A Man Born Blind Receives Sight (John 9:1-39)
9 As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 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, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 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?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 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.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 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.” 16 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. 17 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.”
18 The [leaders] 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 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 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.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid … for the [leaders] had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of their [community]. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24 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.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 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?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir?f Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 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.”
Now I See
It is safe to say Southern California is “on brand” for an apocalyptic weekend. For once, the world can’t blame California. It is not only our earthquake, fire, or flood; we are all in this together. My hope is that we will emerge from the novel coronavirus crises a stronger humanity, more cooperative and compassionate with one another. Our base instinct is to assign blame and refuse to see.
In my last church, the morning after the devastating earthquake off the coast of Japan, I was awakened by a phone call from my sister (in Missouri) at 6:30 AM. She asked if I was in tsunami danger. I assured her, miles from the coast, that I was not. I tried to roll over and go back to sleep. I could not, of course, so I checked the news. At 8:30 AM a two meter swell was expected in Redondo; naturally, I pulled on some warm clothes and went to watch ... with many others as it turns out.
There were several hundred people gathered along the strand; news helicopters circling overhead. It was a scene. The young woman standing close by had a similar phone call with her mother from Florida. After a bit of small talk she said, “Yeah, mom said the quake was because of the gays.” We laughed, awkwardly. I wasn’t clear about the logic; but, fortunately, I had a newspaper to defend myself. I turned to it, quickly, to read the morning news. The tsunami never appeared and I certainly didn’t mention that I was the pastor of that big church up the hill. Few people in the world at that moment knew the deeper irony of the conversation. I had just come to the hard fought conclusion that I was gay from birth.
The fourth gospel enjoys irony. Today’s passage begins in the reality of physical blindness and by end we understand that we are actually speaking of religion and a new way of seeing. This one thing I know, once I was blind, now I see.
Our text today begins with a search for an explanation to a remarkable thing. Jesus brings a man born blind to sight. There is a problem. Our ancestors believed that blindness was blamed on sin. By that logic, this man was conceived a sinner because he was blind; not only that, Jesus cured the man on the Sabbath. It is not an uncommon parallel with some Christians today: we hate the sin, love the sinner. Jesus was a sinner. He broke sabbath law to heal the beggar on the day of rest. It was an act of compassion outside the box. A sinner was healed by a sinner. It didn’t fit their understanding of the world. It never occurred to them that they could be wrong. Instead of responding in religious awe and genuine humility at such a fact we ridicule and humiliate him.
Human beings search for explanations to things. In my way of looking at the world, that is what science is for. It is one of our most astonishing gifts: intellectual curiosity, to be able to seek, predict, explore and understand. I remember as a kid watching, awestruck, Carl Sagan’s science series “Cosmos.” The proper religious response to our discoveries about the universe is awe. Sagan once said that human beings are the universe’s way to think about itself. I like that. It fills me with wonder.
Unfortunately, our human search for explanation often morphs into the quest for certainty, power and control. When those temptations become confused with religion, faith becomes at best a dead end, at worst, deadly. When something happens outside our world view, instead of thinking to revise our faith, folks become unhinged. We blame our plight on the gays, the jews, the outsiders, immigrants, or the poor in our midst. The best scientists work to revise their theories in the face of overwhelming facts. Faithful Christians seek God with awe and humility grounded in wonderment for the sanctity of life. We celebrate with gratitude the vast surplus of meaning given in our cosmos (the Greek word translated world, as in “God so loved the world.”).
In today’s text, Jesus is calling the religious to witness a reality we should see: that the God who walks the earth is a God who loves the world, even this blind beggar, a supposed sinner from birth, even me. I altered the translation of the word “the Jews” in today’s text, because of the horrific history of “Christian” bigots using John’s text as an excuse to hate. It is easy to understand why so many see religion as the problem. It can be. And I hope you understand, and forgive me, for burying my head in the paper that morning instead of standing up for myself and my faith. No longer. For there is one thing I know, once I was blind, now see!
In today’s text, the blind beggar doesn’t have a choice. Jesus just walks by and heals him and there is nowhere to hide. His new life is obvious to everyone. He was minding his own business reading the Braille edition of the Jerusalem times. Jesus mutters something about “I am the light of the world,” rubs mud in his eye, and wham, new life, hope. Poor guy, he didn’t ask for the healing, or for the consequences; he has nowhere to hide. He is put on trial. He is a violation of the Book of Discipline. His mere existence is a prophetic word. He is called in. His parents are called in. He is called in again. Finally, the newly made witness to grace is driven out for his faith. I can’t explain it. There is only one thing I know: once I was blind, now I see.
Faith is testimony to the astonishing reality of the love of God for the wold, unexplainable, unearned. Jesus and the healed, these seeing sinners should not exist, but they do. In fact, they aren’t sinners at all: they are light. We are called to be light. The pool where the man was healed is called “sent.” Here I am, Lord. Send me. We are sent to be love by the love which funds the cosmos. Wherever you began, we are now in a text about seeing God, honoring one another, humbled in the face of mystery. I’ll paraphrase Jesus’ words to make the matter clear: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who cannot see may see, and those who think they see, become blind.”
If you spend some time thinking back over the course of your life, I’m confident that you can find at least one moment of underserved, unearned, unexplained kindness, forgiveness, love in which you were healed in body or mind. If not, may your time in this text this morning be that moment for you. Jesus is here, slapping mud in your eyes too.
My friend Jim was a second career seminary student, a former security guard in Dallas, Texas. As he tells the story he was a hater: homosexuals, long-haired punks, anyone different from his peers, then one day the Lord walked by him and healed him. Jim went to seminary. I met him in the seminary choir. He’d spent quite bit of time running security at arena rock concerts. He couldn’t hear very well or match a pitch to save his life, but he wanted to sing and he wanted to preach. So I sang into his one good ear and he taught me see. He preached with his life.
He would enter into campus debates that I didn’t have the courage to; he defended gays, folks others thought the bible condemned — including yoga teachers. He had a heart as big and wide as his Texas shoulders. I asked him for an explanation. He told me he had gone to an Emmaus walk: an intentionally shaped retreat that I had dismissed as manipulative religion. Jim met God there; Jesus put mud in his eye there and taught him to see. He didn’t have much in the way of explanation, and I was hard pressed to figure it out. All he had was this one thing: “Once I was blind, now I see!”
This is my suggestion: take your religion, take your faith like Jim, like Jesus, like the once blind beggar — as Luther once said we are all beggars at God’s table of grace. Use your life to bear witness to the unexpected and unexplainable reality of the love of God for the world. It may be that we are the way the universe thinks about itself, but I also believe that we are sent to be the way the universe loves itself. It is up to you. You can bury your noses in your morning papers, iPads, and nooks, or we can shout and protest and stand together for what we believe in the light of day. Do what you want, but I can no longer hide. For there is one thing, only one thing I know for: once I was blind, now I see. Oh Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! And to God alone be the glory, now and forever. Amen.
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess