March 19, 2023

John 9:1-41

“What I Missed Seeing”

Back when I was in seminary twenty years ago, the students in my class had the opportunity to do the Myers Briggs Personality Inventory. Some of you may have done it yourself at some point, or you may know that it’s one of those psychological tests that identifies some of your personality traits and tendencies, helping you to understand yourself a little better.

I remember that we learned that almost everyone in my class of ministers-to-be was an introvert, and we marvelled that all of us introverts would soon be preaching publicly every Sunday and interacting with all kinds of people every day!

Another thing I learned about myself is that I don’t pay much attention to my physical surroundings. At one point, the workshop leader asked us all to close our eyes, and then she asked us questions about the room where we were gathered. What colour were the chairs? Were there curtains or blinds on the windows? Describe the plant on the table in the corner.

And I couldn’t answer any of the questions! It was the same classroom I’d been sitting in three times a week all year, but I had no idea what colour the chairs were. How could I have missed seeing those things? It wasn’t so much that I hadn’t seen them. I just wasn’t paying attention, so I missed “seeing” them.

When my husband teases me for failing to see things that are right in front of me, often not noticing significant changes in the physical environment, I tell myself that it doesn’t matter because I don’t miss seeing things that are really important. I might not notice that my friend got her hair cut or has new glasses, but I’ll hear the tone of her voice change and be aware that she’s angry, or sad, or brimming with excitement. I’ll see those things. I’ll notice what really matters. But frankly, I think I often miss seeing those things too.

Every few years, when today’s Gospel story about the healing of the blind man comes up in the lectionary, I ponder the power and love of Jesus and how he was able to take a man who was blind from birth and miraculously give him the ability to see. I know that if I had been there that day, I would have been amazed and incredulous. And I admit that I don’t expect that kind of healing from God to happen today.

I look for medical treatments and therapies for various health issues and physical challenges. I’d hardly be able to see a thing without my glasses, and I’m grateful for them. But I don’t consider it a possibility that one of my friends who is visually impaired to the point of being legally blind could miraculously regain their sight.

Sometimes, when I admit my doubts like this, I’ve found myself in debates with Christians who are determined to look for, and hope for, and pray for such miracles. They challenge me with modern stories of medical miracles and recount examples of people who prayed in the right place or with the right person, and hopped out of their wheelchairs to dance with joy.

But I think that when we get into such conversations and debates, we may miss seeing what God is showing us through this Gospel story.

You may have noticed in the long story we heard today that the healing itself didn’t take very long. It’s all accomplished in verses 6 & 7: “Jesus spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.”

The whole rest of the long story is filled with people discussing and debating about what happened. They argue about whether this man who can see is actually the same man that they knew as a blind beggar. They demand details about how the healing was performed and who did it. They quibble about the fact that it happens to be the Sabbath day, arguing that a good man would never do something like this on the day of rest.

And when the formerly blind man tells them again and again what happened, and finally, perhaps tentatively, concludes that Jesus must be from God, his questioners belittle him, call him sinful, and drive him out.

Much more than a story about a man who is visually impaired gaining the ability to see the world around him, this is a story about that same man slowly coming to understand (to “see”) who Jesus is as the Messiah and Lord. And it’s a story about others who refuse to see who Jesus is because they believe they already know everything they need to know.

They cannot recognize Jesus’ divine presence and love because he does not conform to their rules about Sabbath, and perhaps their expectation that God’s power would first of all be shown to good religious people like them, rather than to lift up poor blind beggars who must be that way because of their sin.

Distracted by the detailed examination of the healing event, most of the people in today’s Gospel story miss seeing that Jesus has come to them in love from God. They miss believing in him, following him, and finding life and hope in relationship with him.

But I think there’s something else that they missed seeing too. Actually, it was Jesus’ own disciples who first missed seeing the blind beggar as a beloved child of God. The story began, “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?’”

Wow! They encountered a man with a disability so severe that he cannot work and earn a living, that he must get what he needs by begging on the street… And they don’t see him. All they seem to see is a theological case study to discuss with their teacher: “Who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Now, we shouldn’t be too hard on the disciples because they were repeating the general thinking of the time about disabilities. And certainly, there are still people who think this way today. And we may even think this way ourselves sometimes, especially when we experience a physical disability or a medical issue ourselves, and we are tempted to ask “What did I do to deserve this?” We default to thinking that when bad things happen that God is punishing us, which means that somehow it’s our own fault.

But Jesus refutes this thinking firmly. He answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” And then, of course, Jesus heals the man, revealing the power and love of God for all who are willing to see.

The usual interpretation of Jesus’ teaching is that the man suffered with the challenges of his physical disability SO THAT Jesus could heal him and reveal his identity as God’s Son to the world. But I really wonder if that’s ALL that Jesus meant.

Because what I noticed in the story this week is that the formerly blind man is not just a tool for Jesus to make a point. He’s a person. Granted, the disciples didn’t really see him as a person. And the Pharisees didn’t really see him as a person.

But Jesus SAW him. That’s how the story began. And Jesus touched him, and spoke to him, sent him to wash, and healed him. Some biblical commentators notice that the mud Jesus puts on the man’s eyes connects to the Creation of human beings. Like Adam, formed from the dust of the Earth, this man is an Earthling, a good creation of God.

And then Jesus tells the man to go to the pool of Siloam and wash. Although what’s happening is not described as a baptism, it reminds us of the healing and new birth that we are given in baptism. And not only that, but the pool’s name means “sent.” Just as from our baptism, we are sent as disciples into the world to share the good news in love with others, this man is also sent to become a witness to God’s healing love in Jesus.

God’s works are not only revealed through the physical healing of the man, but they are revealed through the man’s own life as he comes to faith, shares his experience, and I expect as he lives the remainder of his days as a follower of Jesus.

So as I reflect on this story, I’m hearing the invitation to pay attention and see what Jesus sees in my neighbours with many and various abilities. It is just too common for individuals to become invisible to others when they have a visual impairment or they need a wheelchair to get around. We are too likely to assume that someone who is losing their hearing is not intelligent enough to follow the conversation, or that someone who is on the autism spectrum has no gifts to share with their community. And that simply is not true.

I’m not going to worry too much about the fact that I often miss seeing some of the things in my physical environment. I probably can’t tell you the colour of the carpet or what kind of flowers were decorating the sanctuary. But I don’t want to miss seeing the goodness and giftedness of each one of you, and each person that I may meet along my way.

I think it’s a matter of being determined not to make judgements about one another – you know, the way that the disciples and then the Pharisees wanted to judge the blind man. I think it’s a matter of humbling ourselves to recognize that we don’t know everything already, and others may have things to teach us and show us. And I think it’s a matter of opening our eyes to see how each person’s life may be revealing the goodness and grace and love of God in our world, and opening our hearts to receive it.

By the grace of God in Jesus Christ, may we who have missed seeing some of these things, have our eyes opened to see as Jesus sees.