The year I graduated from seminary, I pastored the Lone Star Church of the Brethren outside of Lawrence, Kansas. Not long after I was there, the Brethren preacher down the road at the Washington Creek Church contracted abdominal cancer which had metastasized to other organs, and she was scheduled to undergo surgery to remove as much of the mass as possible to give her a little comfort. She was not expected to live, so she wanted to be anointed with oil, and asked me to perform the service along with my deacons, her deacons and her family in the hospital the night before the surgery. It was a room full of people. We talked, we sang, we prayed and read scripture. When it was time for the anointing, I reached into my pocket and discovered I had forgotten the anointing oil. So I said, “I invite everyone to close your eyes and be in prayer during the anointing.” Everyone did. So I went, “Sister Doris, I anoint you with oil…” and licked my fingers and placed them on her forehead, “for the forgiveness of sins”… lick… “for the strengthening of your faith”…lick… “and for healing and wholeness according to God’s plan and purpose for your life.” We prayed, and when everyone opened their eyes, I put my hand in my pocket as though I had that oil all along. One of the things I learned in seminary was that Jesus once performed a healing with spit and mud. I figure, if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. Well, Doris went through that surgery, and by glory, a month later, she was cancer free! Here’s what I learned: if God wants to heal, God can do it any old way God chooses. It certainly wasn’t because of me (I clearly had no idea what I was doing) but God can do amazing things with us, without us or in spite of us. (I don’t think Doris ever found out about that, so don’t you tell her.) I once told that story at a Sunday School Class retreat in Indiana, and the next Sunday they all brought me oil in big containers, just so I wouldn’t run out. One guy even attached a bottle to a neck chord. He called it “hope on a rope.”
The healing of the man who was blind from birth in our gospel reading was pretty spectacular. Jesus made some mud with spit and rubbed it on the man’s eyes. When the man washed off the mud in a nearby pool, he was able to see for the first time. The difference in this man as a result of gaining his sight was so great that even his neighbors didn’t recognize him. He essentially had to show them his ID and kept insisting “Really! I’m the same man!” Maybe the people who had seen him begging every day had never looked beyond the outstretched hand to see the face that was now filled with light. Or maybe they were so flummoxed by the idea of a blind man who now saw, that their brains couldn’t make the obvious connection. He was a completely new and different person to them.
This is what happened: The confused neighbors brought the man to see some religious leaders. They were concerned that this miracle had occurred on the Sabbath and was therefore an inappropriate kindness. An interrogation resulted, and the text says that the religious leaders, the Pharisees, were divided. Some thought Jesus must be pretty powerful. Others said he was a fraud since he didn’t follow the Sabbath rules. The man’s parents were called in for questioning and they stopped talking when they realized it was a trap. They deferred to their son and said, “He’s old enough, ask him yourself.” The son was tired of all the attention and snapped back at the Pharisees, “I’ve already told you more than once. Why all the questions? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” It was the wrong thing to say, and the men lectured him for his disrespect before throwing him out of the room.
Later, Jesus found the man to make sure he was OK. Jesus answered some questions about God and said that he had come into the world so that the blind could see and so that those who thought they could see would become blind. Some Pharisees listening nearby asked Jesus, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
The first car accident I was ever in was the result of a blind spot. Not mine, but the girl who was driving her father’s truck. She had a spot on her right side, and when she passed a car and looked into a mirror, she didn’t see the car and pulled right over into him. The next thing I knew the truck rolled over twice in the road and we landed in the ditch upside down. I don’t know how either of us came out of that alive. The truck didn’t come out too well, and her father wouldn’t let her ever go out with me again. I thought that was extreme – it wasn’t my fault. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it! What I learned from that experience was that blind spots can get us into deep trouble.
I had one of those “peripheral vision tests” not long ago, and it mapped out my vision and showed a spot where I don’t see so well in one direction. I could actually look at a chart and see my blind spot. But, beyond physical blind spots, I would dare to say that we all have deficits of awareness about ourselves. It’s the blindness Jesus is talking about. How great it would be if we could have a chart showing us where they are. The nature of those kinds of blind spots, of course, is that we are unaware of them even though others may see them clearly in us.
So it’s easy to see how the blind spots in others result in what we believe are bad decisions. What’s not as simple is recognizing those in ourselves. Jesus had an interesting commentary on this in the Sermon on the Mount when he advised us not to worry about the speck in someone else’s eye. He said, “Take the plank out of your own eye so you can see to take the speck out of the eye of someone else.” Self-awareness is sometimes hard and painful work. Seeing ourselves clearly, though, is important in our desire to cure the blindness that exists in others.
Most people who are physically blind become blind in the course of their living because of an accident or a progressive disease. Very few are blind from birth like the man in Jesus’ story. A well-known preacher named Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story in a recent book of a French man named Jacque Lussayran, as related in his own book titled “And There was Light.” Although he wasn’t born blind, he began to lose sight at an early age and then lost it completely after a schoolyard fight at age seven. He writes about how he learned early on, that most people around him considered his blindness to be a complete disaster. Many assumed he would ultimately become a beggar. His parents, though, refused to place him in an institution. They fought to keep him in public school so he could learn to function in the seeing world. His mother learned Braille with him. They refused to pity him, and his father said to him, “Always tell us when you discover something new.”
Despite Jacque’s complete blindness, he writes about the first weeks after his accident in this way: “I could not see the light of the world anymore, yet the light was still there. Its source was not obliterated. I had only to receive it. I found again its movements and shades, its colors that I had loved so passionately a few weeks before.” He concludes, saying “The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.”
At the end of this story of the healing of the blind man, the scripture says,
35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said,
“Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”
37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”
38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.
39 Jesus said,[a] “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked,
“What? Are we blind too?”
41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.
It’s hard for me to look at the story of the healing of the blind man and not see the politics of health care. Think about it. The man’s situation was pretty desperate. In his culture, blindness was an imperfection that alienated him from all of the systems of support that others enjoyed. It was a pre-existing condition. Blindness was often seen as a curse, which is why the disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Talk about blaming the victim! No insurance for him! What is remarkable to me is that when something really good happened to the man, it aroused all kinds of suspicions. In other words, the delivery of healing and health was of secondary importance to those nearby who were unaffected by the disability. That seems to me to be our problem today. What mattered to the neighbors and Pharisees was that the whole social and religious system they had carefully maintained remain unchallenged and undisturbed.
The Pharisees, who constituted a religious political party of sorts, were divided on the delivery of health care in this situation. They subpoenaed witnesses and they threatened those who were afraid of being put out of the temple. They pointed fingers at Jesus and let him know that no matter how successful he had been in restoring health, doing so on the Sabbath day constituted sin. They did not care about making sick people well. What they cared about was being right and maintaining their positions of power. They were completely blind to their own lack of compassion, and Jesus didn’t hesitate to point that out to them.
A photo was taken some time back that floated around of twenty-eight men at the White House discussing policy changes affecting the health care of women, where not a single woman was present. The ridiculousness and injustice of the situation was not lost on the public. Could caucus members recognize that for themselves, or were the blind spots too wide and too many? Ironically, the insistence on stripping health care basics from a bill to replace the Affordable Care Act assured that it would not be repealed. While many consider that very good news, it makes me wonder whether the quest for power and money is a disease that results in blindness and erodes compassion. Regardless of where we stand on the specifics of how health care is delivered in our county, the actual needs of people, not political self-interest, must be the force that shapes our policies. Time and again, the gospels tell us that Jesus was moved by compassion in his response to the sick and the demonized and the alienated. He didn’t stop to figure out what the fallout would be if he healed a blind man on the Sabbath. He just used all of his powers and did what was right. For those who see Jesus as a model for action, we need to ask ourselves if we will use our powers in the same way,
Jesus resisted those who stood in the way of compassionate care. He did! I believe God calls us to be servants in the service of the whole human family and to resist the powers of oppression. We are seeing what happens when people are willing to resist. When we do so as followers of Jesus, it is not rooted in a political ideology but in our understanding of how the message of both Jesus and the prophets who preceded him relates to our world in 2017. It’s rooted in 300 years of our tradition that has majored in compassionate health care, going back as far as the early Brethren who cared for each other’s needs, and John Kline, the famous horse riding preacher who was also a doctor.
The Brethren established medical facilities in their mission fields in India, China and Nigeria, Ecuador and Indonesia. Bethany Hospital was built in Chicago by Brethren, as in Castener Puerto Rico, and a clinic in Caimito in that country; there were medical programs in the Appellations and in New Mexico, well projects for clean drinking water in Sudan and other places, care for the elderly in 24 places across the country including Hillcrest in La Verne, CPS work during World War II, Heifer Project, CROP, Lafiya, not to mention the thousands of Brethren who have worked in health and medical vocations. So raise your hand if you’ve been involved in any of those things I’ve mentioned.
Jesus said in John 9, “I am the Light of the World. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” He also said, “You are the light of the world.”
The light of the world inside of us is greater and is brighter than any darkness and is powerful in its ability to heal our blind spots, to release us from any delusion, to reveal new knowledge about God, and to increase our compassion for all who long to be whole again. Let that light shine for all to see! Amen.