Seeing is believing (A sermon from John 9:1-41)

In 1972 songwriter and singer Johnny Nash, made it to number one on the pop chart singing: I can see clearly now the rain is gone. / I can see all the obstacles in my way. / Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. / It’s gonna be a bright, bright sun-shiny-day. Rarely though, do we see so clearly. Rarely do we see all the obstacles in our way or all our blind spots that prevent us from seeing. Paul says in his beautiful poem on love in First Corinthians: “For now we see in a mirror dimly.” The Gospel of John equates seeing with believing, and believing, as I have said so often, is about trusting and serving and loving. Believing is about being faithful to the way of Jesus. So seeing is trusting, seeing is loving, seeing is serving. Our capacity to see greatly impacts our capacity to trust God, and love and serve others.

Our Gospel text today says that as Jesus went along he “saw” a man blind from birth. What did Jesus see? Jesus sees a man who is very vulnerable and at a great disadvantage. John puts his own spin on it when he says that this man was born blind  so God could reveal his healing power, but clearly when Jesus looks upon this man he does so with compassion and love. The disciples, however, see something else. They ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” I do not sense any  compassion do you? Their question reflects a theological assumption – a very bad theological assumption – namely, this man is getting what he deserves. This is God’s punishment. Bad theology that makes for bad religion.

But we can’t be too hard on them, unless we are equally hard on ourselves. The disciples are echoing what they were taught. They are expressing popular beliefs that were prevalent in their culture. Beliefs that perhaps up until now they had never questioned. How many of us have beliefs that we were taught and have never questioned? Or never questioned until we had an experience in life that compelled us to question and explore other possibilities? And that experience could be many things. It could be our own personal suffering or the suffering of someone we deeply care about, or it could be a relationship, or a college class – it could be any number of things. But something or someone moved us past our certitudes and insecurities and fears to explore other possibilities.

The man whose sight is restored by Jesus undergoes a series of interrogations. First, he is grilled by his neighbors who do not act very neighborly. His neighbors hand him over to the Pharisees who are upset because Jesus did this good work on the Sabbath day. They care more about protocol and convention, more about Jesus violating Sabbath law, than the healing of a man born blind. So after they question the man, and not hearing from him what they want to hear, they turn to his parents.  

The parents are afraid of what the consequences might be if they side with their son. They are afraid of being put out of the synagogue, which means being cut off from the social and religious life of their community. They are afraid of being “shunned.” And I think we all understand that fear. I know some Christians and you probably do too who are afraid to question their faith because they don’t want to incur the wrath of their family or church. I know Christians who will not ask or explore thoughtful questions because they are afraid of where their questions might take them – out of their comfort zone and the safety of their group. And here, clearly, the parents are not going to sacrifice their security. They are not going to jeopardize their place in their religious and social community, so they say to their interrogators, “We don’t know, ask him.” That’s a safe response. How many people today refuse to side with the marginalized because they don’t want to get involved, maybe afraid of what friends and family will say.
So the religious leaders turn back to the man who was healed. This time the man says, “Why do you want me to tell you this again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” Clearly, this man has no interest in playing up to the Pharisees. That response sent them right up to the edge. They retort, “We are disciples of Moses. We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t where this Jesus gets his authority.” The man says, “Now this is remarkable. Jesus opened my eyes so I can see, and you don’t know where his power and authority comes from. If this man were not from God, he could not do these kinds of works.” Well, his first response brought them to the edge, this one sent them over. They cry out, “You are steeped in sin, how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him, and his church out of the Southern Baptist convention. They expelled him from the religious and social life of the synagogue.

In a short story by Lynna Williams called “Personal Testimony,” a twelve year old girl, who is the daughter of an evangelistic preacher, is sent every summer to a fundamentalist Bible camp for children in Oklahoma for two weeks. During the day this camp is similar to all the other camps with hiking, softball, arts and crafts, and so forth. But at night they had a kind of “revival meeting” where kids are pressed to surrender their lives to Jesus. The unwritten expectation is that at some time during the camp every camper will come forward and give a moving personal testimony.

The problem is that these campers are kids, most of them very normal kids, and so most of them don’t’ have personal testimonies to give. That’s where the twelve year old preacher’s daughter comes in. She figured she could make a little money on the side as a ghostwriter for Jesus, writing personal testimonies for the other campers. For five dollars she wrote a wonderful personal testimony for a kid named Michael, about how in his old life he used to be very bad and would take the Lord’s name in vain at football practice. But now that Jesus had come into his heart, his mouth is pure as a crystal spring. Her best piece of work was written for Tim Bailey. It was about how his life was so empty and meaningless until he met Jesus in an almost fatal, and utterly fictitious, pickup truck accident, a near catastrophe in which Jesus himself seized the steering wheel and averted disaster. She charged twenty five dollars for that story. All these stories followed a pattern: My life was a wreck, I was headed for disaster, but I found Jesus and now, it’s all good, as my son used to tell me.

It is indeed a wonderful thing that a blind man can now see. But that doesn’t mean “it’s all good.” The man in our story begins a new chapter of his life by being ostracized and shunned by his community. When Jesus called disciples he didn’t promise any one a “happy” life; he didn’t say, “All your problems will be resolved.” In fact, he braced them for a whole new set of problems. He told them that the powers that rejected him would reject them as well.

Now, when Jesus spits on the ground and forms some mud and anoints the man’s eyes there are echoes here of the creation story where God forms the human creature out of mud, out of the earth and then breathes into the human one God’s own Spirit, because it is the Spirit that imparts life. The allusion here to the creation story points to something creative and new coming into existence. This man who is given physical sight begins to see on a different level. And as the conflict between the man and the religious leaders escalates so does the man’s growing understanding and spiritual awareness.

When he is finally kicked out of the synagogue, the text says that Jesus finds him and leads him to an even greater awareness and faith in who Jesus is and what he is about. The more we grow in spiritual wisdom and awareness, the more trouble we will have living with the way things are. The more we participate in God’s new creation, God just world, the more trouble we have in living in the old creation, in the world as it is. I love this quote by Thomas Long that I have included in your worship bulletin: “The more we are drawn into the light of Jesus . . . The more we have our eyes opened by the gospel, the more things we see, the more we see how the old world is captive to the powers of darkness and the forces of death . . . and the less we can feel at ease in the world as it is. To be given sight by Jesus is to participate in the collision of moral worlds.”

And that collision is played out in many different ways and takes many forms and expressions. At the entrance to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City stands a magnificent Romanesque arch. For years homeless sought refuge on the porch under that arch. Members of the church had to step over them to get into evening services and night meetings. Then, several years ago, the eyes of that congregation were opened. They began to see the people on the church steps.  

The first thing the church did was to apply to the city for the right to establish a night shelter. The city allowed them to have ten beds. So they built ten beds, but realized that there were more than ten homeless. So, they tried to get them into other shelters, but they discovered that the people on their front porch were what social workers sometimes calls “service resistant” homeless. They are people who are fearful of institutions and leery of authority. They don’t want to be placed in a shelter; they like it on the porch of the church. So, with eyes wide open, the church said, “Okay, we will make this porch a place of hospitality. Everyone who sleeps here, we will know by name. We will try to get to know the story of everyone who comes within the boundaries of our church.” They made a commitment to get to know them and protect them as best they could and to offer them hot coffee and a shower in the morning if they wanted it.

That’s when the trouble started. That’s when there was a collision of moral worlds. Guess what the neighbors said. They said, “Are you the church that used to be blind.” The church said, “Yes, but now we can see.” The neighbors said, “We liked you better when you were blind.” Then, the authorities got involved. On a cold, rainy night in December, the NYC Police department came with billy clubs and knocked down the cardboard shelters and drove the homeless off the church porch. The church responded in outrage and protest to the city.

The city said they were running an illegal shelter and couldn’t do it. The church took the city to court. The city said, “Your charter is a house of worship, and this is not your mission.” And the church said, “You ask Isaiah, you ask Jesus about our mission.” The judge ruled for the church. The city appealed, four times in all the city appealed, and the church won all four times. A collision of moral worlds. And this is what we have going on right now in our country.

On the fourth occasion when the church was vindicated by the court, members of the church gathered under the stone arch with their homeless guests for a service of thanksgiving. After a prayer of thanksgiving, one of the homeless began to spontaneously sing, “Amazing Grace.” Of course, you know that one of the lines in Amazing Grace is: “I was blind, but now I see.”

When the hymn was over, one of the members of the church gasped, “Look up,” she said. When they looked up they saw in the roof of the arch something that they had apparently not noticed before. There was this beautiful mosaic of the angels of God and the eye of God keeping watch over them. The members of that church had walked under that arch a thousand times and had never seen it before. Or maybe they saw it, but they really didn’t “see” it. One of the homeless people said, “Yeah, we see it every night when we are flat on our backs.” (This story was originally told by Thomas Long in Preaching John’s Gospel from Chalice Press)

Maybe sometimes that’s what it takes for some of us to see, to be flat on our backs. I don’t know. Maybe the light has to blind us first, like Paul, and someone has to lead us by the hand to a new place before we can be filled with light. I cannot explain how it works, but it does seem to me, that until we realize that we cannot see, we will remain blind.  

At the end of the story John attributes to Jesus this saying, “I have come into the world to offer this judgment, so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” What does he mean? Well it becomes more obvious in his final words to the Pharisees who sensed Jesus was talking about them. Jesus says to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” What’s keeping the Pharisees entrapped in the old world? What prevents them from seeing? Their pride, their egotism, their claims of superiority, their need to manage and control and determine who’s in and out? Maybe all of the above. The bottom line is this: Their claim to see was proof that they could not see; it was the evidence that they were blind. Before we can see, we must acknowledge our blindness.

And we all have blind spots. I know I do. What keeps us blind? Is it fear of what Thomas Long calls the collision of moral worlds? Are we afraid of what that collision will do to us? Are we afraid of being kicked out of the synagogue? Are we afraid of what our family and friends might think? Are we afraid of being looked down up?

What keeps us blind to our own faults and weaknesses? Our ego? Our pride? Our unwillingness to let go of place or power or position? Is it our need to control? What is it?
And what keeps us blind to what God wills for the world? What blinds us with regard to God’s kingdom, God’s new creation? What blinds us with regard to social justice and fairness and equality? Is it our fear? Our prejudice? Our dislike or even contempt for those who are different than us?

What keeps us from loving others as we love ourselves? What keeps us from loving and welcoming and accepting folks the way Jesus did? What keeps us from feeling compassion toward those who are broken and hurting? What keeps us from standing with and for the most vulnerable? Why are we blind to their needs? Notice I said “we” not “you”; I am preaching as much to me as to you. What keeps “us” blind?

Maybe it’s different for each of us, I don’t know. But what I do know is that the only path to spiritual understanding and enlightenment, the only path that leads to real personal growth and communal growth, the only way forward in our own personal transformation and in our transformation as a church or as a society, the only path leading to healing and wholeness and liberation takes us through our own blindness and sin. And to do that – to face and admit our blindness and sin takes some honesty and some humility and a willingness to change.

Gracious God, help us to realize that we all have blind spots, that we all have areas in our life we are blind to, where we need to change and grow. May we be open to your Spirit and invite you to reveal and expose our blind spots so that we can become more than we are, so that we can evolve and grow and change and become more like Jesus. Give us the courage to face the collision of worlds that growth and transformation brings. Give us the will to do your will, to share your love and compassion for all people.  


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