Monday, April 04, 2011

The One Who Could See: Sermon on John 9:1-41

What do we see?

Last Sunday I walked into the sanctuary, and about a half dozen people were standing in the aisles, looking up. What I was looking at was this: The Thoughtful Christian class was looking for symbols in the sanctuary. They were looking for signs of Jesus as Bread of Life, Good Shepherd, True Vine, and Light of the World. But what did I see? I saw people looking for bats. Because, one time, there was a bat in the church. When I saw people looking up, that’s what I “saw.”

In today’s reading from the gospel of John this kind of thing happens over and over. People see, but they don’t see. The first people to do this are the disciples. I imagine the disciples out for a walk with Jesus on a day very much like yesterday: fluffy cumulonimbus clouds. Green buds appearing on trees. Crocuses pushing up through the dirt. A stiff breeze, but the sun still warm upon the face. A wonderful day to be alive. A great day to have an intellectually stimulating discussion with their rabbi. And then they happen to come upon a man who is blind—has been, from the day he was born. The disciples seize the moment, pose a question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And this is the first instance of it: people seeing, and not seeing. The disciples look at the blind man, who is a beggar, because there is no commission for the visually handicapped, there is no Braille, there is no job-training. They look at the blind man and see a theological conundrum. They look at the man and they see a question of sin and punishment.

Now, Jesus looks at the man, and he sees something else altogether. Jesus looks at the man, and he sees an opportunity to show the world just what God is up to. Jesus looks at the man, and he knows the goodness of God can be revealed through him.

And then Jesus, casually, as if he does this sort of thing every day, spits on the ground, and makes mud with his spit, and he rubs the mud on the man’s eyes. He sends the man to a pool called “Sent,” with instructions to wash. The man returns, and he is no longer blind.

Suddenly the man is able to see the world as it is: fluffy clouds. Green buds appearing on trees. Crocuses pushing up through the dirt. Trees moving, just a bit, from the stiff breeze, but the sun still warm on his face. He is a man who can see.

But the problem continues, of seeing and not seeing.

What do we see?

First, the neighbors. They are all abuzz. The see the man, but they are convinced it cannot be him—because the man they know is blind, the man they know is a beggar, the man they know cannot see. This man can see. “Who are you again?” they ask. “It’s me!” he replies. “Well, you look like him, but—no, no, really, who are you again?” They look at him and they see someone else. When they finally see that it is, really, truly, honest-to-Godly him, then they want to know the dirt. “Come on, how’d it happen?”

“Jesus made mud with his spit and put it on me and sent me to Sent to wash.” (I think that’s something like saying, “He sent, sent, Sent me!”)

What do we see?

The next ones are the Pharisees, the religious leaders. They’re the upright ones. They see everything in terms of who is in and who is out, who is keeping the law, and who is breaking it. They see the man who can see, and they see: evidence. Evidence against Jesus, who is already on their radar for the signs he has been performing, signs of God’s goodness. But they don’t see them that way. They see someone who is a nonconformist, who performs miracles, and therefore is doing work, on the Sabbath. They see someone who doesn’t obey the law the way they want him to. They barely acknowledge the formerly blind man…they immediately move on to what he means, what he signifies to them. He ceases to be a person. He becomes a tool, a device they will use. He becomes an issue.

This can be a very painful passage for people who have actual loss of vision. They don’t enjoy being turned into issues. I have a colleague in ministry happens to be blind. She says that every time this passage comes up in the lectionary cycle, she receives dozens of phone calls from people asking her advice as to how to preach it without doing damage to the visually impaired. She encourages us to figure it out for ourselves.

One thing we can do is to recognize the difference between literal and metaphorical blindness, and do our best to encounter visually impaired people as they are, and not according to what they “signify” to us. It’s a tricky balancing act.

The disciples look at the blind man and they see a question of sin.

Jesus looks at the blind man and he sees an opportunity for God’s goodness to be revealed.

The Pharisees look at the blind man and they see an opportunity to make trouble for Jesus.

Even the blind man’s parents, God bless them, don’t seem to be able to see their own son. They look at him, and they see the loss of their place in the community, the threat of being kicked out of their synagogue.

What do we see?

The man who was born blind is given sight. He is also given faith, but it takes him a while to find it. By the end of our passage, after having navigated all these people who see him as a metaphor, as a symbol, he knows one thing. He can literally see now, and he’s glad. I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that, now, he no longer has to beg for a living. And now that he no longer has to beg for a living, he can support himself. He can learn a trade. And now that he can support himself, he can go to worship in the Temple. Jesus has restored this man to fullness of life in the community. Not to mention, the ability to see the extraordinary beauty of the fluffy clouds, the green buds, the crocuses pushing up through the dirt. And so he proclaims, strongly, “Lord, I believe.” And he recognizes Jesus for who he is, one of those names the Thoughtful Christians were searching for in the sanctuary when I thought they were looking for bats: Jesus is the Light of the World.

What do we see?

Do we see people who look like sinners to us? Or do we see people whose struggles are unimaginably hard?

Do we see opportunities to trick and trap one another, prove ourselves right? Or do we see opportunities for God’s goodness to be revealed?

Do we see the transformation that is possible when we let the Light of the World shine in our lives? Do we see the healing that is possible when we become bearers of that light to a world filled with darkness?

This is our call as members of the church.

The Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity. The Church is called to be a sign in and for the world of the new reality which God has made available to people in Jesus Christ.[i]

Wash my eyes that I may see

Yellow return to the willow tree

Open my ears that I may hear

The river running swift and clear

And please

Wash my eyes

And please

Open my ears

Wash this world that is one place

And wears a mad and fearful face

Let the cruel raging cease

Let these children sleep in peace

And please

Wash this world

And please

Let these children

Sleep in peace[ii]

The new reality. Real vision. Real healing. Becoming bearers of the light of Christ to the world. Thanks be to God: this is our call. Amen.

[i] G-3.0200, Book of Order, Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Part II

[ii] Greg Brown, “Wash My Eyes.”


Magdalene6127 said...

Image by Edy-Legrand.

Anonymous said...

Hi… Who did this fabulous art work? Is it for sale? The Holy Spirit really spoke to me about the Lord's dominion over uncleanness through it. The spit (body fluid) and mud (filthy filth) became agents of cleansing and healing in the hands of Jesus! In the Old Testament when someone touched something unclean, they became unclean and required ritual washing or hiding away. When Jesus touches something unclean, He makes it holy, righteous, and sanctified forever! I bet THAT caused some chatter around the ol' water cooler too! :) Thanks for a great post.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Magdalene. My previous comment wasn't clear. Is Edy-Legrand the artist for the healing of the blind man painting or for the purple painting of Mary (I like that one too... It looks like the Brazilian artist Saro. Is it?) Anyway, thanks for your help with all the artist credits. Also, if you haven't yet, check out some of Joseph Prince's sermons on Grace. (YouTube has clips for free.) I think you'll love them!

Magdalene6127 said...

Hi Christina! Edy-Legrand is the artist for the piece I used as an illustration for the sermon. Chinese artist He-Qi is the artist who created the painting of Mary Magdalene (though I disagree with his interpretation that she is one of the women who anointed Jesus. We know that Mary of Bethany anointed him, as well as a woman known as a sinner, and another woman who is simply identified as one about whom this story will be retold. None of them are identified as Mary Magdalene.

And thanks for the suggestion about Joseph Prince. I will check them out!