March 26, 2017 – 4th Sunday in Lent
(This sermon begins with a back and forth conversation as the scripture is read.)
Ann: This story in John’s gospel is about being blind and being able to see. The story functions on a physical level of literally being blind and literally being able to see. It also functions on a metaphorical and spiritual level of being able to see or being blind to what is true.
Act One: Jesus Heals a Man Who Was Blind from Birth
Katherine: As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.
Ann: Hold on! Hold on! I really dislike this verse! The idea that God made the man be born blind so that Jesus could heal him and God could be glorified. I do not like this at all—as if God would plan suffering for us so that good could come out of it. I do believe God can redeem suffering but I don’t believe that it’s God’s plan or desire for us to suffer. Suffering is a part of life but not because God picks us out to inflict it upon us.
You know what I just learned this week from biblical schools Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring (who is not, actually boring)? In verse 3, in Greek, there is no “he was born blind so that.” It’s a bad English translation. In a more literal translation, the verse would read, “Jesus answered ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned…but God’s works might be revealed in him.” The sense of the Greek sentence is that the presence of the man who is blind provides an occasion to do something about it and as Jesus heals the man, God is glorified.[i] It has nothing to do with God intending for the man to be blind.
Okay. Go ahead.
Katherine: [Jesus continues] 4 We must work the works of [the One] who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When [Jesus] had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then [the man] went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”
Ann: Isn’t this what we want to know too? How? Show me some evidence and I’ll decide if it’s for real. We’ve all got our own set of criteria for what is real and what is true and we want information so we can make a judgment based on that criteria. What throws us off kilter and what we often resist is letting ourselves and our understanding be transformed by something we don’t (yet) understand—in this story that is the power and glory of God.[ii]
Katherine: 11 He 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.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
Ann: Act Two: The Religious Leaders Investigate the Healing
Katherine: 13 They brought to the [religious leaders] the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then 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.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”
Ann: The religious expectation was that a truly religious person did not work on the Sabbath—that included not healing someone. You could do that the next day. The man was not going to die of blindness in the interim hours.
Katherine: But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.
Ann: People who observed Jesus had different expectations. One expectation: If Jesus is Messiah, he would obey the law and not work on the Sabbath. Another expectation: If Jesus is Messiah, he can heal people. Expectations of how it’s supposed to be can keep us from seeing what is true.
Katherine: 17 So 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.”
18 The [religious leaders] 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 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but 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.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the [religious leaders…for they] had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus[c] to be the Messiah[d] would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24 So 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.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
Ann: This word “know”—“one thing I do know” the man says—shows up multiple times in the rest of the story. It comes from a Greek word that means to have sight (that is, physical seeing) but it is also connected to comprehension (that is, mental and spiritual seeing).
And the Greek word here for “see” is a word that suggests to see something physical, with spiritual results (that is, perception or comprehension).
What the man says, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see,” is both a literal statement and a metaphorical declaration.
Katherine: 26 They said to [the man], “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He 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?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Ann: Here again is a clash of expectations about what can possibly be true. What is obvious to one person who has encountered Jesus is completely opaque to another. Who can see and who can know are hard to comprehend from different vantage points. Our preconception of the truth can blind us from seeing what is true.
My sister told me about a class she took on marriage years ago. The biggest take-away, that we both remember all these years later, was recognizing “What is obvious to me is obvious to me.”
Act Three: Jesus and the Man Meet Up Again; Who Can See and Who is Blind?
Katherine: 35 Jesus heard that they had driven [the man] out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of [Humanity]?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus 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.” 40 Some of the [religious leaders] near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
Ann: The Word of God
All: Thanks be to God.
In chapter two of James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone reflects on the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, who he describes as “widely regarded as America’s most influential theologian in the twentieth century…with wide influence in the secular political world.”[iii] Niebuhr was born in 1892 and was a pastor and a professor of ethics and theology between 1915 and 1960. Cone says Niebuhr wrote and spoke about the sufferings of African Americans and the evils of racism but “he failed to connect the cross and its most vivid reenactment in his time”[iv]—that is, lynching.
The lynching era is considered to be 1880 to 1940 during which time “white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus…Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists…In both cases, the purpose was to stroke terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.”[v]
Niebuhr had a big platform to speak to ordinary Christians and politicians alike and instead of using his voice for justice for African Americans, he joined Southern moderates who called for “gradualism, patience, and prudence”[vi] during a time when blacks were being lynched. What kept Niebuhr from advocating for justice for African Americans? What kept him from seeing? “How could anyone be a great theologian and not engage America’s greatest moral issue?”[vii] Cone asks. “It was easy for Niebuhr to walk around in his own shoes, as a white man, and view the world from that vantage point, but it takes a whole lot of empathic effort” says Cone, “to step into [the shoes] of black people and see the world through the eyes of African Americans.”[viii]
As we talked about this chapter in our book study this week I got to wondering what helps any of us step into the shoes of a person whose life experience is different from our own? Niebuhr himself talks about the powerful self-interest that we all serve (many times unconsciously) and how hard it is to “feel the pain of others as vividly”[ix] as we do our own. What enables us to feel the pain, learn the story, find a truth that is not our own, to see with different eyes?
I grew up going to public schools with a fairly significant racially diverse student body. In elementary school, my group of friends (the group that got invited to my birthday parties) included African American girls and a Native American girl. The high school I attended was 60% African American students and other students of color and 40% white students.
When I went across town and enrolled in an evangelical Christian college where the overwhelming number of students were white from white suburbs or small towns. I realized that growing up in a different environment from many of my college classmates made me see the world in ways that were different from many of them.
I wonder about your life. Has there been a person or an event who opened your eyes to see something you’d never seen before about a person of a different race than your own?
Martha and I stayed in the home recently of one of my friends from seminary and his wife. They are both African American. Their home is filled with art that depicts African Americans. As I walked around their home I was conscious that the art work I was seeing was not a representation of me. And it made me more aware of how often a white face and body is normative and what that does to the well-being of children and adults whose faces and bodies are all shades of brown and what that does to the well-being of people when they don’t see themselves represented in images of beauty or power or leadership or creativity or achievement. And what it does to the well-being of children and adults who are white who unconsciously (and not so unconsciously) absorb the lie that white people are smarter, more beautiful, more skilled, more accomplished than brown people.
What has God put in your way that opened your eyes to your own bias? Who has God brought into your life who has helped you see a deeper truth about people who are different from you?
Let us take a minute to remember and then, in your own heart and mind, to give thanks to God for the gift you have received.
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[i] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 318.
[ii] Ibid., 312-313.
[iii] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 32.
[v] Ibid., 31.
[vi] Ibid., 39.
[vii] Ibid., 52.
[viii] Ibid., 41.
[ix] Ibid., 40.