Wicker Park Lutheran Church
Vicar Vicky Carthanassis
March 19, 2023
I am not a violent person. Whoever worked on translating this chapter of John for the NRSV (the translation of the bible we generally use here) I’d kind of like to brawl them over it. The translations decisions they made in just two little verses has given rise to some really terrible life destroying theology. To the extent that I decided I wouldn’t even use their version of them and instead used an alternative translation proposed by Jaime Clark-Stoles. Because the NRSV took some really liberating words spoken by Jesus, added some ablest garbage to them, and declared them the gospel of the Lord.
Did you know that the original manuscripts that people used to translate the New Testament from Greek into other languages was in continuous script? Those manuscripts contain no spaces between words and no punctuation, just one letter after another until you run out of room and then you start a new line with more letters and keep going until you’re done. So when those earliest translators were doing their work, they not only had to convert it to the new language, they also had to figure out like where one sentence stopped and another started, and any form of punctuation that you see in there—quotation marks, parenthesis, periods, capitalization? Translators had to decide where all of those should go in this long unbroken string of letters while also translating it over to another language that had completely different sentence structures! And sometimes a word for word translation doesn’t quite make sense in the new language, so they have to add a couple words in to clarify. They’re usually very small mundane words and not a huge deal.
But this passage contains an exception. Look back at your bulletins, or e-bulletins. What is written down for verses 3 & 4 is a literal translation of what the Greek contains, but it’s not the NRSV. When those first translators were trying to figure out where to place periods, they decided verse 4 should be its own sentence. (Verse numbers weren’t added until the 16th century). But then they were left with the words in verse 3 and how were they going to make coherent sentences out of that? The NRSV translators decided this was a case where they should add some clarifying words. So instead of what we have in the bulletins they wrote “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s work’s might be reveled in him. Period. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day…”
That “He was born blind so that God’s works could be reveled” bit? Words that Jesus never ever said. But nonetheless our bibles claim he did. And people with disabilities or who are chronically ill have paid the price for that. How often we have to hear that whatever conditions we’re dealing with, be they physical or mental or psychological or cognitive disabilities, or any form of chronic health condition, how often people–who generally mean well—will say something really insensitive like “God did this to you so that he could reveal his works, so that he could perform a miracle!” And they think they are sharing statements based on scripture but…that scripture isn’t even based on scripture.
And this is extra frustrating because you don’t even have to add anything to make a coherent idea out of what was written. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. So that God’s works might be reveled in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” And I think this is an example of where what we already “know” can get in the way of a clear message. Because Jesus was never saying that this disability happened so that God could show off how cool he is. No, God’s works are going to be reveled in this man and so that this man can do that task, Jesus and his disciples need to help him around a barrier that is preventing that. This isn’t a story where Jesus poofs sight into someone and everyone gawks over it and in their gawking come to recognize the works of God. No this is a story about a man who had been excluded reveling God’s works by his own very active and outspoken testimony.
We don’t know much about this man whose role today was so significant. We know that he was blind from birth, we know that he would sit outside and beg. We know that he had been in this community long enough that people recognized him. We also know, that because he was blind, he was forbidden from stepping foot in the synagogue his whole life. Blindness, along with a whole host of other conditions, was seen as a blemish, a defect, something that made you impure, unworthy of being in holy places. You could follow the law perfectly, have the most unwavering trust in God. And it would not matter. You have a physical disability. Get out.
And yes, that’s a pretty horrifying thing to hear. And at WPLC we don’t intentionally say that to people. But you have to climb a flight of stairs to get in the building so the architecture kind of makes a real clear point of what types of bodies can be welcomed inside. It kind of doesn’t matter what we say, words alone do nothing to overcome that physical barrier that has been in place for over 100 years. This nameless man clearly was well versed in scripture. He was able to hold his own against religious authorities and argue eloquently with them. But for decades his voice was banned from religious buildings. I wonder how many prophetic voices have we missed out on in this place because they physically couldn’t get in the building?
But now he can see. So now he can go into the synagogue and testify before the religious authorities who are very well versed in scripture about what happened to him.
Today those Pharisees remind us of how we can weaponized knowledge. We know that this man is a sinner. “We know that God has spoken to Moses. We know that those who break Sabbath can’t be from God. We know that this particular man was born “entirely in sin” and in the process imply that we were not. We don’t know where Jesus came from, and because we don’t already know that…that’s kind of proof that it’s not important right?” Just like those verses we looked at earlier, all the things they know get in the way of considering the very obvious testimony that is right in front of them.
I worry sometimes that that has been our attitude with those stairs. We know that a whole host of people can’t get into our building as it is, but…a lift is expensive…new construction sounds disruptive…I don’t know how that would work. Unfortunately, knowing something doesn’t necessitate doing something.
But that’s…not where this story ends. Either for ourselves or for our protagonist. We’ve received a grant from Partners for Sacred Spaces, we’re securing consultants to help us fund raise. The plans for the lift have been drawn up. We’ve still got to do the fundraising, but it’s not an “it would take a miracle” amount. It’s a “this could be our reality in just a couple years” project.
While these Pharisees are endlessly arguing over these things they already know the answers to, this nameless man, who was once blind, is given a platform on which to speak. And he shrugs off many of these Pharisees questions, because they aren’t that important to him. “where’s Jesus?” “I dunno” “Is he a sinner?” “I dunno” “Where’d he come from?” “I dunno. But I do know that he opened my eyes—when he put mud on my eyes and then I washed and now I see. I told you this already, several times but you weren’t listening. Because it wasn’t a priority to you, and yet for me…my whole world has changed. Again and again these Pharisees try to get him to focus on something else but…he’s not to be dissuaded, finally he can be in this place, he is going to talk about his experiences. I don’t know about any of that other stuff, that you are getting so hung up on, but this this I know. I don’t care about the consequences, I will say my piece.
And I worry that this is the part of the story where we sigh and go “well we aren’t like that.” …but then again…we said
“I don’t know what Covid numbers will look like in the future. But I do know that virtual worship is important and necessary for many people. Let’s get the technology set up to make hybrid worship a permanent fixture moving forward.”
“I don’t know how long it will be before we can renovate the basement. But I do know that we want showers and washing machines here one day. As long as the ground is already dug up, let’s lay new pipes that will be able to handle that kind of water usage.”
I don’t know if Chicago is going to ever get its act together and update city ordinances about gender neutral bathrooms, but I do know everyone having a place to pee is a necessity. Let’s not wait on the city, and take the gendered signs down now.
“I don’t know whether the engineers will even find a place in our floor plan to accommodate a lift. (they did, it’s going in the fellowship hall) But I do know that we have the tools and abilities right now to cut out spaces in the pews to accommodate people’s mobility aides. Let’s do that now and we’ll let those empty spaces serve as a testimony of our dreams for the future.”
Where those decisions all…lacking pragmatism? Could the energy and funds have been better used elsewhere? Maybe! I don’t know. But I do know there are people worshiping with us today that wouldn’t have even had the option to a year or two ago. And I do know that you are a vital part of both our community and the greater Body of Christ, and I am so glad you are with us.
These religious authorities may not know how where Jesus came from, or how he did this, but our prophet sure does. “He’s from God. That’s how he did it.” And yes, the people who know everything drove him out over that testimony. But the story doesn’t end there either.
And yes, this story is so….long. John certainly did not skimp on the details. Except for this one time, when he says “ Jesus heard that they had driven [this man] out, and when he found him.” For John, this is such an intrinsic part of Jesus’ nature that he doesn’t even need to go into detail about it. Because of course Jesus went out into that unknown place and found him. And when he finds him, there’s no abstract questions about doctrine or practicalities. Just do you trust the son of humanity? And this unnamed man still doesn’t know…but tell me about him Jesus so that I can. And Jesus gives him all the answer he needs. It’s me. I’m here. I came for you. I found you. And that answer is sufficient for him. “Oh Lord, I trust.”
We are about to begin a rather large fundraising and then construction project. And we don’t know what the future has in store for either of them, but we can rest assured that Jesus comes for us and finds us, even here, even in that uncertainty, even should we face seemingly impossible things. Because ours is a God who laughs at the word “impossible.” And so may we all feel empowered to say to him with confidence “I don’t know what comes next! But I do know I trust you.” And let us finally make this a house of prayer for all people! Amen.