As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. (Jn 9:5)
To be blind for a moment or two is easy: just shut your eyes tight and keep the light out. Try to stop up your ears to keep the sound out – not so easy. Or try to tie your tongue, to keep it from wagging – even harder. Try to hobble yourself, to make yourself lame, and you will struggle to approximate the real thing. But it is easy to blind yourself for a little while, and with a good blindfold you can extend your blindness indefinitely. But of course, if we are only faking it, we can always escape it. Try to keep your eyes shut for the duration of this sermon if you want to see whether it is easy or hard for you to be blind for a short time. Go ahead and try.
If I close my eyes, I see windows where the windows were before, until they begin to fade. I think I see colors, too. I seem to see corridors and highways opening up before me in the darkness that I could travel down, and I wonder if I should go to them. If I keep my eyes closed long enough I can hear things I d not normally hear. I can hear the hum of the air handling equipment beneath us. I can hear the detail of conversation on the street outside, and the traffic. If birds were singing I would hear them. If the springtime blossoms were opening I’d detect the rustle of their unfurling leaves. If snow was falling I’d sense the multiform flakes piling up on top of each other. Or course I’d hear the rain - any fool can hear the rain! If I allow myself to be blind in church, I can smell the layers of incense of today blended with a century and more of Sundays. And I think I can detect the scent of your perfume.
And this morning, if I keep my eyes shut tight and allow myself to be blind, I can hear this conversation that I know is not about me, since I have not been blind since birth, but I feel it is taking place in front of me, just like it did for that man, all those years ago. I can hear the ruckus as a group approaches: arguing amongst themselves. Some voices are smug and challenging, others are nervous and defensive. One is calm and self-assured. I hear the footsteps stop in front of me.
If I keep my eyes shut, it seems to me that I am not there, it seems I can eavesdrop on this conversation, it seems they will not notice me. I cannot see me; maybe they can’t either. I scrunch my eyelids close together to hide, and to listen, but they are talking about me: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Wait! I want to cry out! I was not born blind – you have me mistaken with someone else. You have confused me with the man in the story, who really was born blind! I can see - I want to shout and pop my eyelids open to prove it, but I am a little captivated by this discussion. I am a little curious about the blind man’s sins. It seems like a little research project, a little intelligence gathering, a little spying to find out about his sins – since someone else’s sins are always so much more easy to confront than my own – and so much more interesting to talk about!
I want to hear about this. I want to listen objectively to the argument that is about to follow, one of those arguments like how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. I want to sit silently with my eyelids closed and soak up the self-absorbed religious debate that passes for theological discussion, the kind of thing that goes on in churches and synagogues. The question was offensive to me even before I adopted my temporary solidarity with the blind this morning: Who sinned, me or my parents, that I was born blind? Who thinks like that? I can’t wait to hear this!
But the answer is surprising, not what I expect. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him…” says the calm and self-assured voice. This, of course, is not true. And I know it as soon as I hear him say it. My eyes are closed, as they have been for a while now. And it is easy for me, to dismiss immediately the notion that my parents have anything to do with my troubles. But at the thought of my own sins, I reach, in my mind’s eye, for that full-color catalog of them – not the little ones that are easy to forget, but the big ones that I have kept in the inner cupboards of my heart, but that come so easily into vision when I close my eyes and shut out all other distractions.
There are the hurts I have caused, the unkind words I have spoken, the pain I have inflicted. There is a list of things I said I would do but never “got around to.” There are faces in front of me in my memory that are stained with tears that I caused. There are ringing phones I did not answer. There are hands reaching out to me that I refused to grasp. There are vicious words I hissed, still hissing in the vaporous air. There are so many things done and left undone; it is not hard for me to see them in the dark.
How could anyone say I have not sinned? Only someone who doesn’t know, who cannot see what I can see so clearly with my eyes shut tight, with nothing but my own soul to look into, what makes my stomach churn with self-knowledge. I know the answer to the question. I know who sinned. And I can see it all laid out before me. And I would like to weep for my sins when I see them like this. And how could anyone say that God’s works will be revealed in me, if he only knew what I knew about me, if he could only see what I see with my eyes shut tight, in the dark like this!
Now I think I would like to open my eyes. But all of a sudden I cannot. It is as though they have been glued or sewn or taped shut. I can feel the light, the warmth beyond me, and I only meant this an exercise, a bit of fun to pretend we are blind because it is so easy to pretend, but now, when I would like to escape my sins – so clearly projected on the darkness in front of me – it seems I cannot pry my own eyelids open.
And I am wondering about you. Can you see your own sins as clearly as I can see mine? Can you answer the disciples’ question (Who sinned here?)? And are your eyes stuck shut in your own peculiar blindness when you think about these things? Are you peeking? Do you find your sins as hard to escape as I do mine? And do you find that you would like to weep, but that you cannot? It is as if our tear ducts have gone dry.
But I realize that the voices are still there in front of me, that I have not been hidden from view even though I thought I was hiding. The disciples are there, some challenging, others defensive, and the calm, self-assured rabbi is there, too. And someone – I think it is him - has stooped down right in front of me, just when I was thinking I wanted to weep for my sins but could not.
Still, no tears will come, and yet I feel an unusual moisture at my eyelids, and the fingertips of two strong but gentle hands at my temples as the thumbs rub something wet onto my eyelids, which remain mysteriously shut. And the calm voice says to me, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam.”
Because of our circumstances, I cannot, of course, go anywhere right now, and neither can you. But with our eyes shut, we can go there in our imagination – to the pool called Sent – we can go where we have been sent. We can feel its cool waters splash across our faces and begin to un-cake the mud that has already dried around our eyelids. And we can feel the light fill our eyes, we can open them now and reclaim our sight.
Because you were not born blind, perhaps you thought the Gospel story this morning was not about you. But you don’t need to have been born blind to know the healing power of Jesus’ love. Just close your eyes, and let yourself be blind for a little while. Look into the darkness of your own heart and search for the source of light.
Many of us are our own worst enemies, facing no challenges so great as to how to overcome our own foolishness, selfishness, pride, greed, indifference, and more. And even though we were not born blind, most of us know what it is like to be caught in our own darkness, convicted by our failures, our losses, the things done and left undone in our lives. But because the question offended us (Who sinned, this man or his parents?) we have already dismissed the question of the cause of our darkness as so much religious foolishness. And so we have often come to believe that Jesus’ ministry of binging sight to the blind has nothing to do with us, and we have pretended that the darkness is not there.
But there is a darkness there, where you and I yearn for light. There is a tiny black hole that seems to suck the energy out of life itself, somewhere in your gut. Maybe you are certain it is your fault, that you put the black hole there; maybe you think it was someone else’s fault; maybe you don’t know. I don’t really care, and I’m not sure God cares, though I’m sure God knows.
And God sees us when we would rather hide, just because we cannot see ourselves does not mean God cannot see us – this is a very old lesson. And he does not want to win the argument about who sinned, about whose fault it is. He is not really interested in that kind of thinking – in fitting angels on the head of a pin.
But he does kneel beside us, take some of his own spit, and mix it with the dirt, and rub it over our eyelids. He lets his hands linger there on our heads for a moment, because he knows this is comforting to us: his touch, as we confront the reality of our darkness.
And then he says gently to us, calmly, self-assuredly: Go, wash in the pool where I send you. And we grope for a little while longer to find the place where we have been sent, and it is still dark. Until we wash, and discover that behind the mud, God was doing something secret and healing and beautiful.
And I was blind but now I see. There is light where before there was only darkness. And now I know that as long as he is in the world he is the light of the world. And I think we must do whatever we can to keep him here.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
3 April 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia