Sermon: Sunday, March 2, 2008: Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts: 1 Samuel 16:1-13  ;  Psalm 23  ;  Ephesians 5:8-14  ;  John 9:1-41


In the name of Jesus, who heals us, confronts us, and calls us to change the world. Amen.

Before I went to seminary I worked at the Harriet Tubman Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Tubman, you recall, was a famous conductor in the Underground Railroad, the system of paths and safehouses and scouts that shuttled enslaved African Americans from bondage in the South to freedom in the northern states and into Canada. The Harriet Tubman Center took her as their inspiration in a different kind of work. The center is a shelter for women and children experiencing domestic violence, family violence in their homes. We saw ourselves as a resting point on the long journey from the bondage of daily fear to the freedom of life lived outside the long shadow of violence.

Our organization was controversial in a couple of ways. First, after many years of operating in a semi-confidential site, an unmarked row of homes in a residential neighborhood in the city, the board of directors made a decision to raise millions of dollars and build a huge public facility filling a huge city block on the south side of town. They broke with the tradition in the domestic violence movement of keeping their location secret because they wanted to bring family violence out of the closet and give the city a visible reminder that, according to a 2001 study by the Bureau of Justice, family violence occurs in one out of three families[1] and is a community issue that needs to be addressed by all of us together.

We had administrative offices on the first floor, classrooms and public meeting spaces. Our grounds were filled with sculpture and playgrounds and were a beautiful addition to the neighborhood. The second floor is where the women and children we sheltered lived as they continued their journey to freedom. We were staffed with security personnel around the clock, but the thing that actually kept us most safe – and there were no significant safety issues the entire year and a half I worked there – was how public we were. If you were going to bring trouble to our door, the whole neighborhood was going to see it.

It probably didn’t hurt that the police’s precinct offices were across the street either.

Being that public rubbed some people wrong. People raised in an era where you just didn’t talk about things like family violence thought it was shameful that we were putting the issue right in their faces. But in a culture where nearly a third of all women, regardless of class background or ethnicity, report being abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives, we didn’t see it as a private problem we saw it as a cultural sickness – something that needed to be brought to light if it was ever going to end.

A similar dynamic is taking place in this morning’s reading from John. Jesus and his disciples pass by a man who had been blind since birth. The first inclination of the disciples is to ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This isn’t callousness on their part, it reflected the prevailing attitude of the times – that physical disabilities were the result of sin, either the person’s own sin or the family’s. You can see the result of that kind of thinking – the man is blamed for his own congenital blindness, and as a result has to beg to make a living and the people around him are free to ignore him as they come to the pools at Siloam to gather water for the rituals at the Temple. The community has turned this man’s need into a shameful burden that he is forced to carry all alone, and he has been so conditioned to accept their explanation for his blindness that he doesn’t even call out to Jesus for healing. It is Jesus who takes the initiative to heal this man – and he does it in public, for all to see.

The other thing about the Harriet Tubman Center that was somewhat controversial was that we were both a shelter for victims of family violence and a center for treating people who batter. We didn’t house our programming for offenders in the same building as the shelter, and we didn’t bring victims and offenders together to do marriage counseling, but we also didn’t abandon the people who were caught in a pattern of habitual abuse – people who needed to be liberated from their bondage to violence as well.

Often the offenders were men, but not always, and more often they were mandated by the courts to receive treatment for their violent behavior. People with power and control don’t often willingly or voluntarily decide to give up that power. It takes a higher authority confronting their unhealthy patterns to create change in their lives.

This was controversial for many of our colleagues in the domestic violence movement. The prevailing attitude was that people who batter weren’t worthy of our attention, that we should be focusing on the people who really needed our help. Our perspective was that in a culture where violence has become so prevalent that we come to think of it as routine – and we’ve seen this here in Chicago with the Lane Bryant shootings and the Northern Illinois University shootings and the five shootings here in Logan square since January 1st – that the whole culture needed to be confronted, that everyone needed our help.

Again we see a parallel in the gospel reading. Healing the man blind from birth has an interesting effect on the surrounding community. At first they can’t believe that this is the same man they’d seen begging his whole life. If you listen to him speak, he is filled with a new confidence that comes from the healing he’s received. He doesn’t speak like a man filled with shame. He doesn’t try and accommodate the prejudices of the people who’d spent their lives disregarding him. He speaks with the authority of one whose eyes have been opened to the brokenness of the world around him and he says, “One thing I do know: I once was blind, but now I see.”

The community surrounding the man is not ready to be taught by someone they had written off. Even though his testimony makes perfect sense, “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.” They answer him, “you were born entirely in sins, and you are trying to teach us?” And they drive him out of their community.

The strange irony of this story is that the spit in the eye that heals the blind man becomes spit in the eye to the community that has abandoned him. Jesus’ healing miracle is both a personal liberation for the one who was abandoned by his neighbors and a harsh awakening, a confrontation of the system of living that binds so many of us in oppression in so many different ways – a system that the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (in the 6th chapter, just after the passage we heard this morning) calls the cosmic powers, the rulers, the authorities.

And this reveals something to us about Jesus’ healing ministry, about God’s healing intentions for the world. God doesn’t come to heal some and leave others – God wants to heal us all together. Now for some that means being set free from the culture of silence and the closets of oppression that have kept them living in shame, and for others it will mean being confronted with things we have allowed to continue in our midst thinking they were not our concern, that they had nothing to do with us. Sometimes the healing we receive will feel like spit in our eye, and sometimes it will feel like finally arriving in a land of freedom, walking with our heads held high in the full light of day, but in the end it will mean healing
for all of us.

It is not coincidental that the man Jesus heals is emboldened by his encounter with God’s righteousness to speak a prophetic word to the powers and principalities around him. In his experience of woundedness, and through the miracle of his restored sight, he has become what Jung and later Henri Nouwen would call a “wounded healer.” In his book by the same name, Nouwen writes,

“Jesus was a revolutionary, who did not become an extremist, since he did not offer an ideology, but Himself. He was also a mystic, who did not use his intimate relationship with God to avoid the social evils of his time, but shocked his milieu to the point of being executed as a rebel. In this sense he also remains for [us] the way to liberation and freedom.”[2]

The anointing we receive heals us, and sends us out to be healers in the world. The oil that Samuel used to anoint David, to set him apart for leadership, is the oil we receive as God reaches out to each of us in our own journey of healing – healing for us, and through us for the world.


[1] Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Study, 2001

[2] Nouwen, Henri. The Wounded Healer [1972].

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