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John 9:1-7 (+40 verses)
This is a story about seeing. But, like much of John’s gospel, it’s not really about seeing, it’s about “seeing” with air quotes around it. I don’t know if this man is actually blind, and I think that if that’s the question we’re asking, we’re barking up the wrong tree. That’s not how these kinds of stories work. No one asks how if the three mice are totally blind, or just legally blind, or how Humpty Dumpty ever found pants to fit him since he was shaped like an egg. Actually he wasn’t shaped like an egg, the story never says what he looks like. We’re just used to the nursery rhyme storybooks that depict him that way for some reason. We don’t read mythic tales for the factual accuracy. We don’t read them to garner practical details about the world around us. We read them to give us some sense of meaning, just like this story.
And, boy, O, boy…is this ever a time to search for some sense of meaning.
Right away in our reading we get a good Biblical answer for one of the most haunting questions in a life of faith – why? Why is he blind? Again, not a very good question for the real purpose of this story, but let’s indulge for a moment because Jesus’ answer says something profound to one of the more common answersin Christianity…’least ’round these here parts.
It’s not because he sinned. It’s not because his parents sinned. It’s not because of sin. It’s not because of someone or something – so when you hear this called the “Chinese Virus,” know that is just another scapegoating method for someone to try and wash their hands in a negative way – assigning blame. We’re all in this together and God did not start any of it. Period. Viruses exist. They always have and always will, and we develop immunity to them as we get exposed, only this is a new one. So, while we develop antibodies through natural process or immunization eventually, we will contend with the natural process in which we live. If we say that’s God’s judgment, then we enter into an equation where some people matter and other people don’t, and that’s not how God works. That’s how WE work…we just sometimes find it easier and more convincing to pin that on God.
We should note that the disciples have already internalized this broken theology, they know it by heart, for they ask immediately who sinned so that he was born blind. Not did they sin or was it sin, their assumptions have already been made. And Jesus’ answer is that it isn’t sin at all, it’s glory…God’s glory. Now let’s think about that for a second…I mean, let’s think about that right now, where we are.
All of our lives are being lived differently. I could probably argue, and I think that China and Italy would back this up, that we’re not even living differently enough. What we all should be doing is minimizing our contact with one another – our physical contact, not our phone calls, emails, texts…that we should increase as we check on one another and keep our electronic lifelines going. Social distancing is a must right now. And when you think about that in the long term, it can get pretty depressing. So, we often either try not to think about it at all, or we think about it obsessively – neither of which is very helpful.
Then there’s Jesus.
Jesus, as he is fond of doing, turns the whole process upside-down. He answers them with a completely unexpected and kind of cryptic response – This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work.While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” In Greek he literally says this happened so that the acts of God might be manifested in him.
What if we viewed this time in which we live right now, this crisis of viral threat and economic trouble, this massive load of stress and anxiety as the opportunity for God’s acts to manifest themselves in us? The word crisis comes actually from the Greek as well. It means, “to separate, or to sift, to pass judgement, to keep only what is worth while.” There is an opportunity in every crisis and the deeper the crisis, the more profound the opportunity can be. But sometimes we can’t see it.
That’s the kind of “seeing” that this passage is talking about, the kind of vision we need to develop, or maintain, or generate right now. And, for Jesus, it starts with theology. It starts with how he sees God. For Jesus, in story after story in our gospels, blame is not a very helpful, nor holy, activity. The Pharisees, which really ought to just be a stand-in for lots of different groups, it shouldn’t single out a particular sect or tradition at all…those who wield the rules and practice judgment as a vindictive are present in any and all expressions of humanity, we can’t wash our hands of that too quickly. They come from the right and from the left, and from the middle. So, when we say, “The Pharisees” in John’s Gospel, we ought to hear “the ones more interested in some kind of ideological purity” rather than those who respond to the expression of Jesus’ love without exceptions, which doesn’t work very well in a system of purity.
The Pharisees, the “ideologues” in John’s gospel, see God’s work as restrictive. Jesus sees God’s work as liberating. The ideologues see God’s love as a series of punishments and rewards, based on our own actions. Jesus sees God’s love as restorative and filled with grace. The ideologues see social distancing as a curtailment of their freedom, but the vision that we need we can see in the sacrificial love of Jesus, that gives away it’s power and freedom, so that God’s work can be manifest in the world.
The way that Jesus heals this man is quite telling and, at first glance, seems straightforward, but it isn’t. It is loaded, in true John fashion, with symbolism. As Jesus engages in what, for our present moment, is some pretty unacceptable contact, mixing his spit with dirt and spreading the mud on this man’s eyes, and then telling him to, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam” – which John tries to make really clear is a metaphor, by explaining the metaphor. “This word means sent,” he writes alongside the instruction of Jesus. And, in Greek, it is actually apestolmenos, the root of which is where we get “apostle,” or one who is sent. Wash yourself, therefore, in a pool of apostleship…or, more clearly said, gain your sight by serving others, which is what the point of being an apostle of Christ is all about. And that has something for us to hear at this moment, doesn’t it?
In John’s gospel, the man’s “seeing” is a process – he sees, then he sees again, then he sees even more deeply as the passage goes along, first seeing Jesus, then calling him “Lord,” then pledging to follow him, as if our sight doesn’t come all at once, but in spurts. This is perhaps a similar time for us, as we live through something that none of us have ever lived through. And I think that in the crisis which is exacerbated, in part, by our strong and systematized dedication to an ideology of individualism, there is an opportunity, a great paradox of an opportunity, that in our time of isolation we might actually be drawn closer to one another…in this time where we are more physically individualized than ever, we might actually develop a stronger sense of how we are all connected, how we need one another.
There are no magical answers. We don’t know how long this will go on, nor how big an impact this will have. The first death in our state recorded as a result of COVID-19 occurred right here in Tulsa and my family has a connection to it, as it was the spouse of a teacher at my kids’ school. Their daughter is in my son’s senior class. And this will not be the last. The testing levels have been incredibly underdeveloped, particularly in our state. As we develop that capacity and test more, the numbers will go up. The impetus for us to stay isolated will grow, and this will get a lot more real in a hurry.
As Jesus tells us, we must learn to see. The rest of the story, the part you didn’t hear in my abbreviated hearing, has the man telling others about his sight, spreading the news that how we treat one another and how we love is critical, spreading that news like a virus, a virus we’d like other people to catch. It doesn’t come without pushback, for there are many who don’t want to let go of their blindness, they don’t want to let go of what they call “freedom,” they don’t want to let go of “the way that things are” because that’s been their foundation, their map for understanding the world. And even when that map doesn’t work, they’ll still cling to it.
We may indeed have much to change, and what could come from this crisis is the opportunity to think about how we’ve structured things, how our medical system responds to those with money, but doesn’t work for those who are sick, which is a problem. We could think about how we’re setup to deal immediately and decisively when the stock market is in trouble, but can’t effectively help the citizens of this country without a means-test we never apply to corporations in trouble, and that’s a problem. We could finally understand that those people working for minimum wage, those teachers and administrators and nurses and techs and janitorial staff…THEY make the world go, they keep us safe, they are the foundation…and we should pay them a living wage. But all of these things would mean that we’d have to learn to see differently.
Jesus says to those ideologically-bound folks, as a response to their pushback, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.” What we see really matters. And sometimes, Jesus reminds us, we must become blind so we can see truly see.
So, here’s to the Light of the World, come to teach us how to truly see. May we gain new vision in the weeks to come, and practice God’s compassion and peace where we are, and with what we have…the GLORY of God’s love painted brightly and vividly across our lives, holding each of us as beloved children of God, even – no especially – at a time of plague and famine and doubt and fear. That is precisely, our scriptures remind us, where God stands with us.
So, as a reminder to us all – we are still connected, Fellowship, connected by something deeper than physical presence, connected by God’s love, by the example of Christ Jesus, and by the Spirit, that resides in, among and with us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.