Sermon - 30th September 2018
Healing our blindness
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
When we last reflected on a miracle story, I said that they often contain hidden depths; there are often deeper meanings behind the stories which the gospel writers give us clues about, and challenge us to think about.
Today’s story from John’s gospel is one of those which has many layers, not least because it has many characters and they all deserve to be watched and thought about as the story unfolds.
It is one of those gospel stories which benefits from the use of our imaginations so that we can try to get the feel, the smell, the atmosphere and the noise of the event, as if we were in the crowd watching Jesus.
So, from our position in the crowd, look at the man who was born blind and who regularly comes to this place to beg for money. He has been excluded from normal society for virtually his whole life.
Why? Well, the question from the disciples gives a clue: there is a belief within the culture of the time that this man’s disability is a punishment for the sins of his parents and previous family.
The disciples ask, ‘Who sinned, this man or his parents?’
Jesus firmly declares that the man’s blindness is not a result of anyone’s sins and affirms that God has a place in this world for him. The unspoken message of those words is, ‘and if God has a place for him, why does his community reject him as worthless, make him beg, and keep him in poverty? Whose justice is that? ’
If this man were shown love by those around him, instead of being discarded like a broken vessel, that love would heal many of his illnesses. It would not restore his sight, but it would restore his dignity and his belief in the goodness of human nature. And instead of living hand-to-mouth as a beggar, he would start to give something back, he would reflect the love he was shown, and he would contribute to the lives of the people around him.
Jean Vanier, who founded various communities for disabled people in France, tells how he founded his organisation to ‘be good’ and to ‘do good’ to people with disabilities; but, he says,
‘I had no idea how these people were going to do good to me!... The people we are healing are, in fact, healing us, even if they do not realise it. They call us to love, and awaken in us what is most precious: compassion.’
The next thing that happens in our story is that Jesus touches the blind man.
Some of the miracles we have heard about in the gospels were achieved by a word of command; but here touch is important because, to someone who is blind, voice and touch are extremely important and very revealing ways of making contact. Instead of seeing the tenderness and compassion in Jesus’s face, the man experiences them no less sincerely through Jesus’s words and through his touch.
The next thing we become aware of - still from our place in the crowd - is the commotion from the various onlookers as the man’s sight is restored.
The custom at the time was that a miraculous healing had to be confirmed by the local religious leaders: - enter the Pharisees, the ultra-conservative upholders of religious tradition.
It’s fascinating to watch how they react - almost the first thing out of their mouths is, ‘This Jesus has broken the rules’.
There had already been confrontations between Jesus and the local religious authorities. To the Pharisees this was just more trouble-making by a dangerous maverick, and these goings-on were dishonouring the sanctity of the Sabbath.
And here the gospel-writer sets up his great dramatic contrast, because while the Pharisees say of Jesus, ‘We know this man Jesus is a sinner’, the beggar says, ‘All I know is that I was blind, and now I see.’
The Pharisees continue to challenge the situation. In their view, the Pharisees are defending the letter of their religious law and view everything through a lens of sinfulness. From the viewpoint of the beggar, he says, ‘I don’t know what happened, or why it happened, but I was blind and now I see’. It’s the classic religious conflict between ancient tradition and new revelation.
John’s readers are led by the hand into asking the question, ‘In this situation, who is really blind, and who can see enough to know the truth?’
From our observation point in the crowd, we can look at all the characters and ask, ‘where is God in this’? Is God to be found in the religious traditions, rules and observances of the Pharisees, or is God in the response of the man whose life has been changed forever through a loving touch and an intimate word?
When we step out of that Jerusalem crowd and back into our own daily lives, I suspect we still see examples of the misjudged priorities which John holds up for scrutiny in this miracle story. We certainly still hear about that conflict between tradition and revelation.
In the Anglican Church in the USA, a new clarity of vision has revealed to them that sometimes the best candidate for a particular position, even that of bishop - may happen to be lesbian or gay. And, thank God, they have recently been following this revealed understanding.
The modern day Pharisees within that church tradition - especially from other countries - have been telling them that they’re breaking the rules, and have been trying to exclude them to prevent their sinfulness being caught by other parts of the faith community.
But that church has found the courage to say, ‘We see God in this; this is a new revelation; we were blind, but now we see.’
In many respects, this church to which we belong and which we support with our time, our talents and our gifts, started as a new vision to gather, to touch, and to heal people who were excluded; people who were accused of being born in sin; people who had no place in the rulebooks of traditional churches.
The history of our previous and present denominations has been one of being a revelation to the world, showing by our actions and our inclusive teachings that God is at work in and among all communities, including the lgbt communities, blessing, healing and giving new life - just as Jesus did with the blind beggar.
But the Pharisees are still out there, using punishing traditions to condemn us, ready to exclude us from their communities, arguing that they are duty-bound to label us as sinners who fall short of God’s ideal.
In their attitude, they are not that far removed from the generation of Pharisees whom the gospel-writer brought face to face with Jesus in this story while gently asking the question, “who is blind, and who can see”, and “where is the God of love in this?”
One of my favourite religious writers is a retired American bishop by the name of John Shelby Spong. I had the privilege to meet him at a week-long study event in Wales some years ago. We had lunch together on one of the days and we talked about the struggles within the Christian tradition around faith and sexuality.
I will always remember his words to me: he said “We have already won. What you see are just the final death struggles of a viewpoint which will not survive for much longer.”
So, in the hope that we have already won, when we answer for ourselves those questions about who is blind and who can see, surely our only way forwards, as followers of Jesus, is to carry on for as long as we are needed, continuing to be a new revelation of God’s love, gathering, including, touching, healing and revealing new insights into this journey with God which we call 'life'.