The Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 26, 2017
Don’t think of an elephant.
Okay, what are you thinking about right now?
That’s actually the title of a book I find pretty compelling, written some years ago by a linguist named George Lakoff. He writes about the way our minds create patterns of understanding, which he refers to as frames. Once that frame is set, all you need is one word or prompt to evoke whatever that frame is. So, my guess, you all have looked at a photo, or read a book, or visited the zoo, or gone on safari, and seen an elephant. Maybe you have even ridden one! When I was growing up, we had Packy the Pachyderm, our beloved elephant at the Oregon Zoo. Packy was born there in 1962, and we celebrated his birthday every year with a peanut butter-flavored birthday cake for everybody who came to the zoo. Whatever your own elephant story, you are very likely to already have a pattern, or a frame, which helps you to understand what that creature is. And that frame is probably so clearly set for you that even as I tell you not to think about an elephant, you’re thinking about one. Aren’t you?
Well, that’s the author’s point. And another of his points is that once you have that pattern of understanding set, it’s very, very difficult to change it. If someone tells you that elephants are tiny, or that they have fins and exists only under the water, or that they are carnivorous…you’re likely to dismiss that information. The more outrageous the statement, the more inconsistent with our version of reality, the more likely that each of us is not just to dismiss the information, but also, potentially, to dismiss the person who shares it with us.
And the more dear that a frame is to you – the more it says something important about who you are, or what is true about your family or the community you have chosen, or about the nature of the God you worship, or the way you live your life – the more likely, the author says, that you are to protect your frame. The more likely you are, and I am, to shut down the person or the thing that might disrupt what we believe to be true.
The frame of understanding that the disciples have in today’s gospel is that blindness is a kind of sacred punishment. Somebody has to be at fault, someone must be to blame, for this person to exist in this state of being. It makes things more logical, right? Because if someone has done something wrong, then their actions must carry some kind of divinely proportionate response. So, it follows, that if you don’t do something wrong, then you won’t face into that sort of consequence. Right? And so the chaos is managed. Right?
Well, no, actually. The disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus responds, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Then he goes about the messy work of restoring the man’s sight, with spit and dirt and a pool called Sent. And as the man begins to see, the disciples lose sight of their frame – because the one that would call him a sinner no longer holds.
The neighbors and other folks in the community have only known this man as blind. They understand him as a blind man who begs. And that frame is so firmly set that they don’t even recognize the man who has received his sight – even when he tells them who he is.
“Isn’t this the man who used to beg?” they ask.
And some say yes, and others say, “No, it is someone like him.”
He says, “I am the man.” He says it again. He says it again.
The people ask, “How were your eyes opened?” And he tells them.
“Where is the man who did this?” they ask.
Without having Jesus there, without seeing the miracle for themselves, will they risk this scandal of trust? Will they trade their old frame for a new one?
The Pharisees love the law. They believe it to be a gift from God, and they claim Moses’ authority as they interpret those 613 commandments, the commandments that have been handed down from generation to generation. These are the frame that God has given the people Israel, the Pharisees believe, these are a guide and an explanation of how to live righteous and faithful lives.
It turns out that the day that Jesus spread mud made from dirt and his own spit on the man’s eyes, was actually the Sabbath. And one of the most important of those 613 commandments, in fact one of the very special 10 commandments, is the one that calls people to set aside one day every week for rest and worship and study.
But not, apparently, for the doing of miracles.
When the neighbors and those who have seen the man born blind as a beggar bring him to the Pharisees, the Pharisees ask the same questions of the man that his neighbors have already asked. But instead of asking where the miracle-working man is, the Pharisees cast doubt: “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” Others ask: “How can a man who is a sinner do such things?”
Holy people follow the rules. Sinners are the ones who break them.
The frame is set, and so the chaos is managed. Right?
To preserve their understanding, the Pharisees need Jesus to be the villain of this story – they need for him to be the problem, the rule-breaker, the sinner…and never, never the hero.
Even the man’s own parents distance themselves from this miracle that defies understanding. When the authorities call them forward, they claim their son, at least, but not the transformation that now makes him dangerous.
The parents are afraid. They live in a community governed by a frame that says the Pharisees’ authority holds, that living according to the rules of Torah reflects righteousness. They recognize that anyone who calls Jesus the savior will be cast out of the life that they know. So when it comes down to it, they “put their own safety ahead of his welfare.”
“We know that he is our son, and we know that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that he can see now, and we do not know who made it possible. Ask him!” they say.
Almost everyone fails the man born blind, from the disciples who want to blame him as a sinner, to the community that doesn’t recognize him because he is no longer dependent, to the religious leaders who want to condemn Jesus for transforming in a way that doesn’t square with their practice, to his own parents who abandon him even as they seek to protect their own well-being.
The only two figures who remain steadfast in this story are Jesus, and the man whose sight has been restored. He tells the truth and he tells the truth and he tells the truth again.
“You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” the authorities ask. And they drive him out of the synagogue.
Chaos is a scary thing. And our frames of understanding become dear to us indeed.
In the end, Jesus learns what has happened. He goes to find the man whose eyes he smeared on the Sabbath, and asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
The man whose sight has been restored answers, “Tell me who he is, so that I can believe in him.” Jesus responds, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he.”
“Lord, I believe,” the man says.
Jesus never promises us that we will not face chaos. Boats find their way into storms, people we love get sick and die, temptation confronts us in spaces of wilderness. There is never a divine promise that we get to avoid the scary stuff of this life; stuff that shows us time and again that we are vulnerable, that we are, in fact, not immortal.
I think that in this story Jesus destroys the frames people have set because, finally, our frames will not protect us from the chaos, either.
But God so loves the world that he comes into it. In the person of Jesus, God comes into the chaos. In this story, he spits into dirt and uses the mud he has made to help a person see. In another, he promises living water. Soon, he will raise the dead.
And soon again, he will pick up his cross.
 Deborah Kapp. “Pastoral Reflection,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. 2010: 118.
 ibid, 120
 ibid, 120