Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
John 9:1-7 A Man Born Blind Receives Sight
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
I’m not sure if I saw it when it first aired, but there is an episode of the tv show Designing Women that has stuck with me for about 35 years. It originally aired in October of 1987, early enough in the AIDS crisis era where there few treatments and so many untimely deaths. Designing Women was a show about a group of women who ran a design firm in Atlanta. In this episode, a young man, who is also a designer and friendly with the women in the firm, comes to this with a sad request: he is dying of AIDS and would like them to help plan his funeral. After some hesitation, as they aren’t a church or funeral home, they agree. After all, he is their friend.
Over the course of the episode, the young man, named Kendall, stops in the office to go over some details of the service. A few things happen that he doesn’t expect. First, the character Charlene shakes his hand. If you remember anything about how people with AIDS were treated in 1987, you might remember that people, including their nurses, were often afraid to touch them. This young man deserved care and the writer of the show wanted to be clear it was safe for Charlene, who was a deeply kind character, to offer him that measure of welcome and respect.
The second thing that happens is less positive. There is a homophobic woman there, another client of the firm, who overhears the conversation about the funeral and decides to say something terrible to Kendall. She says that gay men like him are getting what they deserve: "As far as I'm concerned, this disease has one thing going for it: it's killing all the right people." When I was reading up on this episode, I learned that Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the creator of the show and writer of this episode, had written that line because she heard a nurse say almost the very same thing when Bloodworth-Thomason was visiting her own mother, who was dying of AIDS, in the hospital. Imagine being a nurse and having this much disdain for your patients. Imagine thinking they deserved to suffer this way.
Well, if you know anything about Designing Women, you would know that the women in the firm would not let that hatefulness go unaddressed. Julia scoops her up, dragging her to the door, and tells her off, saying that if God was handing out illness because of sin, “you would be at the free clinic all the time! And so would the rest of us!” And, Suzanne, Julia’s sister, corrects some of Imogene’s misinformation. And, Bernice, a character who is often portrayed as confused, but with a strong moral compass, makes it clear that the homophobe is lacking the compassion it takes to really be a Christian. Julia slams the door on the homophobe, making it clear that she is no longer welcome as a client of Sugarbaker and Associates.
I was somewhere between 7 and 10 years old when I saw this episode for the first time. Obviously, it made an impression. I remembered it when I began to think about today’s scripture, which is the beginning of a longer story about one man who was disabled and his community’s response to his illness and his healing. Turns out that plenty of people believed he must have deserved to be disabled.... that he must have done something wrong to be suffering. But, Jesus made it clear that his blindness was not a punishment, and, showed his disciples, and the broader community, that this man was in need of healing, not condemnation.
Who is to blame? That’s what the disciples are really asking when they see a man who has been born blind and wonder if the blindness is because he sinned or because his parents sinned. The disciples, like a lot of us, assume that people get what they deserve. If someone has had something bad happen to them, that person, or the people they love, must have deserved it. And, they don’t even seem to be talking to the guy. They are just talking about him, while he is in earshot, as though his ailment is simply an object lesson in a theological argument... as though he was an object and not a person who could be talked with or helped as he struggled. In the devotional on this text, Bruce Reye-Chow argues that, in treating this man’s ailment as a thought experiment rather than an opportunity to offer mercy and care, it leads to the disciples asking the wrong question, “who is to blame,” rather than the right question: “how can we reflect God’s love in this moment?” Thankfully, and unsurprisingly, Jesus’ knows how to respond not just to their wrong question, but to the right one as well.
Remember, seeing is believing in John. In her book on John, Karoline Lewis argues that seeing Jesus perform a sign or miracle is a gateway into believing he is the Messiah. Being healed yourself is a gateway, too. The restoration of this man’s sight will become his gateway into a relationship with Jesus. Jesus spits on the ground and takes the mud he created and wipes it on the man's eyes. We all know that healing can be messy sometimes, can’t it? Then, he tells the man to go to a particular pool in the city and wash his face. The man made his way across the city, covered in spit and mud, and washed his face. Suddenly, he was able to see for the first time in his whole life.
Our reading stops at this point, but the story goes on into chapter 10. The short version of the rest of the story is that this man’s neighbors and leaders in his community are suspicious of his healing and of Jesus. They refuse to trust what they see because they’d rather go on believing that people get what they deserve than have to change their minds about illness and healing. The formerly blind man will call Jesus a prophet and say that he believes Jesus to be from God. The ones who don’t agree with him drive him out of the synagogue, his own religious community,
Imagine: seeing someone you’ve known your whole life be healed from a life-limiting condition, and being so afraid and annoyed that you don’t understand how it happened that you would be willing kick that person out of community? Imagine thinking that you should make him suffer isolation because of your own limited understanding.
While Julia Sugarbaker welcomed her friend into community by shutting a door on a bigot, Jesus welcomed the formerly blind man into a new community by opening the door for him to become a disciple. Later in this story, upon hearing that the man was cast out, Jesus goes looking for him and welcomes him with open arms to become part of his disciples. Lewis talks about this as Jesus helping frame belief as a relational category, not an intellectual one. This man believes that Jesus is from God because he can now see because Jesus first saw him and knew he needed care. And, his belief leads him into an on-going relationship with Jesus.
I pray that we may not mistake an opportunity for healing as a place for condemnation. I pray that we seek out the answer to the question “how can we heal and help,” rather than distract ourselves with the search for “who is to blame.” May we march bigots to the door, and welcome the ones whom Jesus has seen and loved with open arms. And, may we always try to see our neighbors with the eyes of Christ.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
A summary of the episode of Designing Women: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_All_the_Right_People
The scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VW5-IErNxuM&t=21s
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.