This Week's Sermon

Phil Blackwell

Phil Blackwell

Seeing in a New Light
John 9:1-41

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Somewhere in a box in the attic is my “Stephen Hawking Fan Club” t-shirt. Ever since I read A Brief History of Time that he wrote about astrophysics and used it to start a science-and-religion reading group in the church I was serving, I have been an admirer of his. He sees religion very differently than most of us, it seems, but he sees wondrous things that are hidden to most of us.

But to see him, to see Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair, unable to walk, to write, to speak, might lead some to dismiss him at first sight. Those who subscribe to a social Darwinian “survival of the fittest” theory would relegate him to the scrap heap of humanity, but there are others who know what Samuel knew when choosing the least likely, David, to become king of Israel: the Lord does not see what mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart, and we might add in Hawking’s case, in the head.

Do not be deceived by how things first look; there are a lot of people who make good second impressions.

And so it is with the blind man in our gospel account. This is one of the most intricate narratives in the entire Bible, and reveals a stark irony before our very eyes: the blind man comes to see more and more clearly, from recovering sight, to seeing a man called Jesus, to recognizing a prophet, to perceiving someone sent from God, to feasting his eyes on the Son of Man. At the very same time, the ones who are so certain of what they see, the Pharisees, go from the familiar scenes of life where they have sorted out who is good and bad, what is right and wrong, to ending up blind to the truth, to the truth that they are left out because they cannot see Jesus as the light of the world. It is like passing someone you know on the escalator: as you go up, they pass you going down.

It is the disciples of Jesus who first see the blind man and ask the pharisaical question, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Why else would he be blind? Does not God punish people with maladies even to the third and fourth generation? It says that in the Book of Exodus. If the man was born blind, then it probably was some sin of his parents for which he now suffers.

Many times we think that way even today. “Why me, Lord?” we cry and wonder. “What have I done wrong?” Apparently, neither the disciples nor the Pharisees of our gospel account had read the Book of Job. That whole story of Job sitting on the ash heap, oozing from open sores, the stray dogs licking him clean, is about this very thing. His friends come to him, and ask him what he did wrong. “It must have been a terrible sin, Job, because you are in desperate condition. It is okay for you to confess to us; you can tell your closest friends.” But Job knows that he has done nothing to deserve his decrepit condition, and he dismisses his friends and rails against God. If we are ever looking for a vocabulary to shout at God because life seems unfair, Job has given it to us.

Well, here sits a man blind since birth, and all the traditionalists around him assume that either he or his parents have done something awful to deserve his condition. But Jesus rejects such an easy and convenient explanation. Notice that the blind man does not do anything to gain Jesus’ attention or compassion. It is Jesus who initiates the miraculous action in order to teach his disciples a lesson. What follows is a pure act of grace.

Jesus spits into the dust, kneads it as if it were dough for baking, smears the concoction onto the man’s eyelids, “anoints” him, in effect, and sends him to the healing waters of the pool of Siloam to wash the mud off of his face. And when he does, he can see; for the first time in his life, he can see.

The miracle happens off stage, over at the pool out of sight of Jesus and his disciples. Only two verses out of the forty-one focus on the healing, that is because the gospel message is about what happens next. The man returns from the pool and the neighbors are astonished. “Is this the same man who has been blind all his life, or is it someone who looks like him?”

“I am he,” the man confirms, “helped by someone whom I do not know.” Of course, he would not recognize Jesus, even if he were standing right in front of him. The neighbors take him to the authorities, the Pharisees, and those in charge of keeping things under control see a threat in all of this. Not only is their theory of sin challenged, but also we learn that all of this is happening on the Sabbath. “No work on the Sabbath,” states the law, “not even if it is an act of healing.” And then, remember when Jesus spits into the dust and mixes it together to make mud? That is against the Sabbath law, too, for it is illegal work to knead things, apparently anticipating peoples’ temptation to bake bread on the day of rest.

But, the Pharisees get no help from interrogating the man, yet they must discredit Jesus, so they summon the man’s parents and interrogate them, “Your son really was not born blind, right?” But the parents are not clueless; they know they are being used to build a case against Jesus. “Ask our son for yourself; he is of age to answer for himself.”

So, they go back to him, and what does he say? “I do not know whether he is a sinner,” (whether or not he is guilty of breaking the Sabbath law), “but one thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

We said at the beginning that this gift of sight is the result of grace, amazing grace.

The man is gaining insight while the Pharisees are losing perspective. The authorities are blinded by their fury. They still understand the man to be a sinner through and through, right from the womb. “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” they scream, and they banish him from their sacred enclave.

In the end the man makes the ultimate confession of faith, one that has stood as the model for adult baptism down through the ages. Jesus finds the man after being driven out by the authorities. This, in fact, may be the first eye-to-eye contact the two of them have. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asks him.

“And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”

Jesus says, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”

The man bows and responds, “Lord, I believe.”

And Jesus, who often initiates major reversals of peoples’ lives, confesses, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Jesus declares at the beginning of our text, “I am the light of the world,” and then he offers to show us things in a new light.

So, what does all of this have to do with us today? Last week I received an email from Grace Wolf-Chase, an astrobiologist at the Adler Planetarium and a good Lutheran laywoman who runs a religion-and-science project in which I participate. She said, “Check out our new GLIMPSE 360 view of the Milky Way! This is an infrared mosaic (stitched together from millions of individual images) 360 degrees around the Milky Way. You can see stars throughout the entire plane of our galaxy (the blue dots), and many clouds of gas and dust – most of the stuff colorized red (or pink) highlights complex organic molecules (hydrocarbons).”

So, I went to the Cal Tech website, and I looked at the blue dots and the red stuff, and I tried to see our Milky Way, all 360 degrees of it, in a new way. I will have to go back when I have more time, and study infrared depiction more closely, but my astrobiologist-friend is trying to give me new eyes so that I might see my world in a new light.

So, it is with Jesus, opening our eyes that we may see new glimpses of truth. Thursday afternoon I stood with many fellow Christians on the Federal Plaza to call for a more generous inclusion of immigrant populations in our midst. Members of our clergy and office staff, as well as members of the congregation, were there, along with our Bishop and a lot of other United Methodists. We were drawing attention to the damage inflicted on families in the United States by the current implementation of the immigration laws. Many families are being splintered by deportation. It also is true that we have lost some of our best, and hardest working, building staff at the Chicago Temple due to deportation.

I shivered in the cold and looked around me at people who, at first glance, appeared to be quite different from me, and listened to languages other than my own. But then, I began to see myself, since my father was an immigrant, and I am of the first generation. And I heard espoused the same family values with which I was raised and for which this congregation stands. And then, I thought of the gospel reading from last Sunday, the Samaritan woman at the well, and remembered seeing her through Jesus’ eyes and knowing that no one is left outside of the circle of love. It is within that circle that people are embraced and called to responsibility. And in that light I saw those of us standing on the plaza as having a lot more in common than what separates us.

Well, the week before that we had the account of Nicodemus, the Pharisee, coming to Jesus to inquire about the truth, as Jesus sees it. Here he comes as a member of the establishment, the ones who make the rules and enforce them to their liking, trying to see things in a new light. He did it in the dark, seeking out Jesus, because he did not want to be seen by his colleagues. And it is in that setting, we remember, that Jesus proclaims the truth by which we try to organize our lives, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” You see, even the Pharisees are not beyond saving; their eyes can be opened to new truths, as well.             How does that episode help us? Here at the Temple we constantly are in dialogue with those in power – the Department of Transportation about new traffic patterns on Washington Street and how that will impact us as a church, the alderman about issues of zoning, the police about the opening and closing of streets, the Fire Department about building safety concerns, And on it goes at the heart of the city. But when we see Nicodemus risking to see things in a new way, we realize that, if we enter into discussions with our modern-day Pharisees in good faith (and see that are numbered among them), all eyes may be opened to new possibilities.

Next week we raise Lazarus. That is a story that we think we all know; we will see if we can divine any new truth out of it. My brother, the sportscaster, used to say about an improbable come-from-behind victory, “That was the greatest comeback since Lazarus!” I doubt if he was the first one to say that, but it did not keep him from doing it.

But we know enough about the account to see the gospel truth that no one is truly lost, too far gone; there always is a chance for restoration. We work with a lot of people who are crushed by poverty, and we cannot give up on any of them. Not all are going to make it out, but some will, and we do not know which ones that will be. And we are committed to working on social systems that relegate people to such conditions. And that is true not only about the poverty of means, but also the poverty of spirit and the poverty of soul. When we see things through Jesus’ eyes in a new light, we cannot give up on anyone, not even ourselves.

Open our eyes, dear Lord, that we may see, that we may see glimpses of truth in a new light. Amen.

Philip L. Blackwell

The Chicago Temple

March 30, 2014