In Waco, I lived across the street from Mrs. Hix on Gordon Avenue. We were at best, neighborly. By this I mean she had her side of the street and I had my side of the street. We introduced ourselves when I moved in- myself being a pastor and thinking this was the proper pastoral move.
A few months after I moved in, the toilet papering began (being a youth minister, this was supposed to be an “honor”…. my neighbors did not take this as such). One evening, I returned home to find a bag full of toilet paper shreds on my front porch. The message came through clearly. Or so I thought. The next morning I was surprised to hear a knock on my door at 7:00 am. This is too early for a knock on the door. I heard Abby answer the door and immediately a flutter of words began from my neighbor across the street detailing her thoughts about the toilet paper in our trees. They were not said with neighborly love.
I got angry because we had done our best to clean it up and we were right and she was wrong… and I let anger get the best of me. I spent most of the day thinking of the perfect reply to this woman’s words. I was in that phase of life where I really thought I was right all the time and on top of that, that I needed to let everyone know all my good, right ideas. And that night when I got home, I let all those words loose on this neighbor.
I don’t remember all the words clearly-I know I used language that would have made Jesus blush- I know that I used a tone that you all have never heard me use- and I know there was a lot of finger pointing. And I know that I broke the cardinal rules of conversation: there was no silence and I did more talking than listening.
I walked back into our house so proud. I had gotten my revenge. I had said what needed to be said and I felt about 10 feet tall. It appeared that I had conquered evil, I was the great hope for Gordon Avenue. The evil neighbor had been put in her place.
Abby looked at me and my gloating (my "being right" face… which she did not find so attractive), and said “what did you do?” When I told her, she simply replied “oh well, isn’t that wonderful", this was not sad in the tone that implied anything was wonderful. She went and got me a glass of water and brought it to me, the most healing thing she could do.
She said, "That poor woman across the street must be so confused…you go tell her you are a pastor and invite her to church and then next visit tear her apart…you should be so proud.” And then she left me sitting on the couch, staring into a glass of water, my own baptism of sorts.
And all of a sudden 10 feet felt like 10 inches.
So I stewed and I paced, I walked the house until I came up with a solution, another right idea. I wrote her an apology note and went to slip it in her mail slot. Which led to a few awkward months where we did not talk because I did not know what to say and she was most likely scared that she was living next to a crazy person, the type of person that yells at you and thirty minutes later sneaks over to drop a nice note through your mail slot (not the ideal neighbor).
Four months later, Abby and I were at the grocery store and the inevitable happened. We were sharing an aisle with this woman, this neighbor. The moment we realized it, Abby disappeared to avoid any ugliness that could occur. We passed one another and she smiled and said, “Griff, your letter really meant a great deal. Thank you for apologizing. I hope we can be friends” And then she wrapped her arms around me and we hugged.
From that moment on, we were best of neighbors. I helped her carry her groceries and mowed her yard. She watched our house when we were gone. We celebrated her first grand-baby with her. We shared hours of conversations on each others front porches. It was almost 1950's television neighbors. When we decided to leave Waco, telling her goodbye was one of our hardest goodbyes.
She was one of my great teachers in what appears to be that life course that I am continually enrolled in, “Letting Go 101.” She taught the lesson on letting go of the need to be right. I have had other teachers on letting go of false beliefs, letting go of control, letting go of my carefully constructed plans, letting go of ego, letting go of pride, letting go of power, letting go of addictions, letting go of vanity, letting go of all my good ideas for the world and the list goes on and on.
It’s almost as if the very human state is to hold all while the divine state is to release.
The Gospel text for this morning is all about letting go and how holding so tightly to things obscures our own sight. It’s a text that is about a blind man who let’s go and can see and a whole cast of supporting characters who can’t let go and end up blind. This is a story that should be all about celebration but it’s not.
It begins with Jesus and the disciples walking along the road and passing a blind beggar and instead of seeing a blind man in need of healing they see a problem. And sadly this has not gone away, just yesterday morning’s New York Time’s Art section featured a cover story with the title, “Why This Wheelchair Matters.” The article was about an actress in the current revival of “The Glass Menagerie” who uses a wheelchair for part of the play, an actress who has severe muscular dystrophy. The article was about some critics who have openly complained this actress’ presence has robbed the theater going experience of the “need for escape.” It’s sinful how often we would rather turn our eyes instead of see the world.
The disciples see the beggar and they see a theological problem and they ask, “Rabbi who sinned this man or his parents?” It’s bad theology but it’s the bad theology they grew up with and they have it owned it and made it part of their very being. They can’t see because they are holding onto old beliefs, bad theology.
It’s a theology of who is in and who is out, a theology where God’s character is defined by rewards and punishment, a theology very sin based… a theology that does not look like love. And it’s truly dangerous to hold onto bad theology, you see theology is how we view God and that matters and it’s changing and evolving and we when start holding onto certain theologies for dear life (too tightly), well most of the time that is going to cause us trouble.
The disciples can’t see what Jesus is doing now because they can’t let go. And we can’t see what Jesus is doing now when we can’t let go of the old.
And Jesus rebukes their poor theology and he sees not a problem but a person in need of healing so he bends down and pits in the mud and spreads this mixture onto the man’s eyes and instructs him to go wash in the pools of Siloam. The man does so and he is healed, he can see.
He runs home as fast as he can. This is amazing, a miracle. He was once sightless and now he can see.
His next door neighbors are out front and he runs screaming at them, “Look I can see!” And suddenly he can see, but they can’t. They have no idea who this man is, all they knew was the neighbor who was blind, they can’t identify him when he is new. Once they have put him in a category, they can’t let go of it. They can’t see because they are too busy holding onto the way things have always been and the systems their minds already exist in, they are letting the past be the guide to the present.
They know the ways things were and how things worked in that system, but now this is different- this involves change and a new way of being and living- and we don’t like that. How things have been (even if it does not work for everyone) is always more comfortable than new things.
The neighbors can’t see what Jesus is doing now because they can’t let go. We can’t see what Jesus is doing now because we can’t let go of the way things have always been.
And then the Pharisees get involved and this is not a story they want going around because it undermines almost everything they say, this is not something they can explain, in fact this miracle could very well undermine everything that gives them power and privilege. They can’t see because they are too busy holding onto power, they are blinded by a rigid interpretation of things, they hold tight to privilege and control, pride is their only concern.
The Pharisees have a way of doing church that works for them and it’s worked for a while for them. It makes them feel good, it gives them safety. It has worked in the past. It’s something they know. It gives them pride.
The Pharisees can’t see what Jesus is doing now because they can’t let go. And we can’t see what Jesus is doing now when we can’t let go of the past.
And then his parents get involved, is this your son, is this the boy you raised who was once blind and if so how can he now see. And once again we find folks holding onto something. His parents are holding onto safety and security, so instead of answering and celebrating their son who is now healed, they avoid the question: “ask him, he’s of legal age.” They can’t see because they are so busy holding onto concerns about their own well being, they are letting fear drive.
They can’t see what Jesus is doing now because they can’t let go. And we can’t see what Jesus is doing now when we can’t let go of fears.
Everyone in this narrative is holding on to something and all they are holding onto keeps an ill-fitting, out of date and backwards world going. Almost everyone in this narrative says no the newness of Jesus because they can’t let go.
The journey of Jesus is a step forward into the unknown and the now with open hands. And this is one of my deepest beliefs: we can refuse to let go, we can try to hold onto the old, we can refuse to see but that will not stop the light from coming or from Jesus doing his new thing. We can choose to let go and be part or not.
So what is it for you? What are you holding onto so tightly? What are you called to surrender? Is it old theology that no longer works in your life today? Is it anxiety, grief, control, power, privilege, safety, fear? Because whatever that is, that it the exact thing God is demanding that we put on the cross. The very thing that we least want to put on the cross is the very thing God asks us to put there. Our calling is to surrender that.
Because once we stop holding on, we get the new song of this text and of our lives: “I once was blind but now I see.”
The great theologian William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience teaches it like this: “… the way to success, as vouched by innumerable authentic personal narrations, is by surrender…. Passivity, not activity; relaxation, not intentness, should now be the rule. Give up the feeling of responsibility, let go your hold resign the care of your destiny to higher powers, be genuinely indifferent as to what become of it all, and you will find not only that you gain a perfect inward relief, but often also, in addition, the particular goods you sincerely thought you were renouncing… Something may give way, a native hardness must break down and liquefy, and this event is frequently sudden and automatic, and leaves on the subject an impression that he has been wrought on by an external power… a form of resignation by relaxing, by letting go… It is but giving your little private convulsive self a rest, and finding that a greater Self is there.”
To let go so we can see what Jesus is doing now.
Our own Linda Miller Raff called us to this place in a poem she wrote for us in January, close your eyes and hear this prayer once again:
*artwork: Broken Vessel, by Dan Christopher, danchristopher.deviantart.com