Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent, March 22, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

1 Samuel 16:1-13 + Psalm 23 + Ephesians 5:8-14 + John 9:1-41

One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. (John 9:39)   On September 14, 2001, with our nation still reeling from the horror of the attacks on 9/11, The Rev. Jerry Falwell blamed pagans, abortion providers, gays, lesbians, and the ACLU for bringing those attacks down on us, saying, “God will not be mocked.”[1]

On September 18, 2006, Pastor John Hagee appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross and blamed the destruction of New Orleans by Category 5 Hurricane Katrina one year earlier on a “gay parade” that was supposedly planned for the following week.[2]

On January 13, 2010, the day after an earthquake devastated Haiti, the Rev. Pat Robertson blamed it on the Haitian people’s “pact with the devil,” a not-so-veiled reference to traditional voodoo practices.[3]

Just this week, the leader of our nation crossed out the word “coronavirus” from a press statement and inserted the word “Chinese Virus.” This same week, a Korean clergy colleague told me that she is afraid to go out of her home because she was mocked by a group of people covering their noses and mouths as she passed by the last time she went out.

On some unknown day in an unknown year early in the first century, religious authorities attempted to blame a man’s physical infirmity on some sin of his parents or even on the man himself before he was even born. You see, casting blame and attributing bad behavior for causing personal or community catastrophe is nothing new. It is as old as Adam blaming Eve for “making” him eat that apple.

We humans simply cannot seem to wrap our heads around the idea that, sometimes, stuff happens. Geopolitical unrest leads to unspeakable violence unleashed on innocents. Meteorological events cause hurricanes and tornadoes that respect nothing in their path. Tectonic plates shift, and entire cities are left in rubble.  Viruses arise that are unknown to us and resistant to any known treatments or vaccines.   

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The temple authorities in John’s gospel have been out to get Jesus since he took a whip to the moneychangers way back in Chapter 2, but still he doesn’t take their bait. He says (for the second time) that he is the light of the world and then restores the sight of this man born blind.  But he doesn’t stop there. Even though he has given this man sight, Jesus makes it pretty clear that physical blindness was not really the issue. The real problem was blindness of a different kind.

Blindness is a tricky thing. We think that we know what it is – a lack of sight with the eyes – but this story from John’s gospel seems to be saying that physical blindness is not the issue at hand. This is not the first instance of Jesus having a thing or two to say about our eyes. You remember, of course, how he admonishes his followers to remove planks from their own eyes rather than worrying about the bits of dust in their neighbors’ eyes (Matt. 7:5, Luke 6:42). And then there’s that part about plucking out your eye if it causes you to stumble (Matt. 5:29, Mark 9:47). 

These are not really stories about eyes at all. They are about the kind of blindness that makes us believe that someone born blind had to have sinned. It’s the kind of blindness that blames “the other” for disaster. It’s the kind of blindness that seems to be epidemic these days.  

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In antiracism work, there is a move afoot to stop calling those held bondage “slaves.” Instead, we must acknowledge that they are human beings who are enslaved. A marker placed in a sidewalk in Charlottesville claimed that it was the spot that “slaves” were sold. No, human beings were sold there, not slaves. Yet, even to say that someone was or is enslaved is to trap them in that label.

Divorced. Widowed. Autistic. Deaf. Blind. Lame. Mentally ill.

Yes, these words may describe many of us, but they are not the sum of who we are. Jesus doesn’t just see a man born blind. He sees a human being who has been shunned and reduced to begging, and he heals him, revealing not the man’s former blindness but everyone else’s inability to see his humanity underneath the “blind” label they had placed on him.

Live as children of light, we read in the letter to the Ephesians (5:8). Make our biases and our judgments visible by holding them in that light. Let them be washed in the pool called Sent so that we might all see each other as we are. As beloved of God our shepherd, in whom we lack nothing.  

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A blind man in 1st century Palestine would have had no standing. He had to beg in order to survive. He was invisible to the people who passed him every day, just as invisible as are our neighbors who stand along our streets every day looking for a handout. Just as invisible as anyone on whom we can slap a label that says “other.” It is that invisibility that is the real source of blindness. Not theirs. Ours. Jesus is talking to us. He is challenging our blindness.

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When I was a little girl, I used to sit on the floor, surrounded by books, my back to the window where the light was streaming in. My mom would walk in the room and see me reading with the shadow from my own body on my book and tell me to turn around because I was sitting in my own light. 

Jesus is calling us to turn and see the light, to have our blindness healed, to see the world not with eyes that have been blinded by class or privilege or bias but to see with the eyes with which we are seen. Eyes of love. Eye of forgiveness. Eyes of the one who is the light of the world. And then we can reflect that light back out into this world, healing the hates and fractures that continue to plague us, not casting blame, but issuing an invitation to others to come into the light, too.

John’s gospel begins with a proclamation of light shining in the darkness, and the darkness unable to overcome it. Jesus says that he is the light of the world. We who follow Jesus carry that light into a world beset by blindness of the spiritual sort. The light of Christ can overcome even that, so be of good courage. Hear the Good News: we who once were blind can now see.

In an age when fear and anxiety threaten to spiral out of control as the news continues to shift each day on the spread of this pandemic, rest in this Good News. Know that although we walk through that valley of the shadow of death, we need fear nothing, for our God, the rock of our salvation, is with us. As that old song goes:  

No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging. Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?[4]  

Do not be afraid. Be of good courage. Walk in the light of God. Amen. [1] 

http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=121322&page=1 [2] http://www.salon.com/2014/04/11/6_most_absurd_things_the_christian_right_has_blamed_on_gays_partner/ [3] https://web.archive.org/web/20100116124145/http://www.france24.com:80/en/20100113-us-evangelist-says-quake-hit-haiti-made-devil-pact [4] http://www.hymnary.org/page/fetch/CGH2010/559/low

ASEPSermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent, March 22, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas