Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 2, 2008

2008.03.02 “A Conversation with a Man Born Blind”

Central United Methodist Church
“Who’s Blind; Who Sees?

“A Conversation with a Man Born Blind”

John 9: 1 – 41

March 2nd, 2008

         “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” – John 9: 1 – 5, The New Revised Standard Version

     Four years ago at the Academy Awards, actor Jamie Foxx won the “Best Actor” Oscar for his heart-and-soul portrayal of one of the most famous blind people in America: the late Ray Charles.

      In the movie, — “Ray” — one of the last labors of Ray Charles — we learn things about Ray we never knew.  We learned, for example, of two other great blindnesses in his life, unrelated to his actual physical blindness: 

      – The double life which he led for many years, with a wife and family at home, and other women – whom he sometimes even introduced as his wife — on the road. 

      – The heroin addiction that became so bad it threatened everything, apparent to everyone but Ray. 

      But we also learned from the movie how Ray came to “see” the consequences of his actions upon himself, his family, and others, when he sorrowfully learns that one of his former girlfriends had died of a heroin overdose, the heroin to which he had introduced her. To his credit, in 1966, Ray entered a drug treatment program, after which he stayed clean the rest of his life.

      I’ve told you this story about Ray, to introduce you to another famous blind man, whose name is unknown, but whose story we hear today in John chapter 9.

      Few stories in the New Testament are told as well as the story of the man born blind. Scenes are smoothly connected; characters unfold before our eyes; questions are answered in a timely fashion; and above all, the crisp dialogue, ironic at almost every point, unveils the satire of a blind man who comes to see only to see people who prove themselves blind.

      As noted in previous weeks, The Gospel of John, written towards the end of the first Christian century, is the least historical and most symbolical of the Four Gospels.  Today’s story is an outstanding example.  The entire drama, with its characters and dialogue, is an enacted parable of Jesus as the Light of the World, who, while enlightening some, proves blinding to others.

      Part of the essential background of the text is the animosity which developed between Christians and Jews in the first century.  It must be acknowledged that out of these tensions, Christians were kicked out of synagogues for believing in Jesus as Messiah, and Jews were blamed not only for killing Jesus, but for their continued refusal to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah.  Sadly, when the church gained ascendancy, it did in fact lead to centuries of anti-Semitism, pogroms, and holocausts, which we in the church must not only repent of and repudiate, but continue to be on guard.

      In truth, the Pharisees were not as bad as these stories portray them.  Of all the religious parties in Jesus’ time, Jesus was closer to his position than any other group, which may explain why Nicodemus came to see him.  In fact, if not for the Pharisees, we wouldn’t have most of the Bible we have today; they basically put it together at the Council of Jamnia in 90 A.D. Let’s face it, as religious people, the Pharisees were our kind of people.

      While acknowledging that, this story raises deeper questions, questions we still ask today. When misfortune strikes, whether of the man born blind or of someone like Ray Charles, is someone to blame?  Is it someone’s fault?  And the second question is, how can people be so blind to realities right in front of their face?

      The first question – When misfortune strikes, is anyone to blame?  — is raised early in the story.  While out walking, Jesus and his disciples encounter the man born blind.  

      And his disciples ask him, probably the same question we might ask if given the chance? Who sinned, this man or his parents?

      Now we know there are some things that arise from the intent or irresponsibility of others, which are best addressed in a court of law, with blame rightfully assigned.  But there are other things that happen in life that are life-accidents that we can neither predict nor prevent, and no one is to blame.

      In Jesus’ time, it was often the view that people who suffered from such things as birth defects or illnesses such as leprosy were somehow to blame, and therefore morally suspect and unclean.  Sadly, people such as the blind man were cut off from family and religion, from heritage and home.

      If you think that’s quaint, consider this.  In 2004, when the Asian Tsunami killed 230,000 people, GMI (Global Market Insite), a market research services company, found that 26% of American respondents believed that the Tsunami was an act of God with religious significance. 

      But it’s likely we’re not surprised at this, because if you’ve ever suffered misfortune in your life — either by birth or accident — you likely already know that blaming victims is not — unfortunately — an outdated misunderstanding.

      So, with that in mind, I love Jesus’ answer, especially as rendered in Eugene Peterson’s The Message:  “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.”

      It is undeniable that there is a lot of misery and suffering in the world.  But instead of looking for someone to blame, look instead for what God can do — what we can do.

      For example, a few years ago on one of my visits to one of our largest United Methodist churches, Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, I learned about Matthew’s Ministry, their ministry of awareness, outreach, and support for the handicapped and families of handicapped and disabled people.  The name comes from Matthew 25:40, Jesus concern for “the least of these.”  It began when the Pastor, Adam Hamilton, visited a woman who when invited to church, said, “Oh no, I don’t think you have a place for us in your church.  He said, “What do you mean?”  She said, “Oh, my son is severely disabled.”  What Adam Hamilton didn’t say was, “And whose fault was that?”  Instead, what he did say was, “Can you give me a few weeks?  And that was the beginning of Matthew’s Ministry.  After all, there are no disabled souls.

      But the second major question the story of the man born blind raises is, “How can people with perfectly good eyesight be so blind?”  Let me rephrase that:  “How can WE sometimes be so blind to what is right in front of our face?”

      In this story, the blind man might not have known much, but the one thing he did know was this: “I once was blind, but now I see.” It was something he was understandably excited about.  But in this story, instead of responding with joy and thanksgiving, the Pharisees questioned the blind man, called him a liar, impugned his character, and threw him out. The problem was this: Despite the fact that he was healed, it couldn’t possibly be of God, because it had been done on the Sabbath.  Don’t try to confuse them with the facts, their minds were made up.  It was outside the box of their rules, so even though they could see, they just couldn’t see it.

      All of us have known — or know — people who are blind:  not literally, but to something right in front of their faces.  It might be a blindness about something affecting their health, like smoking or overeating or addiction.  It might be a blindness to something emotionally obvious, like the waywardness of a child, or a relationship that is codependent or even abusive.  It might be a blindness to something that is seriously hurting the person and other persons, like Ray Charles’ womanizing and heroin addiction.

      Which brings us to the final, most disturbing point of all: the possibility that we too, may be completely blind to something right in front of our face. Like the old line goes: “I made a mistake once, I thought I was wrong, but it turned out I wasn’t.”   Why is this?

      It is cold water on our assumptions of logic and rationality to confess that we rarely arrive at, or hold our beliefs, on the basis of logic and rationality.  In reality, most of the time we believe what we believe for psychological or cultural reasons. As the French philosopher Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason is not away.”

      So often in my ministry, when people have wanted to argue a point, I have learned to try to get them to back up for a minute and asked them this:  “Tell me, why do you believe this?”  And so often, instead of an argument, I get a story. “Because one time, when I was five years old . . .” And so the psychological and cultural factors shaping us tend to blind us to what we see in front of us.

      It is true that when many of the great controversial “moral” issues are discussed and argued theoretically, they are polarizing.   But when they are discussed in terms of names and faces we know, compassion arises.  We are against abortion, until we find out someone in our family died of a back alley abortion. We are against homosexuality, until we find out our son or daughter is gay. We are pro-war, until our son or daughter signs up, or claims conscientious objector status.  Sadly, sometimes our eyes are opened too late to respond with compassion rather than judgment.

      When I was a chaplain at Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago, I heard about a religiously conservative family from Indiana, called to their son’s bedside at Swedish Covenant. In almost the same breath they learned (1) that he was gay, and (2) that he was dying of AIDS.  I did not hear their response was, but as a parent, I know what mine would be.

      After seeing the movie “Ray,” we might be tempted to jump to judgment about Ray Charles.   But the movie also helped us to “see” – Ray with compassion – and understand why he may have had some of the blindnesses that he had, both literal and psychological.  

      Ray Charles Robinson was not born blind but became blind around age 7, from undiagnosed glaucoma. About two years before he lost his sight, when was five years old, he witnessed the drowning death of his little brother George, age 4. In a memory that haunted his life, he stood nailed to the spot while his little brother freakishly drowned in a washtub full of clothes. Why didn’t Ray act to save him?  Because he was 5 years old.  No one seeing the scene in “Ray, would think to blame the boy, but he never forgives himself.  Later, when he lost his sight, at age 7, one might think, if only he had lost it before his brother died, perhaps he would not have felt himself so responsible. Knowing this about Ray, we’re moved to respond not with judgment but compassion.

      The ironic reversals in the story of the man born blind is that in the beginning it is the man born blind who is the sinner and the Pharisees who see; in the end it is the Pharisees who are really blind and the sinners, because, quick in their certitude and rigid in their theology, they were incapable of responding, either to the blind man or to Jesus, with compassion. Who sees and who doesn’t?

      “I came into the world,” says Jesus, “to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind.”

Lord, Jesus Christ, you are the Light of the world.

Fill our minds with your peace and our hearts with your love.  Amen.

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