Creekside Church
Sermon of April 2, 2017

"Rags to Riches"
John 9:13-17

Rosanna McFadden


Good morning. To say that Tommy had a difficult childhood would be an understatement. Tommy was the youngest of six children. His dad had a criminal record, including being charged with murder, and couldn’t kick his cocaine habit. The family wouldn’t see him for months, but when he showed up, it usually meant that Tommy’s mom would be on the run with the kids soon. Tommy’s mom lived on food stamps and welfare checks; and she and the kids were in and out of homeless shelters. When Johnny was in 8th grade, he was 6 foot 2 and weighed 380 lbs. Three of his siblings already had criminal records.

Before Tommy started high school, his oldest brother made a phone call, and Tommy was adopted by a successful sports producer who provided a stable home, changed Johnny’s diet, put him through a rigorous workout routine, and got him playing basketball on the high school team. Tommy lost more than 100 lbs., was a McDonald’s All-American, Indiana Mr. Basketball, and after two year of division 1 play, is headed to the NBA draft and a big contract.

Some of you will recognize this as the story of Caleb Swanigan, center for Purdue University and on the short list for National Player of the Year. We love stories like this: they’re heartwarming and inspiring. Caleb’s story has been told on the Big Ten network and a feature story in ESPN magazine, commentators refer to it while they’re calling games. It’s a story about dedication, hard work, and second chances. It fits into the broader narrative of the American story: a society of immigrants -- people who came to this country with nothing but their dreams and the resolution to make them a reality; people who pulled themselves up their own bootstraps and made a new life for themselves and their children. This is a country where we tell our children that “You could grow up to be President of the United States someday,” and where young people with no interest in politics still believe that they could be a billionaire -- or at least a multi-millionaire -- if they work hard and stay focused. We love to hear about underdogs who come out of nowhere or teams who overcome adversity and succeed beyond their wildest dreams. We even have a name for these kinds of stories: Cinderella stories.

Because this story line is so much a part of who we are and who we think we could be, it’s easy for us to think of this gospel story from John 9 as that kind of Cinderella story: a tale of a man who was born blind, whose life was transformed by an encounter with Jesus, and he and his parents lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, this story is not as much about the Blind Man Who Could See as it is about The Pharisees Who Are Still Blind. Even more unfortunate, if we are looking for ourselves in this story, we are probably most like the Pharisees. If it makes you feel any better, Pharisees are not evil people. They were a group of religious leaders who were committed to observing the rules and doing things the Right Way. There is nothing wrong with these qualities, except that when unchecked by self-awareness they can lead to bullying and self-righteousness that causes us to get hung up on the details, and keeps us from seeing the forest for the trees. That’s the kind of blindness which afflicts the Pharisees: they’re so busy reading the fine print that they forget what the contract is for.

The entire story from John is long enough that I didn’t have Scott read it all for us. I’ll summarize: feel free to fact-check as I go along, or read it on your own later. You can find the whole story in John 9 verses 1-41. Jesus and his disciples see a man who was blind from birth -- the man is probably begging at the side of the road--and the disciples ask Jesus, “Who messed up there? This guy or his parents?” Not exactly a compassionate response to the man’s disability, but blaming the victim is hardly a contemporary phenomenon. Jesus doesn’t answer this question, but says that God’s work will be done revealed through this man.

And then Jesus does an interesting thing: the thing with spitting on the ground mixing it up and putting the mud on the man’s eyes is interesting enough, but here’s is what I think is really interesting: Jesus doesn’t identify himself; Jesus doesn’t ask if the man has faith; Jesus doesn’t ask if the man wants to be able to see; Jesus doesn’t ask permission to spread mud on the man’s eyes. The only thing Jesus says is “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” And frankly, if some stranger had spread mud on my eyes without asking, I’d probably want to do that anyway.

The heart of this story is not the restoration of the man’s sight, it’s the interactions which follow with the man’s community: which are an exercise in what people do with facts they don’t like. First his neighbors, who act like they aren’t sure it’s the same man they’ve known for all his life. Seriously? They ask for details about the guy who healed him, and the man can’t tell them. So they take the man to the Pharisees, who berate him, but the Pharisees can’t get around the fact that this man used to be blind and now he can see. So the Pharisees call the man’s parents and yell at them, but the parents aren’t of much help -- they don’t defend their son at all. So the Pharisees call the man back in a second time to yell at him for being healed. The man sticks to his story, and even has a little attitude with the Pharisees, “Why do you keep asking me who did this? Do you want to be his disciples, too? If you know so much, why are you asking me about it? If he wasn’t sent by God could he heal a blind man?” And the Pharisees respond, predictably, by retreating to their moral high ground: “You were born in sin! How dare you try to teach us anything!” and they drive him out of the synagogue.

And Jesus finds the man, and this man, who began his story by saying that he didn’t know anything about Jesus, end up proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of Man, the Messiah. The man born blind comes to see the truth that the Pharisees are still blind to. That’s the last we hear of this man born blind. He is given not only sight, but insight -- and he was thrown out of his community because of it. Not exactly the Cinderella story we love to hear.

This gospel story is about a sign of God’s power--a blind man being given sight -- but it is more about what we do with people or stories which don’t fit into our narrative; testimony which challenges our expectations. I hope we’ve all come to grips with the reality that the relationship between church and society is changing, and has been changing for decades. If our strategy for growing the church is to expect young people to have large families who stay in the community and bring their children and grandchildren to faith in the denomination in which they were raised, friends, that ship sailed fifty years ago. There’s no point in yelling at the people who aren’t here, or wishing we could go back to the Good Old Days when everybody came to church all the time.

But if we believe we have something to offer our neighbors and friends -- something they may be longing for but are not even aware that they’re missing -- then maybe we can see our church in a different way. There are at least three people here this morning who believe in the importance of making a commitment to a community of faith. There are many, many more people out there who have not yet found their way to Creekside. Their stories may not fit our narrative of how people “ought” to be when they come to church. We may find ourselves asking -- hopefully privately -- What’s the matter with them? Is it their fault or their family’s? And that is a Pharisee talking. Here’s what Jesus says, “I came into the world so that people who were blind to God’s good news would be able to see it in me. If you think you already have it all figured out, that you see everything clearly, you are blind, because you’re not looking to me.”

Hassan and Dawn and Karen, I say again, welcome to Creekside. I hope that getting to know you and getting to hear where you have come from will help us see ourselves more clearly. Maybe you will reveal some of our blind spots. Maybe the commitment and enthusiasm we see in you will remind us of why we chose this family of faith, and that our enthusiasm can kindle that spark others. We hope that God will lead us to welcome more people and hear more stories and learn to know people who are longing for acceptance and community and the good news of Jesus Christ. People whose eyes will be opened and who will open our eyes in return.

During the final hymn Elizabeth and I will be offering the service of anointing. We’ll be making the sign of the cross on your forehead with oil, not spitting in the dirt and spreading it on your eyes -- but I hope that for those of you who come forward for anointing, and even those of you who stay in your seats -- that your desire for healing of mind body and spirit, forgiveness of sins and strengthening of faith, is part of desire to see Jesus. I will pray that we have the humility to know that none of us can see everything clearly, but trust that we will see how Christ is the way to healing and wholeness, for our lives and for the world. Amen.


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