Blind Man 2023
“I’m sorry your appendix burst. Could you come in tomorrow? Today’s the Sabbath.”
“Your husband’s having a stroke? Be sure to bring him in tomorrow. Today’s the Sabbath.”
“Your child just swallowed poison? Be sure to bring her in first thing tomorrow. Today’s the Sabbath.”
Clearly that is not the answer Jesus would give. On the Sabbath, Jesus not only healed the blind man in today’s gospel, but on another Sabbath, he healed the man who had been unable to walk for 38 years; and on another, he healed a withered hand; and on another Sabbath he healed the bent-over woman. You’d think there would be universal rejoicing that these people were not only healed of their various conditions, but restored to participation in the community, but that’s not what happened. Instead, Jesus faced opposition from religious leaders because his actions threatened the status quo, threatened their authority.
Jesus’ compassionate willingness to heal on the Sabbath, despite the growing anger of the religious authorities, stands as an icon of right action, right now, in the face of our own cultural chaos. Presbyterian pastor Meda Stamper acknowledges that we live in a time when the church has in too many places “fallen in line with the prejudices and powers of the powers that be.” As followers of Jesus, we should, she says, be willing to find ourselves “at odds with the powerful and the status quo.” Like the blind man who stood up to the Pharisees after his healing, we should have “the courage again and again to say who we know, to speak truth to power.”
Jesus, who insisted that the Sabbath is meant to be a gift, not a burden, who inspired people like Martin Luther King to break laws that discriminate or discount those in need, must be horrified by Christians who measure their spiritual credibility by how tough they talk about sin, and are proud that they want to legislate against any who differ from them. In the same way, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day justified themselves by being tough on sin and sinners. But what made Jesus’ Sabbath healing so offensive to them was not just his violation of Jewish law, but the way that he called out their morality that pretended to honor God instead of a morality that really did honor God through compassion for human suffering. For Jesus, a person in need –a person held bondage by disease, disability, disgrace, or discrimination, of any ethnicity or social class or gender – should be a recipient of God’s love and grace, NOW, in the immediate moment.
That “now” has resonated through the millennia. While imprisoned in the Birmingham, Alabama jail in 1963, Martin Luther King wrote an open letter to white clergymen, challenging their refusal to upset the status quo by condemning segregation and violence against Black citizens, condemning their attempts to slow down the demonstrations, to “wait.” For years now,” King wrote, “I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”
Environmental activist Greta Thunberg, when she was only 16, spoke to the International Energy Agency, telling her much older audience that now is the time to act to save the planet. “Our house is on fire,” she said. She did not wait for laws to be changed, but challenged them. This year, at 20, she was arrested in Germany for her protests.
Jesus didn’t wait for the law to be updated to say that healing on the Sabbath was ok; he saw an immediate need and met it. Those who have participated in Sacred Ground – as well as those who closely follow the news (actual news, not the politicized version) – have had to face the appalling actions of our ancestors and the resulting systemic, ongoing damage done to our siblings of other ethnicities, and we have had to acknowledge the need for immediate action. When we first learned of St. Paul’s legacy of racism, of how profits from the slave trade helped support this congregation, some of you took time during an early summer coffee hour last June to write laments which included: “We ask, O God, that you inspire us to distance our hearts minds, and bodies away from the status quo of empire.” Another one of you wrote: “We have quietly held good intentions, yet remained silent in the face of systemic racism.” And another: “Give me strength to stand up against the systemic evil marked by stock phrases such as ‘that doesn’t happen today’ or ‘I didn’t do it.’” One more: “Forgive us, O Lord, for this most terrible of evils done on our behalf.”
We need first to lament, but then get to work. We know, as the blind man did, that healing is of God. We also know that we are called to be instruments of God’s light and love on this fragile, fraught planet, called to take part in that healing through the gifts God has given us: through social justice work, teaching, studying, writing, environmental action, and prayer. It is up to us. After all, it wasn’t Jesus but the healed, now-sighted man who stood up to the Pharisees.
At the beginning of today’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the Light of the World.” It’s too easy for me to feel surrounded by darkness these days, even as the days grow longer, and so my prayer is that the Light of Christ might embrace us, inspire us, and lead us. As Ruth Harlow wrote:
Open our hearts to know
Everyone is a child of God
and deserves to
be treated that way.
Open our hearts to know
We are children of God
And we need to
behave that way.