4th Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 9:1-41;
1 Sam 16:1-13; Eph 5:8-14
HEALING A DEEPER BLINDNESS
[Singing:] “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.” Was blind but now I see. Hello, I’m Micah. I was literally blind, blind from birth, but now I can see. I want to tell you a story of healing this morning. And it’s about a healing that’s even more amazing than healing a man blind from birth, like myself. More amazing, you say? Well, let me tell you the story. The Holy Gospel according to St. John, the ninth chapter:
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
The first thing you might want to ask me is whether the disciples question hurt me or not: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” To tell you the truth, I hardly noticed it. I was used to it. I was treated that way all the time. You modern folks don’t necessarily think that way anymore about handicapped people. But in my day, someone who was handicapped was always presumed to have sinned to deserve such a terrible life, basically having to be a beggar in the streets. And, being born blind, that brought my parents into to it, too. They might have sinned to deserve such a child as me. No, I was used to it. I hardly noticed what the disciples said.
What I took notice of was Jesus’ answer. ‘No, neither sinned,’ he said. Now, that was something different. And what he said next was even more puzzling, this stuff about doing God’s work while it was still day. What did that mean? What is God’s work? But what he did next was even stranger: I heard him spit — someone spit, anyway — and then I felt my eyes being touched with grimy hands. I put two and two together and figured out that he must have spit into the dirt and taken the mud he’d made to put on my eyes. Go wash in the pool of Siloam? You bet! Wouldn’t you go wash if someone had just put spit-made mud on your eyes? I wanted to wash them clean again.
But I got more than a surprise when I washed them. I began to have a sensation I’d never had before. Light. Day-time to my endless night. I opened my eyes and began to see! I couldn’t believe it! I had just wanted to clean my eyes off, but now I could see! Who was this man who’d done such a strange thing to heal me?
I didn’t figure it out right away. I was too much in shock, running around to everyone whose voice I recognized and showing them that I could see. But later I began to realize. This taking soil from the ground was familiar to me. It was from our Jewish faith and familiar to me even though I wasn’t allowed to participate in our religious practices. As a handicapped person, as “unclean,” I wasn’t allowed to go to the synagogue or the temple. I was assumed to be a sinner unworthy of such basic privileges. But that story was so familiar to my people that it was one that I’d heard: the story of God creating the first man. God took some dirt from the ground and formed the first man that way. Did God use some spit to make some mud? In any case, this Jesus person who had healed me had taken soil from the ground and finished what was unfinished in me. He made my eyes work for the first time. Unheard of! Then, I recalled his strange words: “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me….” God’s work. Yes! This man could finish God’s work of creation in me! He could make me see!
Or, at least, he could make my eyes work. Whether or not I could fully see was yet to be determined, because, as I came to understand, there’s an even greater blindness that Jesus came to cure — which is the rest of my story. For, you see, my story isn’t even close to being finished. The healing was almost the easy part. In John the Evangelist’s story about me, the healing took only seven verses. My story goes on for another 34 verses! So we’d better continue:
8The neighbors and those who had seen the man born blind before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He 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.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” 13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then 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.” 16Some 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.
They were divided. This is important. They weren’t quite sure yet what to believe about me and this Jesus. Some actually were open to Jesus being a prophet, someone special, at that point. Others of the Pharisees were immediately closed, though. They were so sure about the Sabbath laws that they refused to believe that Jesus could be a prophet. They assumed that anyone who worked on the Sabbath must be a sinner — even if it was God himself, I guess! After all, here was someone doing God’s work of creation, and they still refused to believe. Unfortunately, their way of thinking was what prevailed. I was encountering another form of blindness, but I didn’t know it yet. Let me continue. In fact, maybe I’d better finish the story, so that we can figure out this other blindness that Jesus was encountering:
17So 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.” 18The Jews 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 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but 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.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24So 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.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He 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?”
(I couldn’t help throwing that one in. Aren’t I terrible?)
28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
(They drove me out! You see, that assumption about sin that the disciples had made at the beginning runs so deep. They just couldn’t let it go. But I’d better finish the story:)
35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39Jesus 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.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
There you have it. A blindness that even Jesus couldn’t cure in everyone — not if they didn’t want to be cured, or even know that they were blind. What blindness is that, you say? Why, insisting that you’re right. Insisting that you’re right-eous and someone else isn’t. It’s making a judgment about someone else being unrighteous while insisting that you are. In short, it’s judging other people and driving them away as a basis for keeping your own little community.
Notice the irony in Jesus’ words about coming to bring judgment. Who did all the judging in this story? It wasn’t Jesus. First, it was the disciples. They were sure that myself or my parents had sinned. But, then, it was the Pharisees. They started out unsure, divided, but then they came together again by judging me as sinful and by judging Jesus as sinful. And insisting on being right, they could not be cured of their blindness.
Being wrong can be cured. The disciples eventually came to see that they were wrong about me and about a lot of things. Realizing that you’re wrong can be cured, cured by forgiveness. But insisting that you can clearly see about other people’s sins, that’s a blindness that even Jesus can’t cure, as long as a person keeps insisting on being right. When the story began, I was literally blind. Jesus cured that blindness without any trouble. But I couldn’t fully see yet. I couldn’t fully see until I gradually came to see who Jesus is, the light of the world. And, as I gradually came to see more and more clearly, the Pharisees became more blind. A tragedy, really, but one that has repeated itself over and over again since the beginning of time, since the birth of humanity.
In fact, it wasn’t until after Jesus died and rose again that I came to see even more fully yet. I had realized how deep my statement was when I had exclaimed to the Pharisees: “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.” When Jesus came to die for us and forgive us for that, then I came to realize that his death and resurrection were meant to help cure this blindness that has plagued human beings ever since humankind itself was first born.
Jesus stood before Pilate and told him that he came to bear witness to the truth. What truth? Well, what was the next thing that happened? Pilate judged Jesus and sentenced him to death. That’s the same irony as with the Pharisees. Jesus wasn’t doing the judging. Pilate was judging him. Yet that’s the judgment Jesus brings upon us from God. In short, it’s a judgment on our judging. When we think we see clearly about other people’s sins, we are descending into the blindness of our judging that so often leads us into violence against others. We justify our violence by insisting that we are right to see evil somewhere and move to stamp it out. It is this blindness since the birth of humanity — the very way of staying together in community, of gaining our brand of “peace,” that it took the cross to show us. It’s the way of staying together as a group that the Pharisees used against me that day, expelling me from their midst. The cross is the only thing that can cure us of our human blindness to this way of peace-keeping that refuses to see the evil of our own violence, this way of staying together as a community by judging those whom we would call our enemies — sinners, we like to call them — or today the term “evil-doers” seems to be a popular one.
Yes, “evil-doers.” Does that sound familiar? Does that mean that we can’t even judge that terrorism is wrong? No, killing innocent people by ramming airplanes into buildings is pretty clearly destructive — unless you are blind to that evil by playing that age-old game of labeling someone else evil so that you can kill them while remaining blind to that wrongness of the killing. Which is what you are doing now, isn’t it? You label certain people as “evil-doers” so that you can remain blind to the wrongness of the killing you do. We human beings can never continue God’s work of creation, like Jesus did in healing me, if we insist on killing, on destroying, no matter how good your reasons sound. Doing violence, even to those we name as enemies, is the blindness we are born with, the blindness for which Jesus offers the cure. That is the deeper blindness which it took the cross and resurrection to cure.
You are here today for Holy Communion. Do you realize after my story how precious is this Holy Communion? Since humankind itself was born, we have relied on our unholy communions based on violence. We have always based our comings together into community on being over-against someone else. And we have been blinded by our self-righteousness of being convinced that we are right to do so. But Jesus came to show us another way, a way which took him first to the cross, to letting himself be declared unrighteous and driven out as a sinner. But God raised him on Easter morning not just as a promise of life against our deadly ways, but as forgiveness in the face of our continuing unright-ness, as a cure for our blindness. He was raised to gather the forgiven unto himself into a Holy Communion, a whole new way of living together in God’s unconditional love. Come now to the Table and let yourself be healed by this amazing grace. For we were blind, but now we see. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, March 10, 2002