As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.
There are many ways of seeing and many forms of blindness. Our physical faculties aren’t the only thing that affects vision. Our emotional state influences what we can and cannot see, as does the level of anxiety within and around us, and where we stand relative to whatever it is we are looking at. The norms of the society we belong to play a role in what we see and cannot see, as does the cost of acknowledging what we see.
With vision, there is a choice to be made, and often a price to pay. One biblical commentator, Gail O’ Day, makes this last point regarding the lengthy story we’ve just read:
“The man born blind. . .has nothing to lose in the encounter with Jesus and so is open to who Jesus is and what Jesus has to offer. The Pharisees, in contrast, have much to lose and therefore much to protect, and they fight to maintain their known world.”1
I’m reminded here of a story that Anthony de Mello tells of a monk who died and was buried by his fellow monks in the tradition of their monastery, in a crypt on the back wall of their chapel. After the funeral service, they heard noises from the other side of the wall. They reopened the crypt, and the monk who died rose from the coffin and told them of his experience beyond the grave, which contradicted everything their tradition taught about life after death. So, they put him back in the wall.2
Receiving one’s sight can be life-giving–as it was for the man born blind, and others we read of in the New Testament whose physical blindness Jesus healed. But it can also be a jarring experience, particularly when we now see something that we hadn’t seen before that is upsetting to us, or challenging, or traumatizing.
I was blessed this week to be given an advanced copy of a new biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. written by the investigative journalist, Jonathan Eig. It’s over 500 pages long and I’m just getting started, but the first chapters have been amazing, because it begins by telling the story of King’s grandparents, born in chattel slavery, and his parents. His father was born into a sharecropper’s family, which he left to pursue a call to ministry and a life in the city of Atlanta. He was among the giants of his generation to fight for justice and dignity for Black Americans.
Martin Luther King, Jr.–born in the same year that this church (St. George’s, DC) had its beginnings–had the good fortune of being born and raised on Auburn Avenue, where Black teachers, doctors, business owners in Atlanta lived, and whose children were temporarity shielded from the racial violence that erupted with regularity in the Jim Crow South. He grew up in a loving multi-generational household by educated parents in a stable marriage. His parents were proud of their heritage and instilled that pride in their children. They also taught them to treat all people with respect and kindness.
Across the street from the King home, there was a small grocery store owned by a white family. When King was three years old, he and the son of the store owner became playmates. Three years later, when they went to separate schools, King still sought the other boy’s companionship in the evenings and on weekends. But friendship faded, and King struggled to understand why. “That’s when the boy told the young King that it wasn’t just the start of school that caused the separation; but the color of his skin. The boy was no longer permitted to play with Black children.”3
King was stunned. “For the first time I was made aware of the existence of a race problem,” he would later write. “I had never been conscious of it before.” His mother assured him, “You are as good as anyone,” which signaled for him that there were people who would think otherwise, simply because he was Black. “From that moment on, I was determined to hate every white person.”4
When, as an adult, King told this story of his racial awakening, he used it to underscore the fact that children are not born racist; racism had to be taught. Different skin colors had been assigned unequal values that predetermined what people saw when looking upon a white or Black child. But King refused to see himself the way white society did, and he refused to accept racism as the lens through which to see others. The more people challenged him, the stronger his convictions became. “His determination to hate every white person faded quickly, but his determination to fight racism never diminished.”5
I tell you this story about King’s childhood trauma, as one of the foundational moments of his life, because it highlights the gift and the cost of holding true to one’s vision, one’s understanding of truth, whenever there is great pressure to deny that truth for the sake of maintaining things as they are. This is one of many of the underlying messages of today’s gospel story of the man born blind.
It’s helpful to remember that the author of the Gospel of John always has several things going on at once in his storytelling. On the surface, it’s a story about healing, not unlike other accounts in the New Testament in which Jesus restores sight to the blind. But in this story, one of the striking elements is that after Jesus heals the blind man, he disappears and leaves the formerly blind man to speak for himself. The man was the one brought to the religious authorities for questioning about what Jesus did; and his parents were interrogated. The Pharisees were as upset about this man’s witness as they were about what Jesus did. As the challenges become more harsh and threatening, the man seems to grow in confidence and clarity. So this is a story about healing, but also about how we are called, as followers of Jesus, to give witness to the truth.6
I wonder what truth–what vision–you are called to give witness to in your life, and at what cost. What do you see that those around you don’t, or refuse to see? What is it like for you to hold that truth, to remain true to what God has given you to see?
Yesterday I was at a meeting of lay and clergy leaders in Southern Maryland, to consider ways that we might organize ourselves differently as The Episcopal Church in Southern Maryland so that those called to leadership might have an easier time with the many responsibilities and burdens they shoulder. As is our custom now, we began the meeting with small table conversations reflecting on questions of faith, using these Path of Discipleship cards. The card I chose had this question:
What struggle or doubt or question of faith are you learning to live with without receiving an answer?
What I said to my table group is this: I don’t have answers for all the big questions in my heart about the nature of this world, the suffering of humankind, and the mysteries of the universe, and I can’t pretend that the faith I have in Jesus is large enough to answer all those questions. And so I have great empathy for those who do not believe in Him or want to pursue a life in the church, particularly when so many of our so-called “answers” are too small. But nor can I give up on Jesus. And to quote other Christian authors that I read this week, “I want to be more like Jesus when I grow up.”7 I want to love like Him, forgive like Him, stand for truth as He did, and be willing to suffer for love’s sake.
There’s more to my answer that I didn’t say to the group, but was at the heart of the meeting yesterday and indeed, at the heart of my work among you as bishop for the years I have left. I don’t know what the Episcopal churches in the Diocese of Washington will look like when I’m gone, when all of us are on the other side of Jordan. But I want nothing more than for our churches to embody His love in such compelling ways that others will see something of Him in us, not because we’re so great, but because we allow His love to shine through our brokenness and sin.
I’m willing to live without knowing, but just as I’m not willing to give up on Jesus, I’m not willing to give up on us. I can’t help but believe that we can rise to this moment, face challenging truths and adapt in ways that will allow us to thrive and be part of Jesus’ mission of transforming, selfless love.
Adapting includes reckoning, coming to terms, yet again, with dimensions of our racist past and the enduring embedded manifestations of racism. It includes acknowledging that the ways we are organized now are not as fruitful and life-giving as we need in order for us to be that compelling witness to Christ’s love. It includes recognizing that we, too, are tempted to blind ourselves to the truths we need to face.
So that’s me.
Let me ask again: what vision has God given you, and what does it cost you to remain true to what you see amid the pressures of conformity? Might there be something that you know is true, but that you haven’t been able to acknowledge fully yet, for fear of the cost, and Jesus is inviting you to be brave? Or perhaps part of your vocation now is to support and encourage others to stand firm in what they see. Remember the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s family and the legacy of his ancestors. Might we be such a source of courage for those coming up behind us?
Allow me to pray for us all:
Gracious God, we thank you for the costly gift of vision. Help us remain true to the insights you have given us, and remain true to who Jesus is. Forgive us for all the ways we refuse to see out of fear. Give us the courage to grow in faith, so that we might speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, through your beloved Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
1Gail O’Day, The Word Disclosed, quoted in A Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, by David F. Ford (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 190.
2Anthony de Mello, Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations (New York: Doubleday, 1988)
3Jonathan Eig, King: A LIfe (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), 27
6This insight about the formerly blind man’s witness to faith comes from David Ford, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, pp. 189-202.
7Matt Sternke and Matt Tebbe, Having the Mind of Christ: Eight Axioms to a Robust Faith (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2022), 3.