To See or Not to See

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
1 Samuel 16:1-13

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the
world. . .”
John 9:1-41

Good morning, friends of St. Paul’s, Rock Creek. It is a blessing to be with you.

My sermon topic comes straight from the Scripture texts we have just heard, with their many variations on the theme of blindness and sight.

A few questions to start us off:

How do we experience/ interpret blindness? And for the word “blindness” feel free to substitute any other hardship of human experience, any form of suffering, disability, or limitation. What does it feel like, and equally important, how do you and I interpret what’s happened to us? Is it our fault? Is someone else to blame? Are we being punished?  

Here is another constellation of questions:

What is it like for us to realize that we’ve been blind in some way and we didn’t know it, that our vision had been distorted or blocked and we had no idea? There are so many things that affect our sight apart from well our eyes see. What’s it like to acknowledge, as we sing Amazing Grace, “I once was blind, but now I see”?

Exploring these questions is our task this morning. It’s a lot of ground to cover, but your rector assures me that you are intelligent people, and the texts for today give us amazing material to work with.

Let me give you my bottom line before we begin:

Judging our blindness, or that of others, is a waste of our time.
God invites us to see ourselves and others through his eyes.
Jesus invites us to see and experience him as the light of the world and source of abundant life. It’s an invitation we are free to accept or reject.

Let’s start with the matter of judgement, or blame.

We’re all predisposed to seek explanations when bad things happen. We want to make sense of our experience, and yes, to find fault. Because if we know the source of our pain, we can correct it. And if we know who is responsible, we can hold that person–ourselves or someone else–accountable. Truth be told, there is plenty of fault to go around for most of the suffering we experience.

But hear again what Jesus says in response to the question about the man blind from birth. “Who sinned?” the disciples want to know. “The man or his parents?” And in this instance, Jesus replied. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” No one was at fault. It simply happened that the man was born blind.

A teenage boy loses both his legs to cancer.
A child is born missing a limb.
A hurricane devastates a village.

It may be someone’s fault, I suppose. But sometimes things happen–hard, terrible things–without a satisfying explanation. We wish it were otherwise and so, I believe, does God.

Let’s look at the gospel passage printed in your bulletin. There is an important difference of biblical interpretation that hinges, believe it or not, on punctuation. Punctuation is a relatively new addition to biblical texts, and is subject to debate.

Find the part that begins with the question the disciples asked Jesus: “Who sinned?” Several of the biblical scholars I consulted this week suggest that there is a misplaced period in Jesus’ answer: The text before you reads: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” I take that to mean that it wasn’t the result of sin that the man was born blind, but in order that God might be glorified by Jesus’ miracle.

Now read the same sentences this way, as other biblical scholars suggest: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind. So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world,  I am the light of the world.”

This way, neither the man nor his parents are at fault. But nor is it true that he was born blind so that Jesus could work a miracle and God be glorified. Instead, Jesus is saying, because I am here now, God’s love and healing can be revealed here, for him, for his sake. We must work the works of him who sent me while I am here. Do you hear the difference?

Because Jesus is the light of the world, he wants to heal the blind man. Jesus is the light of our world, and he wants us to be healed. Through his love, we can experience healing, not always the kind of healing we want, for healing is a process beyond our understanding.

It is not easy to accept suffering as a part of life; to accept conditions we would not choose for ourselves or wish on anyone else. We want to stop suffering, prevent it if we can; prevent those who cause suffering, and be restored to the fullness of life. That’s what Jesus wants for us, too. But for reasons that we can never fully understand, healing begins with acceptance of whatever it is that we’re struggling with or against. Healing begins with acceptance and letting go of judgment.  

I do not say this without some appreciation of how hard this is. I, for one, need God’s grace and the experience of his presence with me in suffering to reach that place of acceptance. And my capacity to accept suffering fluctuates: some days I’m better at it than others. Some days the best I can do is ask for help in that first task of acceptance. But the healing part is nothing less than miraculous, no matter what form the healing takes.  

Sometimes amazing grace results in full healing of body; surely we all want that. Sometimes it takes the form of strength and the capacity to find joy despite one’s limitations and even through them. Sometimes it takes the form of intense commitment to spare other people suffering that we’ve endured, so that our wound becomes a source of healing grace for others, as the light of Jesus shines in and through us.

Now let’s turn to second set of questions, that have to do with, “self-inflicted blindness,” or being blind and not knowing it, which is the most dangerous form of blindness of all.

As with every story in the gospel of John, there are several things going on at the same time in the story of the man born blind. It’s helpful to remember that the purpose of the Gospel of John, from beginning to end, is to demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt that Jesus is the Son of God, the way, the truth, the life and the light for all people; that he came from God to reveal to us the true nature of God and to show us how to live in God’s ways, which are the ways of love. The great sin in the Gospel of John is to reject Jesus, which is exactly what we hear the Jewish religious authorities doing in this story.

Before going any further, let me point out something that you may well know but bears repeating, especially as we get closer to Holy Week and the stories of Jesus’ crucifixion: in some passages, particularly in the Gospel of John and sometimes in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ adversaries are referred to as “the Jews.”

Referring to all Jesus’ adversaries as “the Jews,” is like referring to all of America’s adversaries as ….. “the Muslims.” The people in question were most certainly Jewish, but it is a mistake of tragic proportion whenever Christians hear in these references a condemnation of all Jews, which has happened, and has justified horrific acts of anti-Semitism throughout Christian history. Remember that Jesus himself was Jewish, as were all his disciples and most of his early followers. “The Jews” at issue here were the religious authorities of his day, who saw Jesus as both a nuisance and a threat. They apparently particularly hated it when he healed people on the Sabbath day; and he hated it when they judged him for it, because for him, the Sabbath was made for humankind as an expression of God’s love for us. What better day to heal in the name of a loving God?

But rather than dwell further on the sins of the Jewish authorities, let’s use their example as instruction, as a reminder of how dangerous we can be when we choose not to see. Theirs is a blindness of the heart, a condition to which none of us is immune. With heart blindness, not only are we oblivious to what we cannot see, but a part of our identity requires us to be blind in certain ways.  

Anthony de Mello tells a story about a monk who died and was buried by his fellow monks in the tradition of their monastery, in a crypt on the back wall of the chapel. After the funeral service, the other monks heard noises from the other side of the wall. They re-opened the crypt, and the monk who died rose from the coffin and told them of his experience beyond the grave, which contradicted everything their tradition taught them about life after death. So they put him back in the wall.

Are there ways we are blind to what we choose not to see, to be, like Jesus’ adversaries, heart blind? Of course. Are there ways to strengthen and amplify our heart’s vision? I think so. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is tend to our hearts. My husband and I spent a week in Ireland several years ago and as we were leaving, our guide, urged us to pay attention to how we spend our time. Ponder things worthy of your hearts he said. Read more poetry and watch less television. Spend more time in silence and less surfing the Internet. Particularly for those of us entering our elder years, he said, cultivating silence and spending time in prayer becomes more important.

That leads me to my final word on this broad spiritual theme of blindness and sight, going back to the marvelous story from the First Book of Samuel. In the search for Israel’s King, Samuel follows God’s lead and seeks out God’s chosen among the sons of Jesse. The line to remember, perhaps commit to memory from this story: The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. God invited Samuel, God invites us to see as God sees, to see ourselves as God sees us; to see others with God’s eyes. This is the most amazing grace of all, and it takes effort on our part, a willingness to suspend our vision and invite God to open our eyes. For me, that’s a daily practice: each day, I pray for the grace to see as God sees, and capacity to love as God loves.

You don’t need me to tell you that there’s a lot of collective blindness in the country right now. But  we can each do our small, but vital part, whenever we consciously seek to see with God’s eyes, when we invite Jesus, as the light of the world, to illumine our path, and when we accept, without judgment, suffering as part of life, and open ourselves to healing grace.

Let me end where I began and say once again:

Judging our blindness, or that of others, is a waste of our time.
God invites us to see ourselves and others through his eyes.
Jesus invites us to see and experience him as the light of the world and source of abundant life. It’s an invitation we are free to accept or reject.

May I pray for us:

Gracious, heavenly Father, we are all blind in so many ways. Help us to accept the suffering that is ours, not as a sign of punishment or source of blame, but as part of the mystery of life in this broken world. Open us to your healing presence, Jesus’ healing light and love. Heal us from heart blindness, Lord, all the ways we choose not to see. Give us your eyes with which to see, eyes of the heart to see to the heart, that we may live guided by your compassion and mercy. With your light, illumine our path. In Jesus name, we pray.

Amen.

 

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