This morning we come upon a text that confounds us as much as it did the people in it. “How can this be?” we all ask, “a person born blind cannot suddenly see.” We want to hear a logical explanation; but miracles simply cannot be explained. We want the preacher to tell us how this story’s context helps us to understand what is really going on; but I can’t talk us into this one. The best we can do here is say what happened and what we believe about it…We can’t explain or prove it. This text is about a particular point in time…It is about before and after; then and now; who we were and who we are; “I was blind, but now I see.”
One of the most “handi-capable” persons who ever lived was Helen Keller. She was born in 1880 unable to see or hear anything. The remarkable story of her life and how her teacher, Anne Sullivan nurtured her into new ways to imagine the world and communicate with it is the subject of the award-winning play and film, “The Miracle Worker.” When we look at Ms. Keller’s amazing story we see someone who was in one very dark place and then she was suddenly in a different place…still dark, but filled with possibilities. She spent her life telling her story to the world and helped to define modern methods of teaching the deaf and blind. Ms. Keller died in 1968. One of the things we learn from Helen Keller’s story is that being born blind is a completely unique experience. It is one thing to have been a sighted person and lose one’s sight; it is an entirely different thing to never have seen at all.
We can blindfold our eyes to try to imagine what it might be like to be blind, but we can never really know what it is like to never have seen anything…ever. This is the experience of the man in our story this morning…he has never seen anything…ever. Jesus, a man he doesn’t know, spits on the ground, makes mud, spreads the mud over his eyes and sends him to wash…Suddenly he can see everything…How overwhelming this must have been! A world he has only imagined is now visible to him in all its color and brilliance. The man born blind only knows that he was blind and now he sees…Then he points to Jesus and tells everyone, “I don’t know who this guy is or what he’s done. All I know is that I can see and only God could have made that happen.”
This is a story of before and after; then and now; and it is a story we cannot imagine because we can’t possibly know what it is like to never have seen. We cannot put ourselves in this man’s shoes no matter how hard we try. We can only watch what happens and then decide what we believe about it. What was for this man’s lifetime and suddenly what is for the rest of his life? Try it…Close your eyes and try to imagine what it must be like to be blind…You are unsure of where sounds are coming from. You can’t know for certain that nothing is in the way of your movement around the room. You don’t know what anyone looks like or what they are wearing; you don’t even know what you look like! You cannot appreciate the beauty of a sunrise or sunset; you cannot respond to another person’s smile; there is nothing in front of you but complete darkness. Now, open your eyes…That was then and this is now. You feel more secure now, don’t you? You can see where you’re going and what might be in your way. You can see the sunlight coming through the beautiful stained glass windows and, because you see it, you can sense its warmth. Yet, you have no idea what it is like to never have seen; not to have any frame of reference that enables you to imagine an obstacle in your way, a sunrise, or even a smile. Then and now are not very different for you.
There is a man living on the street in downtown Tulsa who spends most of his time outside, regardless of the weather conditions. Sometimes he gets a night to sleep in one of the shelters, but most nights he huddles wherever a dumpster and a building provide an empty corner with a little shield from the wind. He has never known any other way of living than this one; he has never lived anywhere else. His mother left him behind to chase after her drug habit and his father drank the rent money. He’s a bright guy, but he didn’t go to school and has never held a steady job. He doesn’t know about any other choices he might have; he only knows what he has always seen. He’s never been arrested or broken any laws that he knows about; he knows Jesus as the guy at the shelter who doesn’t speak very good English. I wonder what it might be like to be him; can we even imagine it? I don’t think we can. How can we possibly understand eating, sleeping, living outside, rain or shine when all we have to do is go home and walk into a house with central heat and air? How can you begin to know what it feels like to sleep next to a dumpster in an alley, not knowing if someone will come along during the night and beat you up just because you exist? We can’t know – all we can do is watch and decide what we believe about it. Do we believe that this man, like so many others, is essentially to blame for his situation? Do we think that he, like most homeless people, should stop pan-handling and go get a job? Do we simply not want to think about this man and others like him? Do we believe that Jesus might be present in this man’s experience and that he might be calling us to respond?
I could tell stories about children who are starving in many places around the world. We could talk about families who are losing fathers, brothers, and children to the violence of wars that have been going on for so long that war has become their normal reality. We can think of children who are living on their own in Africa because their parents have both died from AIDS. We can point to persons who were born into circumstances they did not choose and cannot get away from. BUT, can we truly imagine what it would be like to BE them? Only with God’s help can we imagine and then respond.
What is it like to be born into one experience of the world that will never change? What is it like to live and move among others whose experience of the world is so radically different from ours? What is it like to try to understand their world and describe ours to them? Blindness is a state of being, not simply a metaphor for unbelief…Poverty is a state of being…Homelessness is a state of being…Starvation is a state of being…Living as a refugee is a state of being…Race, nationality, and even gay are states of being. What is it like to try to understand their world and describe ours to them?
Last Tuesday at our Lenten Lunch devotion, Pastor Don Marshall of the Lutheran Church talked about the Cross. He reminded us that we cannot get to the glory of the Resurrection without first taking the long, difficult journey to the Cross at Calvary. There can be no glory without the suffering. The cross is our constant reminder that, no matter what we are going through, Jesus has already suffered more than we can possibly imagine. Jesus has already been where we are and where we are going. We cannot suffer more, grieve more, or feel more alone that Jesus has already done. That is the big difference between then and now for the man born blind…JESUS. Before Jesus came along this man had no hope of ever seeing anything. After Jesus came, the man saw everything. Because of what he now saw, this man probably spent the rest of his life telling the story. People who never met Jesus came to understand the possibilities because of this man’s story. Now imagine what we can do if we could see as this man saw…Suddenly everything made clear…That homeless man is not someone to avoid, he is someone to embrace in Jesus’ name. Violence that tears families apart is not something we can watch and turn away from; it affects us because it affects God’s people. We are called to imagine the possibilities of now, after, and the way things that can be in the presence of the Living Christ.
We must imagine seeing the way God sees. “I once was blind, but now I see” is about grace; it is also about what God’s grace empowers us to do. Grace gives us the power to see what God’s people need and then respond the way Jesus did. Grace helps us understand, “How can this be? Can a person born blind suddenly see? Can I really make a difference for someone who has never known the comfortable life I live? Can I step outside of my comfort zone and make the effort to make a difference? Can I suddenly ‘see’?” In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.