I am part of a Facebook group called “Weird and Wonderful Secondhand Finds That Just Need to Be Shared.” Members share photos of the things that they found in thrift shops, estate sales, their grandma’s attic. For example: a grandma’s sweater which reminds me of a grandma blanket. Recently, there have been a lot of photos of second hand furniture with pets. A couple of years ago, *there was a hunt for the chicken purse and its chicken nuggets coin purse. Sometimes there items that bring nostalgia (I grew up with Care Bear glasses) and sometimes nightmares. It seems, everything is a treasure to someone. When we pass by a strange rag doll, some might see strange ears that might make it a cousin to Yoda? and others might see a lifelong friend to travel along side and never judge them.
When Jesus was walking down the road and he and his disciples encountered a man they saw different things. Did they first see the man or the blindness? Did they first see the need or were they first full of questions? Did they see the someone like them or someone who was completely different?
And the first thing the disciples did when they encountered this man on their way was start asking questions. And I get the impulse. There are those who say we should be curious about each other, not in a nosey kind of way but in an understand each other kind of way. The way in which we don’t plan the next thing we’re going to say or the way in which we have already decided what there is to know about the other person. Instead, we become curious to get to know the each other, to understand how one is in the world, to see God in the other person.
But that’s not exactly what was happening to this man. First, like so many others, he remains unnamed and is known only for one aspect of himself, in this case, that he cannot see. We want to be really careful when we tell stories like this today. First, the man is pretty passive in the whole interaction, Jesus starts the work of healing him without even really asking, which feels a bit, presumptuous. But in the ancient world, it wouldn’t’ have occurred to anyone to refuse such a healing. Blindness was detrimental in the ancient world. It would have kept you from life giving work, it would have kept you from community. Because no one asked questions or was curious, they would have made assumption, about who the man was and why he was blind. It would have kept him from community and it would have kept him from the religious rituals.
The neighbors and bystanders of this nameless man had for years only seen him as a beggar, helpless, dare I say useless. The disciples saw him as a theological question that needed answering–who is at fault when bad things happen? Is this punishment for when he kicked his mother’s ribs? Is this punishment for misdeeds of the man’s parents or may be grandparents? Did the offend a neighbor, covet some one? Who can we blame? Which is often a question of how can I point blame so that I will justify why it won’t happen to me. It’s the “by the grace of God go I” as if they have not received a portion of God’s grace.
I had a psychology professor who told us more than once, that you can tell the quality of a culture by how they treat those with mental and illnesses. I would extend it to those who are sick, those who are poor, those with disabilities, children, the elderly, those who cannot “produce” or be “useful” by a culture’s standards–either by birth, or accident, or age.
Of course, we haven’t always had the best track record as humanity as a whole, certainly not in this country. Usually it starts out with the best of the attentions–putting grouping folks together so that they can get the help that they need, turns into locking folks away. Shutting down the hospitals because they turned terrible left us with an increase population of person who are homeless and decrease access to care. And often, when we face the problem it is just that, a problem with numbers and statistics and not people living in our reality. Not even addressing that we simply would rather not talk about mental illness or disabilities visible or not, and if they aren’t easily identifiable we deny their existence. That isn’t to say that some people need 24 hour a day supported care. But it is to say when denial, ignoring, hiding away reaches its worst edges it of dehumanizing, it is horrific. But sometimes I wonder if we don’t want to look at someone whose reality makes us question what we know to be true, what we think we know about the world, that we will stay healthy and well forever, and our children will be healthy and well forever. and that I have some control of that and seeing the man born blind begging outside the city walls makes us unsure.
Some saw a blind beggar, some saw a helpless man, someone full of his own or generational sin, some saw a question that needed to be answered.
Jesus saw a mighty work of God.
Jesus didn’t see the first the blindness. He didn’t see first the man on the margins. He didn’t see a series of questions that needed to be answered or a quandary he could solve. He didn’t see first someone who would be useful rather, he saw a beloved creation.
So there was the question, why was he blind? Do we really get an answer?
*To the Greek! The verses numbers were added way later assist with reading and interpreting. But also, did you know that most ancient languages didn’t have or use punctuation. It means when translators looked at the writing, they had to make decisions and sometimes they might have decided that the words needed clarification. This is one of those times.
*In this case it was the clarification that “…he was born blind.” “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” That’s how it is read in the translation we read today, which, on the whole is great. But, it makes it sound like God made this man blind so that Jesus could show off. But “he was born blind” isn’t in the oldest Greek. So maybe we can interpret this way: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that the works of God may be made apparent in him, it is necessary for us to work the works of the one having sent me while it is day. Night comes when nobody is able to work.” So that the work of God isn’t attached to the healing of the man’s eye sight, but to the workers and to the work.
Jesus had just said, “I am the light of the world,” and then took mud and water, made clay, rubbed it onto the man’s eyes. It was the first time Jesus was really hands on and the first time he used a prop, so it must be important. Light and clay–like Genesis and creation. Jesus made out of this man a new creation, made in light of the wondrous creation he already was. There was a miracle that gave him back his life, his community, his means of functioning in the world, but those who needed to see clearly… maybe that’s what Jesus was doing.
Everyone around this man was so certain of what they knew, of what they could see. They had seen him begging. They had seen him on the outside. He didn’t fit in, he didn’t have a place. The disciples were certain of what they knew and what they could see, they were certain that he must have done something wrong, there is fault that can be placed. The religious leaders who interrogate him and his family are certain in what they know and what they see. They are certain that whatever Jesus is doing must be terrible and wrong. That Jesus must be a sinner because fit into the way they understand the world works, dear I say, they’ve never done it like this before, and so the man must be a problem as well. The man came to believe in Jesus–belief as a verb and an on-going relationship.
When some looked at the blind man they saw someone with is own or generational moral failing–sin. But for our gospel writer, sin is separation for God and from the community of God, which at that point was everyone. It might make us wonder who was sinning in our history or our story.
No one’s sin caused the blindness. It’s not anyone’s fault. But, God’s works are revealed by the work of those who answer God’s call. God’s work is revealed by those who do the work of God revealed in Jesus who healed and visited and fed and taught. Jesus made space for people. Jesus healed people’s communities by healing bodies. Jesus reconciled the man, people, to their religious communities and practices. Maybe the sin was the people certainty with with they saw this man as other. Maybe the sin was that this community allowed him to sit outside of the city and beg to survive instead of making space for him. Maybe the sin was the community assuming that he needed to be “useful” and then having a narrow understanding of what makes a person a benefit to the community. Maybe the sin was the disciples turning the man into a tool, a problem to be solved. Maybe the sin was seeing the man as something other than beloved child of God, member of family and community, vital to who they were, waiting to be invited.
What are the things you see, you are certain of? What do you see first, before you see the beloved-ness from God? That those who are poor deserve their lot? That those who are without should work harder? That those who are unwell should just eat better or work out or ? What do you assume first, before the belovedness from God? That there must be a reason for the divide between us and them? That there is a reason for their lives on the margins? What do we know we know, before we fall back on the belovedness from God? That to be a full person one must be useful and productive in the moment and will be useful and productive in the future? That we have the right answers? That there is a correct way to worship? That there is one way of participating in the Mission of God?
Part of my retreat this past week included a conversation with Senator Lena Taylor. She said lots but she also said her grandmother used to say: “They don’t know that they don’t know what they don’t know.” We don’t know people’s lives, we don’t know why things are the way they are. Sometimes what we are convinced of blinds us from the truth of what God is doing. We don’t know why some people are sick or some people have disabilities or are on the margins. What we do know is that each person is beloved of God, that we are created for relationship with that God and with each other.
Teresa of Avila wrote in the 16th century: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
What we do know is that the work of God is revealed by how we live and how we love. It is how we participate in building the kin-dom of God. Beginning and ending on the belovedness. While we have time, we do the works of the one who sent Jesus, the one revealed in Jesus, the one whom we follow and trust and believe in–belief for the man and for the gospel writer was about relationship, learning and growing together. We are doing the work of God when we care for the one who is sick, outcast, or marginalized; the one forgotten, judged, or left out; the person who is poor, struggling, or lonely; for the one who is an immigrant, beaten down, or imprisoned. Jesus is revealed in our hands and feet, in our actions and our words, in our energies and our resources, in all we do and who we are.
May our sight be that which is healed. So may we seek belovedness, to see the belovedness in everyone we meet, in every encounter, in unexpected places and people. May we seek out those who live on the edges, who are overwhelmed by the assumptions of others, and may God’s works be revealed in us who work while we can to bring healing and community.