This week at Unity, we live-streamed our Saturday liturgy at the Cross of Life Campus and our Sunday liturgy at the Christ the King Campus. The CTK recording (or at least the majority of it, [no] thanks to technical difficulties!) is linked here, and the gospel reading and sermon begin around the 21:13 mark. Audio of the gospel reading and sermon only is below.
Talk about a case study in overanalysis. And I, of all people, should know because I will analyze something to death. Give me one simple task, and within seconds I will have already formulated in my head a lengthy to-do list, a project timeline, and about a billion questions for follow-up.
Sometimes overanalysis can be a gift – when you’re trying to get something accomplished in ministry, at work, or in school. Having a clear, detailed plan is good. But other times, overanalysis is just downright annoying…
Today’s gospel reading feels a little bit like overanalysis run wild. What begins as a simple healing story turns into a lengthy, almost comical, debate. Instead of just accepting and celebrating the healing and the good thing that has just happened, everyone from the next-door neighbor to the religious authorities have to analyze it to death … which is bad enough by itself, but their overanalysis comes at the expense of only further isolating an already marginalized person.
This man, whose name we don’t even know, is cut off from society, alienated from his family, and shunned by his faith community, only for being blind. This is a kind of social isolation that even most of us living during the time of COVID-19 can’t even begin to fathom.
The disciples’ opening question sheds some light on what must have been a lifetime of social isolation for this man, equating his blindness with something that he, or at least his parents, must have done wrong.
It’s a lot easier for us to explain suffering when we can point to some kind of reason for it, isn’t it? It’s what drove many at the onset of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the early 1980s to call it the “gay disease,” a stigma that still exists and fuels homophobia to this day. It’s what has driven some today to label COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” resulting in discrimination against Asian and Asian American communities. And the same thing is going on in this text: Who sinned? What did he do? What’s the “blindness sin” so we know not to do that? On the one hand, it gives the suffering a name and distances it from us … but it isolates our fellow human beings in the process.
Everyone in this story seems only interested in overanalyzing every detail of the man’s blindness, and how it is that he now can see. They’re so focused on stagnant details of the past, instead of the life-giving future made manifest in this moment – a future of God’s promise of abundant life for all and relationship with God and one another.
Their attention seems to be misplaced, and it only exacerbates the isolation of the man standing right in front of them. What must it feel like to be isolated like that?
If we haven’t experienced isolation before, many of us are certainly experiencing it now. But, here, it’s important to note that the isolation of the man born blind and the isolation we’re in the midst of right now are different. For the man born blind, isolation was social marginalization, being cut off from his people, his family, his religious community. For this man, isolation is degrading and dehumanizing. For us now, isolation might feel like all those things – separated from our families, our churches, our workplaces, our schools, our friend groups. For some, especially those living in nursing homes or other care facilities, confined to their rooms and unable to have family visit, that isolation is more acute.
The difference is that right now, isolation is for the good of our neighbor. Jesus tells us, “Love your neighbor.” Strange as it sounds, staying physically apart as much as possible is how we love our neighbor right now. Still, that doesn’t make it any less difficult and painful.
But here’s the good news our gospel proclaims this day: Isolation doesn’t mean we’re alone. Where everyone else couldn’t actually see the man born blind, Jesus sees him.
The disciples can’t see him. They ask their question about him as though blindness somehow means he can’t hear either, or worse, as though he’s not even there. The neighbors can’t see him. They don’t even recognize him. The Pharisees and religious authorities can’t see him. They’re more focused on the circumstances around the healing than the actual man who was actually suffering and who was actually healed.
Imagine this man’s internal dialogue: “How many times do I have to answer the same question? How do they not get it? Are they even listening to me? Do they even know I’m here?”
Then, in the midst of such deep isolation, something remarkable happens. The man has been driven out, alone (again). The crowds have presumably left. There, in deepest isolation, Jesus finds this man. In one tender moment, only a few short verses, we get the first real conversation in the whole story. Jesus sees this man, and for the first time in maybe his whole life, the man is not alone.
This is what John’s gospel is all about … an invitation to a deep, abiding relationship with Jesus and with God, who sees us and never leaves us alone, even when we’re feeling cut off or abandoned, even in circumstances beyond our control.
As the psalmist this day reminds us: God is our shepherd. God leads us. God restores us. Even in the darkest valley of self-isolation, God comforts us. And surely, God’s goodness and deep, abiding love and faithfulness will pursue us and surround us all the days of our life.
Beloved, however we find ourselves isolated – whether by social stigma or disability or illness or by a worldwide pandemic – know this: We are not alone … for God is with us.