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Karen Hollis | March 19, 2023
John 9 (NRSV – selections)
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. 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 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. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." 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.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be reflections of your word to us today, in Christ’s name we pray. Amen
Greg Garrett, a preacher and Episcopalian from Austin, TX shared the following story on Facebook during COVID about the day his eyes were opened.
“As I pulled up in front of the house yesterday and started unloading, a car pulled into our cul de sac. Not too close, but close enough that I knew they were waiting on me. As I bumped the door closed, my hands full, I saw a black man in his thirties standing at the door of a pickup truck, a boy about Sophie's age in the passenger seat.
He asked me if this was 7905, our address, and I said yes. Then he stepped from the door of his truck, his hands raised a little, palms toward me, and stopped some distance away, farther than required by social distancing.
He told me his name, the name of his son, said he attended Doss Elementary School with our Sophie. "We're here to pick up his class t-shirt," he said.
I realized all of a sudden that all of this--the posture, the detailed explanation, the distance, even his waiting to address me until I had gathered all my things from the car--was to put me at ease. To let me know he belonged in my neighborhood. That he was not a threat of some sort.
And I was stricken. "Of course," I said. I nodded. "I think I saw a bag with your name on it on the front porch." My hands were full, but I motioned with my head. "Please. Come on up."
We walked together toward the front door. He picked up the bag, smiled at me. On the way back, he stopped in the driveway, turned back toward me.
"Have a blessed day," he said.
Then he climbed in the truck and handed the bag to his son, who excitedly pulled out his t-shirt, and I went into the house.
I did not feel blessed. I felt wrecked.
Two dads who love their fifth-grade graduates.
One black, one white.
Two very different experiences, and two very different lives.
I am haunted that I am only late in my life recognizing in ways large and small how people of color are forced to compensate in ways I have never noticed because I have never had to.
I can't believe I have been asleep my whole life.” For some reason, it was the interaction that woke Greg up to what had always been there . . . grace met him that day and allowed him to see.
It’s not like Greg didn’t know he lived in a racist culture . . . we all know that we live in a racist culture . . . and yet so often we don’t see it or personalize it. We know that we have racial biases that we wish we didn’t have. And we know that we are in a position of privilege to be able to talk about racism at arm’s length and even choose when to bring it into the conversation. We wish it was easier to change . . . change comes with resistance . . . internal resistance that keeps us blind, systemic resistance that hides the truth.
This morning’s text from John has an interesting contribution to this ongoing dialogue. The man who receives sight is asked over and over again . . . how? How did you receive your sight? He is asked so many times that he makes a joke to the Pharisees: “do you want to become Jesus’ disciple? You certainly ask about him enough.” They ask the question because they can’t reconcile their experience. They symbolize resistance in the story . . . their resistance makes them want to change the world to make it fit the lens through which they see.
Our senses take in a huge amount of data every second, and yet only a small fraction of it ends up in our conscious thinking. We would never be able to function if we were constantly flooded with data, so our lenses serve us . . . they also are trained to prioritize. Our lenses are shaped by our parents, professions, experiences, community, values, beliefs . . . and more. Our lenses support the way we view the world . . . and are more or less flexible. They will still resist change, but are capable of adapting to a new way of seeing.
The Pharisees, represent an extreme position. In the narrative of the story, their resistance is focused on Jesus . . . they are troubled because they don’t know him, but the evidence shows he is from God.
But the resistance goes deeper into the history of Christianity. After Jesus’ resurrection, the Jewish followers of Jesus still attended synagogue. There was even room in the liturgy for people to share stories about him that related to the Hebrew scripture reading of the day . . . but the synagogue worship practice was still quite focused on their Jewish identity which had sustained them through slavery, exile, diaspora, occupation . . . The Jesus movement was moving beyond the boundaries of traditional Jewish practice . . . they were reaching across ethnic borders and including Gentiles (non-Jews). Some, or perhaps a majority of synagogue goers could not give up what had always defined them,1 and around the time John’s gospel was written, followers of the Way were pushed out of the synagogue. This certainly influenced the way John wrote the Pharisees into his gospel – stuck, and critical of Jesus helping people to see. Still the matter wasn’t settled – those within the Jesus movement argued for generations about exactly how to bring Jews and Gentiles in what became the Christian faith . . . but the way of Jesus as inclusive and affirming would endure.
Over the last few decades, as we have come to acknowledge how racism is still operative in our culture, resistance has shown up in some different ways. One response has been colour blindness. The idea is that if I’m blind to colour, I will treat everyone equally – I don’t need to look at myself and my own biases, because I don’t see colour. I think it’s well intentioned, however the problem with colour blindness is we gloss over the things that are important to people about their culture and identity. There are things we all hold in common, like our need for connection and love for our families. There are also a lot of things that make us unique . . . things that we want to be affirmed in us, like our ethnicity, cultural grounding, hometown . . . things that are visible and invisible. So we take our learning a level deeper and when we meet someone, open ourselves to what makes them a unique and beautiful child of God.
Another response is, whose problem is this to solve? I didn’t cause it, I didn’t own slaves or support residential schools. To address this question, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Isabel Wilkerson, uses the metaphor of a house – which I find helpful. When we buy a house, we receive it as it is. The report we receive from the inspectors isn’t about shame and blame – we aren’t the ones that created its current state . . . but everything going forward is our responsibility. She says, this is our inheritance, so look at the systems, overhaul them, and do the necessary work so they can serve future generations well. Not knowing, not seeing doesn’t protect us. Jesus underlines her point at the end of today’s text: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains.” We are responsible . . . we know the world around us is built on systems of oppression and our United Church participated in them. We inherited this truth, so what comes next is our responsibility.
John Newton, composer of Amazing Grace, and former slave trader actually drew inspiration from this text when writing his famous and beloved hymn. He wrote, “I once was blind and now I see.” He wrestled with his participation in the slave trade . . . God remained with him in his struggle and gave Newton the grace of sight . . . to see his participation and profit in an evil system for which he was responsible . . . a grace that allowed him to make different choices and walk forward in a new way. May God grant us the grace to naviigate our responsibility in a good way.
1 Spong. The Fourth Gospel, p. 145