It would be fitting in a way if today were the last Sunday in Lent rather than the second to the last. Not that I want Lent to be over. While the season is always busier for pastors, secretaries, musicians, custodians and other church staff than other times of the year – although a little less so than in past years for pastors here because of the way the Kenosha cluster did the midweek Lent grand pastor tour – it is always a blessed time, one filled with contemplation and reflection on who we are, how we are making our way in God’s world, how we can approach our need for repentance and forgiveness in true humility, how we can discover who we are so that we might be a people and church better able to connect with God, God’s world and God’s people.
We have been attacking at least part of that proposition – the part that asks what kind of church do we want to be, what kind of church do we want to be a part of – during our Lenten journey together. And this story, the story of the man born blind whose eyes are opened by Jesus to a brand new identity, to whole different way of seeing himself, of looking at his life and his world, would be a perfect way to wrap-up that journey. Sometimes, though, things don’t go the way you want but the way they need to. We have the raising of Lazarus coming next week. We can anticipate an enlightening final step.
The question of identity is a powerful one. Identity is so much more than just a name and a picture on a piece of plastic that lets us drive, cash checks, vote, check out library books. It is interesting, it is challenging, it can be frightening if we let it this time we are in – as people, as faithful people, as faithful followers of Christ in the world. We still seem to be looking for our identity in Jesus when you would think, after almost 2,000 years, we’d have figured it out. But not quite. Maybe in a couple more millennia. Right now, it seems, we are in the process of rediscovering who we are – or at least we should be, who we are supposed to be. We are looking for or trying to hold onto our identity. It can be confusing. It can seem like we are flailing around in the dark, being pulled this way and that, unable to focus, unable to see clearly.
What helps us to do that, to see more clearly? More light? Would more light surprise us, the way it must have the blind man in today’s story from John? Where did it come from? The man had never seen that light before. He’d never seen any light before. His world has been only darkness. Living in darkness was his identity, the way he presented himself to the world, the way he coped with the world. Identity is more than bits of information, a compilation of details. It is how we view and interact with the world, how the world views and interacts with us. We want to know who it is we are inviting into our world and whose world it is we are entering.
Spending all his time in darkness wasn’t the man’s fault, even though his culture said it was, his or his parents’. He hadn’t asked to be born without the ability to see. He hadn’t asked to spend his days and his nights in unending, all-enveloping darkness. He didn’t know anything else. He had made his peace, it would seem, with his, I don’t know, what would you call it, condition. If that’s the best word. It seems so nondescript. Much like the man himself. He’s just there. He’s part of the landscape. Not someone who would be seen, even by those with perfect vision.
He’s not someone who would expect much. He might have hope – he seems like he’d be a hopeful sort – but at the same time limited expectations. He wouldn’t expect to be noticed, expect to be helped because he hasn’t gotten that much help in his life. There’s a reason for that. Results. Or more accurately, lack of them. Our society certainly can understand that. Who wants to “throw away” time, talent and/or treasure on him that knowing the results probably wouldn’t be there. The world is geared to using its resources in ways that produce measurable results. Helping a blind man wouldn’t do that because in the end he’d still be, you know, blind.
In a world that must have at times baffled him, must have at times seemed hostile to him, very seldom tried to try to accommodate him, he is about trying to scrape together an existence from sitting at a city gate, beggar’s bowl in hand. That was his identity. That’s how the world would have seen him. That’s even how he might have envisioned himself. Blind. Beggar. Nondescript. Nothing to offer. Someone not worth a lot of thought. Not worth the expenditure of resources. No hope of positive results from that. Trying to get out of the world’s way. And the world would be happy with that, with him staying out of the way. Trying to do the best he could to live his life without being a burden, or too much of a burden, to his mother and to his father – who most likely loved him and grieved his situation before they got used to it, before they accepted that this is the way things were meant to be and that there was no possibility things ever would change – and to his community.
That was all before, of course. That was all before Jesus, of course. That was all before Jesus came to town, of course. That was all before Jesus the rule breaker did a little bit of work on the Sabbath, of course. That was all before Jesus just came up, just walked right up to him without so much as introduction, covered his eyes with mud, told him to go wash the mud off and gave him his sight, something he had never had before.
In an instant, the man’s world changed. In an instant, the man’s identity changed. He was no longer the man born blind but the man who had been given his sight. He was no longer the beggar on the corner. He was no longer someone who didn’t have to be noticed, someone who could be shunted into the background. And frankly, all that change, instigated by this wandering rabbi, scared the heck out of people, caused them, or at least some of them, to ask questions that they really didn’t feel comfortable asking. Questions a whole lot of other folks didn’t want asked, didn’t feel real comfortable thinking about, didn’t want to have to try to answer.
Our identity as a community of faith in Jesus is much like this. Do we want to want to be a church, to be part of a church, that has its identity tied up in, lashed to, inextricably linked to the hands-on, muddy thumb work of Jesus or do we want to be a church that would rather keeps its hands clean? Do we want to be a church, be part of a church, that has as its identity seeing the places in the world that need our help, need to be lifted up, need to be given the gifts that we can bring or do we want to be a church, be part of a church that says we don’t think we would see any results from those efforts, that tries to measure results in society’s terms not in Jesus’ terms? Do we want to be a church, be a part of a church, that has as its identity helping, being a source of aid, without even being asked, or do we want to be a church, be part of a church, that sits back, waits to be asked for help, then says what do we get out of it? Do we want to be a church, be part of a church that has as its identity wrestling with the tough questions, the uncomfortable questions or do we want to be a part of a church that is content to let the questions flow past unanswered as long as we are undisturbed? Do we want to be a church, be part of a church that has as its identity living its life in Jesus wide open to the world or do we want to be a church, be part of a church that keeps its eyes closed tight, hoping that if it can’t see the world the world won’t see it, and more to the point, won’t expect anything of it?
Being the church, being part of a church that has as part of its identity seeing and being seen isn’t easy. Being a church, being part of a church that has as part of its identity asking and wrestling with the tough questions such as what is our identity as a church of Jesus living into the call and work of Jesus can be tiring, maybe unnerving, even at times offputting to the outside world. Being the church, being part of a church that steps up and steps out can come at a cost. For the man born blind, with his new identity, the cost was his old family, old community, old identity, old way of life. But he was not so blind that he could not see that there was a better way waiting for him in following, truly following, the man who had noticed him, had seen him, had stuck mud in his eyes. What might it take for us to find the way, a better way if need be, to follow the one who comes to us unheeded and often times unexpected with mud on his hands?