Questions of Vision

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

John 9:1-41

March 19, 2023

Main Idea:  Jesus opens our eyes and our understanding.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

In the Season of Lent we have been traveling with Jesus through the wilderness, asking questions and listening in to his conversations. Today we have the third of four conversations from the Gospel of John.  First we had Jesus talking with Nicodemus, then the Samaritan Woman, today we have the Man who was born blind, and next week we will read Jesus’ conversations with Mary and Martha concerning Lazarus.  Each of these stories is more complex and longer than the one before as the author of the Gospel of John brings us deeper into an understanding of who Jesus is.  Today’s text is a drama made up of seven scenes and to understand the story we really needed to experience it from beginning to end. The story functions as a narrative sermon dealing with issues of inclusion versus exclusion, authority, identity, creation, speaking the truth, and the nature of sin. John invites us into the story, to watch the healed man change and grow, and to observe the religious leaders change and diminish.  Today we will focus on this dynamic of change.  Jesus empowers us to see and to act on what we have seen.

So what do we see in this story about change?

First, change is disruptive.  Notice that the man born blind does not ask to be healed, in fact, Jesus does not even speak to him before spreading mud on his eyes. Jesus gives one instruction and then Jesus exits the story until v. 35! (It is his largest absence from the narrative in the whole gospel.)   The man’s world is turned upside down.  It is such a big change that his friends and neighbors no longer recognize him!  He has to keep saying “I am the man.” (v. 9) Notice that there is no joy or celebration about his healing.  His status and place in the world have been disrupted and people are upset about it. They no longer know how to define him.  Even his own parents distance themselves from him, afraid of what his transformation may mean for their own lives.  The stable worldview that the community holds is more important to them than the man’s healing.

The religious leaders fight the disruption of their worldview with all their might.  As the privileged elites of the community, they like things the way they are!  Although they would never admit it, they are afraid of any change.  They have decided that they are the only ones who get to define and determine how things go. They do mental and theological gymnastics to explain the man’s experience through their lens.  Their worldview is challenged by Jesus but they refuse to change.

Second, change begins a process.  The Healed Man’s conversion and understanding grows throughout the story, much like that of the Samaritan Woman with whom we journeyed last week. She gains understanding through her conversation with Jesus, while the Healed Man grows more sure through his interrogation by the religious leaders.   When he first talks with his neighbors, he calls Jesus “the man” (v.11).  After listening to the religious leaders huff and puff, he tells them that Jesus is “a prophet” (v.15),  and finally he says to them, “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.  Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.  If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (v.31- 33).  When he talks again with Jesus, he expresses his belief in Jesus as “the son of man” (v. 35-38) and worships him as Lord.  

As the man grows in understanding, the religious leaders grow in their fear and rejection.  At first they were just curious about figuring out what happened to him.  They actually were divided in their theories.  But they soon close ranks, threatening the man’s parents, calling him a liar, and driving him out of the community. Their theological arguments finally consist of “You are a nobody and we don’t have to listen to you.”  The last words they say are ironic and quite plaintive; “Surely we are not blind, are we?”   The process of change has reversed the fortunes of the healed man and the religious leaders. He has found the truth of Christ, they are lost and afraid.

And this illustrates the third aspect of change.  Change involves choice, not whether we change but in what direction. In the Gospel of John there are two choices; toward God which is eternal life, or away from God which is sin.  This story shows the consequence of both choices. The Healed Man chooses to embrace the change and the invitation from Jesus.  He speaks the truth about what happened to him and will not disavow it despite great pressure from his community.  He believes in Jesus and enters into Jesus’ community. The religious leaders choose to pretend that change is not happening.  They grasp at straws to avoid acknowledging Jesus. They not only resist the change offered by Jesus, they harden their commitment to their particular point of view.   The religious leaders will go to any length to avoid admitting they were in error about the nature of God.  To protect their understanding of God they will reject the Incarnation of God. The story starts with the disciples asking about whose sin caused the man’s blindness and the story ends with the religious leaders blinded by their own sin. “Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (v. 41)

So, what does this mean for us? What are we to see?

In the United States today, there is a lot of energy around the word “woke”.  To be “woke” is to be awake, to open our eyes and see, to empathize with others, especially with those who are suffering, and with those for whom life is unfair.   It is to recognize that maybe we did not understand these things before but now we do. “I was blind but now I see.”   This term “woke” is now used as a slur by those who champion anti-“woke”ness.   But to be anti-woke is to be asleep! To keep our eyes shut tight!  To willfully choose not to see, and not to empathize with those who are suffering from the inequalities of our society.  Just like the religious leaders in today’s Scripture, the anti-woke folk like things as they are.  They like their privileges and their power.  They do not want to be made uncomfortable by the pain of others. They are afraid of change.  This is why they are banning books, and silencing teachers, and exerting control over the bodies of women and trans people, and making it harder for people of color to vote.  Just like the religious leaders in today’s Scripture, they will denigrate and try to intimidate those who don’t share their worldview.  They want control, which they couch in Christian terms but it has nothing to do with Christ.  It is white  christian nationalism and we must speak out and act against it.

Jesus empowers us to open our eyes and see, to embrace the healing and inclusion that he offers. This isn’t always easy!  It requires humility and courage and trust.  It requires speaking the truth when those in power try to silence or exclude us.   It requires reaching out to others in fellowship.  It requires showing up when others are in need, always recognizing the power of Christ among us.   When we open our eyes and truly see, we don’t only see the hard stuff, we also can see the wonder and the beauty  and the joy of God’s extraordinary providence and the incredible resiliency of God’s creation.  We can learn and celebrate the great diversity of human experience and the deep mystery of God’s redeeming and healing love.  We can let go of fear and rest in God’s grace.   Jesus gives us power and joy and unending love if we would just open our eyes and recognize it.  The healed man shows us the way.   He sees Jesus.   He follows Jesus.  He says,  “One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

 Any questions?

Let us pray,

Astonishing God, we look to you for guidance in our lives.  Help us to embrace your vision for us.  Help us to be open to the movement of your Spirit so that we can see the world as you see it. And empower us to serve you. We ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Notes and Quotes

V. 30 – “Here is the astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from and yet he opened my eyes.”

The extended back and forth and the refusal to welcome are the problem

We get caught in the rules of our own making

The point is v. 30  and “I was blind but now I see.”

Attack on wokeness – refusal to see or to empathize

“Even before Jesus heals the blind man, the disciples assume that his blindness is his own fault.  So they ask Jesus who has sinned and incurred God’s displeasure — the man himself, or his parents.  But Jesus rejects the entire premise of their question.  There is no relationship between the man’s condition and his sinfulness, Jesus says.  God does not make people sick in order to punish them for wrongdoing.  To step away from our brother or sister’s suffering because we assume it’s divinely ordained, is not righteous.  It’s reprehensible.   

In the story John tells, Jesus sees the blind man — a man whom no one else really sees. In the eyes of his peers, the man is contaminated, burdensome, and expendable.  In his community’s calculus of human worth, the blind man barely registers — he’s not a human being; he’s Blindness.  The condition itself, with all of its accumulated meanings.  Which is why, when the man’s sight is restored by Jesus, his own townspeople — the people he has lived and worshipped with for years — don’t recognize him.  They don’t know how to see him without his disability.  To do so would be to recognize a common humanity, a bond, a kinship.  And that would be intolerable.    

So, of course, when the man shows up at the Temple healed and whole, the community rallies to discredit him.  To restore order, re-establish the social hierarchy, and reinforce the status quo. 

But why?  Why does the community feel such an urgent need to silence the healed man?  I wonder if the core reason is fear.  A fear so primal and so deep, it drives away all compassion, all empathy, all tenderness, all sense of kinship.  If the man’s blindness isn’t a punishment for sin, then what does that mean about how the world works?  Anyone might get sick, or suffer from a disability, or face years of undeserved pain and suffering for no discernible reason whatsoever.  That wouldn’t be fair — would it?  That would be a version of reality the good religious folks can’t control.  A terrifying, destabilizing version.  Who among us can bear to surrender the illusion of control?

Not only does the community’s legalistic approach to faith prevent them from seeing the healed man; it also prevents them from seeing God’s love and power at work in their midst.  No one in the story rejoices when the man is healed.  No one – not even the man’s parents — expresses joy, or wonder, or gratitude, or awe.   No one says, “I am so happy for you!” or asks, “What is it like to see for the first time?  Does the sunlight hurt your eyes?  What are you excited to look at first?”

Instead, the community responds with contempt, its need to preserve its own sense of righteousness more important than celebrating a fellow human being’s restoration to life.  “The place where we are right,” the poem says, is “hard and trampled like a yard.”  Hard and cynical.  Hard and suspicious.  Hard and stingy.

This suggests to me that vulnerability, softness, curiosity, and openness are essential to real seeing.  The Gospels tell us that Jesus’s true identity eludes just about everyone until after his Resurrection.  Even his disciples struggle to understand who and what their Teacher is.   Most of the people who encounter Jesus are too busy seeing what they want to see — a magician, a heretic, a political and military leader, a carpenter’s son, a wise man, a phony, a clerical threat — to notice what the blind man, free of all such filters, discerns by the end of the story.  The blind man alone sees Jesus as the Son of Man and calls him, “Lord.”

We might say, then, that this is one of the rare and beautiful moments in the Gospels when Jesus himself is truly seen.  The blind man sees Jesus as wholly and purely as Jesus sees him; the gaze and the recognition in this story are mutual.  Because the healed man has no preconceptions, because the spiritual ground he stands on is soft and supple, he is able to see God as God is.  “Doubts and loves dig up the world, like a mole, like a plow.”  They allow the whispers of God’s Spirit to bring forth new life.   (Debi Thomas, )

At its core, this is a story about Jesus creatively, gracefully calling an excluded outsider to be an exalted apostle — and if we miss that essential storyline, we’ll miss the point. More importantly, if we misinterpret the world around us in similar ways, obsessed with inessential controversies and the supposed sins of others, we’ll miss the Way of Life. 

Thus the story lays a trap: if we’re listening carefully, we dare not point an accusatory finger at the Pharisees, or the disciples, or indeed those Christians who differ from us down the street. Jesus calls us to let go of blame and recrimination, and turn instead to interpreting the world — in all its beauty and hardship — as a steady stream of opportunities to participate in “God’s works” of love, healing, and reconciliation (John 9:3).