3/30/14 – WHO’S ON FIRST by Lynn Naeckel


John 9:1-41

Do you remember that old skit done by Abbott and Costello called “Who’s on First?” If not, you can see it on Utube – it’s something everyone should be familiar with. It’s a brilliant piece of comedy and draws on many traditions from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte to Shakespeare to opera. It raises confusion and misunderstanding to new levels.

Today’s Gospel reminded me of this skit and at one level it really is a comedy. Here is a blind man, who could only make money by begging. Jesus returns the sight to his eyes and what happens? The neighbors who used to see him begging begin to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” Meanwhile the man himself kept insisting, “I am the man. I am the man!”

The neighbors bring in the Pharisees, taking the formerly blind man to them for questioning. They immediately get hung up on the fact that this healing took place on the Sabbath, therefore the healer could not be from God.

Then the Pharisees go ask the man’s parents. They admit that he was blind from birth and now can see, but they don’t know how he was healed and tell the Pharisees to ask him. He is of age. Of course, they have already done that,

but didn’t like the answer.

So they return to the once blind man and declare that the one who healed him is a sinner. The man replies, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

This goes on for several more repetitions. Really, if the issues involved weren’t so important, this would be funny. In the end, the man loses all patience with the Pharisees and answers them, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” And the Pharisees promptly drove him out – probably meaning out of the synagogue.

Notice that throughout these exchanges the Pharisees and the man are talking at cross-purposes. For the Pharisees the basis of their theology is tradition. The basis of the man’s theology is his own experience. It makes me wonder how many of our discussions with friends, family, or the church don’t work because of this same difference. Remember how often you’ve heard people say, we’ve always done it this way.

There’s nothing wrong with tradition – in fact, as Episcopalians we rely heavily on our tradition to guide us, but when tradition becomes cast in concrete and refuses to accept any new data, then it becomes a detriment.

There are times in all of our lives when we need to alter our worldview. It may be a long and sometimes painful process, but as we gain experience in the world we are not well served to ignore it and insist on sticking with the old world view. If we do, we have to twist the facts to fit, which is what creates the comedy of this story.

The Pharisees, instead of considering what the man said, react with anger and defensiveness. This is often the case with those in power when faced with anything that doesn’t fit, as I’m sure most of you have noticed.

The other thing that enforces this idea of cross purposes, is that in the beginning the Pharisees represent the most educated and learned people in their society. The man is a blind beggar. In the course of the story, the man regains his sight and he is shown to be a better thinker than the Pharisees. In the end they are the ones who are most truly blind. They have switched places.

This is further emphasized by the progression of the man’s understanding of Jesus. At first the healed man refers to Jesus as “the man called Jesus.” Then when the Pharisees ask what he has to say about the healer, he says, “He is a prophet.” Later, when Jesus goes to the man and confesses that he is the Son of Man, the man says, “Lord, I believe.” And he worships him. So while the Pharisees make them selves look ridiculous by refusing to accept new information, the man becomes a disciple of Jesus.

How many times has our church done the same sort of thing as the Pharisees? The church censured Galileo and threatened him with death unless he recanted his scientific findings that the earth moved around the sun, not vice versa. It is said that he recanted, but muttered under his breath, “Yet still the earth turns.”

There are Bishops of the Anglican Communion who support the death penalty for gay or lesbian people because they are “choosing” a depraved way of life, in spite of the scientific data to the contrary. Not to mention those who continue to deny the possibility of evolution or global warming.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to give up division for Lent? Oh wait a minute. That was last week’s sermon, wasn’t it. Still, the issues of division between people are rife in this lesson too. Why don’t the neighbors KNOW if this is the same man as the one who used to beg in their village? Why don’t we SEE the beggars or the homeless people on our streets? And if we’re used to seeing them on that corner, in that condition, why would we not all celebrate their escape from that life? We not only like to separate ourselves from others, but we often want to keep it that way, don’t we.

A blind beggar who suddenly turns up with his eyesight and can now do useful work and wears ‘decent’ clothes upsets the established pattern of the neighborhood. Who does he think he is to argue with the Pharisees? Is he going to take a job from someone else? Does getting his eyesight back make him think he’s as good as us? If accepting him back into the community is difficult, what about accepting back a recovering alcoholic or a reformed prostitute?

I’m afraid the painful truth is that we often don’t want to revise our view of someone we’ve been able to look down on. And of course the solution to that is not to look down on anyone. Giving up divisions means giving up looking up or looking down on anyone. All, and I do mean all of us, as children of God, are on the same level. It may not always feel that way, but in truth, there is only one playing field and we’re all on it together. AMEN

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