A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 18, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: John 9
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

John does tell a good story. I suppose one could reduce this story to three lines: Once upon a time there was a man who was born blind. Jesus saw him and said, “Here’s mud in your eye.” The man said, “Wow! So that’s what pizza looks like.” The end.

Well, four lines, with the “the end.” I prefer to think of this story as having three acts.

Act One: The Healing. Jesus and his disciples encounter this man born blind. The disciples see the man as an object. Let’s talk about him, not to him. “Who sinned,” they ask, “the man or his parents?” They think there has to be an explanation about this suffering.

Jesus says, wrong question. This is not about judgment; this is about compassion. This is an opportunity to express love. He sees the man and literally touches him. In his act, the man gains the ability to see.

Fr. Samuel Candler wrote: “What an amazing way to interpret human need or suffering! When Jesus sees someone in need, he does not use that person’s plight to develop a political or moral agenda. Jesus sees opportunity, a chance to recognize God’s work. God’s work is revealed, not in moral statement, but in an act of mercy, in an act which pays close attention to the need itself.”[1] And I would add, an act which pays close attention to the person herself or himself.

Act Two: Trouble at the Synagogue. Jesus isn’t part of this act; he and the disciples have walked off stage. In this act, the man who had just been blind gets into trouble. “Is this him, the man we knew who was born blind who we used to see begging?” They can’t believe their eyes – our first clue that this story is about blindness, but not of the man born blind.

The people want to know how it happened. He tells them. They want to know about this Jesus guy – who is he? The man replies that he doesn’t know. They call in the Pharisees. The Pharisees get all upset that this happened on the Sabbath. There’s renewed doubt about the healing being authentic. The parents are brought in (and they don’t want to get involved). Under continued questioning from the Pharisees, the man moves from saying, “a guy named Jesus did this,” to saying that Jesus is definitely “from God.” And for that testimony, he gets thrown out of the synagogue.

Act Three: The Return of Jesus. Jesus hears that the man has been thrown out of the synagogue and, like the shepherd seeking out the one lost sheep, he returns. He talks with the man and the man becomes a follower of Jesus.

Then we get to the tough part of the story. “Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’
Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’
Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains.’”

It’s so easy for me to identify with the man born blind. I know I’m growing in my understanding. I know I’m growing in my relationship with God. I know I’m growing in my relationship with Jesus. The thing is, I want to be the blind man after he can see, but these final words of Jesus remind me that if I think I can see it all now, that means I’m being blind to something.

If I didn’t have other things to do, I could spend all day Saturday listening to KQED-FM. Without a doubt, my favorite show from Saturday’s line-up is “This American Life.” Yesterday’s episode was titled “Batman” and if you listen to podcasts, I recommend getting this one.[2] The show was about expectations and how our expectations of others shape how they perform. As a case in point, they investigated the impacts of sighted people’s expectations of blind people on those blind people. It turns out that the impact is real.

Daniel Kish

The program begins by introducing us to Daniel Kish, a man who had to have his eyes removed because of cancer at a very, very young age. As a toddler, he started quite naturally making clicking noises with his tongue and started listening to his clicking to “see.” He uses echolocation to navigate. It has allowed him to do things like ride a bike.

The part of the show that I think really relates to today’s sermon is how Daniel’s brain processes the echoes he creates. Lore Thaler, a German neuroscientist at Durham University in the United Kingdom studies vision in the brain, literally how the images we see are constructed. She knows a ton about the visual cortex.

She wondered what was happening in the visual cortex of someone who is blind and uses echolocation. So she brought Daniel and a few other people who can echolocate into her lab and she put microphones in their ears and made stereo recordings of them echolocating various objects. She had them echolocate things like a car, a lamppost, a salad bowl, and a salad bowl in motion (hanging from a fishing rod). Then she put her test subjects in fMRI machines and played back the recordings through stereo earphones and watched what happened in their brains. And she compared those readings to what happens in sighted people’s brains when they visually locate the same objects.

For decades neuroscientists have assumed that the visual cortex goes dark when you’re blind. Daniel’s was lighting up like a disco ball.

It turns out that there are all these different parts of the brain involved in vision. So there’s an area that’s specifically dedicated to processing motion, and that’s way over behind the ears. And then there are completely different areas for shape, for texture, for how bright something is. And in Daniel’s brain, many of these areas were lighting up. The color and brightness had no action. But motion, when he was echolocating the salad bowl in motion, the motion area behind the ears started pumping with blood flow. He was, in essence, “seeing” the movement of the salad bowl.

I thought about that old saying, “There are no so blinds as those who will not see.” It turns out that the saying is not from the Bible. It resembles Jeremiah 5:21, but it actually only goes back to 1713 and the “Works of Thomas Chalkley.”[3] Regardless of its origins, it just seems so apropos.

Daniel Kish is not just blind; he has no eyes. And yet, he sees.

Jacques Lusseyran

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor tells about Jacques Lusseyran, a Frenchman who was not born blind, but who became blind after a grade school fight. While most of the people around him thought his blindness was a total disaster, his parents did not. They kept him in the public school and his mother learned Braille with him. They never described him as “unfortunate.”

Soon after his accident, his father said, “Always tell us when you discover something.” “In this way, Lusseyran learned that he was not a poor blind boy but the discoverer of a new world, in which the light outside of him moved inside to show him things he might never have found any other way.… ‘The only way I can describe that experience is in clear and direct words,’ he wrote. ‘I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there. Its source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread out over the world. I had only to receive it. It was unavoidably there. It was all there, and I found again it’s movements and shades, that is, its colors, which I had loved so passionately a few weeks before.

“‘This was something entirely new, you understand, all the more so since it contradicted everything that those who have eyes believe. The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.’”[4]

Lusseyran learned to “attend so carefully to the world around him that he confounded his friends by describing things he could not see. He could tell trees apart by the sounds of their shadows. He could tell how tall or wide a wall was by the pressure it exerted on his body.”[5]

One of the greatest discoveries he made “was how the light he saw changed with his inner condition. When he was sad or afraid, the light decreased at once. Sometimes it went out altogether, leaving him deeply and truly blind. When he was joyful and attentive, it returned as strong as ever. He learned very quickly that the best way to see the inner light and remain in its presence was to love.

“In January 1944, the Nazis captured Lusseyran and shipped him to Buchenwald along with two thousand of his countrymen. Yet even there he learned how hate worked against him, not only darkening his world but making it smaller as well. When he let himself become consumed with anger, he started running into things, slamming into walls, and tripping over furniture. When he called himself back to attention, the space both inside and outside of him opened up so that he found his way and moved with ease again. The most valuable thing he learned was that no one could turn out the light inside him without his consent. Even when he lost track of it for a while, he knew where he could find it again.”[6]

It is so easy to interpret today’s scripture lesson as a teaching about spiritual blindness. Our story ends with Jesus saying, “I have come into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” How do we hear these words? As a threat? As a promise? As a hope?

At the very least, these words make me wonder if my seeing has made me blind – “by giving me confidence that one quick glance at things can tell me what they are, by distracting me from learning how the light inside me works, by fooling me into thinking I have a clear view of how things really are, of where the road leads, of who can see rightly and who cannot. I am not asking to become blind, but I have become a believer. There is a light that shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.”[7]

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind by now I see.” That is one of the ways grace works – it finds us and give us sight. And I’ll sing those words with you in just a moment. But if I’m right, that there is a celestial brightness that has nothing to do with sight, we may need to add a verse. We may need to sing something like, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a soul like me. You lead me gently to the dark, and there your glory see.”


[1] Samuel G. Candler, “There Was a Man Born Blind,” http://www.day1.net/?view=transcripts&tid=692 (accessed 1 March 2008).

[2] Or you can listen to it online at http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/544/batman

[3] See http://www.actualfreedom.com.au/richard/abditorium/nonesoblind.htm (accessed 16 December 2014).

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 103-104.

[5] Ibid, 104.

[6] Ibid, 106-107.

[7] Ibid, 108.