Preaching online takes some getting used to. I can’t wave my hands, for one. I can’t get instant feedback as well, for another. It’s a whole other thing.
Then there’s the issue of the blind man text. This story, like the other healing stories, tends to attract ableist interpretations like a toddler’s hands attract sticky stuff. Such interpretations from the pulpit (or the webcam) are not helpful–especially as we are currently struggling with the consequences of our refusal to adequately provide for one another.
So I tried to go another way. Here’s what I said.
Blind Man Sermon
This story essentially exists in two parts: There’s the thing itself, then there’s the commentary about the thing. This is a very meta story.
The initial healing of the blind man by Jesus is actually not a big deal (aside from violating every CDC guideline we have right now).
What becomes a big deal is the fallout of the initial event—a fallout that ends up roping in all the local authorities, religious leaders, the man himself, and his parents. Basically, by the end, you have the entire village yelling at each other.
The clue that things are about to go pear-shaped comes at the very beginning of the story, and it’s so fast you might miss it. When they first encounter the blind man, the disciples ask Jesus “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” For starters, He’s RIGHT THERE. He’s not deaf. Secondly, Jesus has a similar face-palm reaction. “No one sinned—that’s not….no. Wrong idea. No.”
But if you pay careful attention to what happens in the rest of the story, it’s clear that this notion of ‘who sinned’ carries through to everyone else in the story. Because no sooner has Jesus healed him, then the blind man is getting yelled at by the religious authorities, and then his parents are getting yelled at, in this sort of strange Law-and Order-esque scene.
Now, I need to say, that this scene is one of the reasons we know that the Gospel of John was written as late as 90-100 CE. No one was getting thrown out of the synagogue anywhere—that simply wasn’t a thing—before the fall of the Temple in 70CE, and the ultimate split between Judaism and Christianity in 85CE. John literally has to invent a word here to explain what’s happening, which indicates how unusual and novel it was. So, please don’t hear this story as describing Jesus crusading against mean Jews who don’t like him—it really reflects a conflict that John’s community was having locally and much later.
What we do see is the religious authorities in the story acting on the belief that the disciples initially had: the formerly-blind man cannot be trusted to tell his own story because clearly, he sinned in order to end up blind. Neither can his parents, because they might have sinned too. So there’s a lot of yelling back and forth, for one, and the pretty harsh decision to cast them all out of their religious community.
Bad theology, as I say to you all the time, harms people. Theology that doesn’t heal, that doesn’t have at its core a profound love for the image of God in each person, that doesn’t see each human being as worthy of flourishing, is going to end up hurting people.
And we don’t have to look very far to see that happening around us now. Because we live in a society that has assumed for a long time that if people are left by the side of the road, they must have done something to deserve it. If you are poor, sick, disabled, left behind in some way, in this society, then our society tells us that you must have done something to deserve it. Otherwise you would have worked harder. Otherwise, you would have tried more. Otherwise, you would have wanted it more.
But now we are seeing that for all our glorification of individual achievement, this way of life has ended up literally killing us. It’s fine to maintain that people should earn their way, but now, that fast food worker who is preparing your meal who doesn’t have a livable wage, and doesn’t have paid sick leave is literally endangering their life, and the lives of everyone who depend on them for food. Our philosophies of individualism and hard work alone won’t save us.
What will save us is the healing that Jesus offers, and it’s already all around us. When we care for others, when we stop for the ones at the side of the road—that’s when we encounter the healing that Jesus gives us. When we stand up for the vulnerable ones and we side with the left-behind. Because while we’re witnessing the fall of so many of our beliefs, we’re also seeing so many people step up in amazing ways. Liquor companies turning over their machinery to make hand sanitizer, businesses changing their models to protect their employees and spread wealth down the supply chain, average people running errands for those who are most vulnerable right now. When we do these things, Jesus is with us, in powerful new ways. Each time we come together to affirm the common worth and humanity of each person, that’s where the healing of Christ begins.