A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, April 3, 2011
Sermon for Lent IV (Year A)
1 Samuel 16:1-13 ; Psalm 23 ; Ephesians 5:8-14 ; John 9:1-41
There are no words more familiar in the hymnody of the English-speaking world than those written in 1772 by the English evangelical and Anglican priest, John Newton:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.
We’ll sing those words as we conclude our service today. Newton’s personal story is well known, in part from the movie by the name of this famous hymn, Amazing Grace, but it’s worth remembering today as we think about the meaning of spiritual blindness.
We’ve just heard from John’s gospel about the healing of a blind man. This is a story after all not just about physical blindness, but about spiritual blindness.
And what do we mean by “spiritual blindness?” At some level it is the inability to see as God sees. And yet, as universal as that might be for us as human beings, there is hope for us to actually have our spiritual eyes opened, as we hear in John Newton’s story.
John Newton left school at the age of 11 to work on a merchant ship. He lived a hard-scrabble existence. Life was hard on the seas, and he faced danger and death on many occasions. Newton was a notoriously profane man, even by the standards of 18th century sailors, and he had openly rejected any notion of faith in God. In the middle of one particularly frightening storm in 1748, Newton found himself desperate beyond imagination, and uttered the simple prayer, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Well, they survived, and it was an experience he would think about and reflect upon often thereafter.
But this was no instant conversion. Newton went on to become a captain himself – the captain of a slave ship. We can barely imagine the misery and the degradation that he not only witnessed, but was a party to in this enterprise. He made several voyages in the slave trade before, at the age of thirty, he returned to England and never sailed again. Instead, he would begin his studies in theology, and was eventually ordained a priest in the Church of England. Along the way, his eyes were opened, and he came to terms with the deep spiritual blindness that had led him into the slave trade. He began to see with new eyes, and his life was changed. This conversion would become the subject of those lines he wrote in his now famous hymn, and his newfound sight would lead him to work tirelessly for the abolition of slavery.
John Newton had a powerful influence on a young British politician, William Wilberforce, who would sponsor the bill in Parliament that would outlaw the slave trade in England in 1801. It was a pivotal moment in the long and slow process of healing a deep spiritual blindness that had afflicted Europe and the Americas.
In the Gospel today we see Jesus approaching a man who was born blind. Right from the beginning of that very long passage we hear the presumption that there had to be someone to blame for the blind man being blind. The disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” One modern interpretation has Jesus responding with these words: “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.”
After Jesus heals the man there is a great deal of confusion about what had happened! The religious authorities couldn’t explain it. His parents couldn’t explain it. And the blind man himself was left to say, “Look, all I know is that once I was blind, and now I see.” None of the conventional explanations worked any more. In the end, not only the blind man saw, but everyone present had their eyes open to a new reality – everyone except those (who were so sure of themselves!) who persisted in their need to place blame. In the end, the only ones whose sin remained (in Jesus’ words) were those who were so sure of themselves that they refused to see things differently. Spiritual blindness indeed – being so sure of ourselves that we fail to see what God sees.
You know, we just don’t see what we don’t see! And that’s as true for spiritual blindness as it is for physical blindness. We all have blind spots! Can you name yours? Probably not! And I can’t name mine either. (You all certainly can see mine, but I can’t!) But for us to be cured of our spiritual blindness, we have to be willing to see things differently than we see them now.
So often it is the things we’re most certain about that are a key to the places where we are most vulnerable to spiritual blindness. Our very certainty can keep us from being open to another way of seeing.
On Ash Wednesday as we began this season of Lent, we prayed in the Litany of Penitence that we might be forgiven “for our blindness to human need and suffering.” But if we think that people are usually in need and are suffering because there’s something they did to deserve it – because they made bad decisions, or were lazy, or some other reason – we just might find it really hard to actually see the need and the suffering. And if we really don’t see it, we may never really know the truth.
Our certainty can be even more subtle than that. What about the presumption that the way a person looks has something to do with their value? Samuel was just sure when he saw that big tall, handsome, strapping oldest son of Jesse that he had found the next king of Israel! Yes, even a prophet was vulnerable to spiritual blindness! But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t look at how tall and muscular and handsome he is, because he is not the one. The Lord does not see what human beings see. Humans look on outward appearances, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (I Sam. 16:7)
We live in a culture that is absolutely obsessed with outward appearances! We spend billions of dollars a year on products to make us look a certain way – more money every year in this country alone than it would take to fund all the Millennium Development Goals and alleviate extreme poverty in the entire world – because we really believe that outward appearances matter – a LOT apparently! – even more than, well, hunger and disease and lack of education…
Once in a while we get a nice reminder of just how wrong this assumption about appearances can be. Do you remember two years ago when Susan Boyle appeared on the stage of Britain’s Got Talent? Remember the snickers and even the laughs at the sight of this middle-aged, slightly frumpy and socially awkward contestant? And then she opened her mouth and began to sing, “I dreamed a dream…” The snickers went silent, the guffaws ceased, and history was made. She was an instant sensation. It was one of those crystal clear moments when the world learned again just how dangerous it is to judge by outward appearances – to see with the eyes only and not with the heart.
Sometimes our eyes are opened only through tragedy and a great deal of pain. Forty-three years ago tomorrow the world’s eyes were opened again to the deep wound of racism in our society, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. That event shined a bright light on a deep darkness in the soul of this country, and one with which we are sadly still coming to terms. Whether the issue is race or ethnicity or sexual orientation, or other religions, it is very often the thing we are most certain about – or the most fearful of – that points to our place of spiritual blindness.
Paul wrote to the Ephesians how he wished that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” (Eph. 1:18) I love that idea – “the eyes of your heart” – the idea that our heart, the seat of our deepest feelings and emotions, can be the place from which we most truly see.
John Newton’s eyes were opened to see the humanity in suffering people he had treated as property. And he began to see Christ in himself of all people – this rough-hewn specimen of an 18th century seafarer. And he began to see Christ in the faces of the slaves he had bought and sold. And from that time on, he would never be the same.
I once was was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.
We are all challenged today and every time we come to this altar to see with spiritual eyes the new reality that is already with us, but which we so often miss. And that reality is that Christ is in us and we are in Christ.
Today’s collect for the Fourth Sunday in Lent was written for a prior lectionary, which always had the feeding of the five thousand for the gospel on this day. But it speaks just as beautifully, I think, of our need to have our spiritual eyes opened.
“Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him…”
God grant us all spiritual eyes to see Christ in us, and to know, too, that we are in Christ.
 Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary Language, NavPress Publishing Group, 2003.
 Ash Wednesday liturgy, Book of Common Prayer, p. 268.