John’s gospel begins with a creation story–”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God….All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
There’s no ending to this creation story in John, and no day on which God rests. In this story of the man born blind which we heard today, God is still creating, bringing life and light to the world. Through the Word, whom Christians believe was Jesus, God continues to create, even on the Sabbath, since God is not finished with creation. And in a reprise of the 2nd creation story in Genesis, when “the Lord God formed adam, the earth creature, from the dust of the ground adamah,” Jesus makes mud from dust and spit and forms it into ball to press onto the blind man’s eyes. “Go and wash in the pool of Siloam,” he tells him, and the man comes back a new creation, able to see. The light has come into his darkness. This “incomplete bit of creation was now made complete,” as one commentator writes (Liz Goodman, Journal for Preachers, Lent 2014, p. 7).
This whole story is a play of metaphor –where “seeing” is “believing,” or coming to trust in Jesus– and it is full of irony. Who really sees here? The ones who are convinced that “sin” is involved somewhere, somehow, by someone, are the ones who, in the end, are separated from the truth, from God, which is what “sin” is in the first place–separation from God.
What do you see? What do you choose to see? “I came into this world for judgment, to make you decide, [Jesus said], so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
There’s a funny thing about seeing. One social scientist concludes, “What we already know frames what we see, and what we see frames what we understand.” He tells the story of what happened when members of the Me’en tribe in Ethiopia were shown a coloring book that included an illustration of a local antelope.
They didn’t recognize the animal.
[he writes] They would smell the paper, twist it in their hands, feel its texture, listen to its sound, and even taste it gingerly, but they couldn’t discern any animal from its picture alone. When anthropologists transferred the drawing to cloth, a material with which the tribe was familiar, a few of the tribespeople could make out something. A twenty-year-old woman gazed at the outline as a scientist traced the animal with her finger, and although she could see a tail, leg, ears, and a horn, when asked what the illustration represented, she had no idea. Scientific experiments repeatedly show that groups of educated, urbanized people pay no attention to unfamiliar objects directly in front of them if they focus too strongly on familiar ones. What we already know frames what we see, and what we see frames what we understand. The Industrial Revolution went unnamed for more than a century, in part because its developments did not fit conventional categories, but also because no one could define what was taking place, even though it was evident everywhere. (P. 15)
“Here is an astonishing thing!” the man born blind said. “Never since the world began (since the beginning of creation) has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind“– which is maybe why the Pharisees couldn’t believe that the man had been healed. They were too locked into their carefully prescribed world, where “sin” explains illness and misfortune and where nothing new or creative happens on the Sabbath. They couldn’t see anything else, even though all the evidence was right in front of them. They “chose” not to see, but to give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe they honestly just couldn’t see.
There are still people who refuse to see the evidence that human beings have anything to do with climate change. They refuse to believe what the overwhelming majority of scientists now believe, but they have their own scientists who see otherwise. They contend that the economic impact of regulating carbon emissions or other environmental safeguards is too big a risk. Those who are convinced that we humans are indeed the cause or at least part of the problem of climate change argue that the risk of not doing anything is far worse than economic depression. The risks, in fact, are widespread economic, social, health, and environmental catastrophe.
Who really sees? And what is it we are able to see? What shapes our seeing?
In his book Blessed Unrest–How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, Paul Hawken documents that there are now between one and two million organizations that are working toward ecological sustainability and social justice. They are grassroots and corporate. They are dispersed and often fiercely independent.
This movement [if you can call it a movement] doesn’t fit the standard model…It has no manifesto or doctrine, no overriding authority to check with. It is taking shape in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, companies, deserts, fisheries, slums–and yes, even fancy New York hotels. One of its distinctive features is that it is tentatively emerging as a global humanitarian movement arising from the bottom up. Historically social movements have arisen primarily in response to injustice, inequities, and corruption. Those woes still remain legion, joined by a new condition that has no precedent: the planet has a life-threatening disease, marked by massive ecological degradation and rapid climate change. As I counted the vast number of organizations it crossed my mind that perhaps I was witnessing the growth of something organic, if not biologic. Rather than a movement in the conventional sense, could it be an instinctive, collective response to threat? (P. 3)
In other words, could all of these millions of organizations, which include faith-based ones like our congregation, could they all be a kind of immune system of the planet rallying to our collective defense?
In the story we read from John’s gospel this morning, the man born blind is treated by just about everyone as an object, to be held at arm’s length. When he came back from the pool of Siloam 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.’” It’s like one of those plays or movies where the recently departed person attends their own funeral and everyone talks about them in the third person. “But I’m right here! Can’t you see me?”
“He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’” “I’m right here! Can’t you see me?”
Then on to the Pharisees and more questions. What happened? Who did this? He must be a sinner to do this on the Sabbath. “He is a prophet,” the formerly blind man says. Hello! Can’t you see me? I used to be blind–now I can see! The parents next are questioned as to whether this is actually their son and was he actually born blind, and the parents even keep the man at arm’s length–”He is our son and he was born blind, but who and how he is now–go ask him.”
So again the man tells his story, but is beginning to see more clearly in lots of ways. “Why do you want to hear it again?” he asks the Pharisees. “Do you also (with me?) want to become his disciples?” The Pharisees immediately make the lines clear. “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.” But the man, clear-sighted now, says, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know [he says, putting himself in the same category as the Pharisees and other Jews]–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.” This is too much for the Pharisees–”They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out…” just like John’s community had been driven out of the synagogues.
Acknowledging and claiming connection, like the once-blind man has done with the Pharisees, reveals how clear his sight has become. It is at that point that Jesus comes and seeks him out, to complete his restoration and new creation. “Do you believe in the Son of Humanity?” 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 worshiped him.
This Power that gave sight to the man born blind, that not only restored light to the darkness in his eyes but also let him see that he was no longer set outside the community but was in fact a part of it, this Power is still at work, still creating, in our lives and our world. You’ve heard the expression, haven’t you?–“Be patient with me, God isn’t finished with me yet.” That is true for each of us. God is still binding up the wounds, still healing the trauma, still bringing wisdom to our errors, still bringing us to the fullness that God intends us to be. It is for us to be open to that transformation, let it in, pray for it to come.
And God is still at work, still bringing forth the new creation in our world. “If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today,” Paul Hawken writes, ” and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t have the correct data. If you meet the people in this unnamed movement and aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a heart.” (4) The power and inspiration for this movement has its roots in ancient wisdom which is now reemerging, “what the poet Gary Snyder calls the great underground, a current of humanity that dates back to the Paleolithic. Its lineage can be traced back to healers, [priests and] priestesses, philosophers, monks, rabbis, poets, and artists ‘who speak for the planet, for other species, for interdependence, a life that courses under and through and around empires.’” (Hawken, op cit., p. 4) And this new emergence involves what Hawken calls the intertwingling of groups, connecting, communicating, in ways only now possible by the vast web of internet communications.
If God was able to form a human being from the mud of a river bank and breathe life into it, so God is still able to gather the myriad groups and shape them into an immune system for the planet, folding in those species and individuals who have given their lives in the process, but also able to bring forth new forms yet to be created. Again, it is for us to be open to this transformation, allow ourselves to be used by God, open up the channels of prayer to invite and urge God to save us from ourselves. Just as Jesus told the Pharisees that because they were able to see but chose not to see God’s hand at work that their sin or separation remained, so we too must not let blinders of fear or blame or self-interest blind us to the amazing, courageous, creative work that God is doing through so many people and communities to restore and recreate our planet.
When Jesus heard that they had driven the man born blind out, he sought him out. He came to find him. So the Holy One continues to seek us out. “Do you believe in the Son of Humanity?” Do you trust in the Fully Human One? 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.” The One who gave you sight–not only in your eyes but in your heart–the One who loves with extravagant love, overflowing all borders and boundaries and possibilities, the One who is so full of God that you might know what God is like, you have seen him.” He said, “Lord, I believe.”
May we too believe and trust in the One who is still creating heaven and earth, who is still creating you and me. May God open our eyes, so that we may see Love’s face all around us.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark