Ephesians 5:8-14 John 9:1-41 Russell Eidmann-Hicks When I was in Kentucky years ago on a youth mission trip, we passed lots and lots of little churches – all Baptist – with names like “Regular Rock Solid Baptist Church” or “Fundamental Bible Baptist Church” or “Fire in the Spirit True Word Baptist Church.” Churches had many ways to label themselves as true, and others as not orthodox or heretical because they don’t use the words they are used to or the definitions they want to hear.
People tend to have very fixed ideas about what is acceptable what is not, and WHO is worthy and who is not. So many are blinded by their opinions and judgments about others, so that they don’t see what is right in front of them. This seems to what Jesus is teaching in our story today. He’s asking us to see beyond our definitions and labels and fixed ideas – to view people for who they are, authentically. If people are only shaped by the boxes we put them in, then we are all in a heap of trouble.
This story today illustrates this over and over again. The theme of this whole story is blindness. Who is blind and who can see? The poor blind man has a wonderfully miraculous thing happen to him: he is healed by Jesus after being born blind. Everyone should have been tooting horns and dancing in the street and celebrating with cake. Instead, his neighbors didn’t even recognize him. They said, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” and others said, “No, but it is someone like him.” Even though he kept saying, “I am the man!” they refused to believe it. He had been invisible to them for years as a blind beggar – but now they they still couldn’t see him as he was.
Nor could the Pharisees, who could care less about him. They were only concerned about Jesus and the fact that he healed on the Sabbath. That made Jesus a sinner and heretic in their eyes, even though they had never seen or met him. So they couldn’t see either Jesus or the man. Even his parents couldn’t celebrate their son’s healing or see him as he is. They were too afraid of the judgment of the leaders of their synagogue. And the blind man himself didn’t see clearly at first. He was asked where Jesus was, and he said he didn’t know. Then he said Jesus was a prophet, and later affirmed that Jesus must have come from God to heal as he does. Even when he was standing right in front of Jesus, he didn’t get it, until Jesus told him that he was the Son of Man. Only then did he wake up and see and believe and worship.
The last line of the story today from John is instructive. Jesus talks about spiritual sight saying, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely, we are not blind, are we?” (John 9:39-40) We are all blind to some extent; we have filters that distort our vision of others; we don’t see people for who they really are. And it is helpful for us to admit that. But the Pharisees in this story just woudn’t. Jesus calls them on it saying: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (Jn 9:41) The problem isn’t sight, but it’s about admitting our blindness.
Frederick Buechner affirms, “To confess your sins to God is not to tell God anything God doesn’t already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the bridge.” In this season of Lent it is helpful for us to confess – confess ways that we just don’t see clearly; ways that we distort the simple beauty and wonder of this world and others by our selfishness, our prejudices and our greed. We are blind in our own ways – and just don’t see people with clarity.
This whole story is a parable about what it means to see with the heart; to have clear understanding and insight. No one, it seems, sees anyone else as they are or what is right in front of them. Often it takes a pilgrimage of faith to come to understanding and to clear vision. This can take time, and repentance.
Parker Palmer, author of The Heart of Democracy, wrote that once he and the Civil Rights leader, John Lewis and one of his staffers, were on a bus ride commemorating the “Bloody Sunday” abuses, when he overheard Lewis telling a story. Palmer writes: In 1961, he and a friend were at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when several young white men attacked and beat them bloody with baseball bats. Lewis and his friend “did not fight back, and they declined to press charges.” They simply treated their wounds and went on with their Civil Rights work. In 2009, forty-eight years after this event, a white man about John Lewis’s age walked into his office on Capitol Hill, accompanied by his middle-aged son. “Mr. Lewis,” he said, “my name is Elwin Wilson. I’m one of the men who beat you in that bus station back in 1961. I want to atone for the terrible thing I did, so I’ve come to seek your forgiveness. Will you forgive me?” Lewis said, “I forgave him, we embraced, he and his son and I wept, and then we talked.” As Lewis came to the end of this remarkable and moving story, he leaned back in his seat on the bus.
He gazed out the window for a while as we passed through a countryside that was once a killing ground for the Ku Klux Klan, of which Elwin Wilson had been a member. Then, in a very soft voice— as if speaking to himself about the story he had just told and all of the memories that must have been moving in him— Lewis said, “People can change …People can change …”
It can take time for people to be able to see clearly, to see beyond their bigotry or hatred, to wash the mud from their eyes. A word for this is ‘discernment.’ Through thought and prayer and struggle, over time we can come to have a deeper understanding, a change of heart. So much of what blinds us is our own pre-conceived notions, ways that we have mind-sets that just won’t budge. We end up with blinders on our eyes like ones horses wear, that don’t allow us a full scope of vision. Sometimes it can take something dramatic, something extreme, to allow an eye-opening experience.
About a year ago, Ray Lesniak, a NJ State Senator, told this story at a NJ Association meeting in our church. He shared that he woke up at 2:30am one morning to see two big men standing at the foot of his bed, with one pointing a gun at him. “Shoot him,” he heard one say. Ray was terrified, but then heard the second man say, “No, no. We’re not going to hurt him.” And then the man said something to Ray that changed his life. He said, “We’re good people. We’re just in a bad place right now.” A few days later these two guys, who were addicted to cocaine, were picked up, and tried. Ray went to their hearing to speak up for them. He fought to have them put into a treatment program for their addiction. He said he did that for two reasons: one was because they needed to change their lives; and the second was so that when they got out of prison, they wouldn’t go and do to a neighbor, what they did to him. Ray has fought now for years for prison reform and for treatment and rehabilitation. He was able to see these men for who they were – indeed ‘good people’ caught in a terrible addiction, who needed to be turned around.
The way we see people makes a huge difference in the way that we treat them. The more we label others or see through them or ignore them, the more we discount them or demonize them. Often we are given cues about this by our society or by our religion or our politics that sanction this kind of blindness. As people who follow Jesus, we need to hear his message today – to see with eyes of the heart; with compassion. Jesus says in our reading today: “I am the light of the world.” In other words, Jesus gives us the light to enable us to see; and that light is the radiance of empathy. When we look with love on others, then we see them as they are and appreciate them as they are.
Jean Vanier is a Roman Catholic lay leader who began what are called the L’Arche communities. These are small communities made up of mentally challenged and well people, who live together and support each other. Instead of being institutionalized, those with mental disabilities are offered a normal life in community, cared for by kind-hearted friends. Vanier talks about how this is a two-way street; it is not just well people giving to the disabled; but is how the disabled have gifts of their own to offer. Here’s what he says:
“People with intellectual disabilities are not able to assume important roles of power and of efficacy. They are essentially people of the heart. When they meet others, they do not have a hidden agenda for power or for success. Their cry, their fundamental cry, is for a relationship, a meeting heart to heart. It is this meeting that awakens them, opens them up to life, and calls them forth to love in great simplicity, freedom and openness. When those ingrained in a culture of winning and of individual success really meet them, and enter into friendship with them, something amazing and wonderful happens. They too are opened up to love and even to God. They are changed at a very deep level. They are transformed and become more fundamentally human.”
By learning to see with eyes of the heart we are transformed. Our inner eyes are healed. We are opened up by love. And this is a kind of inner vision – insight. This is something we can practice in our own lives with each person we meet: to strive to see them as Jesus sees them: with eyes of compassion.
Hmmm. Simple enough. If we find the courage and dignity to follow through with this, we might begin to turn things around – not only in our lives but in our communities, our work, our schools, our families. Eyes might be opened. Hearts could be transformed. Maybe we can turn our sins from an abyss into a bridge. Thanks be to God. Amen.