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Institutional Knowledge

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

March 26, 2017
John 9:1-17; John 9:24-41

A reading from the Gospel of John

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’

___

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.


There’s an urban legend in the hallways of Princeton High School, my alma mater. It’s the story of the time that a cow got stuck in the choir loft. You see, at least when I was there, Princeton High was two main stories with long hallways running off in every direction, and though we mostly used the stairwells to go up and down, there was in fact at least one elevator for those who needed it, except, that Princeton High School had this huge auditorium sticking off one end of it, with this big balcony in the back, and there was a choir rehearsal room up behind the balcony, and that second floor didn’t connect to rest of the second floor, you had to take these special stairs from the back of the auditorium up to the choir loft and there was no elevator, just one way up and down. And so the urban legend at Princeton High is of the senior class prank pulled by somebody who knew two pieces of information: one, they knew that you couldn’t get from the choir loft to the elevator without using stairs, and two, they knew that cows don’t go down stairs. They only go upstairs. And so whoever this person was, if indeed they ever existed, they led a cow in the back door of the auditorium, and they led it up the stairs, and they walked away.

Now, you’re going to have a very reasonable question, which is, “How did they get the cow back down the stairs?” and I’m sorry to say I don’t know. They must have gotten it out somehow. But the story kind of cuts off there, the only reason I can say that the cow got out is that during my time at Princeton High School there was no longer a cow living in the choir loft. But I have to tell you that at the time we first heard this story, my friends and I   had a different question about this story. We didn’t so much care about the fate of the cow. We wanted to know where in the world it came from in the first place. Because I have to tell you, Princeton doesn’t feel like cow country. Even now — I went to high school there, I called it home for many years, I came back for seminary, I’ve known Princeton New Jersey for a long time. My friends and I knew Princeton well. We knew there were a lot of professors. We knew there were a lot of coffee shops. We knew there were a lot of very fancy restaurants. And we knew that there were not a lot of cows. We knew there was not a lot of room for grazing. We couldn’t imagine. Suffice to say that had we even thought of this prank ourselves, and had we the inclination to do it, and had we the resources to pull it off, we would not in any way have had any clue in any sense of where we would have gone to get a cow in the first place because we knew that there were no cows in Princeton.

Except for that one living in the choir loft. So much for what we knew.

And so much for what the Pharisees know, too, in our story this morning from John’s Gospel. Ostensibly we have this morning the story of the healing of a man born blind. Jesus encounters him on the road outside the temple, puts mud on his eyes, sends him to wash one of the ritual pools, and when he comes back, he can see again. It’s over and done quick, seven verses and we’re out, and that would be the whole story, except that then the Pharisees show up. Now, I have to admit that there is always a bit of humility to be found for me in reading Gospel stories about the Pharisees. If there is one common foil in all of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s ministry, it’s not the occupying Roman military or the regular people of Galilee — it’s the religious leaders in the temple, Pharisees chief among them. They are the guardians of the religious institutions of ancient Israel — basically, they work for the church, and those of us who work for the church should read these stories with a bit of self-reflection to say the least. Because the problem in this story, as it is inevitably whenever the Pharisees show up, is that the Pharisees know just a bit too much for their own good. They are the guardians of the institution, and they are full of institutional knowledge.

So the Pharisees hear of this blind man who can see again, and they track him down, and they interrogate him, and he tells them the whole story, Jesus, the mud, the water, the end, but they can’t imagine. “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” We know you’re not supposed to heal on the Sabbath, so obviously this guy can’t be holy, which means he has to be fake. Later, they interrogate the man again, and he tells them the story again, and again they just can’t make room for his story in the story of God that they know so well. “We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” And the blind man, or the formerly blind man, he’s almost laughing at them at this point: “You don’t know where he comes from, but he opened my eyes!” It worked! I can see! I was blind this morning, and now I can see, and you’re going to have to find room in your story for my story because I’m the evidence, like, there’s a cow in the choir loft, and just because you can’t imagine where it came from doesn’t mean that it’s not there and at some point the problem isn’t the cow or the stairs, the problem is your lack of imagination. At some point the problem isn’t my blindness or my vision or the Sabbath laws or the temple or Jesus himself; the problem is your lack of imagination. The problem is your institutional knowledge and how sure you are of where it starts and stops. The problem is your inability to recognize that the story of God might be a little bit bigger than you think it is!

And then he finished talking, and the Pharisees drove him out. This guy’s a sinner. We don’t have to listen to him. We know better.

So this story is a healing story, yes. It’s a beautiful story of Jesus giving sight to a man born blind. But the real blindness in the story isn’t the one that Jesus heals. The real blindness comes from those in positions of religious authority who can’t conceive that the story of God might be a bit bigger than they think. It’s not just a healing story: for us, it’s a warning. Because for us, for you and I, every time we decide we know something for sure about this church, about our ministry together, about our calling together, God is going to be there, just beyond the limits of our imagination. And look. Knowledge itself is a good thing. No self-respecting Princeton High School graduate would tell you otherwise. You probably wanted to call a pastor who knew a little bit about ministry and a little bit about scripture and a little bit about the Presbyterian Church and God help me I know a little bit about all those things. And I wanted to serve a congregation that knew a little bit about being church and knew a little bit about serving its community and knew a little bit about loving its neighbor and I firmly believe that you know more than a little bit about all those things. But you and I both also know church too well to pretend like there aren’t things that we sometimes forget to imagine. Ideas we forget to imagine. People we forget to imagine. Lord knows that the history of every church is too littered with the names of the people we have forgotten to imagine. So the warning in this text is crystal clear. God always knows just a little more than we do; God always imagines just a little more than we do. God’s story is always just a little bigger than we remember.

See, the thing is. Princeton really is farmland. I mean, not right downtown, not where the University is, not where the Seminary is, but Princeton really is farmland. If you drive ten minutes out, not even that. Central New Jersey is all farmland, tomatoes, peaches, corn, blueberries. Even cows. Even cows. They’re not wandering through the high school parking lot, but they’re there, and if you don’t believe me, remind me sometime and I’ll tell you the story about the cow and the choir loft. The cows have been there, alongside the peaches and the corn, for at least as long as Princeton has been there. It’s just that for so long I couldn’t see them — I was blind to them — because I knew the town too well. Because I knew exactly where the best coffee shops were. And because I knew exactly where the fancy restaurants were. And because I knew exactly where the best ice cream was which came from a local dairy operation not ten miles down the road but I didn’t think about where that milk came from, I didn’t need to think about that part, because I was too busy knowing things. And so the problem with institutional knowledge is that you can become blind without realizing it.

And upon hearing this, some of the Pharisees said, “Surely we are not blind, are we? and Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

So one of the disciplines that I would like for us to cultivate together is the discipline of curiosity. It’s not as rigid a discipline of Christian life as fasting or praying the hours. But it is no less critical. It is the discipline of opening ourselves to the breadth of the story of God. It’s not easy. It sounds easy, but it’s not easy, because as soon as we know how to do it, as soon as we’re sure, we’re wrong. Because as soon as we figure out the answer, as soon as we’re sure, we’ve missed something. It’s a hard discipline for a university town, I know it is. It’s hard to remember that God is working just beyond the limits of our peripheral vision. It’s hard to remember that God’s working in places we can’t quite see. But thankfully this story is here to keep us from forgetting. Thankfully this is a story about sight restored to the blind. It’s a story we tell in baptism, a story about Jesus who teaches us to see, through the holy waters of grace, which are always just a little deeper than we can imagine. It’s a story we tell in communion, a story about Jesus who teaches us to see, at the sacred table of bread and wine, which is always just a little bigger than we can imagine. It’s a story we tell through the faithful work of Christian discipleship, whose pursuit of God’s call is always just a little bit more tenacious than we can imagine. It’s why we tell this story over and over, why we tell this Gospel story over and over, to remind ourselves that the world is bigger than we know it to be. To remind ourselves that God’s story is bigger than we know it to be. To remind ourselves that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is bigger than we know it to be.

And if that story doesn’t work, remind me sometime, and I’ll tell you the one about the cow and the choir loft.

Amen.