The thing that got me was the dark. It was pitch black—so dark, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. My friends and I were crammed into an impossibly small space, after having been forced to climb down a rickety ladder into this unknown space. I felt completely disoriented, and uncertain how to respond.
The experience I’m describing was part of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage taken last summer with Central and Peoples Presbyterian Church. What I thought was going to be an informational tour of Selma, Alabama and its touchpoints with the struggle for equality and justice, turned out to be a simulation of the “middle passage”–the harrowing involuntary journey of Africans from their home into enslavement in the United States. The darkness of the simulated ship’s hold became a metaphor of all I did not know about a history spanning over 400 years, involving the lives of twelve and half million human beings directly and incalculable consequences throughout succeeding generations.
The process of enlightenment is often long and difficult, sometimes punctuated with an epiphany—an “ah ha!” moment—but often a slow slog toward insight and the dawn of knowledge, making our way through uncomfortable conversations with others, engaging new material, asking questions without easy answers, letting go of certainty, embracing possibility and…change.
Our morning text is a story of spiritual enlightenment. I’m going to read it in sections to preserve its unfolding process—and the variety of ways we are able to participate….or not. Rather than reading along, I invite you to sit with your eyes closed while I read the first section. You’ll know when to open them. A reading from the good news according to John in the ninth chapter. Listen for God’s Word of light and life.
[READ John 9:1-12]
I once was blind, but now I see. . . . .
Well, this is a very literal portrayal of a spiritual process. Here is a person born blind receiving eyesight. You (if you chose) were sitting in darkness and at a word of healing, opened them again to the sun-dappled sanctuary. The Bible is full of stories of people healed of physical illness or infirmity by the power of God. In Judaism, one of the marks of the promised Messiah was the ability to bring sight to the blind. As healing stories go, this is a good one. I hope it puts to rest forever equating human suffering with divine punishment, karmic justice, or balancing cosmic scales. Nope. We live in a universe where accidents happen, chaos and disorder sometimes appear to dominate, and things occur by random chance. This is one of the few questions Jesus is asked that he answers immediately and directly. No. The blindness of this man is not the result of human sin. He’s quick to add that there is no human place apart from God’s intention to redeem. That’s why God sent “the light of the world” to break through the barriers, pain and dirt that keep us in the dark. (a minister friend entitled his sermon on this text “Here’s Mud in Your Eye.” )
This part of the text concludes inconclusively. Well, where is this wonder-worker? I do not know.
But there’s more: [READ John 9:13-17]
Aha! Is there a force that can cast shade on a good thing faster than religious orthodoxy? You broke the rule. It’s against the natural order of things. You’re not allowed to say that, do that, be that. Jesus has worked a miracle and all they can “see” is that he worked on the Sabbath. The things is, friends, you probably won’t get enlightened if you don’t want to be enlightened—-if you’re satisfied with the status quo and certain of the way things are. Then any perspective questioning or challenging that certainty is perceived as a threat. A threat to be silenced, ridiculed and demeaned, and all too often, cause for slamming the door shut to preserve what’s inside. How tragic when that door cancels access to the church. But I’ve also observed people who describe themselves as “free” from institutional membership who are just as rigid in their perspective as those Pharisees. My mind is made up. No matter where you stand, enlightenment requires some openness to learning; a posture of insecurity and willingness to explore further. The former blind man reflects this as me moves from “I don’t know” to “he is speaking and acting on behalf of God, so maybe he’s a prophet.”
The text—and the journey—continue. It’s important to remember that the term “The Jews” in this gospel does not refer to a particular ethnic group or its religious beliefs, but instead identifies the powerful synagogue rulers allied with Rome. [READ John 9:18-34]
The rich dialog of this section reflects the growing distance between the ones who think they know and the ones who are becoming aware of what they know. As the religious leaders become more adamant in their repetition of their knowledge, their blindness becomes more apparent (and more like concrete). As the former blind man bears witness to his truth (I was blind, but now I see) he comes to know more. Whether these conversations happened immediately or summarize continuing conflict, we get it: sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes it cuts us off from those who cling to familiar patterns and structures. The former blind man becomes a guide for us by modeling a posture of openness to learning more. We see it in his growing witness to Jesus as the source of his sight. Certainty, friends, is the enemy of faith by driving out any doubt, anything that contradicts what is claimed as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help us, God!
The religious leaders lost a wonderful opportunity for their own spiritual growth by refusing to engage with the healed man. They could not imagine how he—an unschooled and economically poor beggar had anything at all to teach them, affluent, educated leaders who just knew. The recent death of singer/songwriter David Crosby brought to my mind a song (from 1969) that for many young people became an interpretive bridge between generations in conflict. Teach your children well, the first verse admonished elders. The second one is addressed to youth: teach your parents well. A plea for both to listen to each other and receive the particular gifts each has to offer. Tellingly, both verses end the same way—with an acknowledgement that there is much we don’t understand (so just look at them and sigh…) but there is one thing we do (….and know they love you).
Friends, love is the key to all spiritual enlightenment. In the end it didn’t (doesn’t) matter how one receives sight and insight. What matters is how you’ve been healed and changed and what difference that makes in yourself, in your family, in the community. Though the now-sighted man is banished from the blind leaders, he is not alone. [READ John 9:35-38: The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God]
So what do you know? Jesus would have us believe it’s not the law, or the creeds, not institutional power or confidence in our knowledge and superior wisdom that brings us enlightenment. Grace takes the place of certainty. Well, what do you know?!!! When I hunched in the dark hold of that simulated slave ship, uneasy and out of my role as one of the leaders, I felt a hand slip into mine and take hold tightly—the hand of 14-year-old Aubrey. She seemed to say “It’s okay. We’re here together.” Now, there would be much more to consider, to learn, to engage in the days ahead. Truths that shines light on painful and horrific realities about institutionalized racism and how we go about repairing and restoring beloved community. A journey that continues. But in that moment when my vision was compromised and my mind was crying out with questions, Aubrey’s hand became the grace whereby I too could say, Oh Lord, I believe.