Sermon -- John 9.1-41
Blind Man''s Bluff
You probably remember the game you used to play as children called ""Blind Man''s Bluff."" If you remember, the rules are that the one who is ""it"" would have a blindfold placed over his/her eyes while the others milled around the room. When the person blindfolded touched someone, that person would then become ""it."" The more people in the room, the more fun the game was. And for the ones not blindfolded, the key was to stay away from the one who was ""it."" It was almost like playing tag in the dark. I don''t about you, but when I was ""it,"" I always peeked (maybe I''m just naïïve here, did everybody peek?). You see, I hate losing and so when I peeked I could always tag someone. The fun of the game for me was being ""it"" and still being able to tag someone. For me, it wasn''t really a blind game but a peeking game (I won''t deal here with the ramifications of cheating in group games or the ethical dilemma that cheating is such games may or may not present; actually I was told a youth directors'' training event once that the major rule for youth games was just that -- cheat!). And so it goes when playing innocuous childhood games.
This text tells the story of another blind man, but this time there''s no ""bluff."" There''s no cheating. In fact, it''s not a game at all. What takes place is an encounter with Jesus the Christ that changes his life forever. The story is told in typical Johannine fashion. It''s a well laid out dramatic story, familiar to ancient readers of drama. In some ways, this text doesn''t even need to be preached. The story begs to be told as it makes its own claims both theologically and for preaching (Texts for Preaching 216). The story unfolds with seven scenes as follows:
Scene 1 -- Jesus heals the man blind from birth.
Scene 2 -- the man''s neighbors question him.
Scene 3 -- the Pharisees question him.
Scene 4 -- the Pharisees question the man''s parents.
Scene 5 -- the Pharisees question the blind man a second time.
Scene 6 -- Jesus questions the man about his healing and his faith.
Scene 7 -- Jesus responds to the Pharisees.
This is a classic way that the Johannine author spins the story. It is done in such a way that the analogies and dualisms are clear -- sight vs. blindness, faith vs. unbelief. It is done in such a way that Jesus is about the work of God. And using another tool common to this Gospel, Jesus is the one who gives life. It is a paradox of sorts. The man who was born blind receives his sight -- even if at first he doesn''t understand, he eventually comes to terms with his faith. So in the story, the blind man is the one who really sees. Conversely, the Pharisees (or ""the Jews) are the ones who claim see. They are the ones who have kept the Law of Moses. They didn''t break Sabbath as this one who made mud and touched the sinful blind man. They even told the man who could now see that he was still a sinner and expelled him (some texts say ""they threw him out""). Jesus said the fact that they thought they could see was a clear sign that they were indeed blind. If it were not for the well laid out sequence of the scenes, this text would indeed be difficult to unpack. Such was the extent of their ""blindness,"" the text says that the Pharisees were expelling anyone who was a sinner, like this man in the story and such was the fear of the parents.
Before we come down too harshly on the Pharisees however, it''s important to take stock of our own context. Who are the ones in our contexts who are blind? Who are the ones in our settings who claim to have all the answers? Who are the ones who are righteous, upstanding citizens never violating a speed limit much less the Ten Commandments? If we''re honest, we would have to look in the mirror to find those persons. If we''re honest, we still struggle with the ones God still chooses to do the work of healing and acceptance. If we''re honest, we too get a little uncomfortable when we find the Christ moving and working in the ghettos and among the poor rather than in our high-steeple places of security called church.
One area where this seems to still hit us in the face is in the area of race relations. Most of our mainline denominations like to think we''re doing a better than average job in this area. After all, we are inclusive of persons of other races. After all, we function under what we United Methodists call ""open itinerancy;"" we champion ourselves as a Church who will assign pastors across racial and economic lines. And we pat ourselves on the back and feel satisfied. But if we''re really honest, we see that we still have much work to do. Instead we pretend that racism in our church structures and hierarchies does not exist. In this story we would be the ones who are blind.
Another area where racism is still an issue is in the world of sports. A recent article in Sports Illustrated deals with the ongoing struggle among racial minority athletes. Charles Barkley, the African-American former NBA star, was interviewed and it was received with a storm of controversy (not to mention the cover photo of him dressed in slave attire, breaking out of chains). Barkley, a long outspoken figure in the NBA, was clear of his intentions. He commented how other figures like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods do not speak out, but the problem is there. According to Barkley, it is understood among African-American athletes that there exists a double standard. Barkley is also clear of his current role, We need black athletes to speak out. Michael could do it and Tiger could do it, but you have to be willing to be ridiculed. I''m willing to be ridiculed. . . . We need influential black leaders. That''s what I want to be. I''ve been given a special gift, and it''s not just to have 50 million dollars in the bank when I die. I want to do something else, make a difference. I have to speak out, even if some people [get angry] at it. I don''t think everybody''s going to like me, and I don''t think I''m right all the time. But I''m going to say what I feel and what I think. (Sports Illustrated 37).
I think Barkley is right. I think we have been blinded by the issue of racism in sports. Sixty-one years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, we still struggle with the race issue. And for too long, as Barkley suggests, it''s time to open our eyes. It''s time to see things as they are. And like the one in the John''s story, when God gives sight to someone in the midst of blindness, things are not always easy. And as we will see later in the Gospel, things can become life threatening, even to the point of death on a cross.
It seems to me that our churches need to do the same. We need to speak out, not just about racism, but about hatred, economic oppression, ageism, and the list goes on. If we''re honest, most of us in our churches believe we have hit made, but in reality we are blind to the pain and struggle in our world. In our comfortable places we continue to exist with the status quo. We don''t make waves. We meet our own needs, while neglecting the needs of the community and world. Though we think we have it made, we are in reality the ones born blind. But the good news is that the same Jesus who healed the man in the story still comes to us to offer sight. The Christ still meets us and touches us, and opens our eyes, and we come to a realization in both our faith and mission. We find ourselves being like the Pharisees who get so caught up in the rules and regulations to not see that there are people in our midst who need us.
I don''t agree with everything Charles Barkley says or does. But I''m thankful that he''s playing a different game now. He''s not playing ""blind man''s bluff."" He''s playing for real. He''s taking off the blindfold and he wants us to see what he sees -- the truth and reality in his context. Charles Barkley concludes the article by saying, Look, I''d be crazy if I didn''t realize it''s different for me most of the time because I have money and a platform and fame. And once you get those things, you have to stand up, because poor black people -- poor people of any color -- can''t stand up for themselves. I was having lunch with Ramsey Lewis one night and he told me something I never forgot. ""When you get to the top, don''t forget to send the elevator back down."" Well, I''m sending the elevator back down. That''s my goal. (38).
I think Charles sees now. I think not only the chains have been broken, but his blinders have been removed as well. Now he sees the world of sports as it is. If we truly want to ""see"" then we too must remove our blinders. God wants to open our eyes. God wants to heal us. But we have to do our part. We have to be willing to be healed, and we have to ""see"" perhaps for the first time. When we do, I think we will have the opportunity to reach out and touch those around us. Then we will be like the one in the story who saw Jesus up close -- both with eyes of awareness and eyes of faith. May God open our eyes and the eyes of those in our midst. May God open the eyes of our church in all the ways we think we see. When we do this, and borrowing from the United Methodist media campaign, then I think we''ll see that not only our eyes will be open, but we''ll also have ""Open hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.""
Brueggeman, Walter, et al. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
McCallum, Jack. ""Citizen Barkley"" in Sports Illustrated, March 11, 2002, pp. 32-38.