Today we celebrate. We celebrate because we see. We have not always seen. We do not always see; sometimes we are still blind. Yet we rejoice because today we see. We see the abundant gifts in Michelle Burkholder.
And we get to “see” this text from the gospel of John.
The writer of John weaves a story that is so real, it continues to ring with truth across time and culture and religion. This story has been part of the canon for generations, so we read it over and over – because it contains a truth we still need to hear. John’s gospel teaches us that seeing is not always believing – and that we see not only with our eyes but we can see even more deeply with the mind and heart.
Restoration of sight is so miraculous and wonderful that at least one blind person is healed in each of the four gospels. In this story, the first one to see is Jesus. Jesus sees the person alongside the road. Most people pass by, ignoring the person, choosing not to see the one who cannot see them. But Jesus sees the person and Jesus invites other people to also see the person who is blind.
The disciples see. And they immediately look past the person – toward the cause of the blindness. Someone must have sinned. Whose fault is it? The parents? The person themselves? (The question left unspoken is: Could it be God’s fault?) To all of this Jesus says, “These are the wrong questions.”
To prove his point, Jesus – child of the Great Creator who creates during the day, beloved of the God who is the I AM, this Jesus reaches for the dirt. Just as God bent to the soil in Genesis 2 and created a new creature out of the earth itself, this Son of the Creator, stoops to the dust, spits and makes mud that will bring new sight to one born blind. The soil of the earth that creates life, now restores an earth creature to full vision, full life.
Even though the person can now see, the fault finding continues. The religious leaders are determined to understand and control the situation. How can the person truly be healed if it is the result of work on the Sabbath? It is a sin to work on the Sabbath, and making mud is work, thus this is a sin. What kind of blindness is this – that sin is both cause and cure?
It is astounding how often religious people will fight over something as amazing as the work of God. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that this story continues to be relevant over time and culture and religion. Even when we see with our own eyes the wonders of God’s work in a person’s life, we are unwilling to believe what we are seeing.
We religious people can be more committed to our understanding of text and tradition, to concepts of sin and salvation, than we are committed to the people in front of us who are alive and breathing and whole. We well-intentioned God followers, sin this way over and over again. We hold onto an absolute that we imagine God wants, in all times and in all places, instead of seeing the body right in front of us, in this time, in this place.
Theology professor Brain Bantum describes this as the difference between the Vulgate and the vernacular. He says some of us read our bodies as the church once read the (Vulgate) Latin translation of the bible: as stable, part of an inherently natural order determined by God. The visible differences of our bodies correlate to (the vernacular) a natural purpose, an inherent truth conveyed [to me] by a priest, who functions as a translator for what [my] (the) body means in the world. (“Bodies in the vernacular,” Christian Century, March 29, 2017)
It is not always easy to navigate this gap between the Vulgate and the vernacular. It is the difference between a constant understanding of what all bodies should be – and the reality of the variety of bodies that exist in particularity and purpose. While Professor Bantum helps us understand these different approaches to the text and the body using Vulgate and vernacular, Jesus talks about vision: being blind and seeing. Jesus notes that those who believe themselves to be able to see are really the ones who are blind. The ones who cannot see with their eyes, see a different way. They use the heart and mind. Jesus says, this is where truth lies, in this deeper sight, in this deeper vision.
The writer of John is almost relentless with criticism of the pharisees, and for good reason. John’s gospel was written during a time of extreme turmoil for the Jewish community. There are threats to the community and the tradition, not only from Rome but from members of John’s own group who follow the young, reformer, rabbi Jesus. The internal conflict is highlighted often in John’s gospel and the writer does not hesitate to picture the religious leaders, who are desperately trying to preserve the faith, as the bad guys.
The writer of John also shows us the reality of how families get caught in the middle of these religious and philosophical conflicts. The person who was blind is called to give witness to what has happened, to testify as to how their sight was restored. Even after several recitations, the religious leaders still find it too incredible to be true. So the parents are called on to verify that this is their grown child. This makes the parents nervous; they do not want any trouble, for themselves or their family. They certainly do not want to lose their place in the synagogue by crossing the religious leaders.
So the parents make a choice – to say as little as possible. “Yes, this is our child. Yes, our child was born blind. It seems like now they can see. We don’t know how it happened. We don’t know who did it. Any other details will have to come from them, they are grown. They can speak for themselves.” The fearful parents say nothing more. The thought of being kicked out of the synagogue is too much for them
Make no mistake, the parents see. They know the healing is real but it feels too risky to be honest about what they see. The parents see this whole situation as a threat to their place in the community. With a little reframing, they might see this as an opportunity to be allies for their child, to stand with their now whole, healed, joyful, adult child. Instead, they step away in fear, acting not as allies but as bystanders. Instead of testifying fully on behalf of their grown child, they choose to hide their love, leaving their child to stand alone.
The person that was blind is restored to sight, to wholeness in body, and yet in some ways the restoration is incomplete because they are not restored to their family. And the threat to being cut off from the community is real. The parents remain safe but we are told, the one who once was blind and now can see, is thrown out of the synagogue.
This story is an invitation to the listeners to make different choices than the religious leaders and the parents (and the disciples.) The writer of John helps us see that life and wholeness and vision are possible even outside our traditional understandings, outside the Vulgate. Where there is dirt and spit and Jesus, there is the possibility for new creation and fullness of life.
Indeed, mud gives new life but it is not until it is washed off, in the pool that means “Sent,” that the healing is complete. The one who was blind can now see, and is “sent” to testify to new vision. We earth creatures, who are formed from the soil, we are all called to new vision. And we are all sent, to witness to the gifts of sight, to stand alongside those who see, and to see in new ways ourselves.
Today we celebrate. We celebrate because we see. We have not always seen. We do not always see. Surely there are ways that we are sometimes still blind. Yet we rejoice because today we do see. We stand in the light and we see God’s works revealed in Michelle Burkholder. And we rejoice because today the church, with the affirmation of Allegheny Mennonite Conference, the church sees and blesses the abundant gifts for ministry that are present in Michelle.
Today we see. Thanks be to God.