Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Richard D. Freeman
Community Congregational Church (UCC)
Chula Vista, California
Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 30, 2014
A number of years ago, there was an article in the New York Times Magazine concerning a group of more than 100 women residing in Long Beach, California, who were witnesses to the horror of the Pol Pot Regime. They were Cambodian refugees and classified as certifiably blind even though doctors say their eyes function perfectly well. These sightless women suffer from psychosomatic or hysterical blindness. They are really blind, but their blindness stems from their minds.
Psychosomatic disorders are nothing new. We know that the state of our mind can affect our speech, our hearing and our memory as well as our sight. Scientists really do not understand this phenomenon, only that it shows the power of the mind over the body. One researcher attempted to explain the refugees’ disorder as follows: “Losing eyesight makes sense if you are trying to escape the stress of a situation . . . At the movie theater you don’t cover your ears when grotesque violence comes on the screen. You’ll always cover your eyes.”
These women have eyes that function normally, still they cannot see. Hold that thought in your mind for a moment. We will come back to it.
Have you heard of a phenomenon called “blindsight?” Studies show that certain blind people, sightless as the result of stroke or brain injury, rather than damage to the eye, can do a remarkable thing. If an object is put in front of them and if they are asked to reach for the object, they will say it is impossible, since they cannot see it. But if they can be persuaded to TRY, they will find the object with a sureness that amazes even themselves.
This uncanny ability is called “blindsight.” It turns out these people theoretically have superb vision, but they don’t know they can see, according to Anthony Marcel, a psychologist at Cambridge University who has done research on blindsight. The brain damage that has rendered these patients blind is not in those areas that have to do with seeing per se. Technically their vision is fine. What their eye sees, however, is never transmitted to the part of the brain that brings vision into awareness. They can see, they just don’t know it.
Having eyes, but unable to see. The women from Cambodia were sightless because their minds had subconsciously closed out horrific images they did not want to see. Those having blindsight also have healthy eyes, but because of damage to other parts of their neurological system they are not aware of the images their eyes are transmitting.
Our lesson from John’s Gospel is about a man who was sightless. As far as we know, people in Bible times knew nothing about psychosomatic illness nor did they know about neurological damage. Their explanation for any form of suffering was that someone must have sinned. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (John 9:3) It would be easy to pass the sightless man by, wouldn’t it, if he were in his situation because of sin? It’s much easier to ignore people’s misery if they are there because of their own bad choices. Jesus would have none of that.
Let’s begin by noting that Jesus saw this blind man. This is an important point. We are talking about seeing and Jesus SAW the blind man. I can guarantee you that other people passed this man every day and never saw him. They never tried to help him or even to relate to him. They acted like he wasn’t even there. Isn’t that the way it is when someone has a handicap condition of any sort or is different from us in some way? Don’t we shy away? Don’t we hurriedly pass on by? Not out of any kind of ill feelings but simply because we don’t know how to react. We’re afraid we will say the wrong thing.
I enjoyed reading about a luncheon visit Joni Eareckson Tada had with a group of inner-city pastors from Chicago. Joni was left paralyzed many years ago from a diving accident. As she talked about disability ministry with these inner-city pastors, she couldn’t help wondering, “Now am I supposed to say African-American? Or would they prefer black?’ Hmmm . . .it’s OK,” she thought, “to say people of color.’ ” Joni thought about her husband, Ken, who is of Japanese descent. His mother prefers the word “oriental” while he prefers “Asian,” but his dad liked the term “Japanese-American.”
Joni continued talking to the pastors about the subject of disabilities. The subject of color didn’t come up. Later on when the subject of Hispanic churches was discussed, Joni says she got a tad tongue-tied between the words “Hispanic” and “Latino.” She decided then to ask the pastors how they wished to be referred to, whether as “black” or “African-American.”
To her surprise, they slapped the table and laughed out loud. The pastors had been wrestling with some questions of their own. During lunch, they had watched Joni being fed a sandwich by her friend. They wondered, “Now when we refer to her, are we supposed to say handicapped?’ Or physically challenged?’ I know we’re not supposed to refer to her as a cripple or an invalid. But which is it?”
One of the pastors said, “We were itching to know all during lunch how you wanted to be called . . .all those fancy terms … we didn’t want to say the wrong thing and were wondering what was right!” Together, Joni and these pastors had a good laugh over their mutual awkwardness.
We have a similar situation in our congregation. Some of our members are Filipino and we refer to them as Filipino, Asian, or Pacific Islanders.
Will we ever come to the point when we see other people simply as human beings? Will we ever come to the point when we look beyond our differences and see each other as children of God?
Jesus SAW the blind man. That’s the first thing we need to see. He did not try to hurry by him or ignore him. He did not see him as somehow different or unworthy. He saw him as a precious human soul. Jesus saw the man.
And Jesus healed him. Let’s not miss that. Jesus healed him. What a great gift Jesus bestowed upon this sightless man. He healed him.
James Kraft, a renowned Christian layman, recalls as a great turning point in his life the day that a certain kindly eye doctor came into his life. James was a fourteen-year- old boy, one of a family of eleven children, living on a farm in Canada. In his book, Adventure in Jade, he relates that he had never been able to distinguish objects clearly. His nearsightedness was so acute and so distressing that he assumed everyone on earth suffered continuously from furious headaches, and that all the earth had the blurry image of a boat seen from under water. But one summer an eye doctor from the city was vacationing in the vicinity, and young James was taking care of the doctor’s horse and buggy. Noting his extreme nearsightedness, the eye doctor insisted that James go to the city with him to be fitted with a pair of glasses. In that gift of glasses, Kraft gratefully recalls, “he gave me the earth and all that was in it, completely in focus and beautiful beyond anything I could have dreamed . . . Kraft concludes, I cannot think of another act of human kindness in my lifetime which can compare with his.”
The blind man that Jesus healed would undoubtedly give the same kind of testimony. In fact, when he discovered it was Jesus who had healed him, he bowed before him and worshiped him. It’s a wonderful thing to be healed by Jesus whatever your need might be.
There are all kinds of healing. Jesus HEALED the blind man. How easily we forget that. Many good people who have been baptized and professed their faith in Jesus Christ, carry around a burden of pain that could be lifted if only they would take seriously the idea that Jesus does heal. He healed people then and he heals people now. He can heal us whatever our need might be.
Jesus saw the blind man. Jesus healed the blind man. And Jesus wants to heal us.
That’s the final thing that we need to see. Jesus wants to heal us. But you say, “Pastor, I don’t need healing. My health is just fine. I’m not in any kind of pain right now. I don’t need Jesus ‘healing.” Maybe not, but we don’t want to miss the central teaching of this chapter of John’s Gospel. The central teaching of this chapter is that losing your sight is a tragic thing, but far more tragic is having healthy eyes and being spiritually blind. If we took time to go through this entire chapter we would see that it is a play upon the twin themes of physical blindness and spiritual blindness. In fact, the chapter ends with Jesus’ opponents, the religious authorities, asking, “Are we blind?” And the answer is yes. In fact, this is where MOST people are. They are spiritually blind. They don’t really SEE their family members, they don’t really SEE their neighbors, they don’t really SEE the sightless man on the street, and most of all, they don’t see God. They have eyes and yet are blind. Are we in that category?
Dr. Sam Lawton was born blind. Nevertheless, he had a ministry in Spartanburg, S.C. Years before he died he traveled to the Holy Land. His group was following the steps of Jesus in His ministry. Approaching Jericho, the guide told them, “Right over there is the rock where Bartemaeus first met Jesus and was healed of his blindness.” Dr. Lawton asked his friend, “Take me over to that rock.” The whole crowd was hushed in silence as Dr. Lawton stood on that site and began to sing a little song that goes like this: “The whole world was lost in the darkness of sin, the Light of the world is Jesus. Like sunshine at noonday His glory shone in, the Light of the world is Jesus.” And by this time I am told that this dear man’s face radiated with great joy as he concluded: “Once I was blind, but now I can see, the Light of the world is Jesus.”
Jesus helps people to see. He helps people see their families and friends in new way. Jesus help people see opportunities for improving their lives. Jesus makes it possible for people to see God. He can help you and me see things we never saw before. Jesus saw the blind man. Jesus healed the blind man and Jesus can heal you and me from our blindness as well.