Seeing, seen

A sermon for Year A Lent 4, John 9

On Ash Wednesday, to make my confession, I changed a few words when I read aloud our Litany of Penitence. Specifically, I confessed that we had averted our eyes from human need and suffering, rather than repenting of our blindness; and I confessed that we had refused to listen to God’s call to serve as Christ has served us, instead of confessing that we had been deaf.

I suppose I was taking something of a liberty, but I take some comfort from Jesus’ assertion at the very end of this gospel reading that it is no sin to be blind; just as at the beginning of the story, he rebukes his disciples’ assumption that someone must have sinned for the man that he healed to have been born blind.

(As always here, I have to note that the translators made some choices. Jesus said that “this happened” so that God’s power might be revealed. “This” could have been the meeting, the disciples’ question; the translators we heard this morning decided that it meant the man’s congenital blindness. But for those who may well find that idea disturbing, it is not, by far, the only interpretation of Jesus’ response.)

No, says Jesus, but now you will see God’s power working in him.

I changed the words on Ash Wednesday because they have a tendency otherwise to perpetuate the disciples’ (ableist) mistake: to assume that if someone is disabled there is, to put it crudely, something wrong with them, or that if someone is unfortunate, someone must have done something to deserve it, or that, to push the analogy a whole lot further and into another realm, if someone is oppressed, reviled, or subjected to state-sponsored violence, it must be their own fault. The Passion and the Cross, if nothing less, are a repudiation of that, and yet it’s a lesson that we’re still struggling to learn.

The antagonists in this story – some of the Pharisees, some of the Jewish leaders (notice, their opinion is divided; we can’t paint them all with the same brush. Again, assumptions will tend to cloud our spiritual vision) – anyway, the antagonists are the ones who refuse to accept the man’s healing. They either insist that it can’t be the same man, or they insist that the healing cannot have happened at the hands of Jesus, or they pitch a tantrum, throw the man out of their community, so that they can try to pretend that none of this happened, and that their little system for deciding who is respectable and who is less than can remain undisturbed.

Jesus is nothing if not disturbing to neat little systems, social stratifications, and self-justifications.

Jesus disturbs the people who say, “I had to pay my dues, why should they get loan forgiveness?” instead of celebrating the jubilee. 

Jesus disturbs the people who say people who use benefits don’t deserve a break.

Jesus disturbs the people who say if you help an unhoused person on the street they’ll only waste the assistance, as though we always and only ever spend our money on bread and vegetables.

Jesus disturbs the people who say, “She should have fought back,” or, “He shouldn’t have resisted,” or “Crucify them.”

But Jesus doesn’t only challenge the meanness of the people who refuse to celebrate that a man they have known forever is suddenly given his sight, the envy of those who would rather see him stay behind his begging bowl than give thanks to God for sending such healing. 

No, Jesus also corrects and rebukes his disciples, who are as contaminated as the next man by the lazy and privileged assumptions of that and every age that inequality, inequity, and injustices are God-sent, rather than the product of our envy, fear, and pride.

But God doesn’t see as we see, as the Lord tells Samuel; we look upon the externals, while God sees the heart of the matter: that this man was as deserving of mercy and miracle as anyone else on this earth, and that no one could stop Jesus from loving him enough to change his life.

Jesus heals the man, who is nobody’s underdog, who gives as good as he gets to his elders and, as they see it, his betters. And the man refuses to deny who he is, nor who healed him, even though it gets him thrown out of polite society. And when polite society has rejected him, then Jesus comes back to find him once more, and now, he humbles himself before the Son of Man, and worships him.

This is how we bring people to Jesus: not by judging them, or evaluating their worthiness, or making assumptions about how they got to where they are, or who they are, but by recognizing them, seeing them, hearing them tell their own story, and loving them for it.

Because that is what Jesus does for us. He rebukes his disciples for their, pardon my ableist language one more time, short-sightedness, but he doesn’t dismiss them. It is no sin to be blind, but it is sinful willfully to avert our eyes from injustice, to pretend to see no evil, to blur out the blemishes that spoil our vision of our own lives, our own country, our own souls. “You who say you see, your sin remains,” he warns us, we who have seen the light, who have been awoken. 

And yet he carries our sin to the Cross, and crucifies it there, and buries it in the tomb. Having loved his own, he loved them to the end. We will see the resurrection, but our sin will not.

Because Jesus is the one who truly sees us, begging in the shadows for mercy: 

10 Hide your face from my sins * and blot out all my iniquities.
11 Create in me a clean heart, O God, * and renew a right spirit within me.
18 The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; * 
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51)

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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