3.30.2014

Grace upon Grace

[I loved writing this homily on John 9:1-41, and loved preaching it even more. It's a sermon that made me feel like a preacher again, and that doesn't always feel like my primary pastoral identity anymore, now that I'm an associate minister.]

Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but when I reread this story of a man born blind who experienced the grace of God through the restoration of his sight, I remembered the story of a man born with sight who experienced the grace of God even as his once-perfect vision darkened into blindness.

This man who once wasn’t blind but now couldn’t see wrote these words: 
“The human eye is a marvelous creation - “the window of the soul,” said Plato. But Plato had never been around opthalmologists. To them, and rightly so, the eye is an organ. It is nerve and muscle and cells. It is the object of their curiosity, the font of their knowledge, the beauty of their craft. But when all the rhapsodies are sung, the eye is an instrument, a means to an end. Humans see with their brains, not their eyes. The eye receives the stimulus of light, focuses on the sources of light, converts the light particles to nerve “signals” and, through the nerves of the retina, sends the signals to the brain for decoding, interpretation, and information to all the systems of the brain and body. It is marvelous how this works, and how little we are aware of the intricacies of this constant, continuous process - until the mechanism malfunctions.”

Perhaps you recognized these words. Perhaps you knew the man who wrote them. I only met him once, all too briefly, but I have availed myself of his many books. We have all of them in our Kemper Library, as well we should, for the library is named in his honor.

The Reverend Robert Kemper, who was the senior pastor of this congregation for thirty years, lived the same story as the man born blind, but in reverse. Yet because God is Alpha and Omega, before us and behind us, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, both stories ended with grace upon grace.

Bob Kemper began losing his vision in his thirties. It was, as you can imagine, a devastating experience. His memoir, An Elephant’s Ballet, is a story of grief - but it is also a story of healing. Reverend Kemper’s blindness descended quickly and irreversibly. Life as he had known it was over - but as it turned out, there was a new life on the other side of that darkest valley. What you must know, if you do not already, is that Bob Kemper did not become the pastor of this congregation when he could see. He became the pastor of this congregation not long after he could not. He had to learn to see himself as a man who, though blind, could still teach and preach and serve this community of faith.

This community of faith already saw him that way. The day he was called to become Senior Pastor, he and and his family entered the sanctuary as the congregation sang, “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.” 

He recalled, 
“Tears were in the eyes of my wife and children, moved by the public recognition I was receiving. Tears were in the eyes of many in the congregation, sensing a new development and direction for their much-loved church. Tears were in my eyes too, for all those reasons, but also because of the awesome awareness within me of the power of grace. The grace of God had delivered us to that moment of ending and of beginning. The tears were embarrassing to no one. They opened us to receive the hugs and handshakes of the ties that bind us. 
I stood in the warmth of that congregation as their preacher, pastor, teacher, counselor, leader, and most important, friend. I did not stand there as the amazing blind man, the elephant who danced, the unfortunate victim of disease, the object of their pity. I stood in that place as a person and pastor, and it was good to stand in that way because of the saving power of grace.”

Thanks be to God.
I worry that by telling the story of a man who became literally blind, I’m running the risk of implying that this is a story about literal blindness. It isn’t. True, a man’s sight was restored. But this tale of healing isn’t really about the vision we experience through that organ made of nerve and muscle and cells. As Reverend Kemper wrote, even our actual sense of sight isn’t really a function of the eye. It’s a function of the mind. And the vision that is most critical in this story is the vision that goes even deeper than our brains.

The way of seeing that this story celebrates is a vision of the heart. This is the story of restoration of sight, all right: a story about seeing who God is, and who we are. It’s a story about refusing to see anything that doesn’t fit into our idea of how things are. It’s a story about learning to see new truths. And most of all it’s a story of salvation, of amazing grace.

All of this is to say that there is more to this story than meets the eye - sorry, I couldn’t resist.

If you’ll bear with me, I want to lift up a few plot points. Did you notice that some of the blind man’s neighbors didn’t even recognize him when he returned to their presence as a man who could see? It’s not like Jesus had altered the man’s appearance when he healed his eyes with mud and spit. They simply could not believe their own eyes. The Pharisees even went so far as to demand the man’s parents identify him.

Now that’s a whole set of characters who are, spiritually speaking, blind as bats. In this story, the Pharisees simply don’t get it. They don’t recognize Jesus for who he is, and they certainly don’t recognize the presence and power of God’s love moving in their midst. They just want to talk about sin. They are so convinced of their version of the story - so unwilling to see the formerly blind man as a sightless and sinful fool, they cast him out.

Which is to say, they ensure they won’t have to look at him anymore, standing there in all his healed and restored glory, his mere existence a testimony of their blindness.

And then there’s the blind man himself. It seems his physical sight was restored lickety-split, but his spiritual sight emerged slowly, as if his eyes had to adjust to the brightness of the brilliant light shining before him.

The first time his neighbors asked him how his eyes were opened, he explained that “a man called Jesus” had done it.

When the Pharisees ask him about who this Jesus is, the man says he is a prophet.

The second time the Pharisees question the man, he takes it a step further. “If this man were not from God, who could do nothing.”

And then the man finally speaks to this Jesus who restored his sight but got him driven away by the religious authorities. And here the man who once was blind but now can see sees it all clearly at last. Jesus is no mere man. Jesus is no mere prophet. Jesus is not merely sent from God; Jesus is the Son of God. And here he tells us exactly what he sees: “Lord, I believe.” And he worships him.

This is what the story is showing us, what the story is asking us to see: the face of God. The truth. And it’s a beautiful one, the truth that is revealed when the mud gets washed away and our vision is stripped of all the lies we’ve ever believed.

I don’t know what I can’t yet see, what I might be stubbornly refusing to see. I don’t know what you can’t yet see, what light and truth is just beyond your field of vision.

I do know a prayer worth praying: open our eyes, O God.

I do know that when this prayer is answered, when we’re surprised by the grace of God, when we see ourselves as we really are, when we behold the brilliant light of the one who came that we might no longer walk in darkness, there isn’t a dry eye in the whole place.

Thanks be to God.


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