That was a long scripture reading, but I wanted you to hear the whole story. I find it to be an amazing tale which begins with a miracle and concludes in confusion. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? If a person is blind and we pray for a miracle, we might be hopeful but we are also realistic. Nobody is going to walk by, place a pad of mud on his eyes and say, “Open your eyes and see.” That is the kind of stuff that reminds us of charlatans that prey on the blind and sick by promising a faith healing. Most of us don’t have much time for this kind of sideshow.
But what if it actually happened? What if a person blind from birth is miraculously healed? How would we respond? As someone who was once legally blind, I say bring out the band and throw a party.
I don’t really remember when I began to lose my eyesight. It was nothing unusual; it happens to tens of thousands of kids every year. One day I am eight and have no problem seeing the blackboard or the hand of an opposing pitcher as he lets go of the ball. But then the black board began to get fuzzy and the pitcher’s hand disappeared into a shrouded fog. It was a gradual experience. I didn’t say anything because no one who played sports back then wore glasses. We would have eye test at school and I would casually walk by the chart, and memorize a couple lines and successfully pass the test.
The one exam I could not pass was the “dad” test. When I said I was having trouble reading the black board he told me to move closer to the front to the room. But when I went a whole season without a single hit, he pushed the panic button. It didn’t matter I was nine and was playing against 11 and 12 year olds. I could always hit a baseball.
Dad took me to an eye doctor who told my parents my eye sight was 20/200 in one eye and 20/400 in the other. According to the doctor, that meant I was legally blind, a fact the local draft board later conveniently overlooked. But the good news was my eye sight could be corrected. I still remember the first time the glasses were placed on my face. I was told to look out the window. I never realized there was a hospital was across the street. Once I was blind but now I could see. Sure I got teased by my friends who all called me “four-eyes”. But I quickly forgot about all the ribbing when the next season I hit over .300 against pitchers who were still two years older than me.
With glasses and later Lasik surgery I consider myself a walking miracle. But as I have learned through the years, sometimes blindness has little to do with the eyesight. When we have a belief or preconceived notion that we learned as children, it is fine to live with our blindness as long as we are living among the blind. But what happens when we receive our sight. Our blindness is challenged. We struggle with who we are and what we believe, knowing that if we announce our new insights, our friends might reject us as being delusional. Sometimes it is easier to choose blindness over vision.
The problem with the blind man in our gospel story wasn’t his blindness; it was the vision of his community. As long as he was blind, he easily found his place in his home town. Folks would drop by weekly and place money in the jar by his feet. He made enough to get by. No one treated him poorly. He was part of the scenery and they took care of their own.
But then he received his sight. The one thing he had prayed for was the vision to see what everyone else took for granted. He could only imagine a sunrise, a rose, a smile on another’s face. Then his prayers were answered. A stranger entered his life, placed mud on his face and said, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam.” He did, and for the first time in his life he could see. That is when all the trouble began.
First the church leaders wanted to know who had performed the alleged miracle. The former blind man told his story. He called Jesus a prophet. But the leaders were unimpressed. They decided the blind man must have been faking his blindness all these years. Jesus was not on the approved list of healers. Jesus was nothing but a fraud.
Next they went to the family of the blind man for proof of his illness. The parents saw the mob and were afraid. They told the Pharisees that their son was an adult and could speak for himself. The Pharisees returned to the former blind man and questioned him again. After not getting the answers they desired, the religious leaders banned him from the city. The man was deserted by his family, deserted by his community, and deserted by the life he knew. With no place else to go, the blind man followed Jesus. When the Pharisees witnessed this they said to one another, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
The Pharisees were not bad folks. In fact, it is easily argued that the Pharisees were the best the folks in that particular culture. They were good people who cared for their community. They were logical people who knew within a superstitious world one miracle story could overturn all the work they had done to legitimize the role of the synagogue. One miracle could overthrow years of believing primarily in the wisdom of the mind and the necessity of the institution. People needed the synagogue. It gave them strength and security.
Remember when the church in America claimed that same mission. In the 1950’s there was a church on every corner. Everyone went to church. Towns and villages shut down on Sunday morning and everyone, dressed in their Sunday best sat in the pews listening for the word of the Lord. But then something devastating happened to the church in America. People who were blind began to not only see but talk. One recovering blind person asked, “Why is 11:00 on Sunday morning the most segregated hour in America?” Someone else asked, “Why are all the preachers and leaders of the church male?” Another who had found her sight inquired, “Why does the church spend nine out of every ten dollars collected on itself rather than the community?” And then the most devastating question emerged, “How can one limit God to a building, or a culture, or even a nation?” Eyes were being opened. The church claimed to be the earthly personification of Christ created to preach good news to the poor, the blind and the lost. But that claim was challenged. Those who disagreed were encouraged to leave. And they did. Many folks left claiming, “We can find God on our own.”
The reaction of the mainline churches was predictable. We acted like the Pharisees, suggesting those claiming new sight were charlatans who were leading us nowhere near the presence of the living God. We closed ranks and closed our doors to the conversations that were beginning to shake our society. By the beginning of the 1970’s we had lost a generation and the steady decline of the Christian Church in America had begun.
Some might ask, “How do we recover what we lost?” Personally I am hard pressed to believe the church of the 1950’s is worth recovering. But I do believe the church of today can have a radical influence on the society in which we live.
John Savides loaned me a book last week by Francis Spufford titled, Unapologetic. In it Spufford wrote, “The church is not just another institution. It is a failing but never quite failed attempt, by limited people, to perpetuate the unlimited generosity of God in the world.”
That is what this story of the blind man is all about. Jesus placed mud on lifeless eyes and gave them vision. The first thing the man saw was the face of one who had given him a priceless gift. Is it any wonder the man wanted to sing God’s praises? Is it any wonder the man wanted to offer sight to those who could see but were blind? Can we blame the Pharisees of yesterday or the ministers and sessions of today? Who wants to be led by someone with no proven track record? Folks insist on saying “If the church isn’t broken, why fix it?” My response would be the definition of insanity is doing the same thing incorrectly over and over and over again. Has the church in America become so set in our determination to preserve the institution that we have lost both our sight and the vision of God?
One of the gifts that church of the 1950’s did give me was a song we regularly sang at the evening vesper service. It was written by Helen Lemmel, a brilliant vocalist who in her 30’s, lost her eyesight, and was deserted by her husband. Ten years later she sang these words. May they become our anthem.
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus.
Look full in his wonderful face.
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of his glory and grace.” Amen.