This sermon was preached at St. Philip’s in the Hills, Tucson, on March 30, 2014. The scriptures for this Sunday are here.
In the 20th century, when it became possible for surgeons to do surgery to correct cataracts, ophthalmologists began doing a lot of it. Cataract surgery is very successful for a huge percentage of people. But surgeons began realizing that it wasn’t nearly as successful for one group of people – people who been born blind with cataracts. Though the surgery healed their eyes, and though measurements showed that their retinas were detecting light perfectly, there was still something missing.
Annie Dillard describes it in her essay “Seeing,” from her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
“The vast majority of patients had no idea of space whatsoever. Form, distance, and size were so many meaningless syllables…. Before the operation a doctor would give a blind patient a cube and a sphere; the patient would tongue it or feel it with his hands, and name it correctly. After the operation the doctor would show the same objects to the patient without letting him touch them; now he had no clue whatsoever what he was seeing.”
They couldn’t recognize faces of loved ones without running their fingers over them. They didn’t know that patterns of light and dark indicated shadows and depth; they didn’t realize that a larger object, like a chair, might visually hide a smaller object, like a dog, that was sitting behind it. They couldn’t comprehend notions of height & distance by using their sight. In order to walk up and down stairs safely, they would have to close their dangerous eyes so they wouldn’t be confused by the shadows and trip and fall. Eventually, some of them simply gave up on using their sight, bought the darkest glasses they could find, and returned to living lives of blind persons.
It turned out that what doctors didn’t understand was that seeing is more than a matter of how well your eyes receive light; what is even more important is perceiving: how well your brain interprets the light your eyes bring in. Those first few months of a baby’s life, as her eyes struggle to focus on her mother’s face, she is learning one of the most complex tasks her brain will ever undertake: how to see. And more than how to see: how to perceive. Without that essential work of the first few months of life, the human brain begins to lose its capacity to understand what it is seeing. Seeing, it turns out, is something that happens in our brains, not our eyes.
John, our gospel writer for today, understands this perfectly. When he tells us the story of Jesus healing the man who was blind from birth, he understands that this is not a miracle of healing or a demonstration of great power: it’s miracle of perception. Yes, the man was physically healed, and yes, his brain somehow also receives the gift of being able to perceive what he sees, but John is far more interested in the deeper perception, the emotional and spiritual healing that goes along with it.
In fact, in John’s gospel, we are not told about many of Jesus’ healings at all. Instead, what John tells us about is signs: strange acts like turning water into wine, or healing a man blind from birth. These are signs because we are not supposed to look at them, but at the greater reality that they point to. That’s what signs do: they point to things.
In the case of today’s story, this sign is continuing to unfold a theme that John began way back in the opening to his gospel: in Jesus, the light of God was coming into the world. The light of Jesus throws everything around him into sharp relief; the shadows stand out starkly against the glowing light of Christ, and it takes the mind of Christ to understand the meaning of the lights and shadows.
In the shadows in today’s story, we see the formerly blind man’s neighbors, whose perception is so dim that they don’t recognize him after he is healed. They have fallen into the common trap of looking at a person with a disability and identifying him as the disability alone, not a whole person, so that without the disability they can’t even be sure he is the same man. This is one kind of blindness that the light of Christ exposes.
The man’s parents, in a part of the story we didn’t read today, are afraid to admit that their son has been healed because of their ear of the religious authorities. Their fear of speaking the truth because they might lose their personal position is another kind of common human blindness the light exposes.
The religious authorities are fearful of the kind of power that the healing of the blind man represents, and they drive him out of community of faith: a third kind of blindness, willful blindness that causes the misuse of power. All this blindness is a failure of perception far greater than eyes that don’t see.
At the same time we hear about all these kinds of blindness, though, we also hear about the gift of perception, the light standing out against the shadows. The blind man who receives his sight receives a far greater gift than physical eyesight – he receives the gift of understanding who Jesus is. To the skeptical authorities, the now-not-blind, but perceiving man says, If this man were not from God, he could do nothing. And to Jesus, he says simply, Lord, I believe, and he worships him.
Out of this gift of perception, many changes come into his life, good and bad: he is no longer a beggar; his dysfunctional and fearful family renounces him; he is driven out of his community of faith; he begins to follow Jesus; he receives a new family and a new community of faith. Jesus, the light of the world, has transformed this man’s entire life; Jesus has thrown the shadows and darknesses of dysfunction that surround him into sharp relief; and Jesus has called him into a whole new way of living.
The question Jesus poses for us today is, how are our powers of perception? Can we see, hear, perceive the truth? Can we detect the working of God in our world? Do we have our eyes open to see the world in the light of Christ, do we have our ears tuned to the music of God’s kingdom, do we have our hearts open to the gifts of God?
Of course most of us can see, hear, perceive the physical world. But what happens if we can’t imagine a reality that runs under the surface of all things? What happens if we believe that the mundane everyday world is all that exists or can exist? Maybe we can’t see a deeper reality even if it’s there.
Some reporters at Washington Post decided to test people’s perception in 2007. They set up a hidden camera in L’Enfant Plaza subway station in Washington DC. A young man in jeans, a Washington Nationals baseball cap and a T-shirt walked into the station, set down a violin case, took out a violin, put a few dollars and coins in the case to seed the pot, and began to play. For the next 43 minutes, he played as 1,097 people passed by. Each person had a choice: rush on by, stop to listen, put a little money in the case?
He played classical pieces, and he played the best-known religious song n world–Ave Maria. As the Post said, the violin sang, it sobbed, it shivered. What the commuters didn’t know was that the young man was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing his multi-million dollar Stradivarius. Three days before he had sold out Boston’s Symphony Hall, with tickets costing $100 and up.
What happened in the subway? In that 43 minutes, seven people stopped to listen for a while; a few put in money; only one person actually recognized him. Many people interviewed later didn’t even remember there was a musician. Many of those had iPods in their ears, their music already pre-programmed. Interestingly, every single child who walked by stopped, pulled his parent toward the violinist, wanting to listen, and every single parent hurried their child away.
The Post’s question was this: “His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?” The answer, apparently, was no – we expect to hear beauty in a symphony hall. In a subway station, we can’t imagine deeper reality, we can’t perceive it – so we just don’t hear it.
It turns out that the light that shone through Jesus’ ministry was so unimaginable, so imperceivable to most people, they ended up putting him to death: Most people missed it altogether.
We worship Jesus, we grieve over his suffering and rejoice in his resurrection. Yet do we truly believe he is alive and still calling us to transformation? Do we perceive God’s truth? Could God be in action all around us and we might even miss perceiving it altogether? Could the Holy Spirit be weaving beautiful music all around us, the most beautiful music we’ve ever heard, the music of the Kingdom – and we can’t hear it because we can’t imagine it?
Maybe we can only imagine Jesus at work in church, not the other 167 hours a week of our lives. Maybe we don’t see the shadows and dysfunctions we are confronted with, maybe we don’t hear Christ’s command to be healed.
Healed of our addictions, to substances and money and power. Healed of our blindness to the suffering of others. Healed of our failure to be transformed.
Maybe we’re the blind and the deaf who need to be healed, maybe we’re the lame who need to be taught how to walk, maybe we’re the dead who need to learn to live.
This is the Lenten challenge we receive from Jesus each year. Are we able to open our lives to the light of Christ, can we allow that light to throw our own shadows into the open, can we let ourselves be transformed?
If we could only imagine the transformations that God wants us to experience; if we could only recognize God’s work in the world all around us ; if we could open our eyes and ears and see signs of Christ working here and now – all of life might be infused with the sweetness of his presence, and our eyes opened to recognize the light of Christ’s presence in our world.