Now I See

Passage: John 9:1-41
Date: March 26, 2017
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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When I was a skinny, book-loving, pony-tailed ten-year-old, we discovered my extreme near-sightedness. My eyesight declined very gradually, and I adapted by always sitting in the front row in school. I had no clue as to how blind I was. I still remember walking out of the optometrist’s office with my brand-new, tortoise-shell glasses, looking up at the summer-green trees and remarking: “Wow, I can see the spaces between the leaves!”

When we can’t see, how do we know what we can’t see? When truth is hidden from us, how do we even know what we don’t know? Some would say that we are in a time of post-truth, with sometimes unreliable information and claims streaming into our daily lives. We can be blinded by fear and emotion. How do we know when truth is obscured? What are we not seeing?

Jesus says, “I came into this world so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” In the story of the blind man, it’s the insiders, the religious authorities, who have power, tradition, rituals, rules, and a way of seeming to control and order things. Those who “see,” by attempting to control and regulate life, can be blind to the Light of God that shines through the Christ. The man who was born blind and whose life was transformed by Jesus’ healing sees and responds wholeheartedly. He vigorously defends the truth of what happened with Jesus, even to the point of being thrown out of the synagogue. He was changed. He truly saw.

“The Word was in the beginning with God. In him was life and his life was the light of all
people. . .The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Truth/Not Truth. Darkness/Light. Seeing/Blindness. Insider/Outsider. These themes leap from the reading today, and echo throughout the Gospel of John. This gospel’s “way of seeing makes room for an open encounter with the Light of life wherever it is to be found.”* The light and truth may not necessarily be found within the sanctuary walls and the comfortable tradition.

There are at least two kinds of “bad theology” in this story. First is the assumption that the disciples make that someone was to blame for the man’s misfortune in being born blind. We still get echoes of this in our time. For example, when faced with cancer, there is sometimes soul searching to figure out what the cancer patient must have done to have brought it on. Sometimes we can make a causal connection. But, quite honestly, sometimes cancer strikes one who has led a very healthy life and there is no family history of cancer. That still will not spare them judgment from some others who will reason that there must be someone to blame. So, who sinned, this man, or his parents?

Jesus said the man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. Did God cause suffering, just so that God can be built up? Now, this smacks of the kind of theology that makes people run away from the church!

But perhaps there is another way to understand Jesus’ words. Perhaps Jesus is simply repeatedly saying that for people, like the Pharisees, who appear to “see,” there is unwillingness to be open to the Light of Life in Christ that calls us to radical love and forgiveness. Because that love is going to shake up our lives and make us feel empathy for the “other.” It may turn us away from conventional wisdom and risk something of ourselves. The “loving one another” that Jesus calls us to will mean turning from focus on what is best for “me” and choosing to live in a way that serves “we.”

We must move from darkness to light, and we easily confuse the two. It is easy to claim our religious stance as light and not know that it is dark. After all, how does the person blind from birth know the difference? Unrecognized and unacknowledged blindness is the source of our turning away from God.

I was speaking to some dear friends (life-long Presbyterians) who attend a different Presbyterian church. Our conversation led to concern about the needs in our world for peace and healing and justice. Their daughter, who is a millennial and raised in the church, was critical of their congregation, and asked, “What are you really doing to serve?” I think she was asking, how willing are you to be moved out of your comfort zone to address the aching needs of the world? What will you sacrifice to do that? It’s a Jesus kind-of-question.

True sight is to see things as they really are. In this gospel, Jesus continues to point the way to show that there is no alienation or separation from God. But his opponents show in their behavior that they are still alienated.

That’s not easy, because we are caught in alienation from the creator, which the prologue of John’s gospel describes as “the dark.” We cannot see truly what we are afraid to see. The essence of the blind man’s enlightenment was to recognize in Jesus the touchstone of reality.

Years ago, Maurice Von Senden wrote a book on studies of people who had been blind from birth, having surgeries to receive sight for the first time. For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation: “The girl went through the experience that we all go through and forget, the moment we are born. She saw, but a lot of different kinds of brightness.”

For those receiving sight for the first time, it can be overwhelming. It oppressed them to realize the tremendous size of the world, which they had imagined as something touchingly manageable. Some refused to use their new vision, continuing to go over objects with their tongues and falling into apathy and despair... One 21-year-old girl carefully shut her eyes whenever she would go about the house, especially when she came to a staircase. She was only at ease when she closed her eyes, relapsing into her former state of total blindness.

Jesus brought physical sight to the blind man. The blind man believed, and he responded with his heart and action. Perhaps what matters most when we say we believe is that we open ourselves to become like Christ.

What are we not seeing? What blinds us from recognizing God? Will we let God’s love change us? How would our life be different if we “saw” like the blind man?

*J. Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (pg. 97)