The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Most of the world right now is finding itself in a strange and unexpected place. There are lots of unknowns, lots of fears, lots of needs for healing of our spirits, our minds … and for some of us, our bodies.
Healing is a main thrust of this story of Jesus healing blind man at the pool of Siloam. But the story begins with a question: “Who sinned? This man or his parents? For he was born blind.” The disciples try to blame the victim with that question, and Jesus turns the blame-game around. In the past, I have heard people say of others suffering from cancer or heart disease, “Well, did they smoke?” or “They didn’t have a very good diet,” and regardless of what a person may have done or neglected, that’s an unhelpful kind of remark. I even had a former parishioner in Maine who held the belief that we all do something to manifest the illnesses we have; try telling that to the parents of a three-year-old with leukemia. So, as we hear of more people who have contracted the virus, please don’t play the blame-game and guess whether they washed their hands thoroughly enough or whether they didn’t keep six feet away. Instead, let’s do what Jesus did and respond with compassion and with healing.
I know that we wonder about the literalness of miracles, like Jesus curing the blind man, and see if this helps:
Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit from India, told this story about a seeker and a spiritual master’s disciple: “A man traversed land and sea to check for himself the Master’s extraordinary fame. ‘What miracles has your Master worked?’ he said to a disciple. ‘Well, said the disciple, there are miracles … and then there are miracles. In your land it is regarded as a miracle if God does someone’s will. In our country it is regarded as a miracle if someone does the will of God.’” [Anthony de Mello, One Minute Wisdom, p. 4.]
Are you expecting the kind of miracle that happens if God does your will…or would it be miraculous if we did God’s will?
Where are the miracles in our midst? Where do we see ourselves and others doing God’s will? Would it be a miracle if you saw someone in Safeway offering the last package of toilet paper on the shelf to another shopper, even though it meant going without themselves? Would it be a miracle if we witnessed an outpouring of generosity to keep essential nonprofit organizations funded fully? Would it be a miracle if you heard that Plymouth is continuing to pay its childcare staff, even though we have no in-person work for them to do?
So, there is a literal sense in which this story is about Jesus restoring the sight of the man born blind. And I’ll bet that the newly sighted man never again saw things in quite the same way. I wonder if he saw everything in a new light. Imagine yourself as that man, trying to live without the aid of vision and then having your eyes opened because of your faith in Jesus. The blue sky and the orange sunset stand out in their beauty, but then again, you also see the suffering of those around you.
In the Buddhist tradition, the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment goes like this: the young man who would become the Buddha was a wealthy aristocrat, whose father did not want him to see the suffering of humankind, so he kept him within the palace walls, sheltered from witnessing the ravages of human existence: disease, poverty, death. One day, the young man escaped the confines of the palace and saw the suffering of human existence, which spurred him on to seek enlightenment. Siddhartha’s eyes were opened to the world around him. He saw the world in a new light.
Have you ever had that kind of experience? I remember traveling in West Africa before Cameron and Chris were born, being approached by legless beggars who rolled up to us on plywood platforms with casters on the bottom. It was a real eye-opener. But, the other thing that opened my eyes on that trip were the experiences of seeing tight extended families as the center of life and also seeing dozens of children share with their friends the pieces of candy that we shared with them. Would American kids do that? It was an aha! moment that I had not expected to see.
Sometimes, we’re unwilling or unable to see things because they are unpleasant and we’d rather not see them. At other times, we don’t see things because we haven’t had the opportunity to look at them carefully and closely. And sometimes we are not given a choice.
Have you ever had that happen? Has there been something that you’ve had to re-examine in your life, based on a new vision? Something that’s caused you to respond by saying, “Oh…now I see!”
You probably know the story of John Newton, the Anglican curate who wrote “Amazing Grace.” Newton had been a naval deserter, slave trader, a self-described “wretch,” and who had a phenomenal transformation in his life, becoming one of the great voices in Britain for the abolition of the slave trade. You know his words: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
So, while I don’t doubt that Jesus had the ability to perform healings that we typify as miraculous, I think there is an amazing metaphorical dimension, a depth to this story, that we are apt to miss, unless we look more closely.
The trust of the blind man in Jesus — the trust that we have in Jesus — can give us is a new vision: the ability to see the divine, ourselves, and God’s world in a new light.
“Taste and see that God is good,” sings the Psalmist, “Taste and SEE…”
Do you see that God is good? If not, look around you! Look at the miracle of life within yourself! The fact that you are sitting here and that the presence of the holy is within you – within each of us – is nothing short of miraculous. In the midst of this pandemic, look around and see those who are acting with compassion and courage and commitment to serve others. SEE that God is good!
How have your eyes been opened, and how do you respond? How is Christ’s compassion envisioned through you? Is it because you know that many people in Ft. Collins live on the economic margin, so you volunteer with our Homelessness Prevention Initiative? Is it because you know that exclusion of LGBTQ folks is a real injustice, so you joined an Open and Affirming Church? Is it because you helped an elderly neighbor with errands or getting their computer hooked up last week, because you know they need to stay connected during this strange time?
I wonder if you have encountered any of your own blind spots in these past few weeks. I’m not necessarily talking about finding fault with yourself, but perhaps finding delight in something that you hadn’t allowed yourself to experience for a while. Maybe you haven’t baked homemade bread for years, and you have seen the joy of bread-baking in a new light. Others of you might be finding solace in meditation or another spiritual practice that you haven’t found the time for until this week, and you’re seeing your own sense of spirituality and God’s presence in a new light.
For me, one of the flashes of new light has been the visceral realization that we are all one people, whether we are princes or homeless, whether we are Italian or Mozambican, whether we are gay or straight or bi or trans, male or female or nonbinary…we are all inextricably bound together by the strange bond of being susceptible to Covid-19. Wouldn’t it be a miracle if this virus helped us see that we are all in this together with one another?
My prayer for God’s world is that we learn to see each other as fellow pilgrims on this amazing planet, that we catch a glimpse of our unity in the midst of tragedy, and that we act with compassion with one another.
Many of you know the wonderful book, The Little Prince, by Antoine de St.-Exupéry, written while he was pilot during World War II. The little prince shares with us this secret: that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
What might you see this coming week, when you open your heart to others, to your community, to your family, to yourself, and to God? It could result in a miracle!
May it be so! Amen.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact Hal for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.