A Sermon Based Upon John 9: 1-41
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
October 16th, 2016 (Series: 3/7, Amazing Grace)
What do you drive or walk by time and time again, but never notice? I’m sure each of us does this countless times every day. We go by familiar sights and fail to notice the changes or the details. Of course, when you drive in a new or unfamiliar area, you see all kinds of new things. You even look for them. But when you live in a familiar place, you may drive by a something dozens of times and still not really notice.
Early this year, I was driving from Union Grove turning onto Mullis Road, and noticed that Pilot Mountain was visible on that ridge. Just before that, I was driving on Highway 18 from Wilkesboro to Lenoir, like I’ve done almost monthly for 9 years while trying to sell our house. This time, instead of looking at the mountains on my left, as I normally do, I looked toward the more distant mountains on my right and saw a house built at the top of a mountain I haven’t noticed before. If I drive down almost any road I know well, and start to look closely, I still catch new glimpses of things I’ve not seen before.
But it’s hard to see and notice everything, isn’t it? As the brilliant TV commercial says, “Life Comes At You Fast!” It’s probably a good thing that we don’t notice every detail as we go down the road at 55 miles per hour. Besides the possibility of crashing our car, our brains would not be able to handle all the information at once. This is why seeing things around us, is very much like reading the Bible. You don’t and can’t see everything at once. I’ve preached the Bible for almost 40 years, but it never gets boring because each time I read or study a particular passage, even a passage I’ve preached many times before, I find new insights.
This inability to see everything at once, along with the opportunity to make new discoveries and to wonder at new sights, is part of the joy and excitement of being alive. What is a bit more troubling however, are those times when we fail to truly notice things we should see, especially when we overlook, or fail to notice what and who matters most. Just as we can pass by buildings or scenes dozens of times and not really be conscious of all that surrounds us, we can also allow the true identity, the life, and presence or pressing need of another person to fade into the background, just like another nameless tree on the roadside (This thought comes from Matthew Emery, from a sermon he preached at Storrs UCC Congregational Church, Storrs CT, at www.goodprecher.com).
In this discussion of the wonderful hymn “Amazing Grace,” today we come to a very short, but greatly important phrase, that concludes verse one: …was blind, but now I see.” When ‘grace’ came into John Newton’s life after his life was spared on that storm-tossed ship, Newton began to see everything differently. Some of us have had a similar experience. We’ve come through a car crash, a life-threatening illness, or had a debilitating injury, and through that traumatic experience, we have learned, like Newton did, to see life in new ways.
Today, in this text from the gospel of John, we also come across a person who ‘was blind’, but now, came to see life very differently because of the ‘healing’ grace of God through Jesus Christ. Though this man was born blind, we are told---having never seen the color in flowers, the beauty of the sunrise, his own mother’s face, nor any other part of the wonderful sights of the world around him---now, the saving, healing presence of Jesus Christ has given him his sight so ‘that the God’s works might be revealed in him’ (vs. 3).
Of course, this is not the only time a blind person was healed by Jesus (cp. Matt. 9:27; 12: 22; 15:30; Mark 8: 23; 10: 46; John 5:3) and this healing, though very interesting, was not as graphic as the man who was healed in stages, first only seeing ‘people like trees walking’ (Mk. 8:24). But what makes this description most important, how flow of the story uncovers a kind of ‘blindness’ that still persisted, and unfortunately still persists, among those who don’t want to see who Jesus was, nor to see what Jesus saw.
A PERSISTENT BLINDNESS
There is a line in the middle of this story that is most revealing. In verse 8, it tells us how ‘this man’s neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar…” Before this man was healed, people looked at him differently, negatively, and even judgmentally. Even the disciples own negativity about this man and his blindness sets up the whole story with a question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (vs. 2).
At the beginning of baseball season this year, came the announcement that ‘Chicago Whitesox’s baseball has a new TV voice, ESPN’s sports broadcaster Jason Benetti.’ What makes Benetti so unique, is not just his great voice, but also the handicap that he has overcome all of his life; his Cerebral Palsy. But this had not hindered him, and he has overcome much and proven much to earn this position. He earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism, economics and psychology from Syracuse University, and has a law degree from Wake Forest School of Law. Why has Benetti been such an ‘overacheiver’? He said in an interview, that he had to ‘persevere and not be defined by his disability’ and to prove he was not disabled in his ‘brain’ or ‘voice’. “The way I look or walk is such a small part of who I am as a person”, Benetti said. Now, with his own success, he says if he ‘can help change one person’s attitude about how they perceive others, then I have made a positive difference.” (http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2016/01/13/jason-benetti-tabbed-as-white-sox-tv-play-by-play-man-for-home-games/).
Apparently, as Benetti has witnessed with his own handicap, we’re not the only ones who have perhaps passed, ignored, or misjudged people too easily. Too often, we too can walk by people and either not notice them, or mistake a ‘neighbor’, as this blind man’s neighbor’s did, as just a another unfortunate ‘beggar’. They had seen him before, perhaps many times. Who knows how often he had been stationed in the middle of their village. Who knows how many times they had walked by him on the way to the market, maybe even dropped in a few coins as he sat and shook his cup. They saw him, but did they really see or notice him---seeing him as their own neighbor--- as a man who deserved their own healing and helping touch?
Interestingly, as soon as his "condition" changed, this man born blind was no longer defined by the fact that he was blind—in fact, now that he could see—these neighbors of his weren’t even sure who he was anymore. Did you notice how they still struggled to see him differently: "Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?" (v.8). That’s all they ever knew him as, the "man who used to sit and beg." But even more astounding is the fact that they weren’t even sure it was him anymore. As you heard, some were saying "No, … it is someone like him" (v. 9), and the healed man had to keep asserting, explaining, and emphasizing, as another translations puts its more emphatically, "Yes, it’s me! (CEB). “I am the man" (NRSV). It reminds me of that scene in the Dickens’ play, “The Christmas Carol”, where the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is trying to show Ebenezer Scrooge why he should be a different person, and the dreaming Scrooge, standing on his own grave, now pleads with this “Good Spirit” to assure him that now that he sees everything differently, he may wake up to ‘change these shadows… ‘by an altered life!” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_of_Christmas_Yet_to_Come).
The people living around this blind man were having difficulty, just like Scrooge did, seeing the possibility of ‘an altered life’---a life that had altered by healing love and grace. Part of the reason they could not see, was not simply because the man had always been blind, but because they saw him, but hadn’t really seen him. They had just looked at him as "the man who used to sit and beg," but they had never really encountered him, and never truly noticed him as a ‘man who could receive healing ‘grace’ and love.
THE WORST SIN?
But these neighbors are not the only ones in today’s story who failed to really notice and encounter this man. As the story opened, Jesus and his disciples were walking along the road. Jesus immediately ‘saw the man who was blind from birth’, but his disciples, did not really see him, nor have pity on him, but they only thought of him as an impersonal, religious question they still needed to settle in their own minds: "Rabbi who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" they asked. (vs. 2).
Perhaps it’s still a linger, interesting question for many, especially those who still like to see reality as a matter of pure good, or pure evil, ‘black and white’, or ‘cause and effect’. That kind of mentality and spirituality definitely fit nicely into the common religious, cultural and theological worldview of the time. If someone suffered some sort of physical limitation or disease, it was normal, even theologically necessary to assume that a person who was ‘handicapped’ like him, had to be suffering some sort of bad ‘karma’, a form of God’s punishment for a presumed sin, or a ‘cruel fate, determined by the gods. For most of us today, this way of reasoning seems rather silly. Fortunately, we have all kinds of medical and scientific knowledge our ancestors did not have access to. This gift of human knowledge can point us to many other reasons, and sometimes the reality that suffering and illness comes to people for no reason at all.
But apparently, and unfortunately, this is even more difficult for some people to accept, especially since, in their minds, they still have to have a God whose ‘in charge’ of everything that happens—no matter what happens. In the wake of the recent the recent refugee crisis in Syria, or when the great earthquake hit Hati, when the terrible Tsunami hit Japan, as when Hurricanes hit New Jersey or New Orleans, there are always people, and not a few preachers, who will feel the need to claim that these disasters are ‘definitely’ some sort of divine ‘judgment’ send directly from God. Even in smaller, more personal situations, this line of thinking is still around in our world. It has even been known in our much ‘beloved’ American work ethic; the attitude that says you anyone can and must "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" results, not only in all kinds of foolish TV and Internet adds offering "secret ingredients" to success. This idea that ‘I’ve worked hard to get where I am’, and so, the ethic says, ‘if you can’t do the same—regardless of what other circumstances, powers, and systems are at play in the world. If you can’t make it, and if you can’t do it—then, it suggests, there must be something wrong with you.’ You or your parents, must have sinned! Right?
Jesus say, “No!” “Wrong!” This line of thinking is dead wrong, because Jesus himself tells his disciples and he should tell be telling us, once and for all, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (9: 3). If you only look at people this way, it results in an even greater ‘sin’ bring allows and invites even more suffering in the world because you will not really see the other hurting person as who they truly are, a person who needs God’s healing’ and our own ‘helping hand’ of grace, that ought to be revealed through us. The greater sin in this story, is the ‘blindness’ of a way of thinking, even a wrong way of believing that becomes a way of escape so that we don’t or won’t truly notice a person and really encounter them, not just be repulsed by their suffering and pain, but to stop and feel for them enough to care.
THE GREATEST HEALING
If there is any reason for the unexplained suffering in this blind man, or in anyone, for that matter, Jesus says, it’s so that “God’s works might be revealed”. What works? What kind of ‘answer’ is this to all the bad things that happen in this world. Well, it’s the only ‘answer’ Jesus gives, because in reality, it’s the only ‘answer’ we need. If there is any God given answer to ‘why’ bad things happen, there certainly no absolute, healing answer, Jesus implies, in only trying to figure out ‘who did it’ or ‘why’ it happened. Here, I only stop to think about how so many “Crime” shows, and even how so much real “Law Enforcement” only works to figure out ‘who did’ and the to discover the some kind of ‘motivation’ for why they did it. You hear this continually on the news, from all networks. After someone is murdered, after an Isis bomb goes off, or even after some plane crashes, a train wrecks, or after an automobile accident, there is a ‘rush’ to answer, ‘who’ and ‘why’?
There is, of course, in a world that demands justice and law, valid reasons and right times to ask such questions. But what the gospel of Jesus Christ has come to tell us, and what and experience of God’s grace in our own life will ‘alter’ our minds and hearts to see, is that sometimes, in fact, many times, perhaps even most of time, and I might even dare to suggest, probably, in one way or other ‘all of the time’, the even greater ‘answer’ in all our human problems, pains—in all our suffering, in all our unexplained, impossible-to-understand world--- the only one answer that makes sense in every situation, for every person, and works to address every hurt, is ‘healing grace’. The only ‘answer’ you and I, those who are alive, who survive, who are well, and who are blessed, must show and reveal, for life to have any meaning, love and grace left at all, is to reveal in our ‘seeing’ and ‘actions’ toward others, is to show them that God is at work, because he is definitely at ‘work’ through us.
Figuring out how to ‘answer’ questions like these disciples pose is most often a defense mechanism, a stalling tactic, and a barrier to instinctively ‘protect us’ against getting close to pain. It can also become a way to ‘animalisticly’ stand above the other, rather than to be with them, communing with them in suffering, and in their humanity. Unfortunately, the very real part of this story, and the reason it is told the way it is, is that we also still see ‘people’ for what we think they’ve done, or what they haven’t done, rather than for who they are, and who they might become, if only someone would show some form of ‘grace’ to be with them and work for them, the ‘works of God’.
I could go on and on, my friends, because God goes on. God wants us to overcome our defenses and let him be our true defender. God wants us to forget about having ‘answers’ and to focus more on being an answer. Through Jesus Christ, and his healing power, God wants us to meditate more on ‘healing grace’ rather than on the ‘condemnation of the law’. The greatest law is love, and the greatest work is to extend God’s ‘amazing grace’. God want us to have an even greater healing than physical healing. I remember how wonderful it was in Union Grove Community when a sweet, graceful, spiritual elderly woman, who had been ‘blind’ since her childhood, finally received her sight through the development of medical science. It was amazing, wonderful, and an incredible moment of healing grace. But it was not greater than the ‘spiritual eyes’ she developed during her own many years of physical blindness, as she was determined in her soul, to pour out so much grace and love on everyone she met. To gain and give that kind of grace; that’s the greater healing. To have and receive God’s grace, to have our eyes open to really see each other, as God sees us, whether our ‘answer’ comes or doesn’t, that’s the greatest healing, until that day, when God, through our coming Savior, will make all things new. Will you open your eyes and see? Amen.