This week I am noting 5 years since my surgery for cancer. I am so grateful to be alive and for the wonderful gift of health I enjoy.
Health is not just a physical state. More than anything, it’s a stance in life and I think it has a lot to do with gratitude.
Here is the text of a sermon I preached last year, on the story of a man born blind. It’s really about who is blind and who can see … I hope always to be able to see with the eyes of gratitude and faith.
(John 9. 1 – 41) Text of a sermon preached at Whitley College, for the opening worship of the 2014 School of Ministry
‘There are none so blind as those who will not see’. These words, made popular in a song by Ray Stephens in the 1970s, actually date back to 1546, to a person called John Heywood, who himself drew upon the prophet Jeremiah: ‘they have eyes, yet do not see’.
This morning we are considering the story of a man born blind, who is a desperate beggar because he is blind, and then becomes a desperate beggar in a different way, after he receives his sight. And as we think about these things, we are in good company as we consider who really is blind.
We are going to spend these days thinking about seeing and believing: and the sense in which seeing is believing, and believing is seeing.
Last year, here at Whitley, we welcomed for the first time in a long while a student who is completely blind. The College is not well equipped for such a person, but she proved immensely more capable and gracious than we could imagine. Her greatest difficulties in fact arose from the drivers who do not stop when the tram stops! Unlike the blind students in my school or university days, with their click clack braille type-writers, today they have amazing computers with keys that can both type braille but also provide the read-out. This student could read documents we sent to her computer just as quickly as any other student.
I admit that in class I was often apologizing to her, when I was showing a DVD or a power-point presentation, and she kept assuring me that it was alright, she was thoroughly used to this, and if I just kept talking about what was on the screen she would manage very well. And she did, and she does.
But one day she really shocked us. I don’t remember the exact context, but she told us how difficult it is for her when Christian people treat her in a condescending and pitiful way. She said that one day a man at her church told her he would pray for her to be healed of her blindness. She said that she told him she would pray that he would be healed of his arrogance, assuming that she was not happy with how she was born. In fact, she said, she did not need his pity. She is able to live a full and happy life, and did not need healing. That really challenges the way we think about what we sometimes call ‘dis-ability’.
It was very different for the man Jesus met one day, who also was blind from birth. He was a beggar: but more than that, he was in so many respects an outsider. Since the time of King David, a thousand years earlier, there was a special stigma attached to the blind and the lame. In 2 Samuel 5 we read the suggestion that King David hates the blind and the lame: and since that time many people held that they should be banished from the temple. That meant they were not part of the true Israel. Something has caused them to be born blind, and that was the question the disciples put to Jesus: whose sin was it, that caused this blindness?
So here is a man who is inherently unable to live a normal life, to provide for himself, perhaps to work, always dependent on others, for food, for shelter, for acceptance, and safety, and here now he is the subject for religious discussion about him, as if he is not even there.
Jesus avoids the question, in a way: quite typically. He is not going to get into that sort of game. Instead, he suggests a different way of seeing this situation. It’s not a question of finding someone to blame, rather it’s a question of what is God wanting to do here. That’s the approach Jesus takes: it’s not about how do we explain this, or who do we blame: it’s more like this: Somehow God is in this, wanting to show something for your good: why don’t we look for that. That’s why I am here, as long as I am, to bring light into the world, not more darkness, misery, anguish.
So the man is healed. Now he can see. But just when he thought things were looking up, excuse the pun, a whole new set of troubles beset him. You see, first he was blamed for being blind, now when he goes to the pool and washes the mud from his eyes, the neighbours doubt that it is even him. He has lost his blindness and it seems he has also lost his identity. They had him in a box, over there, the blind guy—now they don’t accept him any more than they did before.
And they quiz him about how this happened, demanding an explanation. As if he, or any of us, can explain sight any more than we can explain blindness. He doesn’t know. And then the big guns, the Pharisees, get in on the act, this time pointing out that all this happened on the Sabbath. As on other occasions, Jesus was in trouble for doing something caring and healing on the Sabbath. So, once again, as if the guy is invisible, they debate whether this fellow Jesus is a prophet, while others say he is obviously a sinner so he couldn’t possibly have healed this man, it’s all a stunt …
And John sums it up by saying, the Jews—all of them, local neighbours to religious leaders, they just don’t believe him. And so to add insult to injury they decide to ask his parents to explain the situation. Here he is again, made a desperate, dependent person, well into his adulthood and yet he is not believed and now treated as a minor, as if his parents have to answer for him.They refuse that game. Good for them.
And so, can you imagine this, a man is born blind and now able to see— maybe he might have one or two things he’d like to be doing with his days, things to see: fish in the lake, animals and birds, trees on the hills, colours, flowers, fabrics, or even visit the Temple, not to mention to spend time with his parents and family, sisters, brother, children: and instead he is asked again to explain himself to the religious leaders: and finally he says to them: Look, I don’t know what to make of this at all. I have no explanation, except for this. I know that once I was blind, and now I can see. Can’t you get it? Now he is desperate for them to get it.
But they would not get it. They turn on him and now condemn him as a sinner. They answer the disciples’ question: they declare that he was born entirely in sins. And they throw him out. He’s only just been allowed into the Temple, for the first time in his life, and they throw him out! An outsider when he is blind; not believed or accepted when he is healed, and now he is thrown out and condemned.
But there is one person who has been looking out for him all along. Jesus heard about this and went looking for him. Jesus accepts him, recognizes him and allows him to speak for himself Jesus treats him as an adult. Jesus believes him and believes in him.
Then comes the next of those ‘I am’ declarations of John’s Jesus. And as always John has the private or personal encounter and then the wider, world-related significance of what this means. Do you believe in the ‘son of man’, he asks the guy. Well, I would if I knew who it was, this person God is going to send to help restore our nation, this person we have heard about for centuries, who will be bring truth and justice, peace and hope …
And Jesus says: ‘That’s me, you’re talking about. You have seen him: it’s the person you’re talking to right now.’
You have seen him …
And so the story comes to its climax, with the one who was blind but who now sees and believes, indeed worships him, and those who see but do not see, and do not believe.
This story is about those who see and those who are blind.
There are none so blind as those who will not see.
In fact the mediaeval thinkers had much greater understanding of this blindness than we have, with our constant focus on the physical and scientific perspective, as if all truth is literal and all reality is factual. They called it scotosis, a kind of blindness that resists unwelcome truths or insights.
Helen Keller observed that ‘the only worse thing than being blind is having no vision’.
There are a great many things that blind us, even when we have eyes to see. In this chapter, we see some of them, beginning with religion. A person is born blind. That is a mystery: in many ways a tragic mystery, but not necessarily.
We are not well equipped to live with mystery. We are like those disciples who always want an explanation, and all too often that means we want to know whom to blame. We saw this earlier this year when an aeroplane simply disappeared. When disaster strikes, disease or sudden death, our systems of management and control simply do not cope.
It’s then that we need something like faith: and then, too, that we learn that the opposite of faith is not unbelief, or doubt, but certainty—certainty, and the fear that fuels it. Our fixed and certain frameworks pretend to control and manage and order the universe, as if we were in charge.
We are not accustomed to living with mystery: we want an explanation. Our scientific culture insists there must be an explanation, for everything. But sometimes there is no explanation: in my life as a pastor I have known so many inexplicable situations of human suffering and good fortune.
The Psalms are full of this mystery: how is it that the wicked prosper? And with that, people who are gentle and pure of heart struggle and suffer. People who have dedicated their lives, intelligence and passion to the cure of others are themselves desperately ill. In one day I shared the anguish of a couple struggling to accept that they would never have children and another family struggling to accept an unwanted teenage pregnancy.
The distribution of suffering and joy in this world is not a system of rewards and punishments. It is not a system at all.
In this country, the ravages of fire and flood ought to teach us that we do not control it all: in fact we do not control much at all. We need to learn some humility in the face of the realities of the world around us, and perhaps some respect.
It is the proper task of religion to help us live with this mystery, not to exploit it, looking for someone to blame: who sinned, this man or his parents?
Sometimes the problem of our lack of vision is that we have closed our eyes, our minds, our hearts. That’s scotosis.
Sometimes it is that we are looking in the wrong direction. The philosopher Wittgenstein once said that most philosophical confusion comes from a too limited diet of examples. In effect, we become intellectually constipated.
So it is with theology, when we operate with a too limited diet of examples, in regard to ideas of salvation or atonement, for instance, or with regard to the presence and purposes of God, as if God has to act in the ways we predict or prefer.
There is a mystery at the centre of all things, and it is the proper place of faith to help us to live with this mystery and to help us to see:
this is why we need art, of all forms, to lift our sights to the beauty and mystery of God.
Karl Barth once lamented that in our prayer we Protestants have so little to help us. The Reformers took away all those visual images from their churches, leaving us only words. We need more than words, to help us imagine the stories of our faith and to enter into them.
And amongst the arts there is also poetry: here I have recently enjoyed some wonderful lines from William Wordsworth.
‘All that we behold is full of blessings’.
‘With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony,
and the deep power of joy,
we see into the life of things.’
(From ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’, July 13, 1798.)
This School of Ministry is a great opportunity for us to explore what it means for us to see—and to be blind.
In a very important sense we must begin in the acknowledgement of our blindness, and a prayer: Lord, let me see.
The story begins with a question.
Jesus actually has two answers to offer those who have eyes to see.
First, he does whatever he can to help. It’s a practical and very helpful response. In this case he does heal the blind man.
We should do whatever we can to help.
But not everyone is healed. Not every mystery is resolved.
His second answer is to shift the focus towards God: rest assured that in all of this, God is doing something … and though we may not see it, with our eyes, we may yet see it, and enter into that deeper reality, that something which is yet to come. Jesus offers hope in the face of mystery.
That’s the journey we follow, as we go with Jesus through these chapters and these days and years.
God is up to something: this Gospel speaks again and again of an hour, an hour which has not yet come, it has not yet come … until it does come: and there it is finally revealed, the coming of grace and truth, the bread and life and water and peace and freedom, spoken of again and again: it all comes to light, for those who have eyes to see. Seeing is believing; believing is seeing.
Lord, let us see, into the life of things, into the beauty of people, and the inviting mystery of your own presence among us, leading us, provoking us, healing us, guiding and encouraging us, and by the mystery of your grace allowing us also to heal and guide one another, until we see you face to face.