John 9: 1-41
FBC Highland Avenue
March 24, 2017
I was pleasantly surprised yesterday morning when I opened my copy of the Winston-Salem Journal to find a considerably large picture of one of our School of Divinity graduates, Liam Hooper, on the front page. The picture, of course, was connected to a story. And the story examines the views of two local ministers, Liam being one, on House Bill 2, on the first anniversary of the passage of that legislation. HB 2, as I’m sure you all know, is popularly known as the “bathroom bill.” Among other restrictions, the law makes it illegal for persons to use public restrooms of any gender besides the one to which they were assigned at birth.
I am proud to say that I had the pleasure of working with Liam during his time at the School of Divinity in a number of courses. Liam is an insightful, wise, and courageous minister of the Gospel, and a tireless advocate of transgender rights. That is to say, Liam would remind us, that he is an advocate of human rights – the right of all human beings to be, well, human. Indeed, in the Journal article, Liam comments that the “real failing” of HB 2 is, he says, “the failing to see [transgender people] as human.” When asked about the concern some people have that without the bathroom law, public restrooms are vulnerable to sexual predators, Liam remarks:
“[That concern] plays on and agitates pre-existing fears that people have about the possibility that the universe might not be as ordered as we think it is or that we might not fully understand the order of nature. … And so people are afraid that if there aren’t these absolutes that are men or women — what does that really mean? And it’s kind of a subconscious or pre-conscious fear. It’s just something that comes up in all of us.”
Then Liam said something that really got my wheels turning. Liam names a deep concern that I think motivates much of our fear much of the time, and particularly our fear of the other: “What if,” he says, “the world isn’t what I think it is?” What if the world isn’t what we think it is?
When we learn that the world isn’t what we think it is, what do we do then? How do we respond? And how is God present in the ways we might respond to the world when we learn that it is not what we think it is? These are tough questions – questions that maybe only a formerly blind beggar can help us to see clearly.
Please join me in a word of prayer: God, we give you thanks for the opportunity to gather in your presence as your people and your body. We ask, God, that you would work to illumine your Word for us in this moment, that we would see and feel and understand the ways in which your Word bears us up in this broken world and inspires us to respond to it with the love and compassion you showed in the life and work of your Son in whose name we pray. Amen.
I have some fairly profound vision problems. Because of a genetic disfiguration of both of my corneas, I have had five corneal transplants, three in my right eye and two in my left, most recently in January of last year. There have been times – months, entire semesters even – when I could read with only one eye. And when I accidentally broke my only contact lens for my left eye this past December, on December 24 to be exact, I had a panic attack. At the time, that tiny piece of plastic was the only thing I had to help me to see well enough to read. Fortunately, I was able to get a temporary replacement. Many of you have probably experienced similar kinds of vision issues. And you know that when you love to read, you read a lot, and you aren’t certain from day to day whether you’ll be able to – well, I’ll tell you, that’s depressing. And, as you might imagine, academics who can’t read don’t do very well.
And so, as someone who has learned not to take good vision for granted, I’m struck in this passage by the blind man’s response to his own healing. We don’t hear any jubilation. There is no sense of relief. We don’t get an enthusiastic, “Thank you, Jesus” – though, in fairness, the text also doesn’t suggest that the man was ungrateful. But it is odd, isn’t it, that the only one, it seems, who is not surprised that he has been healed and can now see is the man who was blind! I’m surprised everyday when I can see! So, what’s up with that? His neighbors are surprised, the Pharisees and Jews are surprised – and in fact, “surprised” is too mild a term. They are incredulous, unwilling to believe the man, and angry that this happened at all, and especially on the sabbath. But the formerly blind beggar – he’s not surprised; he’s just cool.
When the man’s neighbors ask him where Jesus is, he says simply, “I do not know.” I like to imagine, though it is not really in the text, that this moment is the first time the formerly blind man is asked to use his vision to confirm a truth about the world. “Where is Jesus,” his neighbors ask him. I imagine the man shading his eyes, scanning the horizon, looking for Jesus, so that he can respond to his neighbors’ query about Jesus’ whereabouts. But he comes up short. How profoundly do we rely on our vision to verify everyday truths about the world? We all know the expression, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” And yet, just as the newly sighted man is not surprised that he now has vision, he seems equally unperturbed when his vision fails him the first time he is asked to use it to report a fact about the world. The man doesn’t see Jesus, but, the story tells us, that does not interrupt his belief about what happened.
To my mind, the most compelling feature of this story is the man’s straightforward affirmation of the truth of his experience, despite the ways his experience complicates and confounds the worldviews of Jesus’ detractors. The Pharisees are exercised that Jesus performed the healing of the blind man on the sabbath; therefore, they conclude, Jesus must not be from God. The Jews are similarly upset. For the Jews, the formerly blind man and Jesus are both sinners, the man because his blindness proves that he was born into sin, and Jesus because he practice healing on the sabbath. The Jews question the man’s parents who out of fear insist that they talk to their son directly. The man, irritated that he is being questioned a second time, says simply: “I do not know whether [Jesus] is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
What irritates the Pharisees and the Jews so profoundly is that this healing upsets their deepest truths about the world. Those truths are that the law of Moses tells us what it means to live good lives, lives that reflect God’s intentions for the world; that the law clearly forbids work on the Sabbath; that disability is a form of punishment for breaking the law, and that persons born with disabilities are being punished for their own sins or the sins of their parents. The Pharisees and Jews simply cannot let go of these concerns. The last time we see the Jews in this story, they have re-affirmed their belief that the man must have been born into sin because he was blind. The fact that he is no longer blind doesn’t make him clean; the man, in their view, is still a sinner, and they drive him out. That’s exactly the same place Jesus’ disciples begin 34 verses earlier, when they ask Jesus: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It’s hard to let go of old ways of seeing, isn’t it!
But here Liam’s question is crucial: What if the world isn’t what we think it is? What if the world is completely different? And now, the really scary question: What if the world is different from our experience of it in such a way that those differences threaten to upset the power and privilege that benefit us but marginalize others? Imagine a prophet in the time of the Pharisees who came along and said: “You have heard it said: God loves those who pray in private. But I say unto you: pray loudly, obnoxiously, and often in public, and God will love you even more.” Now, there’s a prophet a Pharisee can love! The powerful are happy when they find out that the world is different than what they thought it was, as long as those differences benefit them. But when a sinner can be healed in a way that breaks a religious law, and that religious law ensures the power and privilege of the Pharisees and Jews – well, that just won’t do.
I’m reminded of the poignant phrase the essayist Ta-Nehesi Coates uses to describe white people in his book Between the World and Me. He refers to white people as “people who believe they are white.” That phrase underscores that whiteness is not a matter of skin color. It’s not a matter of national or ethnic heritage. Whiteness is not a natural condition. Whiteness is instead a constructed identity, made by people, that reflects a world oriented to benefit certain persons and communities at the expense of others. Whiteness is primarily a marker of power and privilege, rather than a description of a person’s natural identity. Now, we can all think of a lot of people who got into a lot of trouble for pointing to a world different from the one arranged to enhance white privilege.
Similarly, one could get into a lot of trouble for upsetting the power arrangements that determine who gets to be a man or a woman, what resources are available to men and women, and what possibilities are open to men and women for living lives of meaning and purpose. The Journal article I mentioned reports the views of another minister who defends HB 2. That minister says: “I serve a God who has never made a mistake from all eternity.” He goes on to say that: “To look in the face of God and say, ‘I know you created me a certain way but you made a mistake, and I should have been born male. But I was born female,’ or vice-versa. I just don’t believe that happens.” To my mind, that comment misunderstands what transgender folk are saying about their identity. They’re not saying that God made a mistake in creating persons assigned to a gender identity that does not align with their own experience of themselves. Instead, transgender folks are saying that gender is a human category, like whiteness. It is useful in some respects. But gender and sexuality categories are also not immune from the play of power that privileges some at the expense of others.
Jesus would not, I think, have said that God made a mistake in creating the blind man with a physical disability. He would not have said that the man was blind because of some sin that he or his parents committed. Jesus does say that blindness is a human category, and it is applied in ways that reinforce human power structures. At the end of the passage, Jesus flips the Pharisees’ judgment of the blind man’s sin on its head. Now, sight is the token of sin, and blindness is the token of sinlessness. Jesus says to the Pharisees: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” Similarly, what if it is the case that those who get to say what counts as a man or a woman, and those who benefit from getting to determine what counts as a man or a woman, are the ones with sin – and that the ones who challenge these categories bear witness to a new reality that Jesus has introduced?
The blind man was open to seeing the world in a new way – a world in which God’s work to make creation whole takes precedent over the priorities of the powerful and the privileged. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t surprised that his vision was restored. The Jews and the Pharisees were closed to these possibilities. The blind man is our answer to the question: What do we do when we find out that the world is not the way we think it is? What do we do when the world is different from the way we think it is in ways that threaten the privileges that we enjoy? We open ourselves to it. We trust that God is working to create spaces in which all of creation flourishes, and we look for ways to participate in God’s work for justice, reconciliation, and compassion in the world. Listening for Jesus often begins with Liam’s question: What if the world is not the way we think it is? Let us take courage and listen attentively. Amen.