Text: John 9:1-41
As a child growing up in the country, playing in the mud was as common as fried chicken and deviled eggs at a church dinner. We purposefully rode our bikes and motorcycles in the mud just to see how dirty we could get. We splashed through the mud in our “good” shoes every chance we got, especially on Sundays. We made mud pies; and as young children we actually ate them when the adults were not looking. The farm animals even rolled around in the mud to keep themselves cool. Playing in the mud was fun.
This past week has made me rethink my nostalgia for mud as I have observed the horrific tragedy in Washington State caused by a mudslide in which lives—young and old—have been lost. When I read the lectionary text for this week, I was caught in between my nostalgia for mud and the devastation it has caused an entire community of fellow human beings. And so, as I begin this sermon, I want to acknowledge that we live with the complexity that something as ordinary as mud can bring both life and death.
Often the form of a passage is as instructive as its subject matter. So it is with the 9th chapter of John, the story of Jesus healing a man born blind. The text is pregnant with matters of major importance: the disciples ask about the relationship of suffering to sin. Jesus acts on his own initiative and not in response to the blind man’s faith. Notice, the man’s faith follows rather than precedes healing. In this text, we learn that the blind see and the seeing are blind—no small matter both for life and theology. And in addition, we read two major Christological pronouncements in this passage: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” and “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” (Fred Craddock)
In examining this narrative, unique to the gospel of John, scholars have observed several things that could be going on in this text. First, some scholars see in this story the historical experience of the community to which the Gospel of John is addressed. That is, John’s community may very well have been expelled from the synagogue for confessing Jesus as the Messiah and this narrative tells their powerful story. Second, some theologians have suggested that this passage works to undermine simplistic understandings of sin. When the disciples voice a common view of the day—disability or hardship is the result of sin—Jesus disagrees. Similarly, when the Pharisees assume that knowledge of the law automatically grants righteousness, Jesus counters by saying that precisely because they deny their sin and claim to “see” they are in fact sinning. And third, there are others who have studied this text who believe that the turning point of the story may be when the man born blind receives his sight and confesses his faith, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see!” People of faith for generations have been singing that affirmation of faith, “…was blind but now I see.” It is a powerful testimony.
Any one of those readings that I have just suggested invite serious questions of faith for us as readers of this story to think about. For example, if you go with the thinking that this story is about John’s audience being expelled from the synagogue for confessing Jesus as the Messiah you could ponder the question: “When have you felt isolated or abandoned for something you believe?” Or another question this text raises: “How do you typically define sin?” or “How does this story broaden your understanding of both sin and grace?” And last, the question I want to focus on: “Where have we felt blind in our lives?” And “Where have we experienced a sense of new sight, new life, a new chance to be the people we have been called to be?”
I want to tell you a story that I read as I was researching this text. It is a story about the great rhythm and blues singer, Ray Charles, as you know, a man who was not born blind but began losing his sight at the age of 5 and was completely bling by age 7. This story illustrates, I think, the true meaning of seeing—the kind of seeing our text is talking about. As the story goes, Charles was being escorted to a concert hall in Augusta, Georgia, (Bell Auditorium) where he was scheduled to perform, but the building was being picketed by a group protesting that the concert was going to be segregated with only whites allowed on the main dance floor and blacks restricted to the balcony. A young black man managed to get Charles’ attention through the noise of the crowd chanting, “No More Segregation!” to which Charles responded: “That’s how it is. This is Georgia. Look man, there ain’t nothing I can do about that. I’m an entertainer. And we all gotta play Jim Crow down here.” What happened next changed Ray Charles. A white organizer of the concert interrupted their conversation to put-down the protester—and in that moment, Ray Charles says, “suddenly I began to see.” He confessed to his manager, “He’s right,” and ordered the band back on the tour bus. When the white organizer of the concert threatened to sue him, Charles reversed his former strategy, and now said to the white man, “I can’t do nothing about it. Ain’t nothing I can do man.” On June 14, 1962 Charles was sued for breach of contract and was fined $757 in Fulton County Superior Court in Atlanta. While Charles didn’t regain his physical sight in that moment, he saw—his interior eyes were opened—and he saw what he could do to help in the struggle against racism and for civil rights. And twenty years later in 1979, in one of those great reversals of history, Ray Charles was offered a public apology by the state legislature of Georgia, and his rendition of Georgia on My Mind was made the official state song.
Our text reads, “Jesus said, ‘I came into this world…so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’” As I read this text, I wondered if we are those who claim to see but are really the ones in need of some mud on our eyes. Like the Pharisees, we assume that our knowledge, our educational degrees and privileged status grant us a preferential seeing and knowing. But the text begs the question of those of us sitting here today, “Could we be the blind ones in need of being washed in mud so that we may really see?” See like Ray Charles saw. Really see like John Newton, an eighteenth century slave trader who would finally “see” when he reflected on his conversion from being a slave trader and wrote those words that almost every American recognizes, “I once…was blind, but now I see.”
Here’s what strikes me about this story of Jesus healing the man born blind: seeing is disruptive. And the transformation that comes with seeing is disruptive. Think about the story. After the man born blind receives his sight, even some of his own friends and neighbors don’t recognize him, this in spite of his protests that he is, well, who he is. Does that strike you as being odd, that people who knew him well as a blind man couldn’t recognize him once he’d recovered his sight? Maybe it isn’t quite as odd as we think.
“How often do we define those around us in terms of their shortcomings, challenges, or perceived deficits? That woman is unemployed, we may say, or this man is divorced. She’s a single mom; he’s a high school dropout. He’s a failure; she’s an alcoholic. She has cancer. He’s depressed. …We often do the same to ourselves, allowing past setbacks, disappointments, or failures to shape how we see ourselves. We seem to have such a proclivity for defining others—and ourselves—in terms of problems rather than possibilities that we aren’t sure what to do when the situation changes. And so the friends of the man born blind have defined him—and even their relationships with him—so fully in terms of his disability that they can’t recognize him when he gains his sight.” (David Lose, Working Preacher)
The man, who was born blind but now sees, is eventually kicked out of his community. The move toward healthy change and new identity is sabotaged. How often does that happen in our communities? Our old identities are at least well fashioned, and so even though they may serve us poorly they are at least familiar. We have learned to cope with our limitations even as we resent them. And so out of fear, we often resist if not reject those who invite us to a new identity and new possibility—into new ways of really seeing. In our story today, the cost of acknowledging that this man was cured by Jesus was simply too great to those in authority, and so they deny it even happened and, when that fails, they drive him out of his own community.
“One of the hallmarks of John’s Gospel is that when Jesus arrives on the scene and in our lives, everything changes. Limitation falls by the wayside with the one who can turn water into wine…Divisions between Samaritans and Jews fade away in the presence of the one who offers living water. And the one who can heal even a man born blind is the One who offers not just life, but life in all of its abundance.” (David Lose, Working Preacher) When we say we want to live as this Jesus person lived, things change and change is always disruptive. Seeing is disruptive. But here is the hope of disruptive seeing: it is also transformative—reshaping our lives in ways that we could have never imagined but long for in the deepest recesses of our souls. It is the kind of change that opens our interior eyes and frees us from our internal blindness.
When Jesus spat on the ground and made that mud pie to put on the blind man’s eyes I can bet you that that man could have never imagined the change, the transformation that would occur in his life when he washed that mud off of his eyes down at the pool of Si-lo-am. How could he? Miracles don’t really happen, do they? Don’t you wonder what happened to the man who now sees? Given the little bit of information that the text tells us, I’m not sure life got easier for him. Fred Craddock, that great preacher and theologian says, “God’s favor more often leads into than away from difficulties.” And maybe he’s right. But I wonder if the man born blind, after being washed with mud, received a seeing that was far deeper than physical seeing—an interior seeing that is of the heart and soul.
We find it hard to believe in miracles today. But when our eyes are opened and we really see, we find that miracles are happening all around us every day. The miracle is you and me and us. The miracle is every time love overcomes hate. The miracle is when despair disappears into hope. The miracle is when we choose to walk in light and not darkness.
Pope Francis, in his sermon yesterday, suggested that this story demonstrates “the drama of interior blindness of many people, and ours also, because we have many moments of interior blindness.” And he suggested that those hearing this text should meditate on it. He told his congregation, “When you return home, take the gospel of John, read this passage from chapter 9, and do it well, because like this…we ask ourselves, how are our hearts? How is my heart? How is your heart? How are our hearts? Do I have a heart that is open or a heart that is closed? Open, or closed toward God? Open or closed toward my neighbor?” And I would add to his words, “How is my seeing? How is your seeing? How is our seeing? Do we have eyes that are open or closed? Open or closed toward God? Open or closed toward my neighbor?”
May we, Pullen Church, be willing to have our eyes opened, knowing that it will lead us more often into than away from difficulties, but trusting that it is such seeing that gives us life.