Which Blind Man? – a sermon on John 9 by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

There are a lot of amazing stories of healing in the gospels, but the one we read this morning is a bit different. I say that because this story that John tells us about the man who was healed of his blindness isn’t mainly about the man who was healed of his blindness. He did get healed, and that did cause quite a commotion and much consternation among the Pharisees, who tried to shut the whole thing down. First of all, they wouldn’t believe that the blind beggar they all used to see by the roadside was really this articulate man who now had clearly regained his sight. They insisted it must just be somebody who looked like him, until the man’s own parents timidly assured them that yes, indeed, that was their own son, and yes, indeed, he had been blind from the time he was born, but hey, he’s a grownup now and why didn’t they ask him to explain what happened – they weren’t looking for any trouble. And then the Pharisees tried to discredit the man’s own testimony because after all, he was born blind, and that meant he was born in sin – even Jesus’ own disciples thought that was true. And THEN the Pharisees argued that even if this stranger had healed the man’s eyes so that now he could see, surely that man must be as great a sinner as he was because he broke the Sabbath law forbidding anyone to work on the Sabbath. So there.

It’s quite a story. But the thing is, it’s not only, not even mainly, about the blind man, who did get healed so that he could see the world for the first time in his whole life, and who, when he finally found out who Jesus was, bowed down to worship him. This story isn’t just about one man who was blind, but now can see; it is about a whole lot of people who were blind, but who couldn’t or wouldn’t admit that they couldn’t see.

The man who was healed had suffered from physical blindness; he had been unable, his whole life, to perceive light and color and shape, and that is a terrible thing. But we all suffer from far worse kinds of blindness – worse, because we don’t even understand that we are blind, and worse, because if we don’t know that we are blind, we can never be healed of our blindness. As Helen Keller once said: “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”

We can certainly see the blindness of the disciples, when they came upon the poor blind man begging by the side of the road. Their first thought was, someone must have done something very bad to cause this to happen to him. So they asked Jesus, “Whose fault is it that this man was born blind? Was it his parents’ fault? Or did he do something to bring it upon himself?” The disciples seem to have been guilty of some bad logic there, because how could anyone possibly commit a sin that caused them to come into the world blind? But basically, they reasoned like this – suffering is caused by sin. Therefore, if you see a miserable person they must have done something evil to bring that misery upon themselves. And that is a comfortable thought for us, because it means that as long as we are well and well-off we must be good people who don’t deserve suffering.

That was an ancient Jewish way of thinking, but I think it is also a pretty common American way of thinking as well. Until suffering affects us personally, or someone close to us, it is very easy for us to allow ourselves to be blind to the reality of suffering in the world. We can’t help but see starving children and the bloody carnage of war on the TV news, but as long as we can just blame it on poverty, or the politics in that foreign country or the violence of that religion; as long as we can convince ourselves that that’s just the way it is in those uncivilized third-world countries, we can allow ourselves to be comfortably blind to our common humanity.

It is very easy – and much more comfortable – to shut our eyes to the reality that those men and women and children are no less human and no more deserving of their suffering than we are deserving of our comfort and lack of suffering. Blindness can be so much more comfortable than sight. But if we refuse to admit that we have been blind in our lack of compassion, which means literally our “suffering with” our fellow human beings, how can we ever be healed? As Jesus said, as long as we say that we are seeing clearly, our sin remains.

The Pharisees may have been blind in many ways, but they weren’t deaf. They understood that Jesus was talking about them even if they didn’t quite get the point. “I came into this world for judgment,” he said. “ I came so that people like this poor man who can’t see can regain their sight, yes, but I also came so that people who claim that they can see may be shown to be blind.” The Pharisees were offended by this, and they said to Jesus, “Are you calling us blind?” And Jesus answered them, “If you were truly blind, there wouldn’t be anything sinful about that. But as long as you insist that you are not blind, your sin is still with you.”

The only way – for us, just the same as for the Pharisees – the only way to be healed of our spiritual blindness is to admit, first of all, that we are blind. And that is a much trickier thing than it might sound. After all, how does a person who has been blind from birth even know that there is such a thing as seeing? If we are blind, how can we know what it is that we don’t see? What Jesus was calling the Pharisees to; what he is calling us to, is a radical humility that is open and willing to accept his diagnosis of our blindness, a diagnosis that we could never have found on our own, a diagnosis that by definition we couldn’t discover by ourselves.

As Jesus said about his own people, who came by the thousands to hear him, but would reject him in the end: “These people fulfill the words of Isaiah, when he said: ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’”

There are a lot of different things that cause our spiritual blindnesses. The community we grew up in, the values of our parents, the things we experience, especially in our growing-up years, our religious beliefs: all these things contribute to the limitations of our sight, or understanding. As individuals, we all have our own areas of blindness, every single one of us. We might be blind to the real need of our next-door neighbor. We might be blind to the way our careless words hurt someone we love. We might be blind to the way patterns of selfishness or greed or dishonesty are becoming established in our lives. We might be blind in many different ways, but the only way we can discover our blindnesses and be healed of them is to humbly ask God to reveal our blindness to us. Because there is no one else who can restore sight to the blind.

We also have blindnesses that we share as whole communities of people. One particularly deadly form of blindness that has afflicted our whole nation from its founding to the present day is the blindness of racism. Very few Americans think of themselves as racist, I think, and yet, we live in a country in which almost 150 years after black people got the right to vote and 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights act, churches and neighborhoods and schools, all across our nation, are still largely segregated by race. People of color can still expect to earn significantly less than white people in the same job – in fact, the wage gap last year between black and white was bigger than it has been in 40 years. Black people are still more likely to be stopped by the police or suspected of shoplifting than white people. We watch TV shows and movies in which the good guys are almost always white and the thugs are most often black and we don’t think twice about what that says about us. Our nation was established to a great extent on the blood and pain of slaves who were kidnapped from their homes and sold like livestock and to this day we have not yet overcome the blindness we had to assume to keep our white consciences at bay. As a whole people, we are in very great need of healing from the blindness of our racism.

If we tell ourselves that we can see just fine; if we refuse to ask God to reveal our blindness to us; then our sin will remain with us, and we have no hope of being healed. But if we turn to God, asking him to heal our blindness – only imagine what the world will look like when he takes the scales from our eyes and we see truly what we have never been able to see before!

I love the description of how Jesus healed the blind man. He spat on the ground and he took the mud and kneaded it in his hands. He took the mud he had made and spread it with his own hands on the man’s unseeing eyes. Then he told the man, “Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.” And when the man had washed the mud from his eyes, suddenly he could see, light and color and shape and movement, for the first time in his life. It is a beautiful picture of how our Lord deals with us in our blindness, too; how he tenderly re-creates our eyes when they have forgotten how to see, just as he formed the first human being from mud at the very beginning of creation. And then, notice how Jesus sent the man to wash his own eyes. He calls us to participate in our own healing, to take those steps we need to take to cleanse ourselves of the false ideas and resentments and fears that have helped to blind us; to reconcile with those we have hurt; to begin to learn new ways of thinking and seeing and doing.

But our healing can’t even begin until we come to him in humility, confessing to him that we are blind beggars ourselves, in desperate need of healing.

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