Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
(Preached on Sunday, March 26, 2017)
While all five of our senses help us connect with our environment, we tend to rely more dependently on our sight than on smell, taste, hearing, or touch. We are people who trust our eyes before we will accept input from our other senses. I grew up in Missouri where we are famously known as the “Show Me State!” But the truth is most people in this nation, if not the world, take up residence in Missouri intellectually, even though many never even cross the physical borders for a visit. In fact, one of our favorite proverbs is “Seeing is believing!”
But sometimes sight blinds us. Rather than helping us understand life, our vision can distract us from reality. Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor learned this lesson from the life of Jacques Lusseyran, a blind French resistance fighter who wrote about his experience in a memoir called And There Was Light. Lusseyran was not born blind but became blind at the age of seven from an accident in school. While most people around him viewed this as a total disaster, with the help of his parents Lusseyran came to view it as an opportunity for discovery. One of the things he discovered was that he still had the ability to “see” the world. Listen to his words describe the way the world “sees” and the way he came to “see.”
The problem with seeing the regular way is that sight naturally prefers outer appearances. It attends to the surface of things, which makes it an essentially superficial sense. We let our eyes skid over trees, furniture, traffic, faces, too often mistaking sight for perception – which is easy to do when our eyes work so well to help us orient ourselves in space.
Speed is another problem. Our eyes glide so quickly over things that we do not properly attend to them. Fingers do not glide. To feel a table is a much more intimate activity than seeing it. Run your hands across the top and you can find the slight dip in the middle of the center panel that you might otherwise have missed, proof that this table was planed by hand. After that your fingers work in inches instead of feet, counting the panels by finding the cracks that separate them, locating a burn – sickle-shaped, like the bottom edge of a hot skillet – and a large burl as well. You can smell the candle wax before you find it, noting the dents here and there left by diners who brought their silverware down too hard. By the time you reach the legs, you know things about this table that someone who merely glances at it will never know.
Every major spiritual tradition in the world has something significant to say about the importance of paying attention. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus said. “Consider the lilies fo the field.” If you do not have the time to pay attention to an ordinary table, then how will you ever find the time to pay attention to the Spirit? “Since becoming blind, I have paid more attention to a thousand things,” Lusseyran wrote.
Who is really blind and who is really able to see? What is the source of one’s ability to see? These are the questions that permeate this Bible story today. An ordinary man, blind from birth, is touched by Jesus. Suddenly the fellow not only sees things he’s never seen before but is transformed – no longer a beggar but a mature, autonomous being, able to speak with authority about the very tradition the religious authorities claim to won. His own parents are amazed. They waver between joy at their son’s transformation and fear that by the standards of the keepers of the faith, he will bring disgrace on his family by having become fully and articulately human.
Meanwhile the religious leaders circle around him baffled, wondering about the radiance that has come streaming into their shuttered enclave. They are disturbed by it yet fascinated enough to ask again and again, “How did he open your eyes? How did he open you up?” – so that the once blind man replied in effect: “It seems to me you fellows are beginning to show interest in following this man Jesus.”
Everything is turned upside down! The blind man is able to “see,” to perceive, to believe while those who have “sight” seem to be truly “blind.” In fact, apart from Jesus, he is apparently the only person in the whole story who is capable of straightforwardly seeing facts without distorting them. Seeing a blind man, the disciples try to find someone’s sin behind the blindness. Confronted with the restoration of sight, the Pharisees try to find someone’s sin behind the healing. In these interpretations both the disciples and the Pharisees miss the essential truth pointed out by Jesus: God is in the blindness, and God is in the healing.
That is why Jesus will have none of the gossipy question of the disciples, “Who sinned that this man was born blind – his parents or he, himself?” Jesus does not sit around and objectify the man and detachedly discuss his pain. Jesus wants to focus on the truth of the man, and of all of us: this man was born to reveal God’s glory.
Wait a minute! Does he really mean that God would allow someone to be born blind in order to show us a miracle? No, the story is more complex than that and is calling our attention to a deeper purpose. The man was born for a reason, yes. Just as we are all, in fact, born for the same reason: to reveal God working in us. The old catechism I learned as a child stated we are created “to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” In whatever state we are born, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, our purpose is to glorify God and to enjoy God and god’s blessings and gifts. As I mentioned earlier, God is in the blindness, and God is in the healing.
This story asks us to examine our own tendency to ignore Jesus’ revelation of God as healer, liberator and bearer of good news to the poor. It asks us to question our love of judging others rather than being concerned with a right relationship to God. We prefer to have a list of acts which constitute sin rather than be forced to examine our own hearts and their openness to the presence and guidance of the Spirit of god.
The blind man himself does not grasp the fullness of this truth right away. Yet his stubborn insistence on just the facts that he knows to be true – nothing more, nothing less – turns out to be the best preparation for gradual insight into the whole truth. The first time he is called on to witness to his own healing he simply calls his healer “that man they call Jesus.” The second time he declares, “He is a prophet.” The third time he affirms that Jesus must surely be “from God.” Finally, when Jesus reveals his identity as the “Son of Man,” the healed man declares his belief and bows down in worship. Faithfulness to his own experience enables him to be open to this revelation.
The pious interpretations of the officially religious people, on the other hand, actually prevent them from seeing God’s hand at work. They are not really interested in the facts of experience, whether their own or the blind man’s. They are only interested in making sure that “God’s law” is not violated. As is so often the case with powerful and successful people, however, their vision of God’s law is deeply enmeshed with their commitment to the status quo which has given them their success and power. The possibility of an act of God that transcends or negates the status quo is too threatening to acknowledge. Remember, it is frightening for us to imagine God functioning outside of our “box.” But when we shut down our ability to trust God then we shut down our ability to see God.
“What terrible sins have I committed? Surely I don’t deserve this affliction!” cried Reva to her hospital roommate. Reva had just been told that her cancer had spread to her lungs and bones. After a mastectomy and chemotherapy, Reva, a young woman, had believed her breast cancer was under control, for which she was thankful to God. Reva had thrown herself into her church work as president of the women’s mission group and chairperson of the Altar Guild. She witnessed to her faith by word and service. After she had begun to experience severe back pain and general weakness, Reva sought her doctor’s opinion. The doctor ran tests and the results were devastating. The cancer had spread. Her roommate attempted to console her by telling her that God was a God of love and that God loved her. She assured Reva that God was not punishing her for any sin she may have committed because everyone has “fallen short” of God’s expectations. “You must continue to witness to your faith even through this bad time, and God will continue to use you.” Reva calmed down somewhat and said, “I must look terrible because I’ve been weeping for hours and my husband is coming to see me soon.” To which her roommate replied, “Honey, I don’t know how you look! You see, I am blind.”
True sight comes from trusting God, embracing the truth that God wants only to draw us closer and closer to God’s loving embrace. In this way, believing really is seeing.