10 March 2008

The Dangerous Healing

The Dangerous Healing
sermon on John 9.1-41
First Presbyterian Church of Hartford, CT
More Light Sunday, March 2, 2008
By Heather W. Reichgott

I was fifteen when I fell in love with my wife Gillian. Well, since we were both girls I didn't call it love. I called her my best friend. But soon I discovered that everything was much more interesting and exciting when she was involved. Playing the piano was an interest, but playing the piano while she played the violin was a joy and delight. Reading was a way to pass time, but reading the same books as Gillian was an adventure. And of course, I wanted to be physically close to her all the time. This was awkward. Eventually I figured out that really it was more than a friendship, and more than the little flickers of interest I'd have for a male classmate once in a while: it was love.

We grew up in a conservative semi-rural area outside of Philadelphia. The word "gay" was an insult. I only knew one other gay person in my school, and from his experience I learned that being gay meant a series of abusive relationships with older men. It didn't look like fun.

I was trying to figure out religion at the same time. We went to a Presbyterian church, where I had vociferously refused to be confirmed the year before. I didn't understand what someone called Jesus who lived 2000 years ago had to do with life today, and I wasn't so sure about all of this business with miracles, either. Then we moved across the country to Seattle. I was heartbroken at leaving Gillian. We started attending another Presbyterian church where all of a sudden the sermons started making sense. The ministers spoke of a God who loves us more than anything, only because of God's own grace and not because of anything we can do, and that God sent his son Jesus to be our Savior and Friend. And one night when I was feeling particularly upset, that same Jesus appeared to me in a vision, and that was the end of my resistance to Christianity.

The sermons at this church were also very antigay. More than once I heard homosexuality compared to alcoholism from the pulpit: an addiction, a desire one may feel but must not act on. I was a zealous new Christian and therefore I did not want to be gay. I tried very hard not to be gay for a few years, tormenting myself secretly for my friendship with Gillian, when previously all I'd felt about the friendship was gratitude.

In college I was a religion major. I got used to reading whole books of the Bible, not just isolated verses here and there. I discovered that there are two different stories of Creation, that there are truly horrific laws in Deuteronomy, and that the closest thing to a romantic love story is about the love of David and Jonathan, in 1 Samuel. Meanwhile I was getting to know many gay and lesbian people, and found them to be normal human beings.

Since then I have found a strange place in the church as a lesbian Candidate for ministry. I may be stuck as a Candidate forever. Or I could be ordained next year if the church changes the rules. It is weird and wonderful. And my greatest strength is still the gospel of Jesus Christ, which I heard for the first time in that church in Seattle. My faith is preserved by the grace of God, and by what some very antigay preachers taught me about grace.

I am standing before you as someone who has been healed: healed from suspicion about Jesus Christ, healed from poisonous homophobia, healed from ignorance of Scripture, and healed from ingratitude about the most wonderful woman I've ever known, a woman who is now my wife. Being healed has not simplified my life, however. Instead it's become much more complicated, and in many ways more difficult.

For the man born blind, the healing itself is easy and straightforward. Jesus comes up to him, spits, makes some mud, puts the mud on his eyes, tells him to go dunk himself in a certain fountain, he does it, and he sees. The man is certainly amazed, but he does not seem to have any internal conflict about it. He receives the healing. He goes away seeing.

The trouble comes when other people don't know what to do with him. First they're not even sure who he is. It's the sighted people who can't recognize their own friend and neighbor! Then they interrogate him. How did you get your sight back, anyway? What are you saying about this Jesus character? How dare you, how dare you be healed? They interrogate his parents--and they become wishy-washy and back down, refusing to support their son.

Even the writer of the gospel doesn't quite know what to do with him. He is awkwardly called "the man who used to be blind." Have you ever seen the Monty Python movie Life of Brian? It's a take-off on the life of Christ. At one point in the movie we meet a man who is sitting on the street calling out, "Alms for an ex-leper!" When questioned, he replies that he used to be a leper, and made his living by begging. Jesus came along and healed him--but all he knows how to do is beg. So he's still begging, but he's an ex-leper instead of a leper. And even in the Scripture, our man born blind is still "the guy who used to be blind." He is a confusing person.

That is why his healing is dangerous. No one knows what to do with him. It's always easier to get rid of something unknown than it is to live with the unknown and learn to understand it.
And in order to understand him, the people around him must change some of their basic views about the world, and they must change their beliefs about the man called Jesus. There is no way to deal with the healed man unless the community is willing to be healed as well.

This cannot be a friendly dialogue among people with differing views. They have to change their views if they are to live with the healed man's presence. Now really, these are pretty traditional views and in general would be acceptable in their time and place. It wasn't so strange to believe that disability was due to the parents' sins. It wasn't so strange to believe that a man who wandered around claiming to speak in the name of God was a charlatan. Those views only become untenable when the people are confronted with the formerly blind man, and his dangerous healing. If the formerly blind man is here, if he has been healed, if Jesus opened the eyes of the blind--they have to choose whether to believe their old prejudices, or whether to believe what's right before their eyes.

Some of them get it. And like us when we're in the middle of a change of heart, they start stumbling out of their prejudices. They're the ones who say in verse 16, "How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?" But others don't get it, and so they start arguing among themselves. The Greek word for it, in verse 16, is schisma.

So now we have a recently blind man who sees, a Christ who performs the healing and then apparently wanders off leaving the healed man to his own devices, and a community that falls into schism because of the mere presence of the healed man. The community reacts by punishing and blaming the man and his family. The parents are afraid to say too much in their own son's defense. The man is asked to explain himself over and over and over.

And so I ask you today: Does this sound at all familiar? I ask you, a wonderful new More Light congregation, on this day when we're paying special attention to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the life of the church: Does this sound at all familiar?

The story of the man's interrogation reminds me of my friend Sara, a transgender woman who was under care of Boston Presbytery for a long time. She was interrogated in dreadful ways at presbytery meetings. Now the Presbyterian Church has no rule against the ordination of transgender people. None. But there is so much prejudice that it makes the whole process worse than if you are gay or lesbian. Ministers and elders stood up at these meetings and asked Sara "How can you destroy God's creation?" They quoted Scripture about men not wearing women's clothing, never mind that they themselves were standing there in clothing made of mixed fibers and ate shellfish at dinner, never mind Sara saying over and over again that she is a woman and that's why she wears women's clothes. Never mind that Sara is a brilliant preacher and has a gigantic heart and knows more about the same Scriptures than any of those people, precisely because she had to sit with them for a long time before she transitioned.

LGBT people are asked to explain ourselves to the church. People ask "how can you be gay and Christian at the same time?" "How do you justify your lifestyle given what the Bible clearly says?" Seminary classmates asked me if I'd ever heard of Romans 1. Of course I have. I used to torment myself with Romans 1 as a teenager. My usual comeback to that is "Haven't you ever heard of Romans 2?" But no one has Romans 2 memorized, more's the pity. So people just looked at me in confusion. It's as if being a lesbian Christian is supposed to make you an expert on the Bible, church history and polity. You have to have explanations and comebacks and well-thought-out arguments to justify your existence in the church on a week-to-week basis.

The man born blind is not like Sara and me. He doesn't have any well-thought-out arguments. People question him. People challenge his right to be where he is. He only answers with the experience he's had. He tells them about the healing. He doesn't make any claims about who Jesus is, or explain what happened. He just says he was blind, and now, he sees. The evidence for that much is written on his body. He just keeps saying, in simple words, what happened to him. He was blind, and now, he sees. He leaves it up to Jesus Christ to come along eventually and say to the Pharisees, well, if your piety can't make sense of something that really and truly happened to this man, maybe your piety is the thing that's really blind here.

The healing of the blind man was straightforward. The healing of the community from its blindness is much more difficult. The community, now, has to learn to see the man who was blind. And to accept the possible consequence of what that means. They have to learn to share in his dangerous healing.

Before we end, I want to return to this business about sin. Sin comes up so much in the text. The man's parents are blamed for sinning and producing a blind son. Jesus is called a sinner for healing him on the Sabbath. And sin comes up so much in the church when we talk about LGBT people. We get labeled sinners, and the thing that is sinful is our gender, or our love for each other. Now not only is that labeling sin something that isn't sin at all. It also makes our real sins invisible. According to the church, it hardly matters whether I'm faithful to my wife or not. I've never cheated on Gillian, but I'm appalled, and you as Christians should be appalled too, that the Presbyterian Church assigns the same moral status to fidelity and infidelity. Not to mention the moral status of whether I hold up my end of the bargain in day-to-day married life. Or whether I'm even kind to my spouse. The church doesn't care. It only cares that she's a woman.

Jesus never says that the man born blind is not a sinner. He never says that the man stops being a sinner. He only says that his sin has nothing to do with his blindness. And so when he is healed, and no longer blind, the community now has to view him as an ordinary person. Was he born into sin? Only in the same way that we're all born into sin. Does God judge him? Only in the same way that God judges all of us. The community does not get to have its one special set-apart sinner any more. And they want their one special set-apart sinner very badly--because they don't want to think about the sin they all have. So things get very dangerous for the healed man. And yet, he has been touched by Jesus Christ, and the whole community has the capacity to be touched by Christ in the same way--if they share in his healing, and commit to facing whatever danger may come to them as a result.

In becoming a More Light Church, you have given the Presbyterian Church many gifts.

You have made it public that the First Presbyterian Church of Hartford, Connecticut is not going to condemn gay people for being gay. You have rolled out a rainbow-colored welcome mat. You have decided that any danger, any flack you receive as a result, is worth it.

You have added yourselves to a growing number of Presbyterian churches that stand together and say, in the face of all the voices that say otherwise, that God is doing good things in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and that the church only harms itself by excluding us from full participation in its life.

LGBT people are accused of causing conflict in the church, just by existing. You have decided not to condemn us nor to argue about us, but to embrace us. Unlike the Pharisees, you have decided to embrace the dangerously healed ones, and in so doing, to hope and pray for the healing of the whole church.

But perhaps the most important gift is that you have decided to treat lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as people. Just as broken and just as much God's children as everyone else. Sinners and saints, just like everyone else. Needing a community of faith to rejoice with our joys and to pull us up when we fall, to value our gifts and to call us on our crap, and to sit with us at the banquet of the Lord's Table.

And as we come to the Lord's Table, may the Holy Spirit make us aware of Christ's presence. He is here in this bread and this cup as a living body, not a dead one. When we gather here, we become his living body too. This table is a dangerous healing, just as surely as the man born blind. Coming to this table, we enter into the end of that man's story, where Jesus says at the end of a long journey, to someone who has lived through a miracle and through all the danger and conflict caused by that miracle: Do you believe in the Son of Man? ... You have both seen Him, and He is the one who is talking with you.

You have seen Him. You are witnesses. He is among you. He has been talking to us through this Scripture and at this table our whole lives long. He is able to heal us. And he is most certainly able to endanger us with that healing. May the Holy One continue to open our eyes to the presence of God--wherever it may lead. Amen.

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