Was blind, but now I see

                          ©Suzanne Grimmett

Lent 4

1 Samuel 16.1-13

Psalm 23

Ephesians 5.8-14

John 9.1-41

“I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see,” must be amongst the world’s most recognisable song lyrics.

These words from Amazing Grace could have come from today’s Gospel reading. After an almost farcical exchange where some religious folks try to convince themselves and others, including the healed man’s parents, that this could not possibly be the man they had known who was blind, we hear the man explain the situation himself. He responds to questions of how this Jesus, whom the religious folks claim is a sinner, could have opened his eyes.  The man responds with beautiful simplicity, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

Sometimes it is that simple. By the fruit of the works, or by the fruit in our lives, we will know the truth. The problem is that even with the evidence of the Spirit’s work, sometimes we can only see what we have been trained or conditioned to see. How often might we miss the presence of God because God does not appear in a guise we would recognise? Think of all those in human history in whom we would see now, with the benefit of hindsight, the workings of God’s Spirit. How many of these speakers of truth, workers for peace or prophets of injustice down the ages have been hunted down, driven out, shamed, vilified, or killed?

In the Gospel story we have the witness who testifies to the astonishing presence of God amongst them and an experience of grace. Before Jesus acts, the disciples view the man born blind as an object lesson; a moment to bring out a theological question.

‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?

These disciples think as they have been taught to think. They see as they have been taught to see. They can imagine only a universe of crime and punishment.

Jesus acts, reminding them, in the characteristic symbolism of John’s Gospel, that he is the light come into the world by which we see the truth of God. The disciples, in their fixation on judgment, miss the message of grace, as do the onlookers who question this miraculous event. The blind man is of course a ‘stand in’ for all of us- we are all born blind and need to come to sight. This has been spelt out to us in stories in the different metaphors of the last two weeks of John’s Gospel- Nicodemus who comes confused in the darkness and is told he needs to be born again, and the Samaritan woman who comes with honest questions in the light of full day and is invited to drink from the well of Living Water.

We cannot see everything. We cannot know everything. We do not even know how much we do not know, nor do we know how much of what we know is actually impartial, distorted, or false. Learning to see again with new eyes is a metaphor that speaks just as clearly today. Our blinkers are shaped by our own ingrained cultural and experiential biases- it is something we cannot help. Jesus makes it clear that the problem is not that we cannot see clearly, but that we believe that we can. ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin,’ says Jesus, ‘But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.’

Brian McLaren has a podcast series called, “Learning how to see” where he articulates some of the things that today are blocking our sight. He talks about many different forms of bias, including confirmation bias, complexity bias, and community bias. Confirmation bias, of which you are probably already aware, is where we see only what fits with what we already know or believe. Everyone does it- allows information that does not align with what we already think and believe to just float past us unseen and unrecognised. Psychologists suggest that this happens so quickly that it doesn’t become a conscious thought.

Complexity bias is where we prefer a simple lie to the complex truth. Particularly when we are confused, overwhelmed, anxious, not sure how to pay our bills or next week’s rent, humans are prone to grab quickly on to a simple answer because that is all we can handle. Opening our eyes to take in the more complex truth is impossible.

Community bias is where we only see what our community sees and fail to be open to what other communities see. How much is our understanding of community need, for example shaped by what we see in our local area? Allana gave a great example in her talk last Sunday of how our view of the Anglican church would be almost unrecognisable to the majority in the communion when the average Anglican worshipper is not a middle class, middle aged English gentleman, but a woman in her 30s living in sub-Saharan Africa on less than four dollars per day.

If we are to see with new eyes, these biases are a serious obstacle. In these days of Lent, we are given the metaphor of being born again, of drinking from a stream of living water that never runs dry and being granted eyes to see in new ways beyond our humanly limited vision. All speak of renewal, connection with the source of life and a transformation of the heart that leads to the transformation of our world- the kingdom of God.

Such transformation can never be something we achieve nor earn nor acquire through discipline alone. Being aware of the existence of our biases- acknowledging our blindness- is the beginning. A practice of slowing down long enough to really listen to one another and really try to see one another can be revealing. Openness is a start. Throughout this Gospel text we have the opposite on display; people more invested in maintaining their own version of truth and the simplicity of their own narrative than in seeing the truth that God was indeed present with them, offering the opportunity to accept grace, and be changed.

Our spiritual imagination gets shut down when we feel threatened or anxious. When we try to keep control of life by maintaining a consistent simple narrative or working to protect rigid ideologies, our religion can become a tool for that control. Jesus demonstrates again and again that the power of God to heal and make whole will never be controlled by human beings and will never be thwarted by human systems.

So much begins with a desire for truth and a willingness for the uncontrollable and uncontrolling God to be at work in the depths of our being.

In this use of the language of desire, not only am I back in the territory of last week’s sermon, but we are immediately in a space of heartfulness and prayer. This is Lent- a time where we hopefully turn with courage again to God, willing to see what we have not yet been able to see, willing to change in ways we have not yet been able to change. Willing to risk an encounter with the dazzling and exposing grace of God. I have said before that desire is the language of God, and one definition of prayer McLaren offers is ‘the intentional strengthening of desire’ – intentionally tuning into the word God would speak to us, with us, through us and amongst us. Tuning in, that God’s desire may become our desire.

I want to close with a prayer that acknowledges our need of the Spirit’s help if we are to see past our biases and reflect the desire of God in our lives. These words are from prayers offered by the Centre for Action and Contemplation podcast as they explored the idea of ‘Learning how to see’. So let us this Lent pray, facing our blindness and asking for the Spirit’s help;

Source of all truth, help us to hunger for truth, even if it upsets modifies or overturns what we already think is true.

Guide us into all the truth we can bear.

Stretch us to bear more, so that we may always choose the whole truth, even with disruption…the whole truth over half-truths with self-deception.

Grant us passion to follow wisdom wherever it leads.

Help us not be seduced by simple lies or repelled by complex truths.

Instead, teach us to seek out understanding as a hidden treasure.

May we delve deep beneath surface appearances to discover what is real in the depths.

Source of wonder, help us see with wonder.

Depth of mystery, help us find delight in truths so profound that they surpass all knowing.

Fountain of compassion, help us to see with compassion.

Bringer of justice, help us see with justice.

Revealer of truth, help us see what is real.

Holy wisdom whose presence fills our ever-expanding universe, help our horizons ever to expand. [1]

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on us. Grant us the grace to see.  Amen

[1] https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/learning-how-to-see-with-brian-mclaren/id1532685433