March 22, 2020

I was Blind, Now I See

Passage: John 9: 1-41

Synopsis: So much has changed in the past several weeks as we try to adjust to the coronavirus pandemic. Trying times like these can bring out the best and the worst in us. I’m proud of how our strong smaller church is responding as we have moved to virtual worship service and we reach out to care for each other. The story of Jesus healing the man born blind is instructive. It involves the paradox of the blind may who now sees in contrast to religious leaders who claim they can see but are spiritually blind. What things that we were blind to, can a pandemic help us see? It clearly reveals that our wellbeing is linked to the well of the most vulnerable among us. 

How are we all doing? It’s hard to fathom how much has changed in the past several weeks as we adjust to the coronavirus pandemic. My initial response was partial denial—this can’t be happening—it can’t be that bad—we’ll just need to get through the next several weeks—then life will return to normal. Now I’ve adjusted to the recognition that this may be our new normal and that things will get worse before they get better.

I try not to panic ever though that’s our normal human response. I get it when people flock to stores to stock up on hand sanitizer and liquid hand soap. Still, how much of the stuff can one household possibly use? We’re running low on our supply of liquid hand soap at church. I have been trying to restock and, believe me, there’s none to be found. This has now taken care of itself since we canceled all services at our church.  Take a deep breath. Relax.

What I absolutely can’t fathom is hording toilet paper. What is it about us Americans and toilet paper when we feel vulnerable? I’m resisting getting into any kind of toilet humor about this even though it’s good to occasionally laugh at ourselves. I will say that people in India don’t use toilet paper. Ruth and I learned how to use a bidet when we lived there and we liked it so much that we installed one in our townhouse here in Fairfax. We’ll be okay!

Several weeks ago, I could not have imagined that we’d be holding a virtual worship service. Medical experts are now saying that this pandemic will most likely be with us for months rather than weeks and that it will get worse before it starts to get better. We will want to figure out how to live in this new normal. Virtual church services like this one will most likely be part of that.

I'm proud (modestly, of course, like a good Mennonite) of how our church has been responding and making adjustments thus far. As a smaller church, we have some advantages in how we can respond. We will want to be thinking about how we support and care for each other and our neighbors as this drags on. I have lots of confidence in our strong small church and by God's grace we will do this.

The first verse of Psalm 23 is so fitting during times of anxiety. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Pastor Liz Goodman says that this pastoral psalm imagines the comfort and assurance of being in the Lord’s presence and care and having our every need provided for. Then she adds:

But I suspect it could also be about being free of the condition of wanting, of wanting stuff—which is all the more a suffering state when it’s in no regard to what that actual stuff might be. You just want it. This state is clearly stoked by our unceasing consumer economy.[1]

This may help explain our penchant to shop and hoard when we feel panicky. We then feel embarrassed about that after the panic subsides. Hoarding stuff only makes us feel more vulnerable. Can we instead trust that God is with us even as we walk through this dark valley? We can then come together to support each other as we go through this together. That’s the strength of our life in community as a people of faith. We’re all in this together.

This brings us to the bold theological claim in John’s Gospel that Jesus is the Light of the world. In the opening of his gospel John states, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” The story of the man born blind begins with Jesus’ disciples’ attempting to lay blame for this human tragedy. “Who sinned? Was it him or his parents?”

Jesus refuses to go there. He will not draw a line between such suffering and human causality. No! Instead, he insists that God is greater than all suffering. The proper question is how we respond to such situations. Are we doing the works of God? This is so necessary during a pandemic. Laying blame is not helpful. We will instead want to band together to meet this challenge.

Jesus uses mud, the Hebrew word is adamah, the stuff of God’s earliest creative act when Adam (the first human) is created out of adamah. Similarly, Jesus brings the man born blind into a fullness of being.  In this two-step healing, Jesus spreads mud on the man’s eyes and then tells him to go wash in the nearby pool of Siloam. What do we make of this?  I find it fascinating that it includes all the necessary elements of gardening—dirt, water, and then having one’s eyes opened to the light.

Things get interesting when this formerly blind man returns from the pool able to see. The neighbors have a hard time believing it’s actually him but he kept insisting it is and that a stranger named Jesus had told him to go wash in the pool. So, they took the man to the religious authorizes to help straighten it out.

It quickly gets even more complicated because Jesus had done this work on the Sabbath. The religious authorities were sure that someone who did that couldn’t be from God. They weren’t buying this so they called the man’s parents to verify that he was indeed their son. They acknowledged that he was and that he had been born blind but refused to say anything more.

It now becomes a religious inquisition. The parents are afraid they will be thrown out of the synagogue if that say anything more. The Greek word for being thrown out is Ekbalon. Ek means out and balon is to throw. This is in contrast to Jesus’ claim earlier in John’s Gospel, “Anyone who comes to me I will never throw out” (6:37b).

Gerard Sloyan, a Catholic biblical scholar who I sometimes talked with in the lunchroom during my doctoral studies, says that a paranoid religious community or a church with an “enemies list” is fraught with peril. The story of Jesus healing of the blind man involves the paradox of a blind person who now sees in contrast to religious folk who claim they can see but are spiritually blind.

Such coming to know and see can take different forms. What makes it so threatening is that it challenges our settled certainties. As Gerald Sloyan observes, “People leave the churches, the synagogues, or the enlightened secularism of their youth and go in new directions. . . Following the truth as one perceives it, at whatever cost, is something which casual onlookers can never comprehend.”[2] He adds, “Searchers for the true Light may spend some time, even years, in what [we may] identify as theological darkness.” Nevertheless, “If they are truly searchers, they should be respected as such.”[3]

This is part of our spiritual growth through the different seasons of our lives. We outgrow some of the certainties of our youth and even those of a faith community that was once so integral to our identity. It’s about absorbing and growing in response to the light we see—a kind of spiritual photosynthesis. As the blind man told his religious interrogators, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” “That’s the irrefutable logic of experience. It’s the logic that people who are converts to any cause go on. ‘I was there. It happened to me.’”[4]

What can we take from this in times like these. In our call to worship we affirmed, “The Lord anoints us for healing, strengthening, gifting, and blessing.” How might we be this kind of people? Perhaps we can volunteer to help with much needed public services to vulnerable people. What other suggestions do you have?

I keep thinking about the statement, “I was blind, now I see.” What things that we were blind to, can a pandemic help us see? It reveals so clearly that our wellbeing is linked to the wellbeing of our neighbors, especially the most vulnerable among us. It can teach us the value of a social safety net and affordable healthcare for all. When 44 million Americans are without health insurance it makes us all more vulnerable.

It reminds us of how much we need the dedicated work of scientists and medical professionals who work at global threats such as climate change and health pandemics. And yes, at times like this we’re reminded of how much we need well-functioning government at all levels. As a people of faith, we will want to pray for and support all our dedicated public servants.



[2] Gerald Sloyan, John. Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 124.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.,125.

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