“Compassion, Boundaries, and Mud in Your Eyes”
based on John 9:1-12
Aspen Community United Methodist Church
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 30, 2014
And that is just the beginning of the story!
This is another encounter on the way to the cross.
Last week it was the woman at the well,
a story about learning to draw from deep wells of the spirit,
deep wells of wisdom.
We continue in the Gospel of John -
the Gospel often considered the most mystical,
more mysterious, most spiritual.
Jesus is at odds with the religious leaders.
And yet, they are only trying to defend the order of things,
which has been established as rules for the faithful to live by.
And, it is good to honor the Sabbath.
But, taken to an extreme even honoring the Sabbath
can be rigid and restrictive to the work of the Spirit,
which may be unpredictable and even messy.
So you can understand that if you are trying to manage
a religion, it is most expedient to establish strict guidelines,
some boundaries, you know.
It makes sense.
But sometimes it works against something else.
It works against being in touch with the Spirit as it wills.
The Spirit does not seem to stick closely to rules.
And that leads us to the blind man and mud in his eyes.
And if that was not bad enough, it happened on the Sabbath.
The temple could not have that, so it got messy.
This all reminds me of a student friend of mine at seminary.
He had come to seminary from the banking business.
He was very neat and clean cut.
He was friendly and bright, and I enjoyed him in class.
But, he left the seminary after the first year.
He said that it was all just too messy.
What he had come to expect in banking
was that after a meeting with clients,
he could clear his desk and it was over.
And, if he wanted it to be over,
he could arrange the papers in a neat stack
And place them in the desk.
Then he would return his pen to its’ holder,
fold his hands and place them on the desk.
Essentially, he would dismiss the persons on the
other side of his desk.
He was in control, and he liked that.
He was discovering that theology and ministry
was not like that, even for Presbyterians.
Presbyterians like things neat and in order.
We had a running joke between Presbyterians
and United Methodists.
The Presbyterians needed things to be neat and in order,
but the Methodists were just going on to perfection
even if it was messy, and it usually was.
That has turned out to be true.
The Spirit is messy and unpredictable.
Jesus is using mud and spit to heal a man of blindness.
We don’t know if mud can be a healing remedy
or if there is another meaning.
But, you just heard a little of the story.
It set off a storm among the neighbors and everyone else, apparently.
This is the rest of the story.
The neighbors haul this guy off to the Pharisees.
The Pharisees – the church authorities – are asked
to determine what happened with this man
who was blind and now can see.
They begin to interrogate him.
How did you receive your sight?
When he told them, they said whoever did this
could not be from God, because he did not observe the Sabbath.
Healing on the Sabbath was forbidden,
which would make Jesus a sinner.
A sinner could not possibly have done this good thing.
They got into it over that.
They could not accept what he told them about
how he gained his sight.
They went to the man’s parents
to learn if he had indeed been born blind.
His parents said that he had been blind all his life,
but that they did not know how it is that he can now see.
The authorities and the neighbors go back to the man
who can now see
and continue to interrogate him.
He inquired of them if they wanted to be Jesus’ disciple.
They reply that they are disciples of Moses.
“We know God has spoken to Moses, but this man we do not know.”
And that really made them mad.
And they drove him out of the temple.
They thought they know to whom God speaks.
They could not reach beyond, or even see out from their religion,
their understanding of the world.
They were trapped in it.
They could not see beyond their institutional boundaries.
And, you and I know this is happening today just as it did then.
Why is this lesson so difficult?
One of my professors at Austin Seminary, Ralph Underwood,
has an article in a recent publication of the seminary
called “When Compassion Crosses Boundaries.”
He writes that boundaries are essential to life.
They exist in nature, in law, in personal relationships,
in identity, in enduring principles, in ethics, in culture, in religion.
For example, we divide up the natural flow of time into boundaries
with years, and months, and days, and minutes.
These kinds of boundaries are constructive, creative, and life giving.
There are also boundaries between the familiar and the unfamiliar,
and those can be frightening.
Sometimes boundaries are permeable, and we may cross them.
Others may cross our boundaries.
And Underwood tells us that both of these kinds of crossings
have a lot of risk.
And yet, both are basic to life experience.
Abraham was called to cross boundaries to a strange land.
He journeyed by faith,
and so do all his true sons and daughters, like you and me.
And something else…
“There are boundaries that can be crossed
only when compassion rushes in,” he writes,
“and there are boundaries that should not be crossed
when something other than compassion leads the way.”
Compassion crosses the divide between the outside and the inside,
between the seen and the unseen.
At times compassion induces a transcendent moment,
after which boundary lines re-form.
Compassion discloses pathways toward reconciliation and justice.
Compassion gives life to the giver as well as the receiver,
and that is because it fills the giver with
the wonder of love.
Compassion takes us beyond ourselves,
relieves us of the hell of our own worries and self-preoccupation.
Compassion can dethrone our egoism
and free us to walk the way of wonder,
to live and breathe
in the realm of what cannot be measured, predicted, or controlled.
Compassion delivers us from our tendency to think in silos,
when we associate with people just like us,
in our personal lives, our work environment, our politics, our religion.
And, he goes on to say that there two things that happen with compassion that are vital to understanding it.
It infuses life into both givers and receivers.
So, compassion has power.
Compassion is power for congregations and church bodies,
to cross boundaries in life giving ways.
But it takes realizing
that the boundaries are no longer needed,
maybe were never were.
Our story today is about blindness - people who cannot see – beginning to see
and people who think they see - not really seeing,
and about Jesus’ compassion.
So, it is kind of a paradox – this boundary blindness.
It looks like the boundaries had more power
among the church leaders than did compassion.
Unfortunately, that still rings true.
And, you know what else?
The church leaders didn’t even have the curiosity to ask,
“What’s it like? What’s it like to see?”
That’s what I would have wanted to know.
“This is your mother. This is your father.
This is the afternoon and there is the sun moving across the sky.
Here you are and here we are!”
To be blind in this way is to not be present.
The temple authorities were not present to him, really.
Or, to be blind is to see what you want to see
and not recognize what is right there in front of you.
Politicians are sometimes blind
to the most fundamental issues of human welfare,
because they construct boundaries
between themselves and those in need,
saying they are different and unworthy.
You can probably think of times you blinded yourself
because you did not want to recognize or deal with someone.
Growing up in the south I was not supposed to notice discrimination.
And yet, the few times I played along with it I knew
something was wrong.
I had some sense I guess that I was being asked to be blind.
This kind of blindness is a boundary in more ways than one -
and a deep spiritual teaching.
John Newton was born blind.
He became a successful slave trader.
There was an artificial boundary between him
and the African people.
He saw them as a commodity to be traded.
One day Newton looked into the eyes of one of his slave cargo
and saw a human being.
Then amazing grace burst into his life
and he was given the gift of sight.
Compassion entered his life.
Years later, he wrote:
“I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.”
Well, these things come to mind about our story today -
what was going on in the midst of all the noise – all the arguing -
all the blame and name-calling.
It is easy to be blind if seeing
would have an impact in any kind of uncomfortable way,
It is easy to be blind if we just do not want to be bothered,
or we don’t want to rewrite the rules.
It is easy to be blind if we don’t want to re-establish an assumption.
But, we are the hands and feet of Christ today.
We want this part of Jesus’ journey to the cross
to be important for us.
We want to know about boundaries and blindness, and compassion,
and how they are all related.
We want to make sure we open our eyes.
And, that is the rest of the story.
Ralph L. Underwood. “When Compassion Crosses Boundaries.” Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary, Spring 2014, p. 35.