“Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.'” -John 9:41

I’ve been catching up on my reading recently, trying to get through the stacks of books on my desk and beside my bed.  Among those, and certainly one of the most enjoyable, has been Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber.  It’s a memoir of her ministry, from one whose path was a little less… obvious, perhaps, than many.  The story she tells of her call is particularly poignant: after about 15 years of sobriety, she received a call about the death of an old friend.  They had met while both were doing stand up comedy; they had been in recovery – affectionately termed “the rowing team” for many years together.  But whereas she had married, had children, and gone back to college, he had contested with the roller coaster of mental illness, before finally taking his own life.  The call informing her of PJ’s death carried with it a request: that she officiate his memorial service:

My main qualification? I was the religious one.
The memorial service took place on a crisp fall day at the Comedy Works club in downtown Denver, with a full house. The alcoholic rowing team and the Denver comics, the comedy club staff and the academics: these were my people. Giving PJ’s eulogy, I realized that perhaps I was supposed to be their pastor.
It’s not that I felt pious and nurturing. It’s that there, in that underground room filled with the smell of stale beer and bad jokes, I looked around and saw more pain and questions than anyone, including myself, knew what to do with. And I saw God. God, right there with the comics standing along the wall with crossed arms, as if their snarky remarks to each other would keep those embarrassing emotions away. God, right there climbing down the stage stairs after sharing a little too much about PJ being a “hot date”. God, among the cynics and alcoholics and queers.
I am not the only one who sees the underside and God at the same time. There are lots of us, and we are at home in the biblical stories of the antiheroes and people who don’t get it; beloved prostitutes and rough fishermen. How different from that cast of characters could a manic-depressive alcoholic comic be? It was here in the midst of my own community of underside dwellers that I couldn’t help but begin to see the Gospel, the life-changing reality that God is not far off, but here among the brokenness of our lives. (p.7)

Among the brokenness of our lives. Among the marginalized.  And not only when we are there to bring God’s light.

That one is an old idea, a relic of our colonial past, so ingrained in us that we barely notice it’s presence: the idea that we bring light to the dark corners of the world.  On its surface, it’s one of those holdovers that still gives evangelism a bad name for us; yet even when it’s not about Jesus, we still often consider ourselves the “haves” – the knowledgeable, wealthy, powerful, “blessed” – and them the “have nots”, or even the “wants” – because who wouldn’t want what we have?  Certainly, the income disparity is there, and often it is important.  We give to those on the margins, via some very good and reputable causes.  We give to places where human corruption or natural disaster – or both – have caused tremendous suffering; we give so that the marginalized will not be hungry, will not be cold, will not feel forgotten… for a little while, anyway.

But it behooves us to remember: we give to where God is already.

Although sometimes the setting is so unfamiliar that we have trouble seeing; although we are often tempted to see ourselves as the light-bearers, the love-bearers in horrible situations, we are not God incarnate in these settings.  It is not entirely up to us: God’s light and God’s love are present whether we, the privileged, notice or not – whether we recognize it or not.  Our experience of God, through the often-necessary gifts that we give; this experience of God as moving from the privileged “middle” out to the margins, is not the only experience of God… nor, perhaps, even the most powerful experience of God in that moment.
Yet if we were to experience of God in the margins – to experience God in one who dwells on the edge of our society, our comfort… would that not make us question, like the Pharisees?  Would that not leave us uncertain, rattled, dismissive?

The blind man, in this story, lived his entire life on the margins.  The question that the disciples asked was not, actually, as mean-spirited as it seems; theirs was the common understanding of the day, that physical deformity was the result of sin, either of the parents or of the individual.  If the body was “imperfect”, it was the mark of embodied sin, rendering a person inherently unclean, ritually impure – and therefore marginalized, unfit for the society of the “perfect”.  He begs because it is his only option for survival, cast out from society, bearing sin in his body.

It’s odd though, in this story: it is not his healing that removes the question of sin from the equation.  The mixture of dust and spit that Jesus places on his eyes does not suck out his sin, for that had already happened.  The disciples asked Jesus, “Whose sin made him blind, his or his parents’?” Two choices, the two given by society and religious understandings.  Both of which were refused.  Of the two choices, Jesus picked a third, unbinding sin from the body, deformity from purity.  Before sight was restored, God’s presence was invoked in this marginal space, this “inappropriate” body.  God’s presence was invoked within the blind man – within the “imperfect”, within the “other”.  And when his eyes were opened, God’s light came pouring out from this man, casting into stark relief the social and religious ideas that had kept him out for so long.

For vision, in first century understanding, had nothing to do with sunlight being absorbed and reflected and bouncing into our eyes and onto our retinas.  Vision came from within us; reached out and understood the world and brought the information back.  Light came from within, demonstrating God’s presence.  Jesus’ answer, Jesus’ actions in this moment turn the whole notion of blindness on its head; for it is not merely that deformity is cured, but that light is kindled within the one who was dark; God is present in the one who had been abandoned.  The one who was in darkness is ablaze with radiance, there in the margins; and his light – his vision – slams full force into the solid, shadowed images of the law, and notions of purity; into the fiercely held beliefs about who God is and how God acts: ideas that block the light, and make people turn away in fear and confusion, finding it easier to follow in the ways of power and vanity – to see God in the middle, rather than the margins.

There is something still true in the notion of vision from within.  No matter what photons might reach our retina, we still see what we want to see, in any given situation.  Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward, puts it this way: “Now much of modern science recognizes the very real coherence between the seer and what is seen or even can be seen. Wisdom seeing has always sought to change the seer first, and then knows that what is seen will largely take care of itself. It is almost that simple, and it is always that hard.” (p. 151)

We still see what we want to see.

What do we see, when we look for God? Where do we go, to find God? Is it God’s light, breaking in upon us, breaking us open to truths and experiences not our own?  What is at stake for us in our seeking, and perhaps in our finding?

What is at stake for us, as for the Pharisees, when God is at work in the blind beggar, right in front of our eyes? What is at stake for us whe God is at work in an itinerant preacher and his rag-tag group of fishermen, tax-collectors, women – the poor, the unclean, the marginalized?
What is at stake for us, to see God in an “unacceptable” body, at an “unacceptable” time?  What is at stake for us, to see God through the lens of brokenness, or in the body that we would consider inherently other?

What is at stake, when we dare to allow God to speak, not to those who dwell in the margins, but from those very people, in their voices and out of their experiences?

What is at stake when we allow ourselves to hear God speaking the truth of a heavily-tattooed, recovering alcoholic, female pastor? When we allow God to speak the truths of a black teen in a hoodie, just walking home from the store?  the truths of a gang member with blood on his hands, trying finally to turn his life around?  the truths of a mentally ill homeless woman, who seems from our perspective to be little more than a disruption to our nice, orderly lives?

What is at stake for us, to allow God to speak not of the margins, but from them?  And how will we respond?  Will we listen, and allow ourselves to be broken open to other experiences and understandings of God?  Or will the distance from our own experience cloud our belief, and dull our vision?  Will we, with the Pharisees, refuse to own that God might be bigger than the lens through which we are accustomed to seeing?

What is at stake for us when the blind see us clearly, and speak to our truths: to the uncomfortable truths that check our power or privilege;
to new and different understandings of God, embodied in ways we’re tempted to call sinful?  Except we, as progressive Christians, tend not to use that word… we prefer other, less religious ones that function in the same way; words like “defensive”; “hysterical”; “angry”; “bossy”. Words that we, like the Pharisees, use to dismiss others’ experiences of God.  Words that keep from having to see God in new ways; that keep God from stretching us; that allow us to stay in our comfortable, privileged notions of who God is, and how God works in this world.

Jesus isn’t much in this chapter of John’s Gospel.  In a lot of ways, that makes this a good story for us, later followers who don’t tend to have the direct, mud-in-our-eyes experiences of Jesus that dominate the Gospel narratives.  It is a story of what happens after we experience Jesus; after we experience God.  It is a story of what it is to be a Christian, speaking truth to power, even when our experiences are dismissed, and we are marginalized.  Yet it is also a cautionary tale for us: a story of what it is to be powerful, to be fearful of allowing God to break us out of our happy lives in the privileged middle, fearful of what God might say to us from the margins.

Yet worth noting: the story doesn’t end with fear and dismissal.  Jesus, unusually, comes back.  This is one of the rare times when we don’t have the one who was healed immediately following Jesus, or being left behind to who-knows-what-fate.  Jesus comes back, in the end, to the one who was healed and then rejected.  Jesus comes back for the one who experienced God, and light, and refused to conform to “acceptable standards” for such an experience; refuses to allow anyone else to dictate the terms of his faith.  Jesus comes back for the one willing to see, even if he doesn’t quite understand: the one who is not trying to make God in his image, but who allows himself to be remade in God’s.  Jesus comes back for the seer, remade in wisdom, with the clarity to see God in the margins:

In the broken.

In the cynics, and the alcoholics, and the queers.

In the despised, and the rejected, and the crucified.

Shall we let the blind lead the blind?  Shall we, finally, let the broken lead the broken?

Shall we allow God’s light to break us open – a process which can hurt! – to new truths that stretch us and our understanding of God? Shall we allow God’s light to shine upon us: to be light-receivers, our fears and privilege cast into stark relief before the ones we’ve cast aside?  Shall we, finally, hear and follow the voice that calls us to the margins, to the new life that might be possible if we are simply willing to leave our shadowy safety, and step into the light?

In the margins of our world, and in the margins of our own lives, God calls to us; remakes us in wisdom after God’s own image, until the blind become visionaries and the broken become the ones who have invited God in through the cracks.  Until the one who was rejected and killed brings us to new life, and calls us to follow.  For it is only in acknowledging out brokenness that we may be made whole; it is only from our blindness, that we might finally see.

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