To see the Bulletin for 1/31/21 click HERE
Do you understand?
I know I haven’t said anything yet, but if, by chance, I float an idea you might understand it… or the other option is…
you might not.
Actually, I suppose there is a third option.
Perhaps, God forbid, I’m doing a terrible job of explaining myself. I suppose it could happen, not that it ever has…
Or… it could be that the subject matter that I’m talking about — trigonometric functions, say, or the variable horizontal ambulation of southwestern albino cephalopods — is complex, esoteric or, outright baffling cause it’s something I just made up to sound confusing…
In these unlikely cases there exists a third possibility — the middle state, between not understanding, and understanding.
Now let’s take a slo-mo video of this moment — this moment when a person moves from “not understanding” to “understanding…”
When the mists start to clear…
When the cartoon lightbulb flips on…
When the truth gradually appears, in all its glory…
At that moment of understanding…
There is a phrase that we use…
Did you notice that the language that we use when we speak of understanding has to do with vision?
Mists clearing / lightbulbs going on / truth appearing in glory…
Even the verbs we use to talk about understanding, interchange with words that have to do with sight — verbs like “envision” “visualize” “revelation” “illuminate”
Oh, I see!
Similarly, when we talk about not understanding, we use the language of darkness …
Could you clear things up? I’m in the dark…
I can’t see what you’re getting at…
This is a case of the blind leading the blind…
The wonderful Christian minister, writer, and thinker, Barbara Brown Taylor has a book called “Learning to Walk in the Dark” in which she points out many big problems that we create when our religion emphasizes light as being God like and good, and darkness as mysterious, terrifying, and evil. This dualistic view of reality, she says, oversimplifies our relationship to the universe, and to our emotional lives, and makes us fear the mystery of the divine.
Some of you may recall that we read this together in a UCJ book group a few years ago —
Barbara Brown Taylor is really onto something here — and I think her points are definitely worth preaching about — some other time…
What I am interested in, right now, is not so much our assumptions about the goodness of light and the terrifying mystery of darkness…
Allow me to focus our attention, instead, on how light and vision is connected to spiritual understanding…
The narratives that we encounter in our gospels lead us to the idea that seeing is something that involves more than just the use of our eyeballs.
We see, not only with our eyes, but also with our minds — and — when we are spiritually centered — with our hearts too…
To see is to perceive the truth that may be lying beneath the surface. To see, maybe, is to experience that moment of recognition when something that has seemed mired in complication, suddenly makes sense. And this seeing — this clarity — is, at best, achieved with our whole bodies — not just with our eyes.
This idea that “seeing” in a spiritual sense, is a kind of understanding that we experience not only with eyes, but with our whole bodies — is the notion I would like to offer as a key to understanding this morning’s scripture lesson from the gospel of John.
This story is a healing story — and like many of Jesus’ healing stories, the person in this story who is healed is blind.
It is no coincidence that Jesus frequently heals blind people.
I would argue that everytime Jesus heals a blind person, there is some collateral healing that occurs — he is not just healing that person, right — he is also healing other people who happen to be present, and perhaps us too — those of us reading or hearing the story. The story heals many people by helping us all to see — by helping us all to understand.
And here is another thing.
Since, in our minds, we connect understanding and vision, and lack of understanding with blindness, this gospel story leads us to the inevitable conclusion that the blind man is not the only blind person found here. In fact, with the exception of Jesus himself, the blind person may be the least blind person in this story. It is quite clear that physical blindness — the affliction of the eyeballs — is the least concerning form of blindness in this story — it is resolved quickly and early on. The blindness that is stubborn and difficult to heal, is the spiritual blindness of those who think that they can see.
But how is it that a person who can see, cannot see, and a person who cannot see, can see? It doesn’t make any sense…
Let’s shift our concentration, for a second, over to the nature of understanding.
There are different kinds of understanding — aren’t there?
We can concentrate very hard on a specific subject — take a class on it, maybe, or watch a Youtube video about it. Understanding, in this sense, is a process of learning something new.
There is also understanding that we don’t so much achieve, as just have — by virtue of being alive in a culture.
If, for example, you see a hundred dollar bill on the ground, you are likely to pick it up because you understand from the cultural context we share, that that piece of paper with Ben Franklin’s picture on it, has a certain value.
This second kind of understanding — the kind that is so much a part of who we are in the world, that we don’t bother thinking about it — this, I think, is the kind of understanding that Jesus is trying to tell us, is akin to blindness.
Another name for this dangerous kind of understanding, is assumption.
An assumption is something we allow to control us, without even thinking about whether or not it should control us.
In the case of this gospel story — the assumption that the Pharisees are blind to, is the assumption that it is a sin to heal someone on the Sabbath.
This idea is so embedded into the world view of the Pharisees, that they cannot see beyond it. It blinds them to another, far greater truth — that compassion for the suffering of another human being overrides the obedience to doctrinal legalism.
This conclusion seems pretty obvious to Jesus. It seems clear to the man who was formerly blind. We are not challenged by it.
But the Jews of the first century were challenged by it. It threatened a basic structural premise of their religious world.
It would be like saying — oh that’s just a green piece of paper with a picture of Ben Franklin on the ground. It’s not a 100 bucks.
Well, it is just a piece of paper! Its value is only the value we give it.
And it’s not hard to imagine situations in which picking up that piece of paper could get in the way of doing something far more important.
Imagine you are a personal care attendant for a person with a disability.
You are told that for some bureaucratic reason, your job, which has been paying you $400 a week, now will only pay you $375 a week. Over the course of the month, you will lose $100.
It would be tempting to quit your job.
Your culture has just informed you that you are worth $100 less per month than you were before.
It’s tempting to think that way.
But if you think that way, you are allowing a cultural assumption of value to blind you to the more important concern…
There is someone there that God doesn’t want you to forget… God wants you to see your patient — the blind man.
How much is he worth?
How much is he worth, to you, and to God?
A hundred dollars?
Having slept on it, I discovered this morning, (as I often do) that there is a disturbing complexity of the cute scenario that I just painted. That hundred bucks is not just how much you are valued by society — it’s also how much you can live with dignity — have food on the table, and a roof over your head. When I say its green paper, I myself am assuming a level of privilege based on the fact that I could lose that Ben Franklin and not lose the roof over my head.
Perhaps this too is understanding with the body.
Love is not always lovely and cute.
Jesus, who suffered for love, taught us this.
I’m not advocating suffering, but this Jesus teaches us that to see value in its real, spiritual sense, is likely to involve real suffering.
The more basic the assumption — like the assumption that money has value, for example — the more we are blind to it.
Spiritual vision — a vision that moves from God, outward to the world — is a vision, not of the eyes, but of the whole body…
A vision that privileges healing and shows compassion for the sacredness of all life.