by David Baer, February 11, 2018
Text: John 9:1-41
If you were in the sixth grade any time after 1975, the chances are you’ve read Theodore Taylor’s young adult novel, The Cay. This is a story about a loss of sight that clarifies and enlightens. Phillip Enright, the eleven-year-old hero of the story, was sailing with his mother from Curaçao to Virginia when their ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat, and the boy was struck in the head by falling debris as they tried to escape in a lifeboat. He awakens to find himself on a raft with a cat and an old man named Timothy, a black Virgin Islander. While still adrift on the raft, Phillip becomes completely blind.
Phillip’s mother is a white woman from the American South, and she impressed the racial attitudes of her own upbringing on her son. She didn’t want him playing with black children. Black people are different, she told him. They have their way of life, and we have ours. Because of this, Phillip is frightened and repulsed by his castaway companion.
But Phillip and Timothy need each other. When their raft washes ashore on a small island, Phillip needs Timothy’s eyes to guide him safely around the unfamiliar landscape. And Timothy needs Phillip to spell out the word HELP for him, when he arranges rocks in the sand. One day, with Timothy’s encouragement, Phillip climbs up a coconut palm to retrieve fresh coconuts for them to eat, and as the two of them celebrate his success with a delicious meal, Phillip comes to realize something:
I had now been with him every moment of the day and night for two months, but I had not seen him. I remembered that ugly welted face. But now, in my memory, it did not seem ugly at all. It seemed only kind and strong.
I asked, “Timothy, are you still black?”
His laughter filled the hut.1
Phillip Enright had lost his sight. But blind though he was, Phillip had discovered he could now see kindness and humanity in this person he had been taught to treat as an inferior other.
Our gospel story today is also a story about sight. On the surface, it’s a story about a blind man being healed so that he can see again. But in reality there is more than one kind of blindness. Where others see only hurt and guilt, Jesus sees the beautiful goodness of God waiting to be revealed.
First, there are the disciples. “Rabbi,” they ask, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” When confronted with suffering, they look for someone to blame. Their eyes are attuned to searching out who is at fault. And we know why they do this, because people still do it today. Barbara Ehrenreich, a writer and a breast cancer survivor, found that in her cancer support group, it was expected that you would talk only about the bright side of your disease, how it was making your relationships stronger, and leading to personal growth. And so when she expressed anger or grief, she was criticized. In fact, she found that there was a shared belief in the necessity of positive thinking, that negative thoughts might literally kill you. One woman told her, “I know that if I get sad, or scared or upset, I am making my tumor grow faster and I will have shortened my life.”2 What a heavy burden to carry when you’re already sick! But sometimes it seems better to believe that what happens to us is predictable, that it’s subject to order and control. It’s scary to think that sometimes people just get sick, that some babies are born unable to see, and that there was no way to stop it from happening. Casting blame is a way of holding on to the illusion that we’re in control of what happens to us. That’s why the disciples asked, “Who sinned?”
But when our eyes are attuned to look for causes and control, we fail to see the most important thing. Jesus rejects this way of framing the blind man’s story. He invites us to look again at suffering and hurt, this time with the eyes of faith, not as phenomena calling out to be explained, but as manifestations of God’s glory waiting to be revealed.
Now, our translation of the Bible does us an injustice. If you look at your insert, it has Jesus saying, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” That makes it sound as though all these years of impoverishment and suffering were planned in advance, that God arranged all this to prove a point. But in that sentence, those words “he was born blind” don’t appear in the original Greek text. Just mentally draw a line through them. You’re left with a sentence fragment, or so it seems, until you realize that they didn’t have punctuation like we do. Try reading it like this: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but so that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” Now Jesus isn’t explaining why it happened. He’s simply saying, We’ve got to do something to make it clear that God is working in him.
And that’s what he does. He heals the man, so that he can see again. And if this were a better world, a world where everyone’s spiritual eyes were healthy, that would be the happy ending to the story.
But it isn’t the end. Because now the religious authorities get involved. And they’re also unable to see what matters. Their spiritual eyes are looking to see whether this healing conforms to their understanding of how God works. Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath, on the official day of rest, and that’s enough for the authorities to be concerned that Jesus is no good. The man who had been blind sees in Jesus someone he can call “Lord,” someone worthy of worship, but the authorities see only a sinner. And they see the blind man, still, as a sinner, someone whose experience can be tossed aside and discounted.
He may have been blind from birth, but this man now sees more clearly than so many people who have always had their sight. Seeing is about more than whether your eyes work. Seeing is about whether you perceive the things that really matter.
How many opportunities for showing how great and loving and beautiful God is fly right by us, just because we’re looking at something else, because we’re looking with the eyes of the world? Let’s say there’s a difficult person in my life, a neighbor or a co-worker. There are all kinds of questions I might ask myself. Would I be justified in avoiding him, if I know he’s going to act like a jerk? What’s going on with him psychologically that he acts this way? But I wonder if Jesus’ question might be the right one: How is God at work in this person, and what can I do to make God’s presence in him clearer to me and other people?
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. In past years on this Sunday we’ve talked about Jesus going up on top of a mountain with his disciples and being transformed in front of them, shining with light. And in today’s reading, Jesus is a source of light: I am the light of the world, he says. His light is illuminating to those who want to see for the first time, and it’s blinding and confounding to those who are all too confident that they see things as they really are. Can we look at ourselves, our neighbors, our world in his light? Will we see everything transformed by his presence and his love? Where do you need to ask the right question in your life, “How can I act, how can I change, so that I can clearly see that God is at work here, loving, saving, transforming?”
Jia Haixia and Jia Wenqi work together. They are planting a forest that will secure the topsoil around their village in China, in order to protect the village from floods. But the extraordinary thing about these men is that Jia Haixia is blind, and Jia Wenqi has lost both his arms. “I am his hands; he is my eyes,” Jia Haixia says. Robert Hoch, a professor at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, invites us to look at this pair with the eyes of faith:
See if you can imagine them walking to work together: Wenqi, double arm amputee, leading the way, sometimes guiding Haixia, his blind friend, who holds Wenqi’s empty sleeve as they walk, sometimes carrying Haixia on his back as they cross a river. Or imagine Wenqi’s eyes guiding the hands of Haixia as he climbs a tree to harvest cuttings for new plants. Imagine scenes like this, repeated every day for 13 years. …
What if God gives us weakness in order that we might find a better strength, the sacrament of mutual interdependence that makes broken people into whole people, and broken societies into reconciling and healing societies?3
We all have hurts, weaknesses, and deficiencies. We all have things about ourselves we wish were different. And when we look at those things with the eyes of the world, they call forth blame, guilt, pity, or regret. The eyes of the world see sinners, victims, and invalids. But Jesus, the light of the world, transfigures our sight. Seen with the eyes of faith, a man blind from birth becomes a witness to the presence of God among us. Seen with the eyes of faith, a relationship of mutual reliance restores nature and strengthens a community. Seen with the eyes of faith, a hostile person in my life calls forth not fear and mirrored hostility, but forgiveness, humility, and care. Seen with the eyes of faith, we see God’s glory shining in them and in ourselves—out of our weaknesses, out of our sins, out of our sorrows. Show us, show us your glory, Lord—not in the remote heavens, but in these simple human vessels! Amen.
Theodore Taylor, The Cay. New York: Random House, 1969. loc. 967 (Kindle edition).
quoted in Anna North, “Bright-Sided: The Negative Consequences of Positive Thinking.” Jezebel. 21 Oct 2009. https://jezebel.com/5386775/bright-sided-the-negative-consequences-of-positive-thinking. Accessed 2/9/2018.
Robert Hoch, “Yet you shall be different.” Presbyterian Outlook. 3 Jul 2015. http://pres-outlook.org/2015/07/yet-you-shall-be-different/. Accessed 2/11/2018.