A Sermon from the Church of
Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 19, 2023 (Lent 4A)
So, if you’re a real student of the eucharistic lectionary — that three-year cycle of Sunday morning readings — and I’m sure that you are, you would know that last Sunday, this Sunday, and next Sunday give us the three longest gospel passages of the entire lexicon. (Well, besides the Passion Gospel on Palm Sunday, but you get to sit through most of that). Last Sunday it was the woman at the well, today it’s the man born blind, and next week it’s the raising of Lazarus. All from John’s gospel. And all very, very long. Like, longer than the typical sermon long.
And these long passages in the last weeks before Palm Sunday and Holy Week signal that something is different. We’re preparing for something big and bold, something miraculous and holy. But in the meantime, we’re going long.
But sometimes compelling stories just take a while to tell. It’s why the Cliffs Notes versions of books are never as satisfying as the real thing. Much is sacrificed on the altar of brevity. Unless you’re in middle school and you just don’t care enough to actually read through the entirety of Wuthering Heights. That’s totally hypothetical, by the way.
But this story about the man born blind is an engaging tale with a number of characters playing prominent roles. There’s the man himself and Jesus, of course, along with his disciples. But along the way we also meet his parents and a group of Pharisees. The story takes time to unfold and there are many layers to it.
And this particular very-long-passage involves a miracle story. Now, miracles are funny things. The danger is that we spend either too much time trying to explain the mechanics of them, while ignoring their overall significance. Or we spend too much time on metaphorical interpretations, while minimizing the truly miraculous. We can’t explain how this particular miracle of sight took place any more than we can explain how water turned into wine or how five loaves and two fish fed 5,000 people. That’s the thing about miracles: they defy human logic and explanation. And so rational, thinking Christians tend not to dwell upon them. ‘They’re fine for Sunday School lessons,’ we think, ‘but let’s just move on to something a bit more…tangible.’ This, of course, doesn’t do justice to the ministry of Jesus; nor does it leave open the possibility for the miraculous to touch our own lives. Our lack of faith, in other words, limits the power of God. Or at least attempts to.
What sets this story apart from other miraculous healings is that Jesus does something physical — he uses something other than his voice. And it even happens in two parts. The application of mud and spittle are followed by a wash in the pool of Siloam. So Jesus isn’t even present when the man’s sight is restored. His other healings take effect immediately with a simple word, a look, a touch, or a command: “Take up your mat and walk,” “Be opened,” “Go, your faith has made you well.” But the end result is the same. Someone is healed; a life is transformed.
But we also can’t ignore the metaphorical implications of this story. They are so prominent and such an integral part of this passage. Jesus has come into the world to give sight to the blind — quite literally in this story. But he has also come into the world to make God known to humanity. To open our eyes to see the hand of God at work in the world, and to offer salvation to those who have eyes to see. Our response is to either accept that which is set before us by Jesus, or close our eyes tightly like the Pharisees in this story and remain blinded by our own sinfulness.
And, of course, physical blindness, the inability to see with one’s eyes, has nothing to do with the blindness referred to by John. The Pharisees may have had 20/20 vision but they remain blind to the saving power of Jesus Christ. They turn a blind eye to Jesus. An action even more dramatically emphasized by the driving away of this formerly blind man. Out of sight, out of mind.
So, blindness is not determined by physical sight but by the revelation of the works of God through the ministry of Jesus. And this point is made at the very beginning of this story. As the disciples come upon this blind beggar they ask Jesus whether this man or his parents sinned because he was born blind. Jesus tells them neither, that he was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” The man is transformed from physical blindness into a person who can see, but the critical point for Jesus is his movement to spiritual sight. He now knows through personal experience, the saving power of Jesus Christ.
But it’s also worth pausing to examine the Pharisees’ initial question. Because there was an assumption in the ancient world that physical limitations or disabilities were the cause of sin. Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind? Our theology, thanks to Jesus, has moved beyond this limited perspective. But there’s still a nagging sense that someone who doesn’t meet the physical ideals of perfection is somehow weak or less than whole.
In my own case, you can’t help but notice that I have some palsy on the right side of my face. I don’t have a traditional “winning smile.” I recently heard speculation that it was the result of my time in the Army — that an unspecified accident was involved. And as much as I’d love a glamorous backstory, the reality is that I was simply born with some nerve damage on that side of my face. I rarely think about it, these days. And, frankly, when I was growing up, more people made fun of my last name than my mouth.
When I was in my early 20s, a doctor told me that they could probably minimize the appearance through surgery. And I thought a lot about whether to pursue that. But in the end, I just thought this is part of who I am and how God created me, and decided not to do anything about it. Has it impacted me? Sure. It’s probably contributed to my rather dry sense of humor. But more importantly, I think it’s given me compassion for those who are different — physically or emotionally — than what’s held up as the Madison Avenue vision of perfection. The reality is that we are all flawed by virtue of our humanity, whether on the inside or the outside. And Jesus loves us anyway; Jesus loves you anyway. Thanks be to God.
The truth is that we all spend a lot of time in blindness. We’re blind to the suffering that surrounds us in our world and in our communities. We’re blind to the miraculous in our midst. We’re blind to the love of Jesus that pervades our lives. And blindness, like ignorance, can be bliss. It’s much easier to remain isolated and stay within our own carefully constructed worlds than it is to open our eyes to the pain and sin that surrounds us.
Yet Jesus invites us to do just that. He invites us to open our eyes to the miracle of his presence in our everyday lives. To open our eyes to the opportunities to serve others in his name. And sometimes it takes a rather long story to help us see and experience the full power of his love.