by Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Sermons from Seattle
Gospel: St. John 9:1-41
Stories about blindness
Today, most of us don’t have personal contacts or personal experiences with people who are blind. And so for some of us, the blind people we see are living in downtown Seattle. In our limited experiences, we usually see a blind person carrying a white cane. We watch them standing at an intersection in downtown Seattle, waiting for the light to change, listening to the people move across the street when the light changes. They carefully put their white cane in front of them, feeling the curb and where to step off the curb. We marvel at the ability and tenacity of blind people to get around.
As a boy growing up in Jackson, Minnesota, I don’t recall any blind people in my little hometown. I don’t recall anyone with white canes walking around our small farm town. As a boy, we would often travel to the big cities of Chicago or Minneapolis and there we would see things we normally didn’t see in Jackson. Chicago: that is where I saw and experienced my first blind person. I was ten years old, at Comisky Park to see a baseball game where the Chicago White Sox were playing the New York Yankees and Joe DiMaggio. There was this blind man sitting there on a stool, right in front of the brick stadium. He had a can of pencils in his hand, dark glasses, and was begging for money. That is, we were to put money into his tin can and then take a pencil. I was afraid of that blind man, trying to size him up, trying to figure out whether or not he was really blind. That was my first experience with a blind person. I must have been afraid of him because I remember it fifty years later.
When I think of blindness, I think of Terry Ray from my early years here at Grace Lutheran Church. Terry Ray was an active member of our church, a big guy, some 250 pounds, age twenty-four, a youth advisor. He worked with our high school kids as an advisor. One day, the high schoolers were down at an apartment down in Des Moines, and we were playing a volleyball game. Soon, Terry Ray, the blind advisor, was coming onto the court, throwing his white cane on the ground on the sidelines. He was going to be on my side, right by me, and I was nervous. I was afraid that the volley ball would come over the net and hit his big thick glasses; the glasses would break and cut his face or nose. But Terry was a gamer, and all the kids admired Terry Ray.
When I think of blindness, I think of my monthly visits now to Opal Dye, one of the two oldest members of our congregation. She is ninety-seven years old and her mind is incredibly sharp. It is her eyes that no longer see so well. In her blindness, she is enormously well read, listening to tapes of books from the libraries. She is an incredible conversationalist, and she always wants me to tell her about the adult education classes that I am currently teaching.
It is with these stories that we approach the Gospel lesson for today about the man born blind. Blindness was a very common disease in Jesus’ day, not like today having to go downtown Seattle or Chicago to experience blindness. In Biblical times, blindness was primarily caused by a water duct, located beneath the eyelids, drying up. The water duct under the eyelids became dry and the eyelids became puffy and swollen, as did the eyeballs themselves. This kind of blindness was spread by flies and was aggravated by the hot desert sun and desert sands. It was a highly contagious disease and the only way to contain it was to quarantine the people who had this dreaded blindness. It now has a technical scientific name, ophthalmic conjunctivitis. You see this kind of blindness nowadays in Third World countries, where there are swollen red eyelids and swollen eyeballs. The point is: blindness was very common in Biblical times. Blindness was found among your family and friends.
The Jewish people of that era believed that when the Messiah came, the Messiah would heal blindness. The prophet Isaiah said that the Messiah would heal many diseases e.g. the deaf would hear, the lame would walk, the lepers would be cleansed, and the blind would see again. When Jesus came, he healed two blind people and these were signs that the Messiah prophecies in the Old Testament had come true. Jesus healed the man born blind and that story is in the Gospel of John. Jesus also healed blind Bartimaeus and that story is in the first three Gospels. Jesus healed these people of their blindness and these healings were a sign that the Messiah and Messianic age had finally arrived.
I would like to explore with you the meaning of today’s story, the story of Jesus healing the man born blind.
First, Christ and Christians heal both bodies and souls. Christians have always been involved in healing ministries of the total person.
Some people say that Christians are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. Sometimes Christians become so spiritual things that we are not concerned about physical things; that we are so concerned about the health of souls that we are not concerned about the health of bodies. That was not true of Christ nor of Christians.
Christ and Christians have always been concerned about both the body and soul.
Let me explain. Jesus was the Great Physician, and Jesus healed many people. That was the beginning of this focus on healing ministries.
We recall the story of Luke, the author of the longest book in the New Testament, Luke and Acts. Luke was also a physician. The physician Luke uses many technical medical terms in his book Luke/Acts. I actually visited the archeological ruins of the medical school in Pergammon, Turkey where Luke attended medical school. From the time of Christ and Luke, Christians have always been involved with healing ministries.
Leper colonies. The first leper colonies in the world were run by people like Father Damien in Hawaii. Most people don’t get involved with the care of lepers and leprosy but Christ did and so do Christians. Why? The Messiah healed lepers and Messianic Christians have been working with and healing people with leprosy ever since.
Hospitals. The first hospitals were owned and operated by churches. Let me give you examples of how Christians have always been in the forefront of hospitals on the frontiers. What was the first hospital in Seattle? Yes, Providence, run by the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholics have founded hospitals all over the world. Centuries ago, you go to the ends of the earth and you would find Roman Catholic hospitals there.
Lutherans have always been involved with hospitals. Two examples. Years ago, I was a chaplain at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois. And recently, my wife and I visited Selian Hospital in Arusha, Tanzania, owned and operated by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania. This hospital is under the leadership of Dr. Mark Jacobson, number one in his medical class at the University of Minnesota, a graduate of Harvard. 35,000 patients visit his hospital every year. Selian Hospital is in the forefront of education about AIDS, the Bubonic plague of our generation. Christians have always fought the diseases and plagues of every generation in every continent. Christians are a healing community, concerned for the health of both the body and the soul.
Within our own congregation, we have women who were trained as parish nurses and their services are invaluable to our members. When I got sick and almost died two years ago, my wife made a strategic telephone call to a parish nurse. Our parish nurse helped to save my life. Many people in our parish call our parish nurses for advice. We also have many doctors, dentists and nurses within our congregation. We pray for the sick every week in our worship services. Also within our own congregation, we have a sister church down in Jamaica. We sponsor a medical clinic down in Jamaica, associated with our sister church. A person from our parish tells me that we send down some $50,000 worth of medical supplies to our clinic there. Christians have always done that. We Christians always send medical supplies to the ends of the earth where people may not have medical supplies.
Christians also work with government and other secular agencies for the health of human bodies. I like to talk about Dr. Bill Foege, a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, a son of a missionary. Dr. Foege is the most famous Lutheran doctor in America, and he recently headed the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. Through the efforts of the Center for Disease Control in America, we no longer face polio or small pox. These terrible plagues have been omitted from the face of the earth. Dr. Foege then became director of the Jimmy Carter Institute, also in Atlanta, and they are eradicating river blindness and tapeworm. Now, more recently, we discover that the richest man in the world, Bill Gates, is dedicating billions of dollars to combat the Black Plague of our era, AIDS. So Christians work with government and other secular agencies to combat disease.
We live in an era of great healing miracles. Medical miracles have become so common that they are as common as the rain, the sunshine, and the birth of babies. These miracles are so common that we don’t even think of them being miracles any more. I am speaking to you today and am alive today because I have been a personal recipient of these modern medical miracle of God around us. Today’s medical miracles are overwhelmingly common.
Christians are concerned about the health of human bodies and the health of human souls. The Messiah healed physical bodies and the Messianic community also is involved with healing of physical diseases.
Point two for students taking notes: Spiritual blindness is worse and more common than physical blindness.
You don’t have to drive to Seattle or Chicago to experience spiritual blindness. Spiritual blindness is all around us, and is often as close as the figure looking back at us from the bathroom mirror.
At the end of the story for today, the Pharisees questioned: “Are we blind?” And Jesus answered, “You better believe it. You are blind.” The Pharisees countered Jesus, “How do you say we are blind? We have the four pillars of faith. That is, we go to synagogue faithfully each week. We pray every day. We give our ten percent, our tithe. We know our Bibles. How can you say that we are blind even though we worship faithfully, pray, give our money, and know our Bibles? How dare you say that we are blind.” Jesus said, “I know, but you still are blind.”
The Pharisees suffered from spiritual blindness. They were blind to the Holy Spirit. They had religion but not the Holy Spirit of Jesus’ love. They were also blind to the suffering, pain and trauma of the enormous pain that was right before their eyes. They had no compassion. They would see pain and injustice and there was no compassion in their hearts. They were truly blind to both the Holy Spirit and the human misery around them.
We discover from this Gospel story for today that people who go to church on a regular basis can still be blind. We are reminded that people who are religious, who attend worship regularly, give money, pray and know their Bible can be spiritually blind and be blind to the power of the Holy Spirit and to the misery around us. We know that many these good religious people who are here today in our sanctuary are capable of being spiritually blind.
To me, there is a lot of spiritual blindness today in our world, both inside and outside the church. Perhaps the most awful disease in America today is spiritual blindness.
The Pharisees had their blind spots and we too have personal blind spots. I have my blind spots and so do you. We have our blind spots in our marriages, in our parenting, in our work habits, in our personalities, especially in our personalities. I went to see this friend the other night about a conflict in our parish. After I chatted a while, my friend looked directly into my eyes and said, “The other night during that conflict: you talked too much. You said too many paragraphs.” Ouch. True? Yes. I have my blind spots and you have your blind spots of your personality. Jesus wants to heal you of your blind spots, to heal me of my blind spots.
We all have our blind spots, and we don’t quite realize our blind spots. You drive a car and look out your rear view mirrors and side mirrors but there are always blind spots and you can get hurt by those blind spots.
Our culture is also has blind spots and is blind about so many things. Love, happiness, marriage, sex. It happens that our culture can become anesthetized to the world around us; anesthetized to the violence, the sexual innuendo, the millions of people suffering from AIDS around the world. We can become blind to these people and situations. This is called cultural blindness.
For example, I was watching a TV sitcom the other day. An attractive young virile couple got on an elevator together, crowded with other people. As the elevator went up, the man and woman started a flirtatious relationship with each other. They were giving each other the eye for twenty floors, and at the twentieth floor, they both got off. The woman met her husband on the twentieth floor; the man met his wife. The man and woman each walked off with their spouse but turned and sent one more flirt. The implication? Cute, funny, a loving flirtatious fling. The subtle suggestion was that love that is really exciting comes from a new relationship. What I am suggesting that our culture, our media, our movies, our values, are blind about what it means to love, to grasp what it means to love each other sacrificially, to grasp what it means to love when someone is worn out and tired. We, as a culture, can become anesthetized to the violence, the sexual innuendo, the enormous suffering of the world around us. We can become numb to all of this and not see what is happening. We can become blind and truly not see.
Individual people can become blind. Cultures can become blind.
Let me share with you the most famous blindness story which illustrates where both an individual and a culture can become blind. What I am suggesting to you is that spiritual blindness is even worse than physical blindness and can do more damage. Let me tell you this story which illustrates that a person can be personally blind and also culturally blind at the same time. You may recall the story.
It is the story of John. John was born in 1740 in England. He grew up in the Anglican Church. This little boy went to church and learned his Bible verses. His mother died when he was only eleven years old, and so he traveled with his father who was a ship captain. His cargo was black slaves and he would have two to three hundred slaves down below in the ship hole, lying next to each other. You could imagine such an experience if you watched the film, AMISTAD. The father himself was not a slave trader but a boat owner who shipped the cargo of black slaves.
In a storm, little John Newton was washed overboard and was picked up on the open seas by a slave trader. Little John Newton no longer had a mother nor father. Little John was learning to become a slave trader like the man who rescued him. One day, John Newton was up in his cabin, reading the Bible and also an old devotional classic by the name of IMITATION OF CHRIST, by Thomas a Kempis. A miracle began to occur. The Holy Spirit got inside of him and worked a miracle and he was converted. He knew that personally he was wrong; he knew that his culture was wrong. He personally was in complicity with the evil of slave trading. His society was in complicity with the evils of slave trading, but he didn’t see it. He didn’t realize or comprehend the enormity of the evil nor his complicity with evil. But that day, a miracle occurred and Jesus the healer got inside of him and healed his spiritual blindness. And so John Newton composed a song which is now one of American’s favorite hymns: “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” I once was blind but I finally see what I have been doing wrong. Jesus always comes to heal people who are blind. John had a huge personal blind spot in his tolerance for slave trading; and did his culture. And Jesus healed John Newton’s spiritual blindness.
The sins of slave trading from two-three hundred years ago are still corrupting America after all this time. We are still living out the consequences of our slave trading from three centuries ago.
It is possible for religious people in our day to be like the Pharisees, to be religious in our worship life, religious in our prayer life, religious in our tithing life, religious in our knowledge of the Bible but our hearts still can remain hard and blind to both the Holy Spirit and to the poverty and pain around us in our world today.
I love that song by Bob Dylan, BLOWIN IN THE WIND. “How many times will a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see? The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind.” Yes, we religious people can pretend that we don’t see the enormous pain in the world today, pretending we don’t see. That is what he Pharisees did: they were blind to the pain around them even though they were very religious. How many times will a Christian pretend that we just don’t see? The answer is in the Spirit, in the Wind, blowing in the Wind.
Spiritual blindness is more common and worse than physical blindness. Students: would you please again write that down: spiritual blindness is more common and even worse than physical blindness. Millions of people die, billions of people die, because of spiritual blindness. People starve because the spiritually blind do not see the poorest of the poor starving.
Point number three for students taking notes. When you know that Jesus heals your blindness, you worship him. In the Gospel story for today, the blind man was asked: Who healed you? First the blind man answered, “A prophet healed me.” Then he answered, “The Son of Man healed me.” In the Gospel lesson, when the blind man finally realized that Jesus healed him, he fell down on his knees and worshipped Jesus. And when you personally finally realize that God has healed your body of physical illness and/or our heart of your spiritual blindness, you deeply appreciate his healing inside of you and you worship him. John Newton said, “Thank you Jesus for healing me of my spiritual blindness so that I could finally see the tragedy of slave trading.”
We pray the same thing today, “Thank you Jesus for healing me of my alcoholism, my drug addiction, my anger, my lust, my selfishness. Thank you Jesus for healing me.” In that spirit of thanksgiving, we worship Jesus.
To conclude, in the story for today, did Jesus the Messiah heal the blind man?
Yes, yes, yes. Can Jesus the Messiah heal our blindness today? The answer is
yes, yes, yes. Amen.
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