“Frailty, Fellowship, and the Ability to See”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
22 March, 2020
John 9:1-26
Lent 4A
Virtual/Zoom Church

In terms of the number of verses it takes to tell it, the story of the man born blind is probably the longest narrative about any unnamed character in the gospels.  It’s interesting to me that he’s not named—because everyone around him seemed to know who he was.  So, I can’t help but wonder whether John, in writing this gospel, might have intended for people to understand that the human dynamics going on here are not just specific to one man.  His point was that this is something that’s common to the human experience, if we ourselves but have spiritual eyes to see.

The scene opens with his disciples asking Jesus who was ultimately responsible for his blindness: the man himself, or his parents?  The simplistic and abhorrent theological idea that a human being’s impairment or disability is a punishment from God has been around since the beginning of time.  Maybe because physical or mental disabilities appear to people to be something of a judgment or curse.  But Jesus squelches the notion that either the parents or the man himself had sinned.  “He was born blind,” Jesus says, “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”[1]

Think about how different our world would be, how much more we would honor and cherish those who are differently-abled, if our first thought about a person with special needs was not pity, or blame, or feelings of awkwardness that lead to benign neglect.  Just think about how much differently we’d treat the blind and the lame and those with special needs if it was universally understood that these individuals are in the world so that God’s works might be revealed through them!  If we understood that every instance of human weakness or vulnerability is an opportunity for us to become more aware of how the gift of divine power is revealed through them.  (With thanks to Kathryn Hildreth) Our daily devotional reflection on Thursday included the song-poem by Leonard Cohen, who wrote, “There is a crack, a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”

But our human minds, when we see what we perceive to be problems or flaws, immediately set to work trying to figure out who’s to blame.  “Whose fault is it?” the disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”

Jesus swiftly disabuses the disciples of the idea that fixing blame and stigmatizing people is what we ought to be doing, especially as God’s agents of healing and reconciliation.  He bends over, spits in the dirt and spreads the mud he’s mixed up into the man’s eyes.  Then he instructs the man to go and wash in the pool over in Siloam.  And the man let Jesus do all of this; followed all his instructions!  Don’t you wonder what it was about Jesus that made the man trust him like that?

Maybe, as Jesus was working in the dirt, the blind man was remembering the story in Genesis 2:7, where God fashions a man from the dust of the ground and breathes into him the breath of life.  Here, Jesus uses the dust of the ground to give new life to this man born blind.  No longer would he have to beg in order to survive.  No longer would he be forced to suffer the indignity of being pitied by those who felt he was being punished on account of his parents.  Nor could he be the object of scorn by those who believed he himself must have done something terrible to deserve being blind.

The rest of the story reveals how a physically blind man receives his eyesight, but also 20/20 spiritual vision.  And, it pulls the curtain back on the religious leaders who challenge the blind man and his parents: they are able to see everything with eyes that have worked since birth, and they think they have superior insight.  They know how the world works, because they’re accustomed to pulling the levers of power.  But Jesus makes it clear that spiritually speaking, they are utterly and completely in the dark; blind to the ways and work of God when it’s staring them in the face and telling them exactly what happened.

The blind man could have become bitter, because everyone he knew failed him.  His parents, when the religious authorities approached them for an explanation, basically disavowed him.  They pleaded ignorance.  “We don’t know what happened,” they said. “He’s of age; ask him.”[2]  They refrain from defending what they know to be true, we’re told, “because they were afraid”[3] of the religious authorities—because the leaders had already made it clear that “anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”[4]

It must have hurt the man that his own parents wouldn’t defend him.  Wouldn’t so much as say, “We know our son is a man who tells the truth.  We believe what he’s told you, and us, and others—though we recognize what’s happened to him is nothing short of miraculous.”  But apparently, the thought of losing the respect of their community, and their place in the structure that was familiar to them, was too much to bear.  Even if it meant distancing themselves from their son.  The fear of stigma and ostracism, especially when the threat of that stigma comes from powerful authority figures, is a pretty effective muzzle, isn’t it?

The religious authorities—the supposed pillars of faith in the community, who had known this man since his birth, and who should have rejoiced that one of their own was experiencing a living re-birth—were singularly consumed with their personal agenda of defeating the threat they felt from Jesus.  They were tying themselves in knots trying to explain that this man of inexplicable power whom they despised for his charisma and compelling passion for the marginalized, was obviously a sinner.  He must be a sinner, because when he accomplished the formidable act of giving this man the gift of sight, Jesus clearly broke a religious rule about not working on the Sabbath.

But then, who but God could possibly accomplish such an act of power?  They knew they were dabbling with potential accusations of blasphemy—which is exactly the judgment they were trying to project onto Jesus.  They grilled the formerly-blind man, and his parents, making him and them explain again and again.  As if to question his version of reality, to make him doubt his own understanding of the facts.  They cast him out of the synagogue, banned him from the community.  But he remained resolute, because he saw clearly that they were truly the blind ones; he knew they were attempting to bend truth toward selfish ends, to bolster their worldly authority over fellow human beings.

Finally, the community failed him.  Everyone could see perfectly well that something miraculous had happened to this man.  But no one dared to stand up to the powers-that-be in his defense, nor even to question whether their perspective might be lacking important spiritual insights.  They could have talked together and mounted a protest against the abuse of power by their religious leaders.  They could have insisted that there was no reason why a man who was telling the truth should be cast out of the community.  Were they all blind?  And what was the cause of their blindness? Clearly, these are questions we’re meant to ponder.

The only trustworthy figures in this story are the man born blind and Jesus. The man tells the truth.  And even in the face of threats – the abandonment of his community and family – he remains steadfast: I was blind, but now I see.  He could have become bitter and resentful toward all those who had forsaken him in so many ways.  But he never did.  He just rejoiced and told his story.  Again, and again, and again, the man witnesses to the saving grace he has experienced in Jesus Christ, wanting to share the blessing of Christ’s healing power with others.

In this moment in time, as our society and the world is being shredded by fear and mistrust, where ignorance, misleading stories, and outright lies are commonplace, there is a powerful impulse to fix blame.  As we’re forced into isolation, the temptation from all directions is only mounting to delegitimize and stigmatize – to reduce our reality to us-versus-them narratives, rather than seeing the world as God does: as one expansive human family, called to love and serve one another as God has loved us, and as Jesus Christ modeled with his servant-leadership.

What the human race is going through right now – as the real threat of a deadly virus ravages our comfortable (or at least habitual) ways of being and relating, stripping us of certain illusions of security and forcing us to re-evaluate life in so many ways – none of this is pleasant or easy.  We’re like blind men and women, trying to figure out whom to trust and what to believe as we scramble to make the changes required to keep ourselves and the most defenseless people in our lives safe.  It’s an exercise in vulnerability, a reminder that we’re not invincible – an experience that anyone born with a disability or impairment is well familiar with.

The man born blind didn’t need to listen to, much less trust Jesus’ instruction.  But he did, and his life was transformed.  There were different hardships, to be sure; he needed to find a new community with whom to share and receive love.  But he knew the joy of genuine faith in the God who cares and abides with us; he was rooted in a realitymore enduring than the systems and structures of this world.

As we continue to navigate this culturally harrowing time, we need to make decisions about which voices we’re going to listen to and trust.  Ask yourself: Which voices and lives inspire me to look for where God is at work?  Which ones are inviting me to be a part of that effort?  Because those are the voices that are echoing Jesus’ voice today.  As most of us are being compelled to shelter in place and are forced to be less busy, less consumed by distracting activities, I encourage you to consider reading the Bible more attentively for these remaining weeks of Lent and listening for God’s voice in and through it.

In this imperfect moment, look for the cracks that let the light through.  Recognize what we’re experiencing not as an opportunity to assign blame or to become embittered; those behaviors are a waste of energy and time, and they reflect a sort of spiritual blindness.  Instead, listen to the instruction Jesus gave to all his disciples – and understand that this moment is for us, so that we might see God’s work revealed in it and through it.  And embrace the invitation each of us has to be divine agents in helping others to see, as well.  Amen.

[1] John 9:3b

[2] John 9:20

[3] John 9:22

[4] Ibid.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC