“…But Now I See (Somewhat)”
March 27, 2011
John Newton was an eighteenth century Anglican priest who in 1779 published his well-known hymn, “Amazing Grace.” The final words of the first verse echo those of the blind man in this morning’s Gospel lesson: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
For quite some time, Congregationalists didn’t have much to do with “Amazing Grace.” You won’t find it in the editions of the Pilgrim Hymnal from either the 1930’s or the 1950’s. It resurfaced in the Hymnal of the United Church of Christ that was published in 1974, in part, I think, because folksingers like Judy Collins and Arlo Guthrie popularized the much-ignored hymn in the late sixties and early seventies.
Now, there’s a wonderful recording of Arlo Guthrie singing “Amazing Grace” and telling his short version of the story of John Newton’s life. “He was the captain of a slave ship,” Guthrie recalls. “In the middle of the ocean one night with a boat full of people he changed his mind and turned the boat around. He sailed everybody back home. Then he sailed back to his home in England and started writing these songs….”
Arlo tells a marvelous story, but more the way it should have happened rather than the way that it actually happened.
John Newton was born in 1725. His father was a sea captain and when Newton turned eleven, he joined his father at sea, learning his father’s trade. He eventually found work on slave ship. One account says that “far from objecting to this commerce in human misery, John Newton actually took to it—and got rich in the process.”
Newton would later say that his conversion took place in 1748 on a return voyage to England. In the midst of a storm that nearly sank the ship, Newton cried out, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” The ship—and Newton, were saved. The effects of this event took some time to come to fruition, however. For some time after this, Newton continued in the slave trade.
Seven year later, in 1755 he left sailing and, after some difficulties, was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1764. Only several years after that was he able to look back and write: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”[i]
You might agree with me that the facts of Newton’s biography are far less inspiring than Guthrie’s version. But they probably more closely resemble the experience of most people. No flash of light. No scales suddenly falling from his eyes. Indeed over a quarter of century passed between Newton’s good fortune at sea and the writing of this famous hymn.
It takes time. It takes time to change. It takes time to see clearly.
Old habits of thinking, old ways of looking at the world get in the way.
Jesus encounters a man blind from birth.
New sight comes to all sorts of people—but it comes slowly.
Seeing this man, the disciples ask Jesus: “Who sinned?”
It's a question that seeks to assign blame, a question that seeks to make sure we're pointing the finger in the right direction.
We usually ask it in different ways.
What did he do to get so sick?
Who caused that car wreck?
Why did she get fired?
Who’s to blame that the party got out of control?
This is the mindset of the disciples.
Maybe it’s a matter of “compassion fatigue.” You know, feeling worn out from caring about people. After a while, we don’t want to see hungry people, or homeless people, or children living in poverty. After a while, we look away when victims of disaster or warfare appear on our television screens. Over time it gets harder and harder to be concerned. We start asking if someone is “worthy” of our love, “deserving” of our compassion—or did they bring this problem upon themselves?
Was the collision caused by a mechanical failure—or by drunk driving?
Was the job lost because of corporate downsizing—or personal incompetence?
Tell us, Jesus, who’s to blame? Did this man’s parents upset God, or did he do something even before he was born to cause God to punish him with blindness? Why did this happen?
Listen. Jesus says, "The ‘why’ question is not the question to be asking under these circumstances; it isn’t worth asking here why this man has to keep suffering on and on with his blindness.” We ask “Why?” and turn the realm of God into a discussion group.
Such questions can distract and incapacitate us. We get so caught up in trying to analyze the details of a troubling situation that we have no inclination left to try to heal the hurt; we have no energy left to put toward responding to the suffering around us.
Jesus goes on to explain: “What you look for when you see an afflicted individual like this is how peace, comfort, and healing might be able to come to this person for the glory of God who made each one of us. We should be about the business of trying to bring such wholeness to this person and to others.”[ii]
And in case they—or we—missed it, Jesus takes the opportunity to make a theological point: “As long as I am in the world,” he says, “I am the light of the world.” Maybe it hasn't dawned on anybody but Jesus yet, but even he had only a limited amount of time.
All of us only get so much time; some opportunities may come once and only once. Are we using our time to bring at least a little more peace, comfort, and healing into the world?
Clearly, it is proper to stop speculating, to stop asking, “Who sinned?” and to act.
Hasn't the man been blind long enough?
Hasn't the child been hungry long enough?
Hasn't the disease progressed far enough?
Hasn’t the refugee suffered enough?
Aren’t the people poor enough?
Jesus thinks so, and acts decisively. He spits on the ground and spreads mud on the man’s eyes. But look! There is no quick and simple healing touch here. Something more is going on. Jesus tells this man to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. Only after doing this, is this man able to see.
As John’s Gospel tells the story, gaining sight takes time.
I realized this again a couple of weeks ago at one of the great sources of theological illumination in this congregation—a meeting of the Board of Trustees.
We were talking at the Trustees’ meeting about accessibility in this old building of ours. We have one of the best places for ministry in all of Iowa City. We cherish this corner where God has placed us. But this building does present challenges.
We’ve worked in many ways to open up this place. Some time ago we installed an elevator so that people could get up to the sanctuary. We saw a need and responded.
Diana Coberly joined us that night for the discussion. Along with many others here, I’m thankful for ways in which Diana has helped us to look at this building in recent years. As a result we’ve been able to see what we don’t see.
As we talked, one trustee, reflecting on his line of sight from his height and Diana’s perspective from her wheelchair said, “I don’t see things the way you see them.”
And I thought, “Well, of course. Why hadn’t I seen this before?”
New sight comes slowly. Conversion of any kind takes time. It doesn’t happen as quickly as we would like. But we move forward, gaining sight as we go.
We must do the works of God while we can. And our eyes are always being opened to new ways of seeing.
In recent weeks the whole world has looked at the devastation in Japan—what seems to be part of a long line of major disasters—Hurricane Katrina, the Southeast Asian tsunami, the Iowa floods, the Haitian earthquake. We’ve looked at the horrible violence in Libya—what seems to be part of an unending wave of warfare and violence. We might want to ask: Where is God? Maybe it’s just too soon to even ask, let alone answer, that question. Maybe we can’t always see what God is or isn’t doing. But we need to be about the works of God while we can.
It takes time.
At other places in the gospels, Jesus heals people instantaneously. But now he asks this man to do something: “Go. Wash in the pool of Siloam.”
The blind man does what he is asked to do and comes back seeing.
If the story ended there, it would be a comfortable tale about the need to care for the less fortunate. If the story ended there, it would simply confirm our generally admirable desire to be kind to others.
But the story doesn’t end there. And what follows is a challenges us socially and theologically.
Through much of this story, Jesus is nowhere to be seen.
At the center of all the activity are the Pharisees—the good, religious people of the day, the Pharisees—who took seriously the way of Moses, who cared for the poor and needy, the Pharisees—who in their devotion and good works were blind to what was really happening.
When Jesus shows up once more, he says: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.”
Nobody likes to hear about judgment. And nobody likes it when Jesus talks about the judgment he brings. It makes us uneasy. Especially when he looks directly at the good church-going Pharisees who were listening in and says: “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”
Nobody likes to hear about judgment. “Surely,” our own voices echo, “We are not blind, are we?”
Those words bring us back to the opening question, hearing it again in a new way.
The religious people, who positioned themselves as judges of others, finally bring themselves under judgment. They insisted on their right to call both the healed man and Jesus “sinners.” But the words of Jesus turn this judgment on its head.
Here sin is redefined. It is a theological, not a moral category. The religious people have physical sight; the sight they lack is the ability to see the God made known in Jesus. In the good news that John brings, salvation from sin is primarily a result of the life of Jesus, not his death—and the ability to see in that life the action of God.
It is not the Christian community’s responsibility to judge the sin of anyone. The determination of sin rests with God and each individual.
In the judgment that he brings, Jesus also provides the salvation that we seek. As we follow the living Christ we will find new sight. With new sight we will see things differently—others, ourselves, even God will appear different from first appearances.
When Arlo Guthrie tells audiences the story of John Newton, he concludes by saying: “That man might have lived a long time ago but he’s a friend of mine tonight. Because anybody who’s not afraid to turn around is a friend of mine. And that’s not just individual people, but cities and states and countries. We can’t let anything make us afraid to turn around and do what’s right. That’s because there’s a whole lot of stuff that needs to be turned around.”
Those sound like “Lent words” to me. This season calls us to repent, to turn around.
And Arlo’s right, isn’t he? There’s a whole lot of stuff that needs to be turned around. That’s another way of saying, “We must do the work of the One who sent us while it is day.”
The work of growing in our welcome and inclusion of all people, overcoming physical or attitudinal barriers that exclude…
The work of helping to rebuild Nashville as part of our summer mission team…
The work of helping to bring relief to Japan through our One Great Hour of Sharing Offering…
The larger work of bringing peace, restoring creation…
These are the tasks that God sets before us in the time that we have.
Let us do the work of the One who sent us while it is day.In the growing light, may our sight increase.
[i] See discussion in James Kugel, In the Valley of the Shadow, 2011, Free Press, pg. 89-92.
[ii] David Farmer, “John 9,” Interpretation, January 1996, pg. 59-63.