A Fresh Set of Eyes

Dr. Dave Wilson

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.

Jesus Gets His Hands Dirty

Last week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.

The text is John 9:1-41.

One of the most annoying things about Jesus is that, when you ask him a question, you almost never get the kind of answer you expected.  He has this way of turning questions on their head.  His response tends to shed more light on the person asking the question than it does on the issue at hand.  Such is the case in today’s gospel reading.

The scene opens with Jesus and his disciples encountering a blind man while they are in Jerusalem for a religious holiday.  As they pass by, one of them asks a question that has plagued philosophers for thousands of years:  “What is the nature of suffering and evil?”

This question is especially troubling to those of us who believe in God.  People have come up with all kinds of theories that try to find an answer.  Some suggest that God is loving but not almighty.  In other words, God cares about suffering but cannot do anything about it.  Others say that God is almighty but not loving.  God could solve the world’s problems but just doesn’t care.  Finally, some suggest that God is both loving and almighty, but that all suffering is merely an illusion or a misunderstanding on our part.

For Jews in Jesus’ day, the most common answer was judicial.  They believed that everything happens for a reason.  If someone was happy, healthy, and prosperous, then that person was being blessed and rewarded by God.  If someone was suffering, then that person was being punished for their sins.  This judicial theory is probably what Jesus’ disciples had in mind when they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Even though they had their own pet theory to explain why this person was suffering, it didn’t answer all their questions.  In fact, their pet theory left them with quite a dilemma.  You see, the man in question had been blind from birth.  There was no way he could have violated Jewish law before the onset of his blindness.  Therefore, God was either punishing this person for someone else’s sin or God was punishing this person for a sin that had not yet been committed.  Either way, God comes across as unfair.

Jesus doesn’t resolve this dilemma for them.  He lets it stand out like a hole in the middle of a donut.  He says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  Rather than taking a side in this debate, Jesus once again turns the entire question on its head.  He says, in effect, “You’re asking the wrong question.”  His response seems cryptic and mysterious because Jesus is answering the question they should have been asking all along.  He continues, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

What does that mean?  It means that Jesus is trying to shift their attention.  He’s saying, if you really want to look for God in the midst of these tragic situations, don’t waste your time looking at the cause of the pain; look instead at the response to the pain.  The most important thing, to Jesus, is that we be doing God’s work.  And what’s the very next thing he does?  The text says, “he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes”.  In other words: Jesus got his hands dirty.  While other people were standing around and arguing about philosophy, Jesus was busy healing those who hurt most.

But the scene doesn’t stop there.  The recently-healed blind man quickly became the center of controversy in Jerusalem.  This time, the debate was all about whether Jesus had the proper credentials to work such a miracle.  Witnesses were called while scholars debated back and forth about the issue.  All the while, the healed person is stuck in the middle.  He doesn’t have any answers.  He was probably still using his brand new eyes to figure out the difference between red and blue.  When they push him, he says, “I do not know whether [Jesus] is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  He stays true to his experience and simply tells the world what happened to him.

Eventually, it becomes pretty clear to this guy that he is simply a pawn being used in someone else’s religious and political agenda.  What I like best about this guy is his moxy (chutzpah).  Once he realizes what’s going on, he’s not content to play his part and go home.  No, he stands up and gives them a piece of his mind.  In more ways than one, his eyes were open.  Better than anyone else in the room, this “ex-blind man” was seeing things clearly.  So he stands up to this room full of rabbis and tells them off!

Well, these rabbis weren’t used to being spoken to like that!  After hurling a few choice insults about the nature of this man’s parentage, they voted unanimously to kick him out of the synagogue.  He was anathema, excommunicated, dis-fellowshipped, dishonorably discharged, and “don’t let the door hit you in the rump on your way out!”

So, there he was.  His situation seemed hopeless.  For years, he had been excluded from the life of his community because of his disability.  Now, he was kicked out and called a heretic.  What was he supposed to do now?  He probably felt further away from God than ever before.

I love that Jesus decides to show up again at this point in the story.  It says, “Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and… found him”.  Then Jesus affirms what the blind man had suspected all along: that he could “see” better than any of those rabbis and scholars.  In spite of their educated debate over this controversy, they had completely missed the point about what Jesus was doing.  But this blind man got it, and Jesus wanted to make sure that he knew it.  Jesus said, “I came into this world… so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  Once again, Jesus makes sure that those who fall through the cracks of controversy and debate find their honored place in heaven’s economy.  The pawns become the kings.  The victims become the heroes.  Jesus shows us that these suffering and forgotten people are the ones who matter most to God.

For the past month or so, the world has been watching in horror at the multiple disasters that have befallen the country of Japan.  As if earthquake and tsunami weren’t enough, people are now facing the perils of radiation and nuclear meltdown.  The death toll has almost reached 12,000.

In times like this, many people instinctively search for answers in the midst of suffering.  They engage in controversy and philosophical debate because it’s easier than facing the reality of tragedy.  In the days immediately following the earthquake, one Christian blogger posted a statement in the style of the Old Testament prophets.  This person went on for quite a while, offering an itemized list of Japan’s sins.  The post read (speaking for God in the first person), “I will punish you for your sins with my passion, and destroy you completely Japan by earthquake and tsunami.  I will get you, the little island, back into the water, where you came from, and where you will be just like a piece of wrack (sic) sinking into the bottom of the sea.”

It’s easy to stand at a distance and pass judgment on an entire nation.  It’s harder to do as Jesus did: to get our hands dirty in the business of healing.  Our controversial issues and philosophical debates keep us at arm’s length from the suffering of our fellow human beings.  But Jesus goes out to meet these forgotten and suffering ones right where they are.

Thankfully, there are those who are doing just as Jesus did in the midst of this tragedy.  Earlier this week, I received an email from friends of my family in Japan.  It’s a statement made by an American living in Tokyo who is not a Christian.  He works in the Tokyo office of Goldman-Sachs.

Here is what the email said:


The response to the earthquake by many of the westerners here in Japan has been to head straight to the airport and get out of the country.

The Christian missionaries here have done just the opposite; they collect relief supplies and go straight to the disaster area to help out.

It is truly amazing what they have accomplished.

They collect supplies through donations from local citizens and international aid associations.

Then they get trucks, road permits and take the supplies to the 400,000 people who have lost their homes to the earthquake, tsunami and evacuations from the exclusion zone around the nuclear reactors.

Churches in the affected region are often used as distribution points.

Some of these churches have been damaged by the earthquake, and some are even without electricity.

This has been a 24/7 job for many of my missionary friends, but I have not heard a complaint from even one of them.

If someone were to ask me where I think God is in the midst of the Japanese tragedy, I would read them this letter.

When we go looking for God in the midst of suffering, whether it’s our own pain or the tragedy of an entire nation, let’s not get lost in philosophical debate over the causes.  Rather, let’s follow Jesus and get our hands dirty in the work of healing.  That’s where we’ll find God in all of this.