by Rev. Jess Harren
John 9: 1-41
The passage for this Sunday, Lent 4, is full of sayings of Jesus, and a seemingly miraculous healing -- that is barely believed. Is Jesus from God that he healed a man? What about that he did it on the sabbath? Did someone sin? Yes, someone sinned. It wasn’t the man born blind or his parents, though. It was a group of someones. Jesus allows this sin to be removed, but gets in trouble for it with the authorities.
A brief note that others have written about better than me. While we’re talking about communal sin, I recommend that you do not compound communal sin, especially that sin for which Lutherans are extra complicit by virtue of being founded by Martin Luther. I recommend that as you read the Gospel out loud, virtually or in person, you do not read the phrase “the Jews” in verses 18 and 22. I recommend that you read what is actually meant, which is religious authorities. There is too much antisemitism in our world for our Bible translations to be uncritically read out loud in worship. This is about pastoral care for those around us and taking our social context seriously, not primarily Biblical translation or interpretation. Especially in our Lutheran church, as much antisemitism that gave rise to genocide was taken from the writings of Luther. In a similar vein, if you want to use the images of light/dark and day/night, Disrupt Worship has already eloquently written about good ways to do that.
Now that we’ve established some basic practices that help us limit our communal sin in current worship settings in the US (and perhaps elsewhere), let’s get back to talking about who sinned. There are several models of disability, the two primary ones being the medical model (wherein the problem lies within an individual person) and the social model (wherein the problem lies with the barriers the world puts in our way, often known as ableism). For example, my child is very sensitive to sensory input, but if everyone in the world was a sensory kid, he’d not have any problems. The world would work the same way his brain works. Is the problem with his brain? No. Is the problem totally with the world? No. The problem is that his brain doesn’t work the way the world expects or wants it to.
The same is true for me. I live with a rare genetic condition and I can’t honestly say that I for sure would like Jesus to miraculously heal my DNA. If Jesus could put mud into my eyes, or on my collagen molecules and rearrange how my body works, would I have him do it? I honestly can’t answer that. I can honestly answer that there are many many things the world and church could do to allow more space for my body to not conform to the world’s expectations. I have written several blog posts about ableism in worship, and I commend those to you in the resource section at the end of this article.
The sin of disability is the sin of ableism. It is the sin of a man born blind having to be a beggar. There are many ways the man born blind could have been treated better by the world around him. Yes, the man in the story is cured, but that’s not the main point. Many of us with disabilities will never be cured. However, many of us will be healed. And healed through Jesus.
What Jesus does in this story is miraculous. He tells a man with a disability that he belongs in society. That he is now able to come before the religious authorities (previously he would have been kept from the temple). He tells the man that his healing -- his inclusion in the unconditional and saving love of God -- matters more than the purity rules. More than the religious rules about the Sabbath. The healing miracle is that the man is restored to community.
Some questions that a preacher might want to ponder as they preach about this passage. How can I talk about disability that allows people to rethink how they understand it? Some people in the Blind community tell us that by talking about blindness in conversations on racism or spiritual blindness when we really mean “unseeing” or “covered up” or “ignoring of reality” or “not understand what is in front of you” is part of the discrimination they face. If we constantly use the language of blindness for ignorance or other realities, we, in our unconscious minds, and the minds of our listeners, teach our brains to associate being blind with being stupid. Ask someone walking around the world who can not see how their intelligence is viewed by those around them if they are presumed to be blind. Perhaps this is one of the sins for which the church must repent.
Here’s another take on this. Who do we exclude from our religious services and places? There are the simple and obvious things like stairs and elevators, but those are complicated and costly. There are more subtle things. For example, how many sensory kids must ask you to turn the music down at church before you’re willing to listen? For example, how many kids and adults with ADHD must you judge for not sitting still during church? For example, how many people with trauma histories must you tell they have to shake hands? Autists? For example, why did it take a pandemic for people with disabilities to get what they’ve been asking the church for for many years -- live streaming and being included when they physically can’t be present?
This passage is giving our church an invitation. Not to necessarily believe in miraculous healings, but to perhaps make healing happen for others. To take the time to see who we ask to be beggars and how we exclude them. To take the time to listen and to bring everyone in - even if we do it in really unexpected ways.
Jesus might not always promise a cure, but Jesus does promise healing. How will you make healing available through your preaching and leading? Because Jesus promises it is there for us, if only we’re willing to look for it.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.