By Fr. Harmon Smith, composed for delivery at St. Titus’ Episcopal Church, Durham, NC, on March 22, 2020. Services were cancelled as a result of COVID-19.
You may remember baby Wendell’s baptism several weeks ago when Mo. Stephanie’s instructions to her included this imperative: ‘Tell people about Jesus and leave the rest to God.’ I thought, ‘That’s just the right maxim for a sermon, succinct and brilliant;’ so on this 2nd Sunday when we are absent an in-person Church service owing to fear of the coronavirus pandemic, I offer this sermon to do just that in the name of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Teaching was always a learning experience for me, and I was taught early on that most students know about Cliff Notes, a compilation of brief summaries of key points in books. But the long gospel reading today, like the one last Sunday, is evidence that even the abbreviated Cliff Notes are too long; and that’s when I was reminded of another internet site that’s even shorter. It’s called Book a Minute and its version of Dr. Seuss’ well-known and widely-read “Green Eggs and Ham” goes like this: “Some Creature: ‘I won’t eat green eggs and ham any-where, anytime, under any circumstances.’ Sam I Am: ‘Here, try it.’ Some Creature: ‘Yum.’ The end.” Then I imagined how Book a Minute might tell this story about a man born blind who was healed by Jesus? “The blind man says, ‘Help, I can’t see.’ Jesus: ‘Here’s mud in your eye.’ Blind man: ‘Hallelujah – I can see.’ The end.”
Of course, the problem with condensations is that most books and stories, and especially stories like ours today, cannot be adequately summarized in a few pithy sentences. There are too many deep issues, characters, backgrounds, and we need time – lots of time – to study and appreciate why they are important. For example, biblical scholars widely think that this story in its original form in John was simply about how a man born blind was healed by Jesus; that it was later lengthened to include the trial scene in which the blind man was then expelled from the synagogue, as was the early practice for Jewish converts; and finally they think John added the Christological elements that declare Jesus to be the light of the world. But all of this is difficult to talk about in15-20 minutes. When 6-hour sermons were customary a preacher could touch many of these bases and maybe connect the several parts, but our constraints don’t allow that; so I’ll focus on the blind man story and this will be mostly a teaching sermon.
If you have read many biblical translations and commentaries, you may agree that all of them have been written to accommodate these writings to readers in their own time and circum-stance. That’s why old translations often don’t register with modern readers. So my personal sense is that one of the best of recent transliterations for us today is The New International Version of the Bible that provides a clarity and literary quality that we can easily understand. This is how it tells John’s story. “Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, ‘Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be blind?’ Jesus said, ‘You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. But there is no cause -and-effect here. Time flies and the clock is ticking; so instead of looking for blame, look for what God can do. We need to be at work for God while the sun still shines. When night falls the workday is over, but as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light because, I am the light of the world.’ He said this and then spit in the dust, made a clay paste with the saliva, rubbed the paste on the blind man’s eyes, and said ‘Go, wash at the Pool of Siloam’. The man went, he washed, and he saw.”
To cut to the chase, what did you think when Jesus and his disciples see a man who had been blind from birth and asked him, “whose sin caused this man to be born blind – him or his parents”? They doubtless knew Ex. 20:5 – as well as Ex. 34:7, Num.14:18, and Deut. 5:9 – verses where God is said to punish children for the sins of their parents. We have heard that, too; so it’s not surprising that scriptures like these prompted the disciples, along with the Pharisees and blind man and his parents, to consider this blindness explained as the parent’s punishment for their sin. But Jesus says “No, sin is not the cause of blindness; neither this man nor his parents sinned; they are not to be blamed. He was born blind so that the power of God’s works might be demonstrated in him. Instead of looking for blame, look for what God can do”. That, I think, is the key phrase to understanding this story.
I know of 12 Bible verses about healing blindness but only 3 of them (including our ac-count in John) are about actual healings by Jesus. The others are analogies of what happens when people see Jesus as ‘the light of the world’. If being born blind then was as rare as it is now, it’s not difficult to understand why Jesus’ audience asked ‘why does this happen”. Fewer than 1% of people are born nowadays never to see light or color or people or things; but being born blind in Jesus’ time was a curiosity. Not only was there no cure for blindness, but blindness was widely believed to be caused by somebody else’s sin. Nowadays we have treatments for some visually impaired patients who have partial sight successfully restored and retinal disease retarded in others, but ophthalmologists say that a cure for blindness is several years away. So while I’m interested in the etiology of macular degeneration, I’m glad that Donna’s threatened blindness can be treated and hopefully be prevented. But in the Pharisee’s view this man’s blind-ness, it was deserved – no accident, no mistake – it was God’s justice, his punishment for parental sin. So it’s no wonder they were astonished when Jesus said that “Neither this man nor his parents sinned – he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him”. Maybe Jesus was the only one who recalled Ez. 18:20 that repudiates Ex. 20 and says that “…a son will not bear responsibility for his father’s guilt, nor a father for his son’s”. That’s a teaching also found in Deut. 24:16, and Jer. 31:30. ‘Every tub on its own bottom’ is another way to say that every person is accountable for his/her own sins, a teaching we retain in the BCP. So Jesus was clearly saying ‘you’re asking the wrong question’ if you’re blaming someone else.
On the other hand, his audience may have had the common sense that suffering and disability are sometimes the result of not only our own sin but also other people’s bad behavior. To-day we can make a definite connection between behavior and its consequences with statistical evidence; and studies show that more people die each year in the US from alcohol than from opioids (about 16,000 more), and that the number of alcohol-related deaths in the United States is rising – by 35% be-tween 2007 and 2017 and that these deaths are especially stark among women – 67%, compared with a 29% increase among men. While alcohol-related deaths among teen-agers decreased by about 16% from 2007 to 2017, those deaths among people ages 45 to 64 rose by about 25%. So we know that drug and alcohol abuse, climate abuse, vehicle driving abuse, and other misconduct causes hurt to other persons as well as to principal actors. More than 1,000 genetic tests are currently offered, and more are being developed, because transmission of genetic disease to offspring can happen; but I’m unaware of any parents who have deliberately communicated genetic disease to children. In fact, knowledge of genetic issues has prompted many couples to remain childless or adopt.
Digesting these data, it is sobering to remember that we are not ‘reproduced’ but procreated, i.e., created on God’s behalf. That means that God has created each one of us; and while sometimes the love of God appears to take strange turns, whether with or without some physical impairment or inability, we are reminded that we are created imago dei in order to glorify God. What I frequently hear, however, is focus on the physical situation: “this condition is bad news and we need to get it fixed” or “it is what it is and I’m resigned to live with it”. But if I under-stand Jesus’ comment aright, he is saying that our destiny is neither of these. Instead, he says in whatever condition we are born, our true purpose is to let our lives reveal God performing his glory in them. Most of us have experienced pain, or been physically limited in some way, or severely disappointed; and that can be a difficult pill to swallow. Too many of us are reluctant to believe that a special optics can permit us to see our lives and any personal infirmity of whatever sort as an opportunity for God to reveal himself in us and show his mighty works. But that seems to be precisely what this text says about this blind man. He was born blind in order that God’s works might be revealed in him. And that happens when he believes in Jesus. The theological verdict here is that sickness, disease, disability, and even death belong to the darkness of a fallen realm from which Jesus, the light of the world, has come to liberate it. And that means God’s Incarnation is not only a personal rescue mission but a cosmic one as well.
Meanwhile, many of us know, or know about, persons who have experienced marginalization by some impediment, but nevertheless avoided paralysis by their personal development and matured to expose extraordinary skills. And when they do, we celebrate and honor them; they convert adversity and infirmity into opportunity, and their disability is metamorphosed. They turn disadvantage around to bring joy and hope and encouragement to themselves and millions of others. As a matter of fact, our history is well populated with the names of blind people who have managed to do exactly that. To name just a few, among them are surely Doc Watson – and Helen Keller – and Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder – and Ronnie Milsap and Andrea Bocelli. Did these people use their blindness to reveal the works of God? All of them have testified to their blessings. And beyond these celebrities there are countless others who are known only to their families and communities.
None of us would not have wished this man whom Jesus healed to be born blind – or that any of us should suffer adversities and infirmities that afflict our lives, like the coronavirus. On the other hand, neither should we want to deny him or any of these celebrities the special blessings that their blindness has brought to both them and us. Simply put, the healing that Jesus brought to this man by the Pool of Siloam encourages us to believe in the power of Jesus to transform our lives, and that’s a comforting thought when we find ourselves beset by difficult circumstances and adversities. We don’t know how many bystanders believed in God as a result of the testimony of the Samaritan woman who was given living water at Jacob’s well; and we don’t know how many believed in God after this man was given sight at the Pool of Siloam. What we are told is that the Pharisees did not believe in Jesus. They refused to believe their own eyes; they don’t believe by seeing.
Remember, too, that this miracle of healing a man blind from birth is a Christological sign that shows us that Jesus is the light that has come into the darkness of the world – and that washing in the Pool of Siloam is another connection to baptism which, in the early church was known as the photismos – the illumination and enlightenment that moves us from spiritual darkness to light. So Christians have a special view of adversity. Today’s readings tell us that Jesus is the light who clears away the darkness and grants us a new optics; and that seeing is not by believing but just the converse: that believing is seeing. I think that’s a message spot on for Lent when we prepare to renew our baptismal vows at Easter.
Remember, too, that we are a people who do not think of ourselves as among those who blame God for misfortune. Jesus turned that notion on its head. So I think that’s why questions like those seeing this miracle are asked by people whose faith was still growing. They are people whose belief in God has a reservation or two about who he is and how he acts, and how we are related to him. They are people whose trust in God gets threatened when by their lights some-thing bad happens in their lives. I personally think that the current panic and fear that’s fueled by the coronavirus and its accompanying constraints offers a special challenge to our faith. The good news we tell about Jesus in times when we’re not fearful or feeling sorry for ourselves is that God’s mighty works can be revealed in us even in our infirmity and imperfection. That happens when our love for God and each other is larger than our love for ourselves. In rare moments not confused by fright or condolence for ourselves, we can be blessed to believe that everything really can and does work for good to those who love the Lord – and we can discern ways to glorify God in the presence of tragedy and pain. I think that’s the point of today’s gospel. None of us is immune to tragedy and bad things do happen to us, but with new optics – a new vision – we can fix our minds and hearts on the mighty work of God that is about to be made manifest in our lives. I think that’s a genuinely happy thought! Deo gratias. Thanks be to God. So be it.