The Gift We Take For Granted
You deserve to know that this morning’s sermon has only one reason for its brief life: I was led into it by some of the peripheral reading I did in preparation for a sermon two weeks ago called “Getting Through The Night” — in which the “night” had to do mostly with that spiritual blindness which the medieval mystics called “the dark night of the soul,” although I did touch briefly on literal light and darkness — and how wonderful it can be, if we’ve been sick or sleepless, to see the dawn come. I mentioned the long illness of John Henry Newman, author of the great hymn “Lead, Kindly Light” and how during that time, far from home, he used to watch eagerly for daybreak and whisper, when it came: “O sweet light! God’s best gift.”
I cannot make a sermon work without becoming emotionally involved in it, and for two weeks now I have continued to hear the echo of Newman’s simple gratitude for the first glimpse of morning. I open my eyes, see first of all the great maple tree outside the window, a mass of gold now in the arms of autumn, and in that moment before the day’s work begins I am so grateful for the gift of sight that the words ring once more in my head: “O sweet light! God’s best gift.” It has seemed to me in these past two weeks that no matter where I was reading, in or out of the Bible, I kept running into so many stories about blindness that I finally realized I would have to talk about them, including one at the end of this sermon which I think you will remember for a while.
But for a moment, let’s recall how often the gospels refer to the gift of sight. If you were a historian, writing a biography of Jesus, and you discovered someone who had heard his first sermon, one of your questions would be: “What text from Jewish scripture did he pick as the starting point for his sermon?” Luke, who begins his gospel by saying that he has done some careful research, is the one who tells us what that text was. “So he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went to the synagogue on the sabbath day…..He opened the scroll [of Isaiah] and found the passage which says, “The….Lord….has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners, and recovery of sight for those who are blind…..”
How literally Jesus interpreted the part about prisoners and the blind is impossible for us to know, but there are interesting stories in the Gospels about blind people who came to Jesus asking for his help. I remember mentioning to you once how in these healing stories there is the most curious mixture of magic, and folk remedies, and instantaneous versus gradual success. In some cases Jesus does nothing but speak, and there is an immediate cure (Mk. 10, Lk.18). In other cases he adds a physical action: he touches their eyes (Mt. 9, Mt. 20). In another case he spits on the ground, makes a little clay paste, rubs the paste on the man’s eyes, tells him to go wash in a nearby pool, and the man comes back able to see (John 9). Does this seem as curious to you as it does to me? If all you really have to do is speak a word, why bother with the rest of it? Why add touching? As for the spit and the clay poultice, it is true that in the time of Christ people thought saliva had medicinal properties, but why should one who can work miracles by a spoken word want to bother with them?
And in the most curious story of all, Jesus tries and fails the first time. He is in a little fishing town on the edge of the Sea of Galilee when people bring a blind man and beg Jesus to touch him. (Have they not heard that all he has to do is speak?) Jesus takes the blind man by the hand and leads him out of town before he begins the cure. Why out of town? There is no explanation, but we can guess at one. This story is only found in the gospel of Mark (Mk.8), and Mark is the writer who makes a big deal of what is called the “Messianic secret” — that since Jesus did not wish to advertise himself as the long-anticipated Messiah he told people he healed to tell no one about it. In fact, just a few verses after the section we are talking about right now, when Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus orders the disciples to tell no one about their conviction.
But as all scholars know there are problems with the way the gospels are written, and there is certainly one here. The other gospels do not share Mark’s strong emphasis on the Messianic secret. John’s gospel , for example, gives us a Jesus who from the very first chapter makes no secret at all of his Messianic claims. So which was it? Did he keep it quiet, or did he announce it openly? Mark’s portrait of Jesus and John’s portrait of Jesus are simply not the same, and truly serious students of the gospels have to wrestle with their stark differences. (This kind of thing, by the way, is why authentic biblical scholars are tempted to pull their hair and scream when some pulpit and television evangelists talk about a simple, infallible New Testament).
Now, back to where we were: that strangest of all stories of healing in which Jesus doesn’t get the job done the first time. We interrupted the story by considering why Jesus decided to take this blind man out of town, into more privacy, one assumes, when in no other case of restoring sight did he seem to care about privacy at all. As we pick the story up again, we read that “when [Jesus] had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked, ‘Do you see anything?’ You have to keep remembering, to appreciate the questions raised by these different accounts, that with other people Jesus has simply spoken a and the healing is complete. Now, instead of that, he uses a folk remedy and also lays his hands on the man — but then seems to be asking, “Tell me whether this is working?” (This sounds more like my doctor, who tries one thing and then another because he doesn’t do miracles!)
No triumphant shouting, no Hallelujah! — just a quiet question as if Jesus did not know exactly where they were at that stage. “Do you see anything?” The man looks up and says, “I see men; but they look like trees, walking.” You’ve had the feeling, haven’t you? In the eye-doctor’s chair looking at the vision chart, when the letters are still too fuzzy and he tries again and says, “How’s that? Any better?” So Jesus now, having not managed it the first time, lays his hands on the man a second time, and the man stares intently and is restored and sees things clearly.
When I was a boy, listening to preachers, they never talked about a Jesus who seems as human as the one in this story — who has to do a gradual cure instead of an instant miracle. And they never once challenged me to wonder why, if the divine Son of God can cure blindness with a word he would bother to do it in all those other ways, some of them positively messy and one of them a failure on the first try. I understand now why they didn’t talk about these things. We had a certain view of Jesus and of the infallibility of scripture, so we used the New Testament very selectively and did not raise questions that might make people wonder if the New Testament was as simple as we said it was.
I have deliberately taken a while to get to the main emphasis of this sermon because there were peripheral points I wanted to make on the way that I felt would interest people like yourselves. But I’ve made them, so let’s talk now about the gift we take for granted. We take all sorts of blessings for granted, of course, but perhaps none more than the gift of sight — the gift that makes it easy to read a book, watch a play, look at the faces of those we love, rejoice even as we drove here this morning through the colors of autumn. People who want us to be more appreciative of the good things in life often tell us we should “take time to smell the roses.” Nothing wrong with that advice, but there is something even better: “Take time to look at them.”
No one I can imagine, forced to choose between sight and the sense of smell, would be willing to give up all the marvelous pleasures which are available only to those who can see. This is such an obvious proposition that I am almost embarrassed even to mention it, except that we get so used to the obvious that we take it for granted, and in taking it for granted we lose something called gratitude which I think is essential if you hope to be happy. I realize that with all the things we have to do we can’t be consciously grateful each hour of the day, but a lifetime of ministry has left me with this absolute conviction: those who look for reasons to be thankful are happy, and those who don’t are miserable. So, among all the things we have to be thankful for, I thought it might be enough this morning to celebrate the glory of sight, and to be grateful for it, and to be humbled by the courage and patience — sometimes, amazingly, even the humor — of those who in all their lives have never seen the sun or the sky or the faces of their children.
Now for the story I promised, true in every detail, of what happened to a ministerial colleague of mine not long ago in another city. I will use the exact words he used when he shared it with me. “Not long ago I agreed to marry two people who were not members of my congregation, but who listen regularly to my sermons on the radio. They were in their 50’s, and said they had met recently at a convention, had fallen in love, and “were not a couple of kids who didn’t know what they were doing.” I agreed over the phone to perform a small wedding at an old carriage house in the company of what they described as ‘a few close friends.’
“When I arrived at the house I discovered something nobody had bothered to tell me: the bride and groom were blind. Everyone in the wedding party was blind. Almost everyone in the audience was blind. Now, I think of myself as a pretty laid-back, calm and collected sort of guy, but I was a little panicked. I’d never performed a wedding rehearsal and ceremony for people who couldn’t see. It began to dawn on me that half of what I normally say makes assumptions that wouldn’t exactly apply in this case.
“You know, like: This wedding ring is an outward and visible symbol of an inward and spiritual grace. Visible? That won’t work. As you look into the eyes of your wife-to-be, repeat these words after me. Can’t say that. A unity candle? They want to light a unity candle? How are they going to find it? Is the bride wearing white? What difference does it make? Should the groomsmen keep their hands behind their backs, or in front — right hand over left? Who’s going to notice? Let’s bow our heads and close our eyes? See what I mean?!
The place was packed, and the crowd looked oddly like the cast from A Ship of Fools: there were midgets, white walking canes, seeing-eye dogs, and people who had obviously dressed without the usual concern for how they looked. I felt like somebody from another planet. That’s when I decided that the only way to get through this thing was to trust the good graces of the crowd itself and hope to be forgiven of any serious blunders. I wandered to the front and introduced myself to the three groomsmen. ‘My name is Ed Martin,’ I said, placing my hand into their hands. Roaring with jolly laughter they replied, “We’re the three blind groomsmen!”
The father of the bride practiced escorting his daughter down the aisle. Nobody could see, and thus nobody would know when they had arrived at the right spot. The father said, matter-of-factly: ‘Reverend, when I get to the place you want me, stick out your arm and stop me — otherwise, I’ll run right over you!’ Needless to say, this was not your average rehearsal, and it didn’t turn out to be your average wedding. When the ceremony was about to begin, one of the groomsmen, sensing my nervousness, said: ‘Smile, Reverend.’ ‘I am smiling,’ I told him. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I mean with your heart.’
I managed to stop the father of the bride in the right spot. I placed the rings into the palms of their hands. And when the moment came to light the unity candle, I watched as a friend stepped up to guide each of their hands together in one seamless motion of love. At the end, when it came time to kiss the bride, he “found” her face with his hands, and they kissed to the roaring approval of all their devoted, blind friends. I felt weightless, and oddly out of my body. There was energy in that room like the hum of a high voltage wire. All I remember thinking was: I’ve been dropped into a scene from ‘Places in the Heart.’ I have witnessed something rare and luminous, and I can’t wait to tell my congregation. I called the sermon, The Blind Wedding From Heaven. And one more thing: In the last few days, my eyes have not missed a thing!”
For all the joys of life, gracious God, we speak our gratitude as
we leave this place of worship, and ask that we may find ways
of sharing our happiness with others, in the name of Christ our