Updated: Jul 31, 2022
Lent 4A: 1 Sam. 16:1-13; Ps. 23; Eph. 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
The Rev. Cameron Partridge
March 22, 2020
Open us, O God. Disturb our distortions, renew our vision. Amen.
Remember Advent? Doesn’t it seem ages ago when we were waiting for the coming of the Christ, born into fragile humanity, bringing hope and promise into our uncertainty? And remember in particular the seven Great O Antiphons which organized our extended, seven-week observance of the season? Gathered from a variety of scriptural passages and put into sequence as far back as the sixth century C. E., the O Antiphons pronounce the holy names of the Messiah. One of them, O Key of David, is expressed through this prayer: “O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” This is Christ the holy key who liberates those trapped in prison walls, who shuts down hatred and condemns oppression, who leads us out of the shadows of suffering and death, the one in whose name we create communities of open embrace. The key’s combination of power and compassion, expressed through the contrasting, seemingly opposite actions of opening and shutting, popped into my mind as I considered the readings assigned for this morning, particularly our passage from the Gospel of John (9:1-41). “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind,” Jesus declares to some very uncomfortable religious authorities toward the end of our gospel passage (Jn 9:39). It’s an unsettling message for a confusing, anxiety-producing moment. What do we see and what remains invisible to us? How do we see in new ways? What might we need to unsee?
In the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel we hear a healing story of a man who had been born without sight. The actual healing takes place quickly, and the story could be much shorter than it is. That would have been the case if the physical healing was its main point. But the central action revolves around the perception of what Jesus has done and how his action impacts the systemic context in which he and the healed man are located. It is this impact, the complex reverberations, that John invites us to observe—to view what the people around Jesus and the healed man can see, and what they cannot. Jesus’ disciples, seeing the man by the side of the road, ask, “who sinned? This man or his parents?” (Jn 9:2) There had to be a reason for someone to have been born without sight in this worldview, and it had to be a negative reason. But Jesus reframes the situation: this person was born to embody God’s glory. He is here to bring all that he is to his vocation as a child of God. He could have fulfilled that vocation while remaining as he was, without physical sight. But as life would have it, Jesus had something else in mind. I’m thinking it was probably a good thing the man couldn’t see what the homemade mud looked like before Jesus smeared it on his face, although I’m imagining hearing the spitting was perhaps nauseating enough. After he had done what Jesus asked, washing in the pool of Siloam and returning with new sight, the communal reactions begin. Multiple times this man is then asked who had healed him and how. None of it made sense to the religious authorities of his context. The reactions suggest that this man in a healed state was much more disturbing to this community than his earlier state of physical and social marginality. The now-sighted man answers repeated questions with as much clarity as he can while also expressing a strong sense of mystery and humility. “The man called Jesus made mud,” he says, sounding almost childlike. “I went and washed and received my sight” (Jn 9:11). His humility and forthrightness come through when he says, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (Jn 9:25). A bit later he pushes back against distrustful authorities with outraged audacity, “Here is an astonishing thing!” the man says. “You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes” (Jn 9:30). All of them needed to open their eyes. Yet in response to the man’s clarity, the authorities refuse to change their worldview, only willing to classify him as a sinner embodying some sort of lifelong punishment. They could not abide his splinter in their collective brain. And so they drove him out.
This sequence of questions leading up to the man’s final marginalization make it clear that Jesus is doing more than healing and opening in this story, more than embracing sight. Jesus is highlighting the reality that there are some ways that we order and make sense of the world that we actually need to unsee, to disorganize. He is using a physical ability or disability, blindness, as a metaphor in all of this, which is not an uncomplicated thing to do in light of the lived reality of blindness that people we know and love—including in our own community, in fact—experience. I am aware that such references to blindness have been critiqued by disability theologians for how disabilities are either re-stigmatized or instrumentalized rather than recognized in such stories. At the same time, what intrigues me here is how Jesus describes and even embraces states of unseeing in this story. What does he mean by the statement, “I came into this world for judgment… so that those who do see may become blind” (9:39)? He isn’t talking about physically blinding anyone. He’s speaking of deep-seated views, assumptions about the workings of the world, about why things happen the way they do. He is especially interested in undermining the confidence of anyone who believes they know more than they actually do. “Surely we are not blind, are we?” the religious authorities respond to Jesus’ statement. In their defensive wondering they essentially perform their limitation, their guilt (Jn 9:40). No one with a physical impairment somehow “deserves” that, Jesus says very clearly. But those who believe that they see more than they do, who are certain they know why proverbial bad things happen to good people-- such folk are in fact guilty. Guilty of hubris. “Now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains,” Jesus declared (Jn 9:41). This is a form of occluded vision that Jesus roundly rejects. Yet in the same breath, he also embraces a form of refused sight. He affirms vision that is ignorant of barriers. Christ the holy key comes to open and shut, to clear our vision and to close our eyes. He calls us to see our world, our communities, our neighborhood, our families and friends, to recognize danger and spotlight hope. He urges us to close our eyes, to refuse false assumptions, to undercut over-confident views of the world that ignore or dehumanize, that look through people considered unimportant, invisible, or untouchable.
At the end of the day, the unseeing vision Jesus describes is an openness to the unknown, to mystery, even in the midst of suffering. It is an unseeing sight. In her book Dazzling Darkness: Gender, Sexuality, and God, Rachel Mann, an openly transgender and lesbian-identified priest and poet in the Church of England who lives with Crohn’s disease writes powerfully about the challenge of “fac[ing] situations where hope is actively cut short...” She writes that, “as Christians -- as those who proclaim God’s hope and seek to live on [in the face of suffering and death] – we run the risk of trying to live ‘outside’ reality… of seek[ing] to take flight into comfort and illusion.” There are ways Christians sometimes try to make sense of life calamities that can fail to face what is actually happening. “We may pretend that God is testing us,” Mann says, “and we may try to take the edge off the pain and destruction we face by painting it better than it really is. However, sometimes things genuinely have turned to shit.” Or on the other hand, when we’re clear things in our world are truly awful, “we may be tempted to fall into bitter selfishness; we may be consumed body and soul by the world and we may, quite understandably, become vile.” I appreciate her compassion for those who take out their frustration in this way. Yet ultimately she “remain[s] convinced that the Christian vocation is to remain clear-eyed and clear-hearted. To simply keep walking into the desert. To wait on the God who comes toward us in the darkness.”The reality is that life is full of uncertainty. We face pain. We suffer, sometimes profoundly. There is not a hidden reason for these things. They are not a test. God does not sit up there doling out calamities that God wouldn’t send our way if he didn’t think we couldn’t take it. The hope inherent in the faith we proclaim is not that God the puppeteer has a plan for this specific situation. Rather, we proclaim the incarnate One, the God who is with us in it, walking with us in the darkness, present and compassionate in our cries of pain, betrayal, or absence. God calls us to see as clearly and truly as we can through a glass darkly— acknowledging the limits of our vision, indeed refusing to project and impose order where there is none but seeking to see and know as much of the truth as we can.
This has been an unprecedented week. We now find ourselves sheltering in place for an unknown number of weeks or months, taking refuge from a virus we cannot see. We take in the news as we can, and we see graphs and projections. Our goal is to flatten the curve—not only to prevent getting sick but to prevent many people from getting sick at the same time. Having observed that those who are immune compromised and/or over 65 are getting the most dangerously sick when contracting COVID-19, we are seeking particularly to protect that group – indeed many in our community—even as we also know that younger people are getting very ill as well. None of us is immune—not until we have a vaccine, and that will be sometime coming. And so we remain socially distant – physically apart and yet, as Susan so movingly emphasized in her sermon last week, still very much connected as members of Christ’s body.
Not only are we connected. We are called. We are called to see in all acknowledgment of the limitations of our vision, all that we don’t know about how things will unfold. We are called to un-see and unravel distortions of what is happening in our country, or even our city, in these difficult days, refusing to believe those who would downplay this crisis, as if we have it all under control. We must refuse visions of this disease that would label it with racist terms, or evoke old homophobic slurs against our city as we shelter-in-place. In the face of all of this, we are called to acknowledge our very real and understandable anxieties, to open ourselves to unfamiliar ways of literally viewing or not viewing one another, with technologies that are sometimes awkward. We are called to observe the needs in our community with compassion and to envision how we may be called to respond in new, more flexible configurations and practices.
In this time and place may we lean on God with gratitude for the reserves of spiritual resilience among us. “Even though I walk through a dark and dreary land,” sang Bobby McFerrin, “there is nothing that can shake me. She has said she won’t forsake me. I’m in her hand.” In this wilderness God remains with us, will not forsake us, leads us forward even as we cannot fully see the way ahead. And in this place, amid this journey, God promises to renew our vision, that we may see and unsee together, as a people of deeply rooted, clear-eyed hope. Thanks be to God.
 From the sixth century if they were in fact referenced by the Christian philosopher Boethius (c. 480-c. 524 C.E.). William H. Peterson, What Are We Waiting For? Re-Imagining Advent for Time to Come (New York: Church Publishing, 2017), n. 4, p. 52. Thomas Talley in The Origins of the Liturgical Year suggests the O Antiphons could originate as early as the 7th century (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1986), 151.  Open/shut language is drawn from Isaiah 22:22 and Revelation 3:7. Language re: the freeing of captives is from Isaiah 42:7 and Luke 1:79. Philip Pfatteicher, Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year (London: Oxford University Press, 2013), 57.  Rachel Mann, Dazzling Darkness: Gender, Sexuality, Illness and God (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2012), 119-120.  https://www.salon.com/2020/02/06/the-racist-art-of-naming-a-virus/  https://www.metroweekly.com/2020/03/rush-limbaugh-guest-host-blames-gay-people-for-san-francisco-coronavirus-lockdown/  Bobby McFerrin, “The 23rd Psalm” in Medicine Music, 1990.