April 3, 2011

John 9:1-12 & 30-38

“Thawing Out: Living Beyond Blame”

Listen to this sermon on podcast HERE:  110403SermonPodcast

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rev. Allen V. Harris

It’s so nice to finally have a few days when you can really feel a thaw coming on, isn’t it?  I mean, even with the quirky snow storm this last week, both before and after it, I could really feel in my bones the spring thaw taking place.

As many of you know (all too well!) my partner, Craig, and I are fanatics of the Cleveland International Film Festival.  It is an eleven day extravaganza of films from all over the world that comes to a close today downtown at Tower City Center.  It’s not just a festival of friends for Craig and me, but it allows for some of the best quality time my partner and I are able to spend together.

Clearly one of the most excellent, if not the very best, films we saw was a German film called “Vincent Wants To Sea” – S – E – A.  (1) It’s about a young adult, Vincent, who is grieving the death of his mother.  His father has decided that because Vincent has Tourette syndrome, known mostly by the uncontrollable tics and often inappropriate verbal outbursts that persons who have the disease exhibit, he believes he can no longer take care of his son but must put him in a residential facility.

Vincent’s roommate at the new facility, Alexander, struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Vincent soon befriends a woman dealing with anorexia, Marie.  One night the woman decides to steal the head therapists car to run away in order to avoid being put on a feeding tube.  She

Marie, Vincent, and Alexander

invites Vincent to go with her, and they both kidnap his roommate when he threatens to undo their plot.  Thus, the classic road trip ensues, with Vincent’s life-long dream of going to the seacoast as their goal.

It becomes a classic chase when Vincent’s father, an ambitious politician, heads out after the trio with the lead therapist.  Both the father and the therapist have much to lose if word gets out about the “escape,” especially after Vincent and his pals steal gas from a gas station.

The true beauty of this movie is the gradual, although never quite complete, thawing that happens to all of the characters in the movie. (2)  Early on it is clear that each person is “frozen” in time in their own understanding of themselves and one another.  Vincent is frozen into thinking he cannot live without his mother.  Vincent’s father is frozen into thinking having such an imperfect son will ruin his political career.  Marie is frozen into thinking that death is her only option out of the pain of life.  The lead therapist is frozen into thinking there is only one way to solve the serious problems of her clients.  It’s very cold as the movie starts.

Vincent and his father

But once the equilibrium is upset – whether because of the mother’s death, the threesome’s getaway, or the possibility of careers being destroyed – true nature of frozen relationships comes out and the blame game starts.  Vincent blames his father for his mother’s death.  His father blames Vincent for his wife’s alcoholism.  The therapist blames the unwillingness of her patients to change for her inability to progress in her field.  The father blames Vincent and his deceased wife for holding his political fortunes back.  And all three fugitives blame each other for not truly understanding their disease or true selves.

If all this blaming were the sum total of the movie, I would have left feeling very, very cold.  But as the road trip, or chase, continues and more and more complications and plot twists slow down the inevitable confrontation, each character begins to work through the blame and see each other and themselves as more real, more complex, truly more precious.  A gradual thawing occurs.  Blame becomes less and less important and understanding becomes more and more important.  Care replaces conflict, love replaces lethargy, and joy replaces judgment.  Are all the problems of the characters in the movie solved?  No, but there is finally a chance for some honest movement in that direction.

It is at this point that the double entendre, the multiple meanings of the movie’s title, “Vincent Wants To Sea,” become evident. Yes, Vincent wants to see the world, a world his family has prevented him from seeing because of their overprotective care or their fear of being embarrassed by his illness.  And, yes, Vincent wants to go to the sea, that beautiful body of water that represents for him freedom and unrestrained abandonment.  But also, Vincent wants to be seen as a human being, a child of God in our faith-filled words, as someone more than his disabilities, more than his physical attributes, more than his tics and outbursts.  And, as life has its way, the challenge to “see” goes both ways.  Vincent is urged to see others more deeply, even those who have hurt him, like his mother, who has abandoned him, and his father, who shames him.

Jesus and his disciples encountered a man born blind from birth.  The very first question out of their mouths, “who sinned?,” shows that even the disciples could not see beyond this man’s illness, his deficiency, his physical attributes.  Neither could they see anything beyond their hypercritical religious views. The blame game is not a new phenomenon, nor are people of faith immune to it!  Relating illnesses, natural disasters, and other human tragedy to sinful behavior is a long-time, tried and true phenomenon of we religious types.  Whether blaming the earthquake in New Zealand on gay skiers (3), or Katrina on a gay pride parade such knee jerk responses show that most of us really don’t want to see very deeply.  (4) In so many ways we want to remain blind to the depth of complexity of the world around us, particularly those who are different from us, who represent the other, the lesser, the farther from the center, the demanding, the enemy.

But Jesus would ask of us something different, something more.  Jesus wants all of us to see, with our eyes, yes, but also with the eyes of our heart.  That is why the Apostle Paul prays that we might be given the spirit of wisdom and revelation so that the “eyes of our hearts” might be enlightened to know the hope to which we were called (Eph. 1:18).  We are called not simply to bring sight to the blind, but to be healed of our own blindness, for Jesus understands that simply having full use of our eyes does not mean that we can see what is right, and good, and noble, and just.  It takes intentionality, time, energy, and faith to see deeper. “Seeing” in John, it’s crucial to note, is all-important. “To see” is often connected with belief.(5)  Jesus knew that the man who was sitting by the roadside was not the only who needed to be healed from blindness that day, nor the one who most desperately needed healing.

We all have the tendency to want to blame people for the circumstances they are in, as if we could reduce other people’s place in life to a single factor, or even a set of definable factors.  If I could be completely honest, I am blind to the true difficulties of people who smoke or eat too much. “If she would just stop smoking she could save all that money and use it to help her family and save her own health as well.”  Allen, tell that to someone’s face who smokes.  We say the same thing about drinking and drugs as well.  Some of us, myself included, have a bias against those who are big in body, and assume that if someone just “stopped eating so much” they would be fine.  They’d save money and their life too, I righteously declare in my own little head.  Allen, tell that to someone’s face who is large.

Or we look at a person in poverty and assume if they just worked harder they could find a job and get off public assistance.  Tell that to someone’s face who is in poverty. Or we look at a single mother with lots of children and assume that they just sit around waiting to get pregnant, or they can’t help themselves, or they do it for the public assistance money.  Tell that to someone’s face who has lots of children.

We are so blind to the depth of complexity, and richness of texture, of people’s lives.  This leads quickly to the very judgmental attitudes I talked about last week when Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well.  We allow ourselves to be “blind” in order to stay in our comfort zones, like Nicodemus, in the story and sermon we heard the week before that.

Now, we say to ourselves, if so many of us are blind, at least those who are aware of their own blindness, those who already see the world from a compromised circumstance, understand, right?  I mean, can’t a person with a disability understand another person with a disability best, or at least better?

Thus, one would think that the three characters in Vincent Wants To Sea would understand each other’s difficulties better.   If not in their specifics, at least in their generalities.  But they don’t understand each other at all! Vincent can’t understand why Marie just doesn’t eat something!  It makes no sense to him at all.  Marie can’t understand why Vincent just doesn’t hold back his urges more.  It makes no sense to her at all.  And neither of them can understand why Alexander has to line up everything in rows and clean everything before, during, and after use!  Each time one would misunderstand the other one’s illness or condition, he or she would respond, “Es ist nicht so einfach.” “It’s not that simple.”

Likewise, we can’t assume that someone who is a “minority” or a class of person who is marginalized or oppressed ought to automatically assume other minorities or oppressed peoples will “get it.”  Each oppression is unique, complex, and hard to see beyond.  African American’s don’t necessarily “see” the plight of our Jewish sisters and brothers.  Gay men don’t always automatically “see” the hurts and perspectives of women, or people of color.  Someone who is confined to a wheelchair isn’t an expert on what it means to be deaf or Hispanic.  “Es ist nicht so einfach.” “It’s not that simple.”

And then, there is that entire other category, which perhaps includes the majority of persons in our world, who don’t think there’s anything wrong with them at all.  Those who cannot see their own “blindness” and therefore sit on the high and mighty judgment seat over others, dealing out their own version of “justice.”  Jesus must have dealt with so many people who were blind and did not know it, the kind of blindness that is harder to address and even hard from which to be healed.  He had to deal with the blindness of his disciples, the blindness of the religious authorities, the blindness of the neighbors, and the blindness of the parents.  Like Vincent’s father, the rising politician with growing influence, who thought he “saw” everything clearly and knew what to do to fix the situation, those with the most power and resources often have the hardest time seeing.   Rather, as Walter de la Mare’s simple and yet profound poem reminds us, we should remember that all of us are blind in some way:

All but blind
In his cambered hole
Gropes for worms
The four-clawed Mole.

All but blind
In the evening sky
The hooded Bat
Twirls softly by.

All but blind
In the burning day
The Barn-Owl blunders
On her way.

And blind as are
These three to me,
So blind to someone
I must be. (6)

So, what are we to do?  It is very, very cold in a world, especially in the shadows of our own heart’s blindness.  Well, we need to come outside into the light.  We need to leave the cold darkness of our fear-driven, comfort-focused, prejudice-supporting dwellings and into the warm, healing rays of God’s marvelous light.  Jesus declared to his disciples and the man born blind, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” John’s gospel proclaims of Jesus’ incarnation, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)

Jesus healed the man of his blindness, and then turned to the far more difficult task at hand, and that is bring his disciples and the religious leaders out in the marvelous light of God’s love.  It will be hard, because they – and we – are terribly committed to seeing things the way we’ve always seen it.  Like a mole, we have made our home in the cold darkness of our sin-driven judgmental attitudes about who deserves God’s healing love and how that healing should or should not be dispensed, that we cannot fathom the warmth, the light of God’s grace, which doesn’t demand people to check their personhood at the door in order to be loved, but simply and profoundly loves us for who we are, God’s beloved child.

Tony Campolo tells a story of getting on a plane at an airport.  Before the flight he noticed a little girl, no more than five or six, quite eagerly waiting to get on the plane, exclaiming loudly to all who could hear her, “I’m going to see daddy!”  On the plane, as luck would have it, the little girl and her mother were seated directly across the aisle from Rev. Campolo.  She continued through almost the entire flight rather loudly squealing, “I’m going to see daddy!”  Unfortunately, near the end of the flight the plane hit a rough patch of turbulance, and all the breakfast she had eaten that morning, along with all the peanuts and soda pop she’d had on the plane, proceeded to come up and pour out all over the little girl’s dress in a most foul smelling mess.  The plane shortly landed and there was not much time to get her cleaned up before disembarking from the plane.  Well, Rev. Campolo, disgusted as he was, was equally interested in seeing what would happen once the long-anticipated reunion of this little girl with her “daddy” would take place.  Campolo was amazed, however, as the father, upon seeing his little girl come out of the jetway, without missing a beat, without rolling an eye, without a moment’s hesitation ran toward his bedraggled and smelly daughter hugging her as lovingly and tightly as he could.  Clearly, the eyes of this father’s heart were enlightened.

Isn’t that how we hope God will welcome us one day?  I pray the trip to where we are going isn’t nearly so rough – but it might be.  Certainly the leg of the trip that is on this earth truly is that rough for many of us.  But we yearn to be brought into that marvelous light of God with nary a trace of hesitation or judgment.  The warmth of God’s amazing love is able to thaw out the coldest heart.  The light of God’s amazing grace is able to open up the most tightly closed heart.

Of course, what we wish for ourselves, to be warmed in the light of God’s love, we are expected to pass along to those around us.  “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48)  We are called to “go and tell” others.  It is a cold, world, and there is much thawing that needs to be done.

One of my favorite bloggers, an Episcopan priest by the name of Sara Dylan Breuer, reminds us of the reciprocal nature of this light, this warmth, this seeing, when she writes,

“We cannot be light to the world until we can see that light in the eyes of beggars in our town and in our global village, welcoming that light as Christ’s presence among us and receiving each bearer as a neighbor, a brother or sister with a face and a name. Jesus shows us the way, and his presence with us gives us courage to live more deeply into it.”(7)

Vincent wants to see, and we do, too!  Beloved, let us see the gradual thawing of springtime as a call once again to come out of our cold, shadowy abodes and open our eyes to the light of God’s love for us.  And as “the eyes of our hearts” are opened, enlightened, let us have the grace and wisdom to offer the same light, the same warmth, to those around us as Jesus has offered to us.  And may we see our neighbor not for their disabilities, their imperfections, their limitations, their needs, their faults, over even their sins, but for their identity as one claimed and redeemed by God.  And may the heat of all this light warm our world.


(1) Movie Trailer for Vincent Wants To See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibjW5lZigno

(2) Good review of Vincent Wants To See: http://www.suite101.com/content/road-movie-toward-the-sea-a249708

(5) Seeing connected with belief: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-lose/misogyny-moralism-and-the_b_836753.html

(3) On blaming gay skiers for the New Zealand earthquake: http://www.queerty.com/the-stupid-decision-to-force-christchurchquake-net-offline-20110228/

(4) On blaming Hurricane Katrina on gay pride parade:  http://mediamatters.org/research/200802280018

(5) Seeing connected with belief: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-lose/misogyny-moralism-and-the_b_836753.html

(6 ) “All But Blind” by Walter de la Mare,http://poetry.literaturelearning.org/?q=node/23

(7) Dylan’s Lectionary Blog, Lent 4. Biblical Scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer looks at readings for the coming Sunday in the lectionary of the Episcopal Church, 2005.  http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/02/fourth_sunday_i.html