1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
This past week I drove down to a Renton casino to get my food handler’s permit. The food handler’s permit is required in order to work at Luther’s Table.
When I arrived at the testing site I sat through a 45-minute class covering the rules for food handling and preparation. Our instructor emphasized the importance of washing hands often—especially after going to the bathroom: Wash once before leaving the bathroom and then again after returning to the workplace. The reason for this, she said, is that germs are spread by toilet paper failure. Over and over again she kept referring to toilet paper failure. She didn’t have to explain what that meant!
Talking publicly about body functions and body fluids tends to make us uncomfortable. All I have to do is mention mucous, sweat, urine, vomit, diarrhea, blood, semen, menses, pus, saliva and you’re already squirming, right? It’s awkward at any time, but in church? It doesn’t seem appropriate to us!
Body fluids in Jesus’ day were considered unclean and Jews had all kinds of rules related to keeping clean. For good reason, too! Even though people from Bible times knew nothing about bacteria and germs, our modern science confirms that washing is important to good health.
Thing is, rules for keeping safe and clean can easily become rules that keep people apart. In Jesus’ day, people with disabilities and diseases were believed to be under God’s judgment so they were to be avoided. Not only did people with such afflictions face physical hardships; they faced social barriers.
So imagine what it would’ve been like to be the blind man in this story. Suddenly, after meeting Jesus, his whole world changes! Not only can he see for the first time, but, because he’s no longer blind he can now function as a full member of society, accepted by his community.
But put yourself in the place of the religious leaders. They’re threatened by the healing of the blind man not only because they can’t explain or control it. They’re concerned about the way it was done! Jesus, the man who performed the healing, was breaking all the rules.
Picture this: Jesus spits on the ground. In our day, for some reason, we’re okay with baseball players spitting. But in general, we find spitting to be crude and unsanitary. According to Jewish law both the dirt on the ground and human body fluids were considered unclean. Jesus makes mud out of this unholy mixture, and then smears it on the eyes of the blind man! Well, before we judge the religious leaders too harshly, what would you think if someone did that in front of you?
But “body fluids” are really only the beginning. The rest of John’s story makes Jesus look like a man who’s going out of his way to break the rules! In v. 14 we learn that the healing took place on the Sabbath. Healing was considered work, as it would be for medical professionals in our world, and work was forbidden by Jewish law on the Sabbath.
So–where are you in the story? Are you someone who can relate to the experience of the blind man–someone who knows the pain of feeling rejected because of society’s rules? Most of us know the experience of being a Pharisee, judging individuals or groups of people as unacceptable because they don’t follow our rules. We might know the experience of the blind man’s parents, afraid to speak out even when they knew the truth because they were afraid of the consequences for themselves.
But hopefully, each of us is working hard to study the example Jesus gives us and follow that way. Jesus looks for those who are most vulnerable and puts their need before the rules of society or even religious rules.
The men of ARISE left us this past week and headed over to St. Matthew Lutheran, where they’ll be for the month of April. Don Sorenson, who did a marvelous job of leading our effort to host them this year, was asked, “Aren’t the men coming into the church earlier than they’re supposed to each night?” Don’s response: Rules are meant to be broken.
To which, I believe, Jesus would answer: Amen! Rules have a place in organizations and society. But where rules keep people out (or down)— and especially people who have little power or advantage in society—rules, as Jesus shows in today’s reading, are meant to be broken.
Which invites us to some Lenten self-examination. Lent is a time for Christians to consider what we might give up—maybe for a season but maybe beyond. As today’s story teaches, one thing we might ponder is which of our rules we might need to give up for the sake of others.
We don’t deliberately set out to exclude people. But as the Pharisees in today’s story remind us, we can never assume that good intentions are enough. Without trying or without knowing it we do put up invisible barriers just as powerful as those religious rules that shut out the blind man. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is hard work because it forces us to put ourselves in the shoes of others—to see and experience the world as they do.
Disciples of Jesus constantly look for opportunities to practice Jesus’ example of welcome for all people. I want to point a few examples that I’ve seen happen here over the past year.
One example is our new bathroom. Here is a space that is all about body fluids! Here is a space that is all about clean and unclean. Last year’s remodel made it available to all people: Male and female. People with disabilities. Anyone can use it! Here is an example of taking something that seems unclean—something we’d rather not talk about—and allowing it to point to God’s welcome.
And what about children? We’ve been working to ensure that children know they’re truly welcome at worship. Worship may not be as quiet and orderly as we grown-ups like. There may be distractions. And kids are all about body fluids!–tears, dirty diapers, runny noses, throwing up–remind us of our adult discomfort with body fluids. Children offend our adult sense of what’s proper. But here at worship, they could be a sign of God’s presence, and power, and welcome.
More recently, we have adopted an Affirmation of Welcome that states clearly and specifically who is welcome here: all ages, all ethnic backgrounds, all sexual orientations, all gender identities, all educational backgrounds, all economic conditions. We choose to put people before society’s rules, maybe even before traditional religious rules. By doing so we become, like Jesus, rule-breakers. And that means we will make ourselves uncomfortable some of the time.
During Lent many Christians ponder what we might give up in order to give glory to God. For the sake of people with disabilities, we have given up a few pews. For the sake of children, we give up some of our need for order and quiet. By his example Jesus shows us that one of the most Christ- like things we can do is give up our ideas of who—and what—is clean or unclean.
May the one who loves all people heal us…and our world! AMEN