In his book, An Anthropologist on Mars, neurologist Oliver Sacks tells about Virgil, a man who had been blind from early childhood. When he was 50, Virgil underwent surgery and was given the gift of sight. But as he and Dr. Sacks found out, having the physical capacity for sight is not the same as seeing.
Virgil's first experiences with sight were confusing. He was able to make out colors and movements but arranging them into a coherent picture was more difficult. Over time he learned to identify various objects, but his habits--his behaviors--were still those of a blind man. Dr. Sacks asserts, "One must die as a blind person to be born again as a seeing person. It is the interim, the limbo . . . that is so terrible."
Learning to see is a process – adjusting, naming, integrating all the subtle features and processes that someone who has had sight from birth has gained naturally, without thinking. So, it is with our spiritual sight – it takes time to learn about compassion, forgiveness, love, justice and peace. It takes time to get to know Jesus, the Light of the World. It takes us time to act with love in a consistent manner, to forgive, to go from spiritual blindness to eyes wide open. This is especially true as we seek to navigate the heightened fears and anxiety brought upon us by the Coronavirus. We see pain and heartache and uncertainty. What would God have us see?
Our lesson from John present us with a situation where there is spiritual blindness because hearts are not aligned with God. What can we learn from them?
There are layers of blindness in this story of the blind beggar whose sight is restored by Jesus. The physical blindness of the beggar, the spiritual blindness of the disciples, the trained, educated religious leaders. First the disciples want to know how this man, or his parents sinned, that he was born blind. They think they are asking an enlightened, reasonable question. They are seeing this beggar through their prevalent cultural lens that considered deformities, disabilities or illnesses as caused by a demon or sin. Jesus’s vision is different. This situation was not caused by sin – and furthermore, God’s glory manifests even in a lowly, blind beggar, worthy of being restored to sight. With mud and spittle Jesus anoints the blind man and sends him to be washed in the pool of Siloam. The blind beggar obeys Jesus and his sight is recovered. Cause for celebration, no?
No. The healing of the blind man, instead of causing joy and praise – creates suspicion among the elite, religious leadership. They go on and on – this Jesus can’t be sent from God, why, he dared to work on the Sabbath! They doubt the miracle – was he really blind? They interrogate the blind man at least twice, as well as his parents, and then they interrogate Jesus. They conclude the blind man and Jesus as sinners, while exalting themselves as disciples of Moses. Ironically, throughout this saga, these trained leaders remain blind to God’s truth in Jesus, that Jesus is the light of the world. Their rigid interpretation of the laws and their pride leads them to deny that the miracle came from God. They are like the story of the Pastor and his assistant praying together: the Pastor says, Oh God you are Great, but I am nothing. The assistant says Oh God you are wonderful, but I am absolutely nothing. They go back and forth like this until they hear the janitor, cleaning the floor praying, Oh God you are marvelous, but I am nothing. The pastor nudges the assistant and says, “Look who says he’s nothing?!” Or put another way, one Buddhist monk leaned over to another and quietly asks, "Are you not seeing what I'm not seeing?" Spiritual blindness manifests in many ways. Can we count the ways?
Jesus heals this overlooked blind beggar to show that God sees. God sees the blind man in need of sight. God sees what we are blind to; how are habits are those of being spiritually blind; how we have taken the Truth and twisted it to our own benefits. God sees the heart of the matter. It is our sin that organizes and interprets truth through the lens of our blind spots. Jesus, who is the Truth, heals us so our eyes can be open wide – and our lives ordered by the Truth that awakens us to spiritual sight.
We have about two more weeks in our journey of Lent to Holy Week, and possibly many more in this battle with coronavirus. New York State is going on a lock down Sunday night. The future is unknown, and we move into a “new normal” every week. We are in a terrible state of limbo, blind to the rapidly changing world around us, we cannot see where we will end up. As people of faith, our task before us is not to give into the blindness of fear but to learn to see – as Jesus sees. To see all we overlook – in others and in ourselves especially in this time of heightened anxiety. As we are in quarantine, mandated isolation and social distancing, we ask ourselves what does God want us to see? Where are the opportunities to engage and love and care for each other? Through our inconveniences we are called to see the daily ongoing struggles of others. Beauty and pain. The sinful and the holy. The prejudice and the diversity – the mundane and the mysterious – the tragedies and the miraculous. oppression and the freedom. The connectedness and the brokenness. The known and unknown. How to die to our blindness so we can be reborn with the eyes of Jesus. A friend emailed me this week a poem aptly entitled Pandemic. I’d like to share it with you.
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath--
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20
In our time of captivity may we die to our blindness and be born again seeing, through the vision of Jesus – the light of the world. Amen.