Sermon: "When We Are Blind"
Guest Preacher: Jen Bloesch
If you read it closely John 9 is a pretty extraordinary passage. Restoring sight to the blind man from birth is one of the seven miracles Jesus performs in the book of John, and it’s not a quick story, like some other examples of healing in the other Gospels. No, this healing story takes up 41 verses, many of which we did not read for the sake of time. However, John 9 is not a story you can take in fragments and still glean its meaning, so let’s take a moment to recall this passage.
Jesus is walking along with his disciples, presumably still in Jerusalem, when they come upon a begging blind man, who Jesus knows is blind from birth. Immediately the disciples want to engage Jesus in an age old question in their tradition. The disciples know that the man’s blindness is due to sin, and they want to know whose sin was the cause of the man’s blindness, his or his parents. But Jesus says nevermind that. Let me instead make God manifest in this man. And so Jesus heals him with a little bit of dirt and some saliva. He smears the mud on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go to the pool at Siloam to wash. The man does this, and his sight is restored.
At this point, the blind man’s neighbors take notice of what happened. They know the man as a beggar, for that is what blind people did in those days. But the neighbors hardly recognize him when he comes back from the pool of Siloam. They so thoroughly find it unbelievable that his sight would be restored that they question if he’s even the man they know. But the man insists. It is I, says the man. His neighbors question the miracle. How is that possible?, they want to know. But the man cannot explain. All I know, he says, is that a man named Jesus smeared mud on my eyes and now I can see.
The neighbors aren’t quite satisfied. They take the man to the Pharisees, seemingly for judgment, because Jesus had healed the man on the Sabbath. And indeed the Pharisees are quick to judge. This man who healed you, the Pharisees decry, cannot be a holy man because he performed this sign on the Sabbath. Yet because the healing was such a miracle, the Pharisees doubted their own proclamation. As if to seek resolution to their discomfort, the Pharisees determined that they must consult the man’s parents, for they could not believe the man was really blind from birth.
The man’s parents are filled with fear when the Pharisees come demanding answers. Yes, this is our son, they assured the Pharisees, and yes he was blind from birth, but we have no idea how that happened. Ask him—he’s of age to answer for himself. The poor parents—they have probably blamed themselves for the sin of their son’s blindness his whole life, and they are not even given a moment to enjoy the miracle of their son’s healing. Instead, out of fear they would face further penalties, they sent the Pharisees back to the man himself.
The Pharisees return to the man with more accusations. The man who healed you is a sinner, they exclaimed! And the man essentially shrugs his shoulders and says, well I don’t know that he’s a sinner, but all I know is he healed me. But HOW? the Pharisees wanted to know. The man retorts—look, if you’re so preoccupied with him, why don’t you just become one of his disciples? And this insults the Pharisees. We are disciples of Moses!, they say, We could not follow this man we do not know. And the man, seemingly growing weary of all the questioning replies, Look, you may not know him, but look at what he did to me! It’s a miracle! No one has ever heard of such a thing. Only a man of God could perform a miracle like this. But his words fell on angry ears. The Pharisees, thinking the man was trying to be smarter than them, drove the man out, perhaps out of the temple or out of town.
At this point in the story, Jesus steps back in. Do you believe in the Son of Man? Jesus asks the man. The man says, tell me who he is so that I may believe. Jesus says, It’s me. And so the man believes in him. And so in usual fashion, Jesus flips traditional logic on its head with one of his wise, but confusing sayings, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some Pharisees overhear Jesus and become worried—we aren’t blind, are we?, they ask. Jesus continues, If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
So as you can see, there is a lot going on in this passage! The crux of the story seems to revolve around three groups of people. First is Jesus, who is going about showing the world that he is the Son of God. Second, there are those who believe in Jesus, like the blind man who can truly “see”. The last group are those like the Pharisees, who don’t believe in Jesus and who are truly “blind.” From the outset, it may seem that the moral of this story is primarily theological—the emphasis on blindness is about whether or not people believe in Jesus. Indeed, the author of the book of John is attempting to convey to his readers the importance of Jesus’ divinity, and he spends a lot of time proving throughout the Gospel of John that Jesus is an agent of God who has come to judge the world and to gather the believers together. If you and I were a part of another Christian tradition, I might conclude that this passage is about the healing power of Jesus if only we believe in him and about the sinfulness of those who do not believe.
Yet I wonder about what else blindness means in this story. It seems that many characters in this story—Jesus’ disciples included—are certain that to be blind means to be sinful. It’s not completely an unreasonable assumption. To be literally blind in Ancient Israel was to suffer immensely, physically and socially. In the logic of the ancient Jews, that kind of suffering could only be a form of punishment from sin you either committed or inherited. The characters of this story are very interested in assigning blame for the man’s blindness. Jesus’ disciples do it first, wanting to know if his blindness is his fault or his parents. Then the man’s neighbors want to assign blame, and then the Pharisees. The Pharisees even want to blame Jesus for healing the man on the Sabbath. They all seem to want to externalize the man’s condition away from themselves. No one wants to be blind, and so it’s easiest to assume the man brought it on himself and to leave him in a corner to suffer alone so he can’t upset anyone else.
Who can fault them? It’s uncomfortable being blind, even if metaphorically. Can you think of places in your lives where you feel blind about what to do or where to go or how to make things better? How does it make you feel? I think in our political life in this country, a lot of us feel blind. It’s no secret that it’s a tough time in our political history, and it leaves a lot of us feeling helpless about what to do. It’s so uncomfortable in fact, that we’ve engaged in a country-wide game of blaming. We blame Congress, we blame the 1%, we blame the president, we blame immigrants, we blame anyone. We want to name the sin in others to explain why we feel blind, personally and collectively.
In this story, it is only Jesus and the blind man himself who seem to rise above the game of bickering and explanations. While the neighbors and the Pharisees are busy looking for answers to the impossible and determining the fault at hand, Jesus and the blind man actually see something else going on. The blind man is not concerned with understanding the how and why of all the details. All he knows is that there is a man who healed him, miraculously, and that that man is worth following. He knows he has been given a gift to be cherished and that his physical blindness is not in any way a handicap of the spiritual kind. He realizes that to be blind is not necessarily bad, because even in his blindness he was touched with hope and inspiration and openness to the impossible. Only the blind man could see God in his midst.
In any aspect of our lives, it can be a very painful process to feel blind, and we have all been there. Perhaps you have lost interest in your job, and you don’t know whether to stay or go or how you will make a living. Perhaps you have a parent who is aging, and you don’t know how to best care for them. Perhaps your finances are in trouble, and you don’t know if or how you’ll stay afloat. Perhaps your child has gotten into some trouble, and you don’t know how to parent them. Perhaps you or a loved one has fallen ill, and you don’t know what treatment to seek. At some point, we all experience those times where we cannot see around the next corner, or we cannot imagine a way out of the troubles we face. There are many days where I myself feel blind, now that I have graduated. What is once a valiant conclusion to a journey of education becomes a tangled mess of possible futures. We all feel blind sometimes, wandering around in the unknown, and it’s not a comfortable existence. It may be not only humbling, but humiliating. We want answers. We want certainty. We want resolution. We want control. And ultimately, we want to know that everything will be okay.
The ultimate twist of this story in John is that it is our need to be right or to be certain or to be in control that can cause our most profound blindness. In our grip for answers or for power, we forget that God is still working in our midst. Perhaps we forget to look for God altogether. It seems according to Jesus’ view, to be arrogant is to be truly blind. The Pharisees believed that they had the power to name the world the way it is, and in their world, a blind man cannot be healed by a sinning false prophet who works on the Sabbath. They were closed off to the grace before them. The blind man, by contrast, lives in the midst of the unknown, first in his literal blindness, then in the miraculousness of his given sight. He lives in the unknown with an open heart. And ultimately, that openness, that trust, that humility, is what allows him to see that God is still there, guiding the way and lighting the world.
A few months ago, I attended a Search & Call workshop hosted by our Associate Conference Minister, Wendy Vander Hart. At the beginning of the workshop, we were given a prayer by Thomas Merton that we all read aloud. Given the nature of the search and call process, which requires lots of trust in times of uncertainty for both pastors and churches, this poem seemed particularly apropos. It’s colloquially titled, “The Merton Prayer,” but after exploring John 9, I think it could also be called “The Blind Man’s Prayer.” The prayer is on the front of the bulletin, so I invite you to read along. It goes,
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
If I could muster a grand conclusion from the exploration of this passage John 9, I would say only that to feel blind is not a failure of the self. It’s not a state of shame or sin. It’s an open space, a thin place, you might say, where Jesus meets us and invites us to trust that God is still working in our lives and in this world. Jesus lures us to the wisdom that uncertainty can produce. He invites us to open ourselves to a God that loves us and guides us through the Holy Spirit. All we have to do is stay present. If we do, we may come to realize we can see more than we ever thought possible.