From Blindness to Seeing
a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “God Transforms Reality”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
March 14, 2021
John 12:20-33 NRSV
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
It’s pretty clear Jesus was very concerned about our visual acuity. The Gospels testify to numerous encounters with people who have problems seeing or are blind. Those stories usually include healing. But they also often include comments on how those who see may also not see what they most need to see.
Our story this morning is about seeing. A group of “Greeks,” have come to a Jewish religious festival and find one of Jesus’ followers and announce they want to see Jesus. They don’t say what they were looking for, or why they wanted to “see” Jesus. But strange as that might seem the story only gets more strange from there. John never tells us if they got to see Jesus or not; or what they were looking for; only that Jesus reacts to it very strangely. It seems like their request is almost like some kind of a secret password.
Jesus’ answer seems just as mysterious. He doesn’t say “bring ‘em in” or, “I don’t have time to see them.” He says, “now the hour has come to be glorified.” What does that mean? Then he tells an agricultural parable and talks about loving and hating life. Then he talks about serving him. Then he says his soul is troubled and asks if he should say, “Father save me? No, this is the reason I have come,” he says. Then he asks God to glorify him. God says he has and will. Crowd thinks its thunder. Jesus says the voice is for your sake – he is comfortable with his relationship with God. Then Jesus speaks of judgment and mentions the “ruler of this world.” Does he mean Caesar? The Devil? Some other historical or spiritual figure? Then he makes a promise: he will draw all people to himself. By the end of this if you are like me you are wondering not if there is a point to this, but how many points are there?
Elsewhere John is very keen on who has “light” such that they are “in the know,” or they can see what is important, and those who are in the “dark” suggesting they cannot see or do not understand or know what is important. The whole chapter 9 of John’s Gospel is devoted to a kind of Keystone Cops comedy about a man born blind, he begs Jesus to heal him, after he does there is a big debate with the religious leaders who are offended that Jesus did this on the Sabbath. There is a long back and forth with the man, his parents, and with Jesus about who is blind and who can see and it ends with Jesus warning those who are the most religious in the story that in claiming to see when they are blind their sin remains. That is the closing line. I cannot help but remember that Paul Tillich, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th Century says the most basic definition of sin is “broken relationships.” And broken relationships can be seen everywhere today where we have become so tribal and so individually focused on ourselves and our rights, and our freedoms, and our privileges that we cannot see that unless we learn how to live in community with one another we will perish in our sin, in our brokenness, in our individual “freedom.” Maybe one way to see this story is to see that if we want to see Jesus, we have to go where Jesus is, and Jesus is usually hanging with the folks we would consider “the wrong people.”
Rev. Dr. Chris Tuttle, [ “Blindness and a Vision of Community,” day1.org, 09/29/13 ], in a sermon asks, “To what are we blind? Make your list... we are all busy dealing with our lives. So many people heading in so many different directions and everyone is tired all the time. And another man asks us for change on the street and we put our blinders on as we head to Home Depot. We have paint samples to match, after all.
He tells the story of a spring break trip his church youth group took to Washington DC. As part of the trip they had a “handful of homeless and formerly homeless men tell their stories. One of my friends asked a man what to do when a person on the street approached him asking for money. He said that we should do what we felt like doing. If we give them money, be fully aware, he said, that it may be used for food, but just as well may be used for something else. He said to follow your gut as you make that decision. Then he added the critical point: Say, 'yes,' or say, 'no,' but treat me like a person, he said. We spend our whole day not being seen. Do not act like we aren't there.” I guess you could say the homeless man was just asking to be seen, for someone to acknowledge that though they were very different we all have a common community called “humankind.”
Rev. Tuttle goes on to share another story of a time when his “father was searching through an old storage closet in Montreat, the Presbyterian conference center in the mountains of western North Carolina” many years ago and came across a recording. It was a tape from a weekend late in August, 1965. It is a recording of a speech to a large gathering of church folks. In that speech in Montreat, the speaker says, “I submit this is the challenge facing the church, to be as concerned as our Christ about the least of these, our brothers and sisters. And we must do it because in the final analysis we are all to live together, rich and poor, lettered and unlettered, tutored and untutored. Somehow we are tied in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” That speaker, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., adds, “And for some reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God made the world...we must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or we will all perish as fools.”
Rev. Tuttle adds, “So, past poverty, past vision, it’s about community, and the key to how community is formed. Ask someone who digs deeper to give a sacrificial gift or packs up a bunch of clothes and takes them downtown. Ask someone who has spent the night with homeless families volunteering at a shelter, who has really sat down at the shelter over dinner and listened. Because once you do something like this, and so many of you have,” – and I would add. many of YOU have– and Rev. Tuttle says that once you have done this, “you cannot go back. You cross over a gulf, a chasm, and see, and understand human need differently from that point on. Your vision is forever altered, and you see the world in all its richness and brutality and immense complexity; but you also see the person in front of you as a beloved, beloved child of God.”
This was dramatically illustrated for me in a story that Rev. Cameron Trimble tells in her online devotional [ March 3, 2021 ]. She writes about “the true story of American Airlines Captain Beverly Bass, and her experience of flying a plane full of 158 passengers from Paris, France, to Dallas, Texas, on September 11, 2001. Captain Bass was the third woman hired as a pilot at American Airlines, and the first to make captain—at age thirty-four. On that fateful day, “she had a normal take off and was flying over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean bound for Dallas, Texas, when she heard over the air-to-air radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Towers. She assumed that it was a small plane, which was bad enough, but it wouldn’t be a problem for her flight. Then another pilot announced that a second plane hit the Towers. It was an American Airlines 737.
“In a matter of minutes, the New York airspace was closed, followed by all U.S. airspace. Over 4000 international flights in the air at that moment were forced to find new places to land. Air traffic control told Captain Bass to land in Gander, Canada. The Gander Airport was built during World War II and, afterward, rarely saw major traffic. Over less than 12 hours on September 11, 2001, 38 international aircraft and almost 7000 people landed in Gander, nearly doubling the size of its population.
“When it became clear that the ‘plane people’ were going to be stranded for a few days, the community sprang into action. They housed people in their own homes, cooked meals, set up additional phone towers so that people could call home, and much more. The people of Gander showed extraordinary hospitality on one of the hardest days in our shared history.”
Rev. Trimble adds that she was talking recently with “a pastor who was in Gander during that time. She talked about how the community leaders issued a call for citizens to bring any blankets they could spare to the shelters to keep people warm. Most of the people only had handmade quilts, heirlooms inherited over generations or created for future ones. Without hesitation, the citizens of Gander brought those quilts to keep the ‘plane people’ warm. It was 5 days later before the FAA opened the U.S. airspace and they were cleared to continue to Dallas. As the passengers packed up and prepared to board the planes, the people of Gander who had donated the quilts told the ‘plane people’ to keep them, to take them with them as a remembrance of their meeting and sign of their care. Late in the evening on September 16, the 158 passengers of Flight 49 finally made it to Dallas.” Can you imagine such a sacrifice? What a gift! They saw people in need. They didn’t ask if they were deserving. I am sure some of those folks were different races, different nationalities, different in every way imaginable. They just gave. I think in that moment both the people of Gander and the ‘plane people’ saw what those Greeks wanted to see: they saw Jesus.
Rev. Trimble said, “Here is what I love most about this story: Today, quilts beautifully stitched and lovingly gifted are all over the world still keeping people warm. They remind us all that in the end, we are held together, stitch by stitch, through sacred and sacrificial love.” When we remember that we will hear the fulfillment of Dr. King’s words: “Somehow we are tied in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” That speaker, Dr. King, said, “for some reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God made the world...we must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or we will all perish as fools.”
I pray we will all be like those Greeks and go looking for Jesus. I think when everyone hears Jesus say, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” we will see him right there before us in the “other.” I’d like to see that day. AMEN.