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New Sight

MH in Austin

based on John 9:1-41

I've never been there, but I imagine Jasper is a nice East Texas town. Peaceful and quaint. Until last summer people felt good about life in Jasper, known by locals as the Jewel in the Forest. Racial problems of a former day seemed to have been overcome by this community. In fact, while the majority of the population is white, the mayor and several other local officials are African American. But in June of 1998 the summer heat gave rise to a sad and violent situation of racial prejudice, hate and ultimately grisly murder as James Byrd Jr., a local African American was dragged to death chained to the back of a pickup truck driven by three white supremacists. Although the events of this murder may seem far off and distanced from us, as though they should be only parts of a history book of the old south, they are both geographically near, and come even closer within our homes via the media. We are bombarded with up to the minute news on TV, radio and in newspapers which have closely covered the trial of John King, the first defendant and ring leader who was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Before our eyes, on TV the guilty John King flaunts and blurts his white supremacist dogma, refusing opportunities for showing remorse or repentence, as both his father and Byrd's family sorrowfully grieve, wondering what went so wrong.

Unquestionably King and the others are guilty and the community is sadly beginning to put this chapter of their life behind as he is taken to death row. This horrific story has been an open wound for Jasper since taking place, and surely will effect them for years to come. In the aftermath, questions have been raised as to how this could have happened in their town. Many had felt that that racism was no longer an issue, but ironically until after Byrd's death the Jasper city cemetery remained segregated - a stark and telling reminder of racism unseen by the eyes and lives of the town's people. Divided between white and black, a wrought iron fence physically separated the two races in death. James Byrd was buried in this cemetery and when John King is executed, they will likely share the same ground. And I believe that Jesus shows himself to us through such ordinary new visions, like an old iron fence in a small town cemetery.

It is somehow mind-boggling to ponder how such things happen today, on the cusp of a new millennium with so many new lifesaving medical technologies and breakthroughs. We feel so modern, yet are so barbaric at times. But such crimes are not only isolated to Jasper. Within the past year we have also witnessed school shootings and ghastly hate crimes against homosexuals in other states. What is it that blinds us from both seeing and addressing the roots of these problems? The familiarity we have in our own comfort zones of our lives tends to blind us to the nasty underbelly that persists in our communities and our lives. We attain satisfactory and comfortable levels of life in our jobs, in our homes, in our communities and in our faith. many of us feel that we have arrived, so to speak, in our faith journey. we pray, attend church, maintain our traditions and are happy in so doing. We become blind to the giant white elephants of violence and hatred and suffering all around us. Hate crimes and senseless murders ravage lives, the homeless become dehumanized by our fast paced society, and racism still lurks, hiding a violent agenda. In Texas in particular and other states as well, we are barraged almost weekly with the murders and executions practically becoming regular parts of the evening news. It all happens so much that our vision becomes dimmed and our hearts hardened to the significant pain and horror of hate, violence and vengeance. The comfort and familiarity of our lives can prevent us from approaching such social challenges with a new, changing , growing walk with God. and without accepting and using the new vision that Jesus Christ gives us we tend to lose sight of our responsibility to overcome obstacles and troubles around us which hinder our relationships with God and others.

We might learn something from the Pharisees about this. In today's text they had problems with seeing obstacles in their path. They were not impressed with the formerly blind man . They refused to acknowledge the healing and healer likely because of how and when it was done. The more they heard the man retell his story, the more familiar it became to their ears the less they were willing to see beyond these unorthodox signs and supposed sin of Jesus and thus were unable to realize that the good news of God's revelation was in their very midst. The bad news here is that through familiarity we have become complacent about obstacles to faith in our lives just as the Pharisees did by refusing to see God at work in the blind man's healing. they were comfortable in their relationship with God, following the rules, praying , worshiping, trying to live right, and were skeptical of those who were outside of their tradition and experience. They believed that they were spiritually "there", If asked about their spirituality a Pharisee might reply, "In my relationship with God, I've made it.' Spiritually, I'm where I want to be, and that's where I'm going to stay." they were satisfied with their relationships with God, refusing to look to new ways to deepen their intimacy with and image of God.

However, what they perceived as their perfect association with God was shaken one day when a crowd of people arrived at their temple office, the din of noise created by many mumbling voices talking about the man they say was blind but now sees. In their legalistic yet curious way the Pharisees sought to secure the healed man for questioning. They were quite interested in who it was that had healed him and how it took place. The man told them that it was Jesus who had healed him. "He put mud on my eyes," he said, "then he had me wash in Siloam's water and voila, now I see." The Pharisees then argued some about whether or not this man Jesus was able to perform such healing signs. Some argued that he couldn't do such things, it must have been a fake, because no one that sins, that makes clay and heals on the Sabbath is without sin. but others, catching momentarily a glimpse of the new sight questioningly protested wondering how can a man who is a sinner do such things? as they argued they were divided over the issue - Jesus is a sinner, we believe, but a sinner can't do this kind of sign. they asked the formerly blind man what he thought about Jesus. "He is a prophet" was the new response. This again was unsatisfactory...feeling that they were being somehow duped and that they were having their religious authority undermined by the situation, the Pharisees move on in their investigation to the man's parents. "Is this your son?", they asked, "was he born blind?" Yes, remark the parents in a brief response, afraid to say too much as they might incriminate themselves in this heightening legalistic investigation. So again the Pharisees ask the formerly blind man if Jesus is a sinner. they invite him to call the whole thing a hoax asking him to "give it to us straight - tell us the truth - give glory to god, Man - surely Jesus didn't do this." the man, exasperated by all this questioning, ready to get out and see the world for the first time, sighs and responds, "I don't know if he is a sinner or not, but I do know one thing for sure, before he came my way and noticed me, I was blind. and since Jesus came into my life, I've overcome great obstacles and I can see." By this time the Pharisees are getting mad, the man isn't playing their game, they again ask him to recall what happened. I've told you already - why do you ask again, and finally,almost sarcastically the man asks the Pharisees if they wish to become disciples of Jesus. now they've had it. There loyalty is to God and Moses and not to some strange confusing magician-like, miracle worker, law breaker. Driving the formerly blind man out they jeer at him how he a sinner tried to teach them. Although the Pharisees could not disprove the miracle, a blind beggar had looked them in the eye and taunted them in open court. In the end they clung to their time worn theories of punishment. "You were stooped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" they had snapped at the man. Blinders do not so easily fall off. The more they heard from this man the more they became closed minded to what they knew and believed the more hardened and closed their hearts became to the radical reversal of fortunes in Jesus. The longer they heard of and saw this beggar man's faith journey progress to new perspectives and sight in Jesus, the more they put on their blinders and closed their view off from the truth of Christ. familiarity with the norms of their tradition and their skepticism built up their apathy and complacency toward the seemingly logical facts of the case. After kicking the man out of the temple, some of the Pharisees overheard the healer, Jesus, talking with him, and the man is seen confessing Jesus as the son of man, and worshiping him, kissing his feet - moving from new sight toward enlightenment and understanding.. Jesus then declares that he had come to the world for judgment that those who are blind might see and that those who see might become blind. This paradoxical statement caught the attention of some of the Pharisees - surely Jesus, they said, we are not blind, we see you clearly. He replied, If you were blind, you would not have sin but since you see you are guilty.

The Pharisees thought they had it all right. they performed the right rituals, said the right prayers at the right time, they followed the law, but they, who so frequently accused others of sinning, were themselves condemned - spiritually blind to their own inadequacies and sinfulness before God. They had used their religion and spiritual practices, as tools for pride and judgment. And who are we to judge the Pharisees? We're all blind to certain things, Jesus came to open our eyes to see more clearly , not to judge with but to see our own obstacles in life. Through their everyday familiarity with their relationship with God the Pharisees had become complacent, were satisfied with their standing, had quit using their real ability to see the truth of Jesus healing grace in the face and story of the formerly blind man - and we tend to do the same. the good news of the gospel was right before their eyes and they totally missed it.

The people of Jasper TX thought they were doing all right too - and they had and continue to work hard towards overcoming new fences and barriers that obstruct peace and justice in their community . They felt good, they were comfortable. Until suddenly the warped and horrific act of John King and company, changed all of that, the tensions of racial prejudice reared up as James Byrd was dragged to death. Had the town missed something? were things not really so harmonious between the races? A wrought iron fence separating black from white was an obstacle they had not seen. After Byrd's death, Catholic priest Ron Foshage organized a group of grieving townspeople to tear down this fence that powerfully represented so much unseen and powerful hatred keeping them from the cleansing, sight giving water of Jesus. . " give us the power and the strength through this rotten and broken fence to mend the wounds in our own lives," he prayed. Giving the call for us to stay open and alert to identify the fences, or obstacles in our own lives. The Pharisees either couldn't identify or see enough to overcome their obstacles of tradition and prejudice. Jesus offered them new vision but they refused to see his divinity or to agree that a new important sign was upon them. They stuck to the party line, the status quo and went on believing that everything must be ok, we are doing what we do and we do it right.

Do you know the 1972 Johnny Nash hit song, "I can see clearly now." Remember how it goes...(sing) I can see clearly now the rain is gone, I can see all the obstacles in my way... I propose this song is a reminder that good news is given for us through the new sight spiritual insight and understanding of the blind man. It reminds us that through Jesus we can deal with the particular fences in our lives, whether it be racism or vengeance or spiritual stagnation. How often can we see all the fences in our lives that act to cut off our relationship with God? God's Word sharpens and shapes our sight and gives us insight and understanding to overcome familiarity and apathy so we can see the obstacles in our lives. God doesn't necessarily remove our obstacles, but does empower us to see them, and thus to work around, move beyond, and most importantly overcome them. Thus we then have the freedom to live our faith in the world in a dynamic way. always striving to continue toward new sight, clarity and vision, conquering obstacles through the life giving and life changing lens of Jesus' love. Thanks be to God for new sight. Amen.