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Sunday, February 26, 2017 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.
The Man Born Blind
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
God of desert prophets and unlikely messiahs, humble us.
Show us that there is more to see than what we look for.
More possibility. More love. More forgiveness. . . .
Restore our sight so that we may see you in each other.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, "Seeing More Than Just What We Look For"
I only experienced it for about a month. It was mid-May of 2007. I had been diagnosed with severe vocal chord nodules, probably caused by subconsciously trying to lower my voice in the pulpit in order to sound more like a preacher. That behavior led to being chronically hoarse. By the time I finally went to see the doctor, he told me I had two choices. I could have surgery to remove the nodules and risk permanent vocal chord damage—a rare thing, but still possible. Or I could be completely and totally silent for an entire month and hope that vocal rest would allow them to heal.
Even though no one thought I could do it, I chose option B. Thus, for four weeks, I pastored and parented without a literal voice—using a whiteboard, communicating by facial expressions, writing my sermons and having other people preach them. The most difficult part of the experience, though, was not being unable to read to my kids at night, though I missed that terribly, and it was not that I could not sing, though I grieved that as well; no, the most difficult part was becoming invisible. Since I could not speak, most people assumed I could not hear. And when they thought I could not hear, people just stopped seeing me.
Wait staff at restaurants would ask Greg questions about what I wanted to order, without acknowledging I was even at the table. Or people would talk about me to each other thinking I could not hear them, awkwardly looking at me before quickly looking away. The whole month was incredibly strange and lonely. I had never been invisible before. I had always made my presence known, for better and for worse. But at that time, I could be in the middle of things and folks would simply choose to not see me—not necessarily out of malice, but more out of apathy or awkwardness. After all, since it took intentional effort to interact with me, it must have felt easier for most folk to just pretend I was not there.
Now, I am very aware that my experience of living in that reality lasted only a month. We have people in this congregation who live with a variety of disabilities who could tell us their own lifelong stories. All of them could tell you much more than I can about what it is like to live differently in the world than what most people experience. They understand the feeling of being rendered invisible far better than I do. I dare not compare my brief experience to theirs. I only had a taste of what it is like to be ignored, to not have a voice, to be seen as less than whole.
But because of my brief experience, I have always been caught off-guard by the simple words that began today’s scripture reading: “Jesus saw a man blind from birth.” Jesus saw him. That statement prompts us to speculate how many others did not see him—at least not as a whole human being. How many people regularly rushed by him, pretending they were the ones who could not see, at least not see him? How many stopped and stared before awkwardly looking away, treating him more as an object of curiosity than as a person created in God’s image? What was the blind man’s experience of the world before that day Jesus saw him? We wonder if he ever felt invisible simply because he engaged the world differently from most other people.
If he did, then how must he have felt at that moment when Jesus saw him? He would have been paying attention in that moment, for not only would he have felt the vibrations of their footsteps as Jesus and the disciples got closer, but surely he also heard the disciples ask that question. It is the question people always tend to ask after events like earthquakes and hurricanes, cancer diagnoses and heart attacks, babies born blind and teenagers living with depression: Whose fault is it? It must be someone’s fault, or else none of us is safe. So who messed up for something that life-altering to happen? Did that blind man’s mother not eat a proper diet during pregnancy? Did his father smoke and drink? Did he somehow twist himself into a strange position in utero? Whose fault is it or, as the disciples put it, who sinned—he or his parents—that resulted in his blindness?
Given how often that question is asked, the blind man probably waited to hear whose fault it would be that time. Thus when Jesus stated quite matter-of-factly that “no one sinned,” perhaps the blind man wondered if his hearing was giving out too. “There is no cause-and-effect here,” Jesus continued, “so stop asking why, and start asking ‘Now what?’ Pay attention to what God can and is doing in his life. That is what you need to start looking for.”
Clearly I am paraphrasing Jesus, but that paraphrase is closer to the intent of the Greek text than what is in our English translation. Our English translation has Jesus responding, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” But astonishingly the phrase “he was born blind’ is not there in the Greek (Jaime Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life, pp. 48–49). Our translators chose to add that in, perhaps trying to help it all make sense. Remember our constant question: There has to be some divine reason why he was blind, right? Perhaps not. The closer translation to what was actually written by John is “Neither this one sinned nor his parents sinned. In order that the works of God might be revealed in him, we must work while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work.” In other words, stop asking the why and start asking the now what. We have God’s work to do, and God is already at work in this one that you have always pretended not to see, and we are going to highlight God’s work now while we can. That is what we are about. Again, I paraphrase.
And then, after Jesus turned their entire theological world upside down, Jesus did something that no one—neither the disciples nor the blind man—expected. He bent down, made the mud paste, smeared it on the eyes of the man, and told him to go and wash it off. It was a strange thing to do. Strange because Jesus put mud on the man’s eyes with no explanation as to why. But also strange because the man did not ask for it. Thus far in this story, the man has not spoken. We have not heard his voice. He did not call out to Jesus for help. He did not demonstrate any knowledge he even knew who this Jesus was. He did not respond to the ignorance of the disciples’ question. The man had just been present, almost as a bystander in the whole thing—something he had probably grown very used to since most people did not see him as someone with agency anyway. He lived his life being invisible to others around him even though they could technically see.
Given his reality, it could very well be that the most important acts of healing Jesus did for him on that day, even more than restoring the man’s actual sight, were when Jesus saw him and then empowered him to be an actor in his own life again. “Go,” Jesus said, “wash at the pool of Siloam.” And with hands guiding him to the water, the man immediately did as Jesus said. He went. He washed. And he saw. And everything changed. Sort of. Everything changed for the man: he was now going to have to learn how to navigate his world and his life as a sighted person instead of as a blind person. It would be a rather radical experience of reorientation.
But for those around the man, little changed. Everyone else still had such trouble seeing him. As a matter of fact, after his sight was restored, his neighbors actually began arguing with him because they doubted he was really who he said he was. Because he was no longer in his proper place as the blind beggar, they did not recognize him. It’s almost as if once his vision grew stronger, their vision grew even weaker.
The religious leaders, though, were even worse than his neighbors. They recognized him at least, but then they got defensive about the fact he had been healed. “How did this happen?” they asked. And after the newly sighted man told them about Jesus, the mud, and the pool, instead of allowing his healing, his transformation, to also transform them, perhaps even heal them by showing them what and whom they had not been seeing; instead of being absolutely blown away by the fact they now had this fresh invitation to learn how their God is a God who both sees and claims everyone, who does not rush by or ignore anyone, especially those others render invisible or voiceless; instead of being awed by the way Jesus had restored that man back into being the primary actor in his own life; instead of letting his testimony help them to see God’s grace even more clearly and to grow their own faith even more deeply; instead of those reactions of joy and surprise and awe that could have wrenched opened their hearts more widely, they got mad about it.
Those religious people got mad. And they grew angry not only because Jesus broke their rules by healing the man when he healed him (on the sabbath). They grew angry because Jesus also messed with their sense of control by taking this previously unseen man and forcing their acknowledgement of that man’s existence. They—the disciples, the neighbors, the religious leaders, his whole faith community—all of them now had to see him. All of them now had to hear him tell his own story for himself and to let his story affect their own stories. All of them now had to watch the man take back his power over and agency in his life. All of them had to recognize that he would no longer simply function as more or less an invisible object of their pity and their charity. And it made them all mad.
Because Jesus saw that man and changed his life, they were now being pushed to change too. Yet they had no desire to do so. They did not feel the need to see anything or anyone more clearly or to be open to experiencing God’s presence any more deeply. They’d rather keep their blindfolds of fear and awkwardness and illusion of control tightly tied over their eyes just like they always had. Jesus had no right to mess with them or with the way they had set up their world. He had no right to change what or whom they did or did not see. And the fact he did it anyway made them all very, very angry.
What about us? What happens in us as we hear this story? Now, it could very well be that when you hear this story, you find yourself looking at it from the perspective of the newly healed man. For one reason or another you have felt invisible or like you had little power and agency in your own life. So the promise of healing that Jesus embodies in this text, the truth that God in Jesus has never rushed by you and has always seen you, loved you, and claimed you just as the whole person that you have always been—what this story proclaims about who and whose you are is absolutely liberating.
But it could also very well be that at least a few of us resemble the neighbors or the religious leaders. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we have chosen not to see some of God’s people. We have chosen, intentionally or not, to let some folk remain invisible to us, kept in their place of other, perhaps object of our pity or our charity but not as whole human beings like we are. We have our reasons for doing it. Like it was with the neighbors and those religious ones, if certain people remain invisible to us, then we don’t have to change anything. We don’t have to wonder where they sleep at night when it gets cold; we don’t have to ask if their kids are scared they might be deported; we don’t have to imagine sitting in our own living room and praying that bullets don’t fly through the window.
If we pretend that Jesus does not see everyone and therefore let some folk remain invisible to us, then we don’t have to try and figure out where all their anger has come from or why they feel so forgotten and how we have or have not contributed to their sense of isolation and feelings of being left behind or left out. If we can just keep our own blindfolds of fear and awkwardness and illusion of control tightly tied over our eyes like always, then we can keep not truly seeing anyone who does not believe like we do or vote like we do or look like we do. We can keep choosing, consciously or not, to relate to them as less than whole people, rushing on by and pretending not to see them sitting there next to us on the pew, or across the way on the “L,” or in the front of the taxi, or on the elevator, or at the next lunch table over, or in the office break room, or on our Facebook feed. It could be that some of us resemble those neighbors and religious leaders and feel we are just fine the way we are. We don’t need to see anything or anyone more clearly or be open to experiencing God’s presence any more deeply. We certainly don’t need Jesus to mess with us or with the way we have set up our world. Surely we aren’t missing out on that much of what God is up to in the church and in the world, right?
Today is Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday, the Sunday immediately before the season of Lent begins—the Sunday on which we are always challenged to see Jesus for who he truly was and is: as God’s Love Made Flesh, God’s Hope Made Incarnate. But perhaps the question for us to ponder this Lent is not whether we can clearly see Jesus for who he is or not. Perhaps the question this Lent is can we clearly see each other, those we rush by, those whose stories could indeed change our lives, perhaps even lead to our healing . . . or not. Amen.