If I am remembering it correctly, in a science class, when she was in high school, my sister saw, through a microscope, the creatures that live in raw meat. It turned her into a vegetarian for a while.
There are a lot of things you just do not want to know, right? I saw photographs of microscopic organisms that we live with every day on our skin, our eyebrows – quite alarming. Best not to know.
Denial: self-preservation? Or not?
I have wondered to myself, perhaps there are a lot of things that we don’t want to know because we have a feeling that if we let ourselves know them, it would be more than we could take?
Psychologists call this denial. I guess we are all, more or less, in denial. It’s a coping strategy. Who wants to know what’s in the sausage; it spoils the breakfast.
But of course, denial is ultimately self-defeating. We may not want to let ourselves “know” what’s in the sausage, but our cardiologist thinks we need to know. She doesn’t care if it spoils the breakfast, she is worried about spoiling the pump that keeps us alive for tomorrow’s breakfast.
Denial is about willful blindness. And that is what we have to talk about today.
How the story should go
It’s not at all like the Creation story that starts out with a totally chaotic world, then God’s breath blows over the waters and begins to bring order – dry land, sky, and lights. And it gets better and better – plants, fish, animals, and finally, “ta-da!” humans! God’s crowning achievement, men and women made in God’s own image. God pronounces it all, “very good.” Applause; curtain comes down.
This story should have gone like that. It starts with a man (poor guy) who is blind. Not just blinded, by disease or accident; worse: born blind. He has never seen a green tree nor a sunset in his life. Then, Jesus, the one “sent from God,” comes along, performs a miracle, like one that has never been done since creation. He turns the earth back into mud, like it started out in the beginning of time, smears some on the man’s eyes, tells him to go wash, and just like a newly baptized baby, he is a new creation! He sees! And then the curtain falls to a standing ovation.
Messing up the miracle story
But no, it doesn’t go like that at all. This is a messed up miracle story. And what messes it up is blindness – not the man’s; the willful blindness of those who cannot bring themselves to see that God is doing something new, right in front of them.
And what is it that blinds them? They do not want to see the truth that is staring them in the face: that God is doing something new. To admit that, would mean they would have to re-arrange their comfortably settled categories. Categories like who God can and cannot speak through (not Jesus, only Moses, right?). Like what is it that God most wants from us (not the work of healing, but keeping the hyper-Sabbath, of course). And most unsettling of all, categories like the “everybody-gets-what-they-deserve” way of looking at the world.
This last one is so important. He’s blind – and we all know why (well, not exactly, precisely – it could be his fault, could be his parents, but it must be one or the other; everybody-gets-what-they-deserve, right? That’s how we look at the world).
The crucial flip side of this way of looking at the world is this: “I’m not blind; and I am not blind for a reason: because I’m a good person. QED.”
The script goes like this: “How could I be the bad guy? I’m getting blessed. I’m not the slave, I’m the plantation owner – see? Proof. I’m not the guy in the back of the bus, I’m the driver. I’m not toiling away in the in the Chinese factory, I’m the one talking on the smart phone. See?
Who in the world would dare upset that tidy little world? “Don’t you dare show me what is just too painful to see” they say.
The Question (with the answer in it)
It’s fascinating to read John’s telling of this story. It includes that self-incriminating line that the masters-of-denial Pharisees say at the end, after shutting their eyes to the greatest-miracle-since-creation:
40 “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
There is a lot of willful blindness going around these days; it’s everywhere. All around the world, especially in the Middle East, masses of people are unwilling to let tyrants and dictators remain – but look at the denial from those tyrants. It would almost pathetically comical, if it weren’t so tragic for their victims.
But this text forces us to ask ourselves: Are we blind? Are we willfully turning our heads, averting our eyes from things that are staring us in the face? Is God doing new things in our day that we would prefer not to notice?
Certainly, we admit that our people have been blind in the past, haven’t we?
How many years did we spend blind to the evil of slavery?For how long were we blind to what our racial discrimination was doing to people who look differently?Look how long we willed ourselves to be blind about the giftedness of women for ministry?We have a history here; why should we think we are less vulnerable today?
We all have heard the famous words Martin Luther King Jr. spoke:
“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
Where is the moral arc bending now?
God seems to be working in our world to bend that moral arc towards justice in many ways, but much more is left to be done. And most of what is left to be done is still waiting because it is painful to look at. Opening our eyes is unsettling to the tidy worlds we would prefer to remain in.
I spent a good deal of time this past week up at Holman prison. Friends, the way we do criminal justice in our country is deeply flawed in so many respects, and yet most of it goes on behind doors that we prefer remain shut. If I took you through Holman prison – or any prison – you would be appalled, unless your eyes were shut. “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
When we hear the stories of people who lost their health insurance because they lost their job, and now cannot afford the medicine they need, are we OK with this? “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
Or, when we hear of those who lost their homeowners insurance because they live in the wrong county, or who were discriminated against because they were “different” in some way, we have to ask ourselves, are we OK with this? “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
The blame and the credit
Whose fault is it to have been born blind, or black, or poor, or Libyan, or gay, or into an alcoholic, abusive family? To whose credit is it to have been born into loving, caring, nurturing, educated, healthy middle class, Caucasian families? Why does it threaten us so much to open our eyes to these issues?
Thanks be to God, our eyes have been opened. We do see God at work in Jesus. Through Jesus we get to see the Father. We see God’s concern for the blind that trumps hyper-Sabbath laws. We see God’s mercy extended to the vulnerable. We see God’s special attention focused on the despised, the blame-targets, of this world. We see God at work bringing healing. We see the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice.
In the end, the question was all about belief. The Pharisees were not willing to believe that Jesus was the Sent One. They were unwilling to hear God speaking through Jesus as he had spoken through Moses.
The blind man, by contrast, believed, but not all at once. He came to believe in successive stages: first that Jesus was the man who healed him, then that he was a prophet, then, bowing before him in worship of the Son of Man, the Sent One.
We are people of faith; people committed to hearing the Word of God through Jesus. We are committed to believing that Jesus was sent from God to show us the Father. We are here to radically affirm our belief in Jesus who opens blind eyes, upsets tidy worlds, and enlightens dark places. We are here to commit ourselves to bearing his light to the dark places of our generation in our context.
We have two prayers to pray this day: Lord, open our eyes; regardless of the pain. And Lord, empower our compassionate response to what we see.