sunday. And yes, I’m going to read all forty one. For you see the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say, those thirty odd verses have a lot to say about how that work is revealed…which has very little to do with the actual moment of healing itself.
[Read John 9:13-41]
Ah, the plot thickens doesn’t it? This is not like the account of the healing of Bartimaeus, where he receives his sight and then immediately follows Jesus on the way. I almost can envision Bartimaeus skipping along with the disciples and crowds, so overjoyed is he at receiving his sight. No, here we are almost immediately plunged into conflict. The man born blind returns to his neighborhood and no one believes it is even him. They demand to know how it happened and where is this miracle worker. The Pharisees jump in and in some ways put the man on trial. The previous chapters in John have chronicled Jesus’ escalating conflict with the Pharisees and now the man is asked again and again what has happened. The Pharisees even go to his parents to back up the story that he was born blind. They come to the conclusion that Jesus has broken Sabbath law by working – making the mud plaster – on the Sabbath. When the no longer blind man refuses to deny Jesus’ healing and separate himself from the Christ, he is thrown out of the synagogue and would have been forced to return to his status as an outsider in the community.
On three separate occasions, the no longer blind man has a chance to tell his story, witness to his experience, to his neighbors and to the Pharisees. Four times, if you count his interaction with Jesus himself at the end of the passage. He tells what has happened, and at the end he interprets what it means for him, namely that Jesus is the Messiah.
In Diana Butler Bass’s book, Christianity for the Rest of Us, she relates the experience of Church of the Redeemer, a Congregational Church in New Haven, Connecticut. A struggling and divided church in the mid-90’s, it intentionally began to foster the Christian practice of testimony. Now oftentimes we think of testimony as something that happens in big tent revivals where people tell their tales of sin and shame and how they “got saved.” But respecting their reserved New England context, the session began a series of what they called Lenten reflections, but were shared stories of faith by several of the church’s members. People were moved by what they had heard and were inspired to begin talking to one another more openly about matters of faith and the heart. The church began to regularly incorporate these shared stories in their worship, and the pastor credits the church’s vitality to this practice of testimony, of witness.
Now again, when we hear words like testimony and witness, we start to get nervous and sweat in the Presbyterian Church. But I think, because of our silence, we have shorted ourselves, both as a community and as individuals. Words are powerful and the stories of others can help name and understand our own struggles and our own triumphs. Think of the stories of mission that were collected and shared in our worship and in our bulletins and newsletters. As each of those individual understandings of this church’s mission were shared, we each had the opportunity to look at our own experience and understanding of mission again. And as we engage in the cycle of reflection and sharing, our whole community grows stronger.
But it is not just the community that can be strengthened. Come back with me for a minute to our text. At first reading I was most struck by the blind man’s tenacity. Again and again he tells his story of healing. But then I noticed something else. In each telling of his story he receives more insight into it. At the beginning, when talking to his neighbors he merely relates the events as they happened and then attests that he doesn’t know the whereabouts of this man, Jesus. By the middle of his interactions with the Pharisees his witness includes not just the events themselves, but the confession that Jesus is not a sinner but a man come from God. At the end of the text, in conversation with Jesus, the no longer blind man reveals that he has received full spiritual sight as he confesses that he believes that Jesus is the Messiah.
The act of testimony, of witness, of putting to words the events of his life and his understanding of what has happened to him brings him ever greater understanding with each telling. Perhaps you have had the experience of working through a decision, or a problem by talking through it aloud - maybe with a friend or maybe on your own. There can be that moment when you hear your own words and it gives you an “aha” moment. Speaking it aloud transforms the blind man, it catapults him forward in faith.
Actually in all three of our Lenten encounters there has been this element of testimony, of witness. Nicodemus, who comes in the dark, eventually – slowly but eventually – speaks on behalf of Jesus before the Pharisees. The woman at the well immediately leaves her water jar and rushes to tell the others in the village about the man she has met, whom she believes is the Messiah. And then we have the man born blind. The element of witness is essential to who we are as people of the Book. The way of faith is a way of witness. Encountering Jesus in a healing, lifegiving way necessitates our words, our witness, our testimony. Even if we don’t get all of it the first time, with each telling more layers of meaning will be revealed to us as we share with others and become stronger together.
I would encourage you to develop the practice of giving language to your faith. Maybe at first just write it down for practice. Think of how you would answer the question, what is important about my faith and why that is important. Or the question, how is God real for me? Or start off a sentence, I believe… Actually, in interest of full disclosure, the finishing of this sermon was severely hampered by an online visit to the site for the public radio show, This I Believe… That program came to mind as I was writing and I spent far too long skimming other people’s essays – and then considering, what do I believe about X or Y.
Share those thoughts with another, or a few others. You may have a group of friends that you are close to that can be your listening ears. And there are groups and gatherings here at First Pres.
Our small groups form around a variety of interests and events, but all of them help build relationships where we can create space that is safe enough to talk about our faith and what we believe, not just from our heads, but from our hearts. And who knows, maybe from time to time we might have more chances to share what we believe in the context of worship.
The way of witness…give your faith language and a voice…
And remember –
In the fourth generation, everyone had forgotten how to build the fire, and no one any longer knew just where in the forest one should stand, and finally too, the exact words of the prayer itself had been forgotten. But one person still remembered the story about it all, and told it aloud. And God still came.
Let us share these stories of faith – and our stories of faith – together…