4th in Lent (3/26): “Lenten Disciplines: Consuming Media”

Ephesians 5:8-14    John 9:1-41 [1-17; 24-41]

This is the fourth week in a series I’ve called “Lenten Disciplines.” Each week I want to leave you with a concrete practice or meditation to guide your repentance during Lent. This makes for things difficult for me as a preacher. I have to force, to some extent, a current concrete practice onto some biblical texts that may be talking about something relevant, but certainly not specifically about how we rely on power companies, drive our cars, or reconcile with someone we’re estranged from. This week’s Lenten Discipline is related to the first week, when I urged you to unplug and consider how we are compromised by the systems we depend on: today, I want us to try to practice more responsible and liberating use of our news and media sources. That has something to do with our readings this week, which deal with light and truth, seeing and blindness. Admittedly, the connection is not perfect.

But maybe that’s ok. While I really want you to take these practices seriously and to try them during the week, that isn’t the final purpose of Lent. Lent is not a time of Christian self-improvement. Lent is our opportunity to deepen our connection to the story of Jesus by entering personally into our own struggles with discipleship. This struggle is year-round, to be sure; we always need to reflect on whether our daily practices and decisions are consistent with discipleship. But our turn inward during Lent to our own practices and decisions works in part to make us more conscious of our need to identify with the fullness of Jesus’ story, because we learn of our dependence on him and the limits of what we can achieve individually. This readies us to observe Jesus’ final destiny, which was for us, on our behalf—his death and resurrection. But this destiny is precisely where we can never be Jesus’ followers. It is not for us to die on a cross for all. Thus Lent must inevitably give way to Holy Week, and our meditation will turn solely to Christ, and away from ourselves.

In this regard, our reading from John’s gospel this week is very fitting indeed; for while it seems concerned with a disciple of Jesus who began blind and receives his sight, and with what an amazing deed of wonder this is, at the end of the story we see that what really matters is that he understands who did this wonder, and that believing in Jesus is the true and ultimate gift, the ultimate form of seeing.

Let’s start at the beginning. Jesus and his disciples come across a man blind from birth. In ancient Jewish culture, as with some other cultures, people often assumed that birth defects were not just random and unfortunate occurrences, but punishments for some misdeed. Much of the Old Testament operates under the assumption that goodness is rewarded by God and evil is punished; but elsewhere, the Book of Job and others question and resist this idea. The issue is relevant still today. Human beings seem to be under a perpetual, superstitious temptation to believe that “everything happens for a reason.” But the New Testament, for the most part, is only interested in the fact that Jesus happened for a reason. “Everything happening” does not reveal God; Jesus uniquely reveals God. As for the way the world currently is, the things we see happening, it is not at all the way God wants it to be, not revelatory, not at all yet the Kingdom of God.

So when the disciples ask, “Who sinned?” to make this man blind, Jesus replies: “Neither this man nor his parents…he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Consider that this man, and no doubt his parents, had perhaps asked themselves in anguish why he was blind. Now, children born blind don’t necessarily feel any the worse for it, unless they sense a social stigma upon their condition. This man surely sensed that his condition was associated with punishment for sin—and felt ashamed. No doubt, he spent his life as an object of pity at best and of moralistic judgment at worst. And at the beginning of the story, he is treated like an object manipulated by others around him—just the way most people today feel when the media spotlight falls on them. (But note that throughout the story we see the blind man, for the first time in his life, acquire agency, and by the end he has achieved a faith in Jesus beyond what even the disciples enjoy.)

The Pharisees put the man at the center of their biased, phony investigative journalism, trying to expose him as a fraud by going to his parents (but we skipped that part of the long story). Then they try to manipulate the man into confessing that Jesus is a sinner, because when he healed the man’s eyes, Jesus kneaded mud, which is considered working on the Sabbath, the day when all work was forbidden. That’s why the Pharisees say, “Give God the glory!” That’s a formula from the Old Testament for confessing when you have lied, equivalent to “’fess up!” But in the face of their pressure, we see that the man has not only gained his vision, he is gaining confidence and wisdom. He perhaps picks up on the divided opinion among the Pharisees, and cleverly gets under their skin. Asked, as all witnesses are, to again repeat his story, he says, “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?” He senses their obsession with Jesus, and that this obsession bespeaks a secret weakness or inquietude.

His clever turning the tables on them forces them to “revile” the man. The Pharisees claim adherence only to Moses and thus that Jesus is not legitimate. The man pushes further, more boldly, saying that no one could cure someone blind from birth unless he was from God. (You see, the give sight to someone who never had it was seen as not just restorative healing but god-like creation. You are making something appear that otherwise was nothing.) That gets the Pharisees really mad. They lash out: “You were born entirely in sins,” echoing the prejudice against birth defects that the disciples began the story with. And then they “drove him out.”

Now, that phrase is pregnant. John’s Gospel is written in a time, probably 60 or so years after Jesus’ crucifixion, when Jewish leaders are no longer tolerating followers of Jesus in the synagogues, and are “driving them out.” The gospel reads this contemporary hostility between Christian and Jew back into the story of Jesus, alluding several times to disciples being “driven out” of the synagogues. Sadly, this had the effect of making Jesus sound anti-Jewish in John’s gospel. His opponents are often described as “the Jews.” But of course Jesus and all the disciples were Jewish too. We need to be careful not to hear anti-Judaism in John’s Gospel, especially since Christian anti-Judaism contributed and continues to encourage racist anti-Semitism. /

As always in the Gospel of John, the signs Jesus performs and the words he speaks have a deeper symbolic meaning. Last week we saw that “water” wasn’t just about quenching thirst.  So this week blindness and seeing light is not just about well-functioning eyes. This story is about truth. What we see is that truth is something that people fear, and because they fear it, they try to control and manipulate it. The serpent tricked Eve and Adam (that’s us, remember) by asking pseudo-investigative questions about what God said: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” It’s a moot question, obviously not true. We could have just answered the serpent, “No. Go away.” Likewise, you should know to ignore a news story that begins with a question that is patently false. “Could global warming be a conspiracy manufactured by the Chinese?” “No. Go away.”

The Pharisees represent to John (who is probably not being entirely fair) a general human tendency to take sacred truth and make it into something we can manipulate for our own power and prestige. They say, “We know that God has spoken to Moses.” They stake all their power and prestige in Moses, in having the words and commandments of Moses. But obviously they are afraid of truth. Jesus creates genuine uncertainty for the Pharisees; privately they debate among themselves about whether he is from God or a sinner. But before others, rather than honestly seeking the truth, they try to squash the truth that threatens them. They demonstrate how deadly is the equation of truth and power, how it inevitably leads to blasphemy and idolatry.

That explains something. Jesus at the end of our reading says, “I came into this world for judgment….” Well, hold on. John 3:17 tells us that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Sounds like Jesus is now contradicting that verse. But in 3:19 continues: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Truth is difficult to grasp in good faith. Not because our minds are weak; our minds are stunningly good creations of God. It is because we are beholden to evil deeds, to sinful patterns and structures. For that reason we do not love the truth, we fear it.

In our day truth is purveyed as a product. It is something we are encouraged to have choice over, control over. We can select and design our own truth, even if it is an “alternative truth.” That’s what the serpent invited Eve and Adam to do. But today with the internet and consumer-driven media, things are much worse.

Jesus is not truth like this, nor is God. The truth of God is never ours to choose and manipulate. As soon as we attempt to do so, we end up with the truth of an idol, something created in our image. But God creates us—never the other way around. The words and text we have from our forebears invite us to manipulate them—to select from them what we want and interpret them as we see fit. But Jesus reminds us that properly, truth is personal, truth is in person—not a thing or a product; not “information” for us to do what we want with. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus says, reminding us that truth is not a thing, but a person and a response to that person that follows a way and forms a life. The real truth gives us life and demands our life.  That is why Jesus concludes at the end of our reading: “I came into the world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” It’s when we think we have the truth at our disposal, as our possession, like the Pharisees in this story, that we lose the truth. That’s how the truth judges us. But to those who are empty, powerless, without pretense to power and prestige, Jesus comes as true light and vision.

So we might want to identify with the blind man in the story, or maybe with the disciples, asking their poorly conceived question. But we, members of the now venerable, entrenched, still pro-establishment Christian religion, must consider to what extent we are like the Pharisees in this story. Jesus said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world,” but he is no longer in the world. Have we taken the words, rituals, buildings, institutions that were made in his name as something that we can manipulate for our own benefit, for our own power and prestige? Have we shut out the light of God, which is always alive, personal, giving us as our life and demanding our life? Have we become the Pharisees? If so, then what Jesus said to them applies to us: “Because you have said, ‘We see,’ your sins remain.” ~

 

Our Lenten repentance needs to include how we honor the truth, or not—above all Jesus Christ, but also the smaller truths we encounter every day that are part of Jesus Christ. Our Gospel reading demonstrates, in short, that we Christians cannot rest on our laurels because we know Jesus, but that we bear an even greater responsibility to honor the truth. We must remember that we are essentially the blind man: “Once I was lost, now I am found, was blind but now I see.” But if we think that now we see everything, we can easily become the Pharisees, taking Jesus as our possession and our source of power and status, and thus becoming blind again.

As I suggested above, we are daily encouraged by our media system to imagine ourselves in control; we are consumers, decision-makers, free choosers. Our little devices encourage us to think of the power of point and click as omnipotence. And our media world gives us a smorgasbord of ‘truth’ to choose from. They want to make their truth-products as enticing as possible, so that we will choose theirs over the competition (and the more ‘eyes’ they get—that’s all we really are to them, not people—the more money they get from advertisers.)   But not all truth that looks good is really true and good for us, just like not all food that tastes good is really nutritious and good for us.

By commodifying truth, our media system has led people to become cynical about truth. Truth is just whatever sells, whatever people want to believe. Everyone is biased, so you might as well just pick the bias that you like. “What is truth?” said Pilate, cynically. This is a mess and it threatens the unity of the Church, our spiritual integrity, and finally the viability of our democratic system. This is serious. We need God’s saving power to uphold the truth; I’m not sure secularism has the resources to rescue us from this plight. And I think it all stems from making the truth into a consumer product. I invite us this week in our Lenten Discipline to resist this reduction of truth to a product that we choose according to our fancy.

Jesus Christ is our truth, and remains sovereign above us, not something we choose and create in our image. This should apply for how we regard all truth. Truth is something transcendent, something above us that we seek, and submit to, however painful it might be to give up our treasured ideas, so that we can better conform to the truth. Because the truth is beyond us and above us—the truth is God ultimately—we should never expect to have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We must be content with seeking the truth, and we believe we can get closer to it by grace, without ever owning or possessing the truth.

So on your card, I first of all invite you to take a break from your devices—phones, TVs, computers. Get back in touch with non-virtual reality, something I call, “reality”—by becoming present to friends, or yourself, nature, or God. But also I encourage you to make better use of the time you spend on news and media. I suggest what I think are some good quality sources of daily news. And then I invite you to check out opinion sources that take you out of your bubble. We need to resist the forces that are making us more and more politically polarized, and chief among those is that people are only listening to those they already agree with. So check out some intelligent views of a different political persuasion. Furthermore, we should not become addicted to the daily news cycle. So I give you some in-depth options for good journalism, sources that take you beyond the daily headlines. And finally, our consumption of secular news should at least be balanced by intelligent faith perspectives on our day. I recommend the Christian Century—and there are some recent copies of that magazine in the narthex—as well as some more conservative sources. Honor and seek the truth this week, out of love and loyalty to Jesus Christ; for when you seek the truth, you are seeking Jesus.

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