One sunny May day in Central Park, a blind man was seen tapping for attention with his cane and carrying on his chest a sign: “Help the Blind.” No one paid much attention to him. A little farther on another blind beggar was doing better. Nearly every passerby put a coin in his cup, some even turning back to make their contribution. His sign read: “It is May—and I am blind.” Blindness vs. sight – those who can see versus those who believe they can see – that is the message of today’s readings.
In 1st Samuel, Jesse brings his sons to the prophet, so that the next king of Israel and Judah can be chosen. But God does not see the young men the same way that the prophet Samuel does. The prophet was blind to what God sees in a king. Fortunately, he was not deaf as well as blind. Ultimately he listened as God selected David to be king.
In the Epistle, St. Paul tells the church in Ephesus,
Once you were darkness, (in other words, blind) but now in the Lord you are light (you can see). Live as children (who have sight) -- for the fruit of (having a vision of Christ) is found in all that is good and right and true.
Paul wanted the Ephesians to know that Jesus had delivered them from their spiritual blindness and that slipping back into it was not an option. And then there is the Gospel.
Jesus heals a man born blind. The first thing that we must understand is that this man was – in the minds of the people in 1st Century Palestine – not just born blind, but he was born without eyes. That is why Jesus spat on the ground and made mud that he put on the man’ eyelids. It is a reminder of God creating humans out of the earth, in Genesis. Jesus did not heal the man – he created something out of nothing, just as God did with human beings. But this is not just a Genesis-like creation story, there is a second (unspoken) miracle that takes place here. In this case, Jesus also had to instantly rewire the man’s brain. People who are born blind have no connections that would allow their brains to interpret what their new eyes can see.
So Jesus performs a double miracle of creation and then sends the man to the pool of Siloam to complete the process by washing. In this nod toward the rebirth of baptism, the man does as Jesus instructs and immediately is able to see. “Siloam” means “sent” or “sent one.” In the context of the story, the man is healed not by the waters of Siloam, but by the “Sent One”—Jesus. And the rest of the story deals with who can see and who cannot.
I read something this week that encapsulates this story in a wonderful way.
The author, Dr. Peter Gomes, says:
This passage is full of delicious irony:
• The blind man sees, but those who have eyes choose to close them to the truth.
• The authorities call the man to give glory to God by denouncing Jesus as a sinner, but the man gives glory to God by witnessing to Christ.
• The authorities continue questioning, trying to find a hole in the man's testimony. He responds by asking if they want to become Jesus' disciples.
• The authorities say that Moses' authority comes from God, but they do not know where Jesus comes from––implying that he must not come from God. The man responds by pointing out the obvious truth, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing!”
• The authorities imply that one cannot be a follower of Moses and Jesus, but must choose one or the other. The message of the Fourth Gospel is that one can be faithful to Moses only through faithfulness to Jesus.
• The authorities repeatedly use the phrase, “we know,” but repeatedly reveal their ignorance (and their blindness).
• The authorities accuse the man of trying to teach them. The reader is aware that he is capable of doing just that, but they refuse to learn (or to see).
This whole story is a wonderful example of St. John’s use of irony. The healing of the blind man is a signpost that points directly to Jesus as the Christ. But the Pharisees, the supposedly all-knowing and visionary leaders of Israel, cannot – or will not – see the truth. And I would submit to you that we – modern Christians – can be every bit as blind as the Pharisees, about whom we love to feel very superior.
Christian Wiman is an American poet and former editor of Poetry magazine. He was raised in a Texas Southern Baptist home and was steeped in faith during his childhood. But during and after college, he says that he would not call himself an atheist, but rather that his faith went “underground,” much the way a hibernating animal might. And it was years before his faith stirred from its slumber.
He says that sometime in 2002, he fell into a deep and unexplainable despair. He could no longer write. He says that he does not know if that was the cause or an effect of his despair. But as it hit its low point, he unexpectedly met and fell in love with the woman whom he would marry. Christian says that he still could not write, but at least the despair was lifted. He says that he and his new wife would occasionally say some small prayer before they ate. That grew into some intentional, if brief prayer time. And then, when they had been married for about eight months, he was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer. It was then that Christian says the light of Christ – the truth of Jesus – began to shine in a way that was undeniable. In other words, the erudite, well-educated man who wrote poetry that saw the world in ways others could not, had been blind for decades, but now had been given new eyes by Jesus.
In a series of essays, entitled My Bright Abyss, Christian wrote,
Just as some of Jesus’ first-century followers could not credit the presence of the risen Christ, so our own blindness, habit, and fear form a kind of constant fog that keeps us from seeing, and thereby believing in, the forms that grace takes in our everyday lives. We may think that it would be a great deal easier to believe if the world erupted around us, if some savior came down and offered as evidence the bloody scars in his side, but what the Gospels suggest is that this is not only wishful thinking but willful blindness, for in fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.
Whether or not we want to admit that our blindness is caused by “dullness” of our spirits – in other words, spiritual laziness, we are all plagued with that blindness from time to time. And when our blindness really comes out is when we believe that we, like the Pharisees, are the only ones who can see.
Look around St. Barnabas. Do you believe that you can see what is wrong with the other people around you? Do you believe (at least occasionally) that you know what would be best for some of the other people here? That is spiritual blindness. To look at it slightly differently, do you believe that you are the one who can see the faults of St. Barnabas and know exactly what it takes to fix them? That too is spiritual blindness.
What we see when we look at people or institutions is a thin slice of the whole. It is like when you look at a sheet of paper from its back or front. It appears to be 8 ½ x 11 inches. But if you look at it from the sides or ends, it is incredibly thin. People are complicated, and so are parishes. We only know what we see. And the rest is hidden from our natural blindness.
As you judge other people or things, remember the limitations of your vision. What you may believe to be 20/20 sight, may turn out to be perfect blindness. Jesus is at work in ways you may know nothing about. So just look to Him and His gracious love for your sight. Then you cannot go wrong.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.