Questions and Encounters: Are We Also Blind?
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On March 30th, 2014
Today I continue my Lenten Sermon series I’m calling “Questions and Encounters with Jesus” by focusing on the assigned Gospel reading for today. From John’s Gospel, the 9th chapter, the passage I’m about to read is about a man born blind who is given sight by Jesus. As you hear this story, listen for the questions posed by the various characters in the narrative. There are at least fifteen questions by my count (breathe easy, I won’t have a 15 point sermon!). Also watch for how people react to the man born blind—and to Jesus.
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 neighbors 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.’
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’
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.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. Jesus said, ‘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 of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
Albert Einstein, that great scientific genius of the 20th century, wrote: “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”
Einstein, of course, was more a scientist than philosopher or theologian, but there’s something in that idea of raising new questions, regarding old problems from a new angle, that speaks, I think, to the story of the man born blind in John’s gospel.
And that story, in turn, speaks to us—or at least to me— as we seek to make sense of God’s activity in our lives and in our world. Because what this story does is to show us Jesus inviting his disciples and others around him to raise new and better questions and in so doing it marks a real advance in the theology of his day. However, as always, there were people who wanted to stay stuck in the old questions.
John’s story begins with a question, an old question, posed by Jesus’ disciples. “As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Now notice how John sets the context here. Jesus is the one who sees the man born blind. John says He saw a man. Not they saw a man. The disciples didn’t really see the man, they categorized him. They didn’t see him. So they ask a question intended to assign blame for the fact that the man can’t see. “Is he or are his parents at fault, huh, Jesus?”
It’s an age old question—who sinned? Who is at fault here? The question gets raised in the wake of public and private tragedy, large scale disasters and family and personal crises…. If something bad happens, somebody must be to blame, right? You can always find voices who will say that it is because of somebody’s sin that this or that happened. From a tsunami, to a hurricane, to an earthquake, to a cancer diagnosis to a suicide, from the problem of poverty and homelessness to an act of terrorism.
Who sinned? Who messed up? Who or what made God angry enough to cause or to allow something like this to happen? Somebody to be born this way? Somebody to wind up this way? That’s what the disciples want to know.
And lest you think it’s just people like Pat Robertson or Fred Phelps who think that way, you should know that the desire to lay blame runs deep in all of us. To take blame on ourselves, to dish it out onto others. Just let one of your children have difficulty—and see for yourself. What did I do to cause this? Who’s at fault here? Who is to blame? That question is really based in a particular theology and approach to life that maintains that if you do good, you get good; and if you do bad, you get beat….
Sure enough, sometimes life works that way. Sometimes people who eat right and exercise and are kind and gracious and hard working and do the right thing (most of the time at least) live long and happy lives and make all the money they want and the lines fall for them in pleasant places. And sometimes people face severe consequences for decisions they make. You smoke a lifetime, you might get cancer. You don’t take exercise and eat right, you might develop diabetes. You play with fire, you might get burned. You cheat and you might get caught.
But we all know that life does not always work that way. Sometimes bad things happen to basically good people. Sometimes good things happen to people we might consider bad. Now and then hard work doesn’t pay off. Now and then people avoid consequences. And sometimes—if you are lucky, or blessed—you really recognize that so much of how you got to be where you are and to have what you have is because you happened to be in the right place at the right time, born to the right parents under the right star. If you think about that hard enough, you know, you know in your gut, that it really could be otherwise.
Yet the disciples want to assign blame—“Who sinned?”
Jesus’ response to the disciples indicates that they are asking the wrong question. The question isn’t “Who sinned? Who is to blame?” He’s got a new question. The question is How is God going to be glorified in the middle of this unfortunate situation? Or, I would say, How is love going to come to bear? How is love going to be shown, here?
Do you see the contrast? The disciples’ question is not based in compassion for the man. It’s actually based in a desire to judge. That’s what blame is it’s either his fault or his parent’s fault. It’s got to be somebody’s fault. Jesus says, “What is going on here is not about blame. It’s about God’s glory.” If you want to blame anyone, Jesus might say, blame God. But it’s not finally about blame. It is not finally about why. It’s about what now.
The quote on the front of the bulletin is from Helen Keller, who although she wasn’t born blind, lost her ability to see and hear by the time she was two years old. An illness robbed her of those faculties. She never regained her sight or her hearing. And yet, through the help of the remarkable teacher Ann Sullivan and others, Helen learned how to communicate extraordinarily well. And through her words and her presence she became an inspiration to millions and millions of people.
Helen Keller knew the truth of the words she spoke. “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”
The disciples could see perfectly well. They just didn’t have vision. Neither, apparently, did many of the other characters in today’s lesson.
As the tale unfolds, Jesus, on a Sabbath day mind you, mixes spit and dirt to make mud and rub it on the blind man’s eyes… Which would have been a dual offense to those who were concerned with being pure. According to the Sabbath laws even something as simple as making mud was work— and making mud out of spit? Well, I have to believe that that would seem just as nasty back then as it does today.
Then the blind man follows Jesus’ direction to go to the pool of Siloam which John, incidentally, wants us to know means Sent—apostello, the same word from which we get apostle… or “one who is sent out.”
When he comes back able to see and with a story to tell you might think that this would be a cause for rejoicing in the community, rather than the start of a cross-examination, but the reaction to the man who can now see is decidedly mixed.
Take the neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar, for instance. They can’t believe their eyes. That sort of transformation just doesn’t compute for them. They question whether this newly seeing man can actually be the guy who used to ask for alms from them. And he keeps insisting that he is. When they ask him how he can see now, he tells them what Jesus has done for him.
Then there are the Pharisees. The newly sighted man tells them what Jesus has done and that starts a debate among them about Jesus. Now notice. The question they ask is not “How might God be being glorified here? How is love coming to bear here?” It is instead, “How can a sinner, who would dare to heal somebody on the Sabbath, perform such signs?”
In fact, they don’t believe that he was born blind until they call the man’s parents. His parents don’t want to get involved. They tell the Pharisees that he was indeed born without sight, and that he can now see, but they don’t mention Jesus. To do so would have opened them up for persecution, so they say, “Let him talk for himself.”
The Pharisees call the man before them again. The guardians of righteousness are still locked in on old questions. Who sinned? Who is to blame? How do we keep the letter of the law? Jesus is making their theology come apart. But they are not going to be content until they label somebody a sinner here. If it’s not the man born blind, it’s got to be Jesus. So they ask the man to relate his experience again, and he says words guaranteed to enrage them and to make people who hear it laugh. So thank you for laughing during the scripture reading. “Why are you so interested? Do you want to become his disciples, too?”
When our theology—when our thinking about God and life– comes into conflict with our experience of God and life, then something has to give. Either we deny our experience, or we adjust our theology. Either we begin to see the world anew, in the light of God’s compassion and grace which recognizes people for the children of God they are and looks beyond blame to ask the question “How can God’s glory be revealed, How can love be shown here and now while we’ve got the time to show it?” Or we try to hold on to our old way of looking at the world and attempt to ignore or explain away anything that comes in conflict with it
The man born blind came to see what the Pharisees couldn’t.
One of my favorite writers is Father Greg Boyle who works with gang members out in Los Angeles. In his book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion[i], Boyle tells a marvelous story of a woman named Soledad who loses two of her boys to gang violence. One of whom was never involved in a gang, and one who had escaped the life, but was killed anyway.
Two of her four children are murdered by a gang in the area. Soledad is inconsolable about this. At one point she tells Father Greg, “You know, I love the two kids that I have. I hurt for the two that are gone. The hurt wins. The hurt wins.”[ii]
Listen to how Father Greg tells the story of Soledad coming to see.
Two months later, Soledad is taken to the hospital for an irregular heartbeat and chest pain. I visit her in her room, and she tells me what happened the night she came to the emergency room. They have her on a gurney in White Memorial’s ER. The doctors are tending to her with EKGs and the like, when there is a rush of activity at the entrance. With a flurry of bodies and medical staff moving into their proscribed roles, a teenage gang member is rushed to the vacant space right next to Soledad. The kid is covered in blood from multiple gunshot wounds, and they begin cutting off his clothes. The wounds are too serious to waste time pulling the curtain that separates Soledad from this kid fighting for his life. People are pounding on his chest and inserting IV’s. Soledad turns and sees him. She recognizes him as a kid from the gang that most certainly robbed her of her sons.
“As I saw this kid,” she told Father Greg, “I just kept thinking of what my friends might say if they were here with me. They’d say, ‘Pray that he dies.’” But she just looked at this tiny kid, struggling to sidestep the fate of her sons, as the doctors work and scream, “WE’RE LOSING HIM. WE’RE LOSING HIM.”
Then, she told Father Greg, “I began to cry as I have never cried before and started to pray the hardest I’ve ever prayed : ‘Please… don’t…let him die. I don’t want his mom to go through what I have.”
And the kid lived. Sometimes it only seems like the hurt wins.[iii]
Sometimes it only seems like the blindness wins.
So here are a few final questions:
Who in your life do you just plain overlook?
Where does your desire to assign blame keep you from truly helping hurting people?
And here’s a tough one- How are you, and I, also blind?
[i] Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, (New York: Free Press, 2011),
[ii] Ibid., p. 185.
[iii] Ibid, pp. 185-186.