Telling stories

A sermon on John 9, for the Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year A, at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio.

Tell us some true story, Thou great Author of life; and in your life story let us find our own. Amen.

When Jesus’ disciples see a blind man begging at the side of the road, they are tempted to turn his life story into a theological conundrum for Jesus to answer: “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”

Jesus, true to form, answers a wholly other question, healing the man, and directing the disciples’ attention to the surprising and transgressive grace of God.

This doesn’t go down too well in the neighbourhood. People confront and condemn the man for getting himself healed, because his story contradicts their understanding of how things are supposed to work; and of how God is supposed to work for them.

To be clear, this is not a problem of the Law, nor of the Jews. It happens in every religion and in every human heart: the pull, the temptation, the unblessed security of making God in our own image; in making God’s judgements our own; and the utter rout that is incurred by God’s magnificent refusal to be bound by our imaginations.

That said, I, like the disciples, am going to indulge in a little imagination, a little biblical speculation here, to wonder aloud about the backstory of the man found begging by the side of the road.

He was not alone in the world. Although he lived with a disability, he is not, thank God, portrayed by the evangelist as helpless, meek, or without impressive personal strength and wit. He is a grown man, but he is still in a close and recognized relationship with his parents. He may be a very young man, I think, new to his own authority, because the authorities who question him decide to follow up with his parents, rather than allowing his own answers to stand alone. So perhaps he still lives at home.

The picture of our begging blind man is shifting slightly, colouring in as we speculate, admittedly, and imagine a young man, the age of some our own sons, living at home but just beginning to branch out on his own account. He is not filthy or destitute, but he has an expectation of his village, his community, his people that they have some investment in his economic welfare and continued security of place in their society.

There is then, perhaps, a social contract that allows a young, blind man to become an entrepreneur of sorts, making his living as a beggar at the gates, while he saves up for his parents’ retirement or removal from this mortal coil, for the day when he will be left truly alone, at the mercy of his neighbours. He is training them in habits of generosity towards him.

And what do the neighbours get out of this contract? Well, that is where it begins to get interesting.

There is, of course, ample provision and instruction in the Law for the people of God to provide for those unable by reason of status or stature to provide for themselves. The law of compassion is a good foundational ethic, grounded in the everlasting mercy and steadfast kindness of God. The opportunity for the people to do good by doing right by their neighbour is one aspect of this social contract.

But other, less lofty motivations may be at work, as we discover when the contract is upended by the man’s sudden restoration to sight and to mobility of social status. What is it that his neighbours stand to lose when the beggar receives his sight?

For, to his accusers, this is all wrong. They refuse to celebrate the healing of their son, their neighbour, one of their own. Instead of receiving his healing with joy and the hope of further blessings to follow, they criticize this interruption of their carefully constructed social order, their carefully metred generosity, their cautiously regulated religion.

As long as he remained as a child, kept his place as a beggar, as a sinner, as a boy, they could pretend to love him, scattering pennies in his path. But condescension is not the same as compassion, and as soon as they were invited to confront him as an equal, equally blessed, equally loved, equally justified by God, then they set about to undermine his conversion to one of them.

They questioned his identity. They questioned his parents. They questioned his story. This is not how the world is supposed to work, they say. This is not how healthcare is supposed to work, they mutter. We can all relate to the shock of a miracle, the bewilderment, disorientation, and reorientation that must follow events outside of our understanding. He, stalwart, steadfast, and sassy, answered their doubts until there was only one place left for them to go: it didn’t count anyway, because the God that they knew didn’t work through people like him and his Jesus.

The god that they knew knows his place.

And as soon as we say that, we have entered that prison where God is locked away within our imaginations, restricted by our rules of engagement.

If only they had taken the trouble to open their eyes, their ears, their hearts, to listen to the story that the blind man told, to see his joy and wonder mirrored in their own eyes. If only they had taken a moment, caught their breath, to utter a prayer of praise, of thanksgiving, of celebration for the mystery of God’s unbidden grace.

They were offered a window into the raucous and unkempt, wild and overflowing mercy of God; but they turned their backs, drew down the blinds, and then asked without irony, “What is it that we don’t see?” In their desperation to keep their own story alive, to keep the status quo, they resorted to describing the Son of God as a sinner, so that they would not have to accept the reality of their own blind and deliberate sin.

But we can’t help ourselves, can we? We make judgements all of the time, telling ourselves stories about the people we encounter in the store or on the road, deciding whether or not they deserve good fortune or a good lesson in the realities of life.

This week, in the wake of an awful attack on ordinary people on an ordinary day, in the midst of shock and grief, anger – and gratitude for all of the good that was done to counter such evil intent – in the aftermath, people began making up stories about a snapshot photo of a woman on Westminster Bridge, and reaching some quite stark judgements about her character, her history, her moral value. Others countered with other photos of other people with equally made-up stories. The clamour for categorical judgement, the instinct to assign relative value to our neighbours outweighed any attempt to tell the true story of real, shocked, and hurting human beings.

We can’t help ourselves, telling stories and doling out moralistic endings, telling them out loud to the television news, or posting them online to invite agreement, bolster our sense of self-righteousness.

We doubt with a religious fervour any good intentions of those we view as our enemies, politically or socially, even out of faith; and we make any excuse for our own exercise of condescension and collusion with the creation of that prison for the god of our imaginations. We tell stories about others so that we do not have to confront, much less convert, the stories we dare not tell about ourselves.

What we do much less often is to listen, much less to seek out the stories that others are telling about themselves; or the story that God is telling.

When his disciples asked him what kind of sin had caused the young man to be born blind, Jesus refused to make up a backstory, to justify his suffering or his misfortune, such as it was. Instead, he told the story of a man born to bear witness to the glory of God, the unbridled compassion, the unstoppable stream of God’s grace and mercy.

For this is what Jesus did. Rather than keep things in their proper places, their created categories, Jesus was born as the Incarnate Christ, the Son of God. Not condescending but co-existing with the most human of compassion, he listened to our stories from within. He heard our hearts break as one with a pulse. He loved, he laughed, he caught his breath. He would not allow God to be kept in a compartment, safely locked in heaven and out of harm’s way. He broke the mould. He broke the tomb. He broke his mother’s heart, and then he turned around and came right back home.

He broke open the prison of our imaginations, and revealed the glory of God in the simplest of ways: by treating each person, every blind beggar among us, as one made in God’s image, with the potential to show forth that glory in their own, sacred lives.

Glory to God, whose power working in us can do more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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