Sermon on John 9:1-41.
I’d like to begin this morning by telling you about Dr. Dave Wilson. For almost a decade, Dave has been one of my closest friends (a “bromance,” if you will). In the moments when he’s not presiding over a Dungeons & Dragons campaign or spending quality time with his kids, Dave works as a professor of physics at Kalamazoo College. More specifically: Dave is a physicist who studies viruses.
“Now, wait just a minute,” you might ask, “wouldn’t that make him a virologist?”
“No,” Dave would respond, “I am a physicist who studies viruses.”
Now, that might sound kind of ridiculous, at first, until you realize just what Dave has managed to accomplish, as a physicist who studies viruses. Several years ago, Dave made a groundbreaking discovery that is currently changing the way virologists practice their science.
What Dave has discovered is a particular internal structure to certain types of viruses, called spherical viruses. This structure appears because of the way that particular atoms and molecules bond to form proteins in the shape of a sphere, with little hook-like protrusions sticking out. These “hooks” are the way in which these viruses latch onto the cells in your body and feed off of them, thus making you sick.
Dave’s discovery of an internal structure to these viruses opens up new avenues of study for traditional virologists, who are now using this information to develop new kinds of antiviral medicine and even exploring ways in which viruses might be used to help fight cancer. (For those who might be wondering, the virus that causes COVID-19 is exactly this kind of spherical virus.)
When Dave first started sharing the results of his discovery with fellow scientists, some of the leading virologists in the world looked at his findings and smacked their foreheads in wonder.
“It was right in front of us the whole time,” they said, “we can’t believe we didn’t notice it before!”
What it took for this new discovery to come to light was a fresh set of eyes. It took a physicist, looking at the problem from a fresh point-of-view, to notice the truth that had been hiding in plain sight all along. I tell you this story because “the need for a fresh set of eyes” is central to understanding the meaning of this morning’s gospel.
In this passage, Jesus gets himself into trouble, not for the first time, by questioning traditional assumptions of his religion.
Most pertinently, he questions his culture’s traditional beliefs about the nature of suffering. The prevailing belief of that time, which continues among many religious believers today, was that suffering happened as the result of divine punishment for misdeeds. This is why Jesus’ disciples ask, at the beginning of this passage, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus, on one the few occasions when he answers a question directly, responds in the negative. I will follow the Rev. Carrie Bail’s suggestion that we alter the punctuation of our English translation.
“Neither,” Jesus says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind. [PERIOD] So that God’s works might be revealed in him, [COMMA] we must work the works of the One 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.”
What Jesus does so brilliantly in this encounter is shift the direction in which his disciples are looking for the meaning of suffering. The disciples, by their question, reveal their assumption that the meaning of suffering can be found by looking to the past. Jesus, by his response, opens their minds to the possibility that the meaning of suffering might be created by looking to the future.
No one can fully understand why bad things happen to good people. When tragedy strikes, our evolutionary programming kicks in to help us identify a cause, in hopes that we might be able to prevent such tragedy from befalling us. This strategy, while sometimes useful, sadly leads us to blame the victim when the unthinkable happens.
- “What was she wearing?”
- “Why didn’t he look both ways before crossing the street?”
- “Why didn’t you go to the doctor sooner?”
On the many occasions when no immediate cause can be found, we resort to empty platitudes.
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
- “Heaven must have needed another angel.”
These phrases, I’ve noticed, tend to comfort the bystanders of tragedy more than the victims. We say them to make ourselves feel better, rather than the people we are trying to help. Even if we could somehow figure out all the causes of a particular tragedy, that knowledge would do nothing to remedy the present situation or alleviate the suffering of those already affected.
Jesus, thankfully, gives his disciples a fresh set of eyes for looking at the problem of suffering. Instead of looking for past causes of present crises, Jesus looks to future responses. The question, for Jesus, is not, “Why did this happen,” but “what will we do next?” The first question looks for the meaning of suffering in the past; the second question creates the meaning of suffering in the future.
We know from the story what happens next: Jesus opens the eyes of the man born blind. I’m not going to spend much time talking about the miracle itself because I don’t think that’s the actual point of this gospel. The real point is not how Jesus changed the way one person saw two thousand years ago, but how Jesus changes the way we see today.
The miracle caused quite a controversy in Jerusalem. The day on which Jesus performed this act happened to be Shabbat, the traditional day of rest in Judaism. The respectable members of the congregation took offense at this timing because they thought it violated their time-honored traditions. After a very long and drawn-out debate, they excommunicated the man born blind from their synagogue because he refused to join the authorities in their denunciation of Jesus.
By this action, the gospel tells us, the authorities prove themselves to be the ones who are truly blind, while the formerly-blind man sees the goodness of Jesus more clearly than anyone. Jesus tells his listeners, in the final words of this passage, that the failure of the authorities to recognize goodness is rooted in their firm conviction that they already know the answers to every question they ask.
This is a problem that afflicts people in our age, as well. Social psychologists recognize a phenomenon known as “the Dunning-Kruger effect,” wherein people who know very little about a given subject tend to have more confidence in their so-called knowledge than the actual experts do. Actual experts, who have studied a subject in depth, tend to be more aware of the complexities involved with their chosen subject, and therefore tend to have more humility about their conclusions. This means that those who shout loud and talk fast are most likely to be heard, while those who consider carefully and take their time are more likely to offer genuine insight, but less likely to be heard.
The best way to get unstuck from the Dunning-Kruger effect, according to Jesus, is to practice the Zen Buddhist principle of shoshin (“Beginner’s mind”). In the cultivation of beginner’s mind, Buddhist practitioners are taught to let go of their preconceived judgments and ideas in order to see themselves and their world with a new set of eyes. This discipline of beginner’s mind applies, not only to those who are new to Zen Buddhist practice, but even more so to those masters who have practiced this form of meditation for many years. The most experienced spiritual masters, like Jesus and the Buddha, are able to see reality clearly by greeting each new moment with fresh eyes and the absence of judgment. This is what it means to truly see.
The contemplative practices of the Christian mystical tradition offer us ways to cultivate beginner’s mind in our own lives. Taking time to pause in prayer and meditation, we create space in which we can disentangle ourselves from the reactive need for quick and easy answers. In its place, we plant seeds of wonder and peace that grow into wisdom and healing.
When we let go of our arrogant impulse to possess all the right answers, we open ourselves to the fullness of reality in the present moment. Like my friend Dave Wilson, we gain the ability to bring fresh perspective to a situation and discover truths that were hiding right under our noses. Like Jesus, we open the door to new ways of seeing, opportunities for healing, and paths to a meaningful future.
May it be so for us. May we pause long enough and often enough to question our assumptions and gain insight. May the seeds of peace we plant grow into fruits of discovery, healing, and a meaningful future. May it be so, today and always. Amen.