Sermon, March 26, 2017
There was a lot of drama in the news this week on health care. And, as someone who was heavily involved in the push for the Affordable Care Act, as you might expect, it is something I have a lot of opinions about. But the first thing I will admit to anyone is the ACA is not perfect. It definitely needs tweaks and improvements. The mantra, however, has not been ‘tweak and improve’ – it’s been ‘repeal and replace’. And I was thinking about this as I was considering this scripture today – because, like in our scripture, there seems to be more concern about who passes a health care bill, and how, and when, then there is concern for the people who need healing. And this is what doomed it. The faction of conservative congresspersons unhappy that the new bill wasn’t a full repeal demanded more. And, as the Speaker and the President offered more, it began to lose the support of more moderate representatives because it wasn’t going to offer enough coverage. Just like in our scripture – no one is focused on the actual healing that has happened to this man. Everyone is talking about the process. If we weren’t so worried about who gets credit, maybe we could focus on the miracle of actually healing people and less on the process.
Today our gospel, the book of John, continues with stories that explore witnessing to Jesus’ divine acts, and the reluctance of the religious establishment to accept these as signs. A man receives his sight, and everyone else loses theirs. Just like with Nicodemus, the observers and the religious authority fail to see because they are so sure they already know Godliness.
A man is born blind. At some point in his life, he was left to fend for himself by begging. The man was a social outcast because his physical condition was assumed to be the consequence of his or his parents’ sin. He was put in this position by a culture that did not give him enough opportunities to support himself in a dignified manner. When Jesus finds him, no one is particularly concerned about his condition or his comfort. He is more of an object lesson. “Who sinned – this man or his parents?”, they ask.
Jesus rejects any interpretation that connects the man’s blindness to any sin. Instead, Jesus is focused not on the cause of the blindness, but on the healing. And in that moment, transforms the blind man’s life.
Or, should have transformed it. The result of the blindness is rejection from the community. And so, the result of the healing should be acceptance back into community. Except the community doesn’t recognize him! This is so odd. Why does the community fail to recognize man after he is healed? The man has lived in their midst all his life; his neighbors have interacted with him, perhaps helped him cross the street or draw water; they have worshipped with him. Why do they fail to recognize him after he is healed? Is it because the only marker of his identity was his blindness? Has the fact that he was differently abled been they only thing they could ever see in him?
Or was it because a cure that simple meant they had to look him in the eye and face the fact that they had rejected him and left him to beg outside the city his entire life?
Luckily, we no longer believe that someone’s health is an indicator of sin. Medicine and science has helped us to understand the causes, treatments, and sometimes utter randomness of health and illness. Sin is not an explanation of why my friend Kath got breast cancer as a healthy 36 year old and it keeps coming back, while my Aunt Sandi had it once, more than 20 years ago, and it’s never reappeared. We know that health conditions can happen to anyone – and it should not be something that holds them back in life. At least, that’s what we profess. As individuals, our focus is often on getting sick people access to life-saving treatment. Legislatively, as a society… I guess we’re still working on it.
But when I read the phrase, ‘born blind’, for me it brings up thoughts of being ‘born poor’. While we have released our tendency to look at health as punishment for sin, how do we place blame when it comes to other facts of life? Do we still tend to look at poverty as, ‘whose sin is this’?
In a recent newspaper article reported that we do often see poverty as a result of people’s choices. According to a March 14th article in the Lincoln Journal Star entitled, "Low Motivation is Top Perceived Cause of Poverty in Nebraska", 60% of Nebraskans regard low motivation is the top perceived cause of poverty in Nebraska. Now, that opinion was more widely held by people with higher incomes – 73% of those who make more than $60,000 a year – but even those under $16,000 believed that, in part, is the cause. People making less than $16,000 also placed significant blame on lack of education or being a single parent, but they were much more likely than other income groups to cite factors such as job shortages, disability or lack of housing.
But there may be other factors. In the article, majorities of both income groups said they had problems with affordable medical, dental or eye care for their entire family. Sixty-two percent said they had delayed medical care due to cost. Before the ACA, 62% of bankruptcies were because of medical bills. Even with insurance, my friend Kath accumulated over $7000 in co-pays in just a few months. Early research says bankruptcies have declined by 20%, but that’s still over 40% of our population that find themselves financially ostracized for being sick.
And truly, there’s an abundance of research that shows circumstances you are born into have a greater effect on your income as an adult. Whether your parents have good health insurance, for one thing. But also whether your parents finish school, own a home, or a car; these are all factors that can predict where you will end up in life. A 2015 book called A Path Appears, written by two journalists that cover efforts to reduce inequality all over the world, featured even more surprising indicators. Looking at research over the past few decades regarding the cycle of poverty, they reported that, for babies born to teenage, low-income mothers, there is a strong correlation between how much the child is held and given eye contact in the first year of life, and whether that child graduates high school. The project noted that social workers who visit young mothers who may themselves be struggling financially, or with addiction, or unprepared for the challenges of motherhood have shown results in interrupting the cycle of poverty over the last several decades. Further, there is abundant new research on how trauma in one’s childhood has a much stronger impact on their future health and well-being, and ability to achieve. Both of these suggest that who we are born to, and the community we have in our early years, have a much stronger impact on our choices and status later in life than ever thought previously. Our inclusion, or exclusion, from the benefits of society, even our sense of love and belonging as infants, greatly impacts our life potential and our life choices. But the way we respond to poverty often has as much to do with placing blame on something other than community factors – so that we don’t have to face the fact that we are part of that community.
Scripture shows us that over and over again, Jesus recognizes the value in community. While the community is not focused on the miracle of healing, the actions of Jesus repeatedly cure the ailments that are acting as barriers to inclusion in dignified community. Time and again, Jesus works his miracles amongst those existing on the margins of society, restoring them to an existence of that is worthy of belonging, as he does here with the blind man.
Almost everybody has failed the man born blind. His family has left him to beg outside the city. Once he’s healed, his community doesn’t recognize him. And even when he insists, “It is I!”, they don’t believe him. It doesn’t fit with their worldview. The neighbors can’t imagine they’ve been wrong about him all this time. They call his parents to get a different explanation. But instead of celebrating with him, and proclaiming the miracle, his family backs away from him, putting their safety first. They said this for they were afraid of the Jews – afraid to be excommunicated from the Synagogue, afraid to live the life of isolation that their son had been living for years. Their fear overwhelms their joy and they abandon him to the authorities.
Jesus sees this man separated from community, living in social isolation. Jesus sees potential that even the blind man doesn’t see in himself. The blind man never asks to be healed. He never considers the possibility of being healed. But when the promise is presented, he takes the risk to change and goes to wash in the pool of Siloam. He is sent, literally, by Jesus, to a pool that means ‘sent’, to wash. This was an act of courage for a man who couldn’t see his way.
The only trustworthy figures in this story are the man born blind and Jesus. The man can only testify to what he has experienced. “All I can tell you is I was blind, and now I can see.” The man tells the truth, and even in the face of threats, the abandonment of his community and family, and expulsion from the Synagogue. And as his faith grows – as his understanding of Jesus grows from ‘a man’ to ‘a prophet’ to worship, the Pharisees do just that. They excommunicate him. Because his existence poses a threat to the Pharisees’ certainty, he’s cast out of the community. It is easier to remove him from their lives than to adjust to a new truth. But the meeting with Jesus promises the blind man new life.
But Jesus has said, I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly. Life, abundantly. Abundant life has got to consist of the things that make our lives rich – like friendship. Relationship. Love. Joy. But most importantly, abundant life means life within community. Jesus’s response to the question about the blind man does not assign blame for the blindness, but rather he acts to include the blind man within the realm of God’s blessing by taking away the curse that has compromised his life. What this healing means is abundant life for this man, a life that he’s never had before as the blind man who begs on the margins of society. The result of his healing should have been reconnection with community.
And this – this – is the most impressive part of the story, in my opinion. When Jesus hears that he’s been cast out, he goes in search of him. The man is no longer blind, he should be able to fend for himself. He’s no longer cursed. And Jesus must have had plenty to do. But Jesus goes and FINDS him, the man who used to be blind. Jesus asks him if he believes. And then Jesusenfolds him into the community of his disciples. This is how Jesus fulfills the blessing of the realm of God, this is how Jesus gives him new life; by bringing him into a community.
When we abandon our ideas about who is to blame, who is deserving, and who should get credit, and just focus on healing the barriers for people in society, sometimes the impossible happens. The State of Utah took this approach over 10 years ago. They started a radical program to end chronic homelessness; they simply gave people homes. It is called “Housing First.” A 2015 Washington Post article entitled, "The surprisingly simple way Utah solved chronic homelessness and saved millions" explained,
“the state [of Utah] identified the homeless that experts would consider chronically homeless. That designation means they have a disabling condition and have been homeless for longer than a year, or four different times in the last three years. Among the many subgroups of the homeless community — such as homeless families or homeless children — the chronically homeless are both the most difficult to reabsorb into society and use the most public resources. They wind up in jail more often. They’re hospitalized more often. And they frequent shelters the most. In all, before instituting Housing First, Utah was spending on average $20,000 on each chronically homeless person.”
By focusing on healing and removing the barrier to belonging, Utah did the miraculous. They actually saved taxpayers’ money. Giving the chronically homeless homes to live in, without regard to why they were homeless, actually resulted in $8,000 savings per person. As it turns out, the opportunity to participate in normal life had implications for how much medical care, mental health, shelters, jail time and other resources they needed. But most importantly, it gave people a dignified chance to rejoin community. The article details one such person;
“One woman had been on the street for a long time, until we finally convinced her to come into our housing,” Walker said. “She didn’t trust it, and she put her collection of stuff on the bed. Then for the next two weeks, she slept on the floor. … But once she realized that we weren’t going to take this from her, that she had a lock, she had a mailbox, she started to reacclimate.”
Like the blind man, she started to reclaim her position in society, her right to speak and to belong to the community. She started to enter into having life, abundantly, as God intends for us all.