Learning to See

Sunday, March 30
Fourth Sunday in Lent

Weekly Theme
Learning to See

Discerner of hearts, you look beneath our outward appearance and see your image in each of us.†Banish in us the blindness that prevents us from recognizing truth, so we may see the world through your eyes and with the compassion of Jesus Christ who redeems us.†Amen.

Focus Scripture
John 9:1-41

As he 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.” When he had said this, he 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 neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped him. Jesus said, “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?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

All readings for this week
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Focus Questions

1. What hidden truths and realities, perhaps just under the surface, do you need to see in your life?

2. How much does fear influence our inquiries, our wondering, our discernment?

3. Is it easier to say that something is “too good to be true” rather than to follow a new path?†

4. Where is Jesus in your life today?

5. What is the “one thing” that you know for sure?†

Reflection by Kate Huey

In the story of the healing of the man born blind, John uses “seeing” as a metaphor for believing, for coming to see past outward appearances to the truth deep in the heart of things. (Remember his use of metaphors like “light and darkness,” and “living water” in the readings for the past two Sundays?) Like all of us, the man whose sight is given to him by Jesus stumbles toward belief and understanding, not suddenly or easily but in the course of a long story that leads to another personal encounter with Jesus.

The former beggar’s openness and growing faith contrast sharply with the fearful, hesitant questions of his neighbors (how cynical they are not to rejoice!) and the downright judgmental reaction of the religious establishment. Cure on the Sabbath, break religious rules–how can this Jesus be “of God”? And yet “the man born blind” sees God’s truth so much better than those who spend all their time studying and talking about God. Metaphor, and irony. While the other characters in the story remain at the end where they were at its beginning, the healed man’s life is transformed, and he finds himself in a very different place. And Jesus, of course, is in that very different place.

John told this story and used these images of seeing and not seeing, believing and not believing, to help an early Christian community “see” themselves in that story. They knew what it felt like to be driven out of the synagogue by the religious authorities, to be expelled from their “church home.” (They were really feeling the lack of “extravagant hospitality”!) John helps them to connect their loss with the gain of grace in their powerful experience of conversion and healing, understanding and trust. But sometimes conversion and belief inspire judgment, rejection, and condemnation from those around us. It’s a lonely place to be, and John’s way of telling this story must have spoken powerfully to the people in that situation, reassuring them that they were not alone: they now belonged to a community that shared the same faith, and, ultimately, like the man born blind but newly sighted, they would encounter Jesus on their way.

Sinners and non-sinners

John also pairs the categories of “sinner” and “not a sinner” in this story.†Who is the real sinner, we might ask?†(As if it were up to us to judge!)†The authorities tried to judge both men, Jesus and the man born blind, and even tried to trap them both with their arguments, but the man born blind is amazingly clever in countering them.†Jesus has done something amazing: giving sight to someone who had never seen. That alone is worth sitting and thinking about.†How would you adjust to walking around normally and taking in all the new information that sight brings? And how would you begin to thank the One who had done this for you?

The tension in the story comes from judgment, of course, and the twists and turns judgment takes.†The disciples see a blind man and right away ask for a judgment from Jesus about who the “real” sinner is–the man, or his parents. (Once that’s established, presumably they can move on to “loving the sinner, but not the sin.”)†The twist comes when Jesus says “Neither” and uses the occasion, outside the religious building and the religious rules, to glorify God by healing the man, using means that remind us a bit of baptism, with water and mud and rising to a whole new self and a whole new life. That causes a lot of talk, and more questions and conjecture, instead of dumbfounded wonder and praise of God.†Even the newly sighted man takes a little time to find his way to the truth, but he’s persistent in his search, and delightfully clever in his defense before the powers that be. Richard L. Eslinger helps us find ourselves in the blind man’s experience:†There are many “who have been baptized but who, if asked where Jesus is in their lives today, would answer with the same poignant ‘I do not know’…and even for ourselves, there are times and seasons when the honest-to-God answer to that inquiry would be the same.”

The healing also prompts another judgment, this time from the religious authorities who, rather than praising God for such an amazing thing, start the interrogation so they can find the sin that they know must be there, somewhere, if they just look hard enough.†Jesus has broken the law about the Sabbath (as they interpret it), so they know that†he must be a sinner. The blind man claims to know only one thing, that “though I was blind, now I see.” Now, the Pharisees “know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The response of the healed man is brilliant, of course:†”Here is an astonishing thing!” (We might say, another astonishing thing, after witnessing something that had “never since the world began” happened before!) “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”†The newly sighted man not only sees things clearly but can also “do the math.”†And the Pharisees don’t appreciate the way things add up.

With whom do we identify?

The question for us, today, is about finding ourselves in the story in more ways than one.†Isn’t it tempting to identify with the man born blind, rather than with the Pharisees? It’s an especially uncomfortable question for pastors and other religious leaders, but it works for all of us inside the church. Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon on this text, “A Tale of Two Heretics,” suggests that we might find ourselves so occupied with our own modern version of “ritual purity” and “preserving the law” that we fail to see what really matters.†We might be blind to the truth right in front of us, especially if we don’t expect it outside the normal bounds of what we think religious faithfulness ought to look like.†The folks who think they have it all together and can judge others may be well-meaning and sincere, Taylor says, but they “are the people to watch out for, because they think they can seeÖbetter than other people, and they are not shy about telling you that you are not really seeing what you think you see, or that what you are seeing is wrong. They do not do this to be mean, either. They do this because they love God and maybe even because they love you too.†They are doing it to protect you from believing the wrong things.”

Religion and its pitfalls

Frederick Niedner wrote a beautiful reflection on this text in the February 26, 2008 issue of The Christian Century: “The Pharisees in the story, like the Pharisee in each of us, prove stubbornly blind to the reckless dispensing of mercy that takes place.†It has come on the wrong day, to an unworthy recipient, from a maverick agent whom the Pharisees can’t see for dust.”†Religion, organized or not, seems to gravitate toward structure and limits, perhaps because of the power of mystery, and our anxiety and eagerness to control it.†”A reckless dispensing of mercy” plays havoc with our need for order and “decent” behavior.†It also goes against our subconscious conviction that in some way, we deserve what we get (if it’s good, that is), and those beggars on the street did something to get themselves into such a situation. The judging goes on, even today.

Such a long story, and yet Jesus appears only at the beginning and the end. In fact, he heard that the blind man had been driven out, and he went looking for him. We might sit with that line for a little while, too, and picture Jesus hearing about what happened to the man, and setting out to find him. It’s not a question of whether we, sighted or blind, find Jesus, but of Jesus coming to look for us, and finding us (no matter) where we are.

Niedner writes evocatively about the baptismal imagery in the healing, and how, even today, we can connect to the man born blind: “Baptized readers of every age find themselves in the man born blind, buried and reshaped in the mud of the new creation, washed in the water of the sent One. Now we see as never before, but we scarcely recognize ourselves, much less those around us or even the One who healed us” (Christian Century, February 26, 2008).

What are our standards for judgment?

What†might your church need to see in order to move more purposefully toward a new future, new hope, new possibilities? What hidden truths and realities, perhaps just under the surface, does your congregation need to see? Are there unrecognized leaders and spiritual guides within the life of your church who are busy, on the edges, with “tending the sheep” while the “important” matters are discussed by experts and authorities? What are the standards we use to judge what we see, whether it’s a person, a building, a mission or ministry, or whether it’s an event or experience, such as a healing or transformation, or even a disaster?†What are the core truths we depend on, as the man cured of physical blindness depended on when he reasoned that Jesus must be “of God,” since he was able to make him see?†And yet even that reasoning was not enough.†He needed to encounter Jesus, to hear and understand what was happening. When–and how–does your church take time to encounter Jesus Christ and to hear the truth that transforms your life, to follow in a new path that you previously could not even see?††††††††

Does it ever happen in the life of your congregation that there are some who question even the most wonderful turn of events–the miracles–and press for more information, details, rather than praise God and give thanks?†Is it tempting to claim our identity based on what has gone before and on our ancestry, rather than on who God calls us to be, to become, today and in the days ahead? How do you sense a still-speaking God, calming your fear and calling you to a new boldness and a new faith?

A preaching version of this reflection (with book titles) is available at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/march-30-2014.html.

For further reflection

Charles Shulz, 20th century
I cannot fail to be thrilled every time I read the things that Jesus said, and I am more and more convinced of the necessity of following him. What Jesus means to me is this: In him we are able to see God, and to understand [God’s] feelings toward us.

Madeleine L’Engle, 20th century (when asked, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?”)
I believe in God with all my doubts.
br />Paul Gauguin, 19th century
I shut my eyes in order to see.

Helen Keller, 20th century
My darkness has been filled with the light of intelligence, and behold, the outer day-lit world was stumbling and groping in social blindness.

Samuel Butler, 19th century
A blind man knows he cannot see, and is glad to be led, though it be by a dog; but he that is blind in his understanding, which is the worst blindness of all, believes he sees as the best, and scorns a guide.

Thomas Hardy, 19th century
There is a condition worse than blindness, and that is, seeing something that isn’t there.

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Weekly Seeds is a resource of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.