It’s kinda sad that humans are so skilled at asking all the wrong questions. The story in John’s Gospel of the man born blind is a wonderful example of how many ways religion and religious people can get it so utterly wrong.
It’s important first to make a distinction between religion and God. God is the creator, the one who calls us, the one whom we worship, the one with whom we are in relationship. God is the one who saves; religion doesn’t have the power to save.
Religion is simply the framework to help us understand God. Sometimes religion does the job well and does direct humans to God—great! I hope this is the story for all of us gathered here for worship.
Other times, religion gets in the way, obscuring the pathway to God, or worse: telling people they are not welcome in God’s presence, or telling people they are rejected by God. There is real harm done to people in the name of religion—that’s what happens in this Gospel lesson.
A man who had been born blind is noticed by Jesus and his disciples—the disciples kick things off with a terrible question about who sinned. Who’s to blame for this person’s misfortune? Questions can reveal our assumptions, so you can hear the subtext rumbling underneath the question: how can I avoid a similar fate? How can I remain righteous? Uh, Jesus, is it okay to dismiss the humanity of a person who lives with a disability? Can we just keep talking about this person while they’re standing right there, rather than engaging with the disabled person directly?
Jesus, with his divine patience, responds to the disciples’ question—this isn’t about sin, this isn’t about blindness or disability. This is about what God is doing in the world, and that’s what we’re here to do—to do God’s work while we’re here, while it’s light out.
This theme of light keeps coming up in John’s Gospel, and can you almost hear the echoes of where this Gospel started: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. In my favorite translation of this verse, in the The Message, it reads: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it. The darkness doesn’t even get it.
The story continues with examples of the many ways people just don’t get it. Jesus restores this man’s sight by some mysterious healing miracle involving spit and dirt and washing in a particular pool of water, but no one is rejoicing about the restoration of sight—people are asking how did this happen? Who healed you? How could a sinner heal you? Were you even really blind to begin with? Who has been vetted to speak? Whose testimony can we trust? Whose theology is in the right order?
Here’s the question everyone is missing: what is God up to?
Wherever healing is going on, you can be sure God has something to do with it. And if religion is getting in the way of God and getting in the way of God’s healing work, then that religion is useless at best and evil at worst.
For a long time, I’ve told people that I can’t defend religion or even Christianity, because I can’t deny the real and lasting harms that have come to people in the name of religion. The same thought process behind casting out the formerly-blind man from the synagogue, thinking they’re doing something good for God, is the same thought process that let crusaders think it’s okay to battle with and kill people who don’t confess faith in Jesus, the same thought process that let colonizers and conquistadors kill off indigenous populations as long as they could confess faith in God before dying because then their souls were saved.
People have done terrible things in the name of religion, even Christianity, and people continue to do terrible things to one another in the name of religion, even Christianity. In the name of their religion, people are supporting legislation to complicate the lives and interrupt the healthcare of transgender people. There are real consequences, and there is real harm being done to people—kids and families are suffering.
Is this God’s will? What is God up to? Well, if you’re curious what God is up to, look for where healing is happening. Follow the healing. Where are people experiencing grace, and wholeness of self? Where are families experiencing support and understanding? Where are people with disabilities welcome to participate as full human beings with their own opinions and ideas and emotions? Where are people welcome with their questions, their histories, their feelings, even their anger toward God? Where is healing happening?
No one is beyond God’s reach. No one is exempt from healing. If we trust in God’s healing power, are we willing to participate in God’s healing work on this earth? We’re sitting here in a sanctuary, clearly implicated as religious people, but our faith is not in religion. Our faith is in God, whom we know in Jesus Christ.
If the question is “Who sinned?” we have a simple answer for that: all of us. All of us have sinned. None of us deserves God’s mercy, though God freely gives this gift of mercy, welcome, forgiveness, acceptance, freedom.
But if the question is “What is God up to?” we might develop a curiosity that keeps us looking for where healing is happening, noticing where God has healed us of our pains and our brokenness, and offering up ourselves and our own sacred stories to God’s healing work.
While it is still day, while the light of Christ illuminates the world: there is plenty of healing yet to be done, and there is plenty of God to accomplish it. The only question is: what is God up to?