MARCH 19, 2023
WITNESS TO GOD’S SAVING LOVE
I’d like to talk with you this morning about the love of God and disabilities. This morning, at the center of our gospel story, there is Jesus and a man who was born with blindness, a man with a profound disability.
This is a very long narrative, so I’m going to break it into three parts, with the sermon stitched in between. Listen, now, to the beginning of the story.
As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 Wea must work the works of him who sent meb while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
He is not seeking or searching for Jesus, but there he is on the side of road and Jesus saw him. For the disciples, the sight of him on the roadside became an occasion for theological speculation: “Why are people born blind, anyway? Is it because of sin?” For Jesus, the sight of him becomes an occasion for mercy, and an opportunity to demonstrate by his love and power that he is God’s Son. Jesus took some mud, spat and made a paste, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go, wash,” he said. When the man returned, he was able to see. Jesus saw him and cared for him.
As I thought about this story, and this man who lived with the disability of blindness, I began to think of all the ways that FPC Asheville has tried to follow Jesus by seeing and loving those with disabilities. I thought of the two elevators in this facility – one of which is from 1968. Nearly sixty years ago, this congregation believed it was important to provide access to God’s house for everyone. I thought of the entrance to the church from the lower parking lot, which is now equipped with a push button operation thanks to the vision and generosity of a member who recognized the need. I thought of the T-coil loop in the sanctuary for the hearing impaired. I thought of our live-streaming ministry, which enables members of our congregation, and others, who are not able to attend in person to worship from home week by week. And of course, I thought of how the chancel in the sanctuary is fully accessible with ramps on either side. You would be surprised to know how many churches, who are considering sanctuary renovations, are moved by the vision and commitment to inclusion represented by the ramps to the chancel.
Sometimes we think that those who live with disabilities are rare, a small minority who needs help. But if we think about it for a moment, I believe we’ll discover that all of us are affected in some way, and in fact, the very idea of an “able-bodied” majority begins to disappear. I wonder if I could ask you to raise your hands here, and I promise I won’t embarrass or put anyone on the spot.
If someone you love, a friend or family member, has a physical, mental, or emotional disability, would you raise your hand? It might be mobility challenges or hearing impairment, vision loss, autism, bipolar disorder, chronic depression, PTSD, developmental disability, or any one of many other disabilities. Now, if you are not raising your hand already, raise your hand if you think there may be a good chance that, as you age, you may acquire one or more disabilities – for perhaps hearing or vision loss, or the ability to walk or climb stairs or care for yourself?
Thank you. Now, I want you to notice that in addition to all those who raised our hands, there are others of us in this congregation – and so many more in our community – who live with one or more of the disabilities I’ve named. It may be a disability from birth, or one that is acquired. It may be one that everyone sees, like mobility, or one that is invisible to all but our closest family and friends, like PTSD.
The story today begins by telling us that Jesus saw a man blind from birth. He saw him. In the fullness of his humanity, and just as he was, Jesus saw him. Jesus sees you and me too. He sees our abilities and our disabilities, he sees our strengths and our weaknesses, he sees our gifts and our deficits. Jesus sees us just as we are, has compassion on us just as we are, loves us just as we are – just as we are born, and just as we become.
Listen, now, to what happened after Jesus restored this man’s sight.
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesusc to be the Messiahd would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
It’s hard, I think, for us to imagine what these religious leaders were really arguing about. They seem uninterested in the man who regained his sight, but were very concerned about what it might say about Jesus and whether he was really the Messiah. He healed the man on the Sabbath, and this, to them, was not right. Instead of marveling in wonder at the man who could now see, they argued about whether Jesus was a sinner.
It’s obvious to us in hindsight that they were focused on the wrong thing, but before we feel too self-satisfied, it’s important to remember that we sometimes focus on the wrong things too. In her recent book, From Inclusion to Justice, Erin Raffety – who is a friend of Caitlin’s and mine from seminary and who taught our faith formation class this morning – argues that one of the “wrong things” that we often focus on is, ironically, inclusion itself. How can this be?
In her research, and in her experience parenting a child with disabilities, Erin found that focusing on including people – while it is well-meaning – tends to create two other problems. The first problem is that when we focus on all the ways that we are inclusive, we fail to see all the ways we remain exclusive. While we pat ourselves on the back, we miss the work that still needs to be done. The second problem is that when we focus on including disabled persons, we actually continue to define them by their disability, and define ourselves by our abilities. The very language of inclusion leads to “us” including “them,” which – as we saw a minute ago – just makes no sense.
Now, that’s pretty complex, so let me illustrate with a story from the congregation I served in New Jersey. This is a person I thought of as I read Erin’s book. His name was Patrick, he lived in town and walked to church every Sunday, he always called me “pastor,” and he had some severe emotional/social disabilities that shaped his life. This was a smaller congregation and every Sunday during the prayers of the people there was time before we prayed for folks to say prayer concerns out loud. Every Sunday, Patrick would raise his hand, and – to be honest – most of us would wince. We winced because sometimes he would have a long list, or sometimes he would share awkward things about himself, or sometimes he would just call out the same person’s name for weeks and weeks in a row. On some Sundays I pretended not to see Patrick’s hand go up, and some days I skipped over the sharing time altogether because I knew what was coming. But it wasn’t Patrick’s problem; it was mine and ours. We had accessible ramps, and accessible bathrooms, and a sound system, and we were inclusive, and I was glad Patrick was there – as long as he could “fit in,” which meant brief, polite, and carefully worded prayer concerns. We were blind to the ways we were still exclusive, and I would daresay that, as inclusive as we strive to be as a congregation, we are probably also blind to some of the ways we are still exclusive.
My favorite part of this story from John is when the man who had been blind speaks up for himself. He has a strong voice. The religious leaders call the man’s parents and ask them to speak on his behalf, but they don’t want trouble, so they say, in effect, “Yes, he’s our son, but he’s grown. Ask him.” So, the leaders call the man back in, and the man who was born with blindness steps into his full dignity as a human being. He talks with courage and confidence and wisdom – he spoke as a leader to leaders. He made a sophisticated theological argument, pointing to the evidence that Jesus is God’s Son, and so he becomes one of the key witnesses to Jesus in the Gospel of John.
This is what Erin Raffety means by moving from inclusion to justice. True belonging isn’t only having a ramp up to the chancel, it’s also being willing to call a disabled pastor who will use the ramp. True belonging isn’t only having access for people with disabilities, it’s also making room for people with disabilities to lead. True belonging means needing their insights, and seeking their wisdom.
Tragically, once the man who was born blind stood and spoke up, the religious leaders threw the man out of their presence. Listen, now, to the end of the story.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”e 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir?f Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord,g I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
When Jesus heard he was driven out, he went and found him — because this man belonged to the community of faith. That was Jesus’ question, you see. “Do you believe in the son of Man?” The man was ready to believe: “Tell me who is, so that I can.” Jesus said, “You’ve seen him, and he is the one speaking with you.” The man responded, “Lord, I believe,” and he fell down to worship. The man who was born blind saw and believed what this Gospel of John, and what the Lord himself, wants each of us to see: that Jesus is God’s own Son, the Savior.
Jesus saw him and loved him. He found his voice. He came to believe. I would venture to say that, if we could bring this man here now to ask him, he would tell us that his blindness – his disability – was only part of his struggle. The other part, and perhaps the greater part, was being overlooked, being pitied or talked about on the side of the road, feeling useless or small. Jesus spat on the ground and gave him his sight, but that was only part of the healing. Jesus gave him dignity and faith, and it restored his soul. He became a witness to God’s saving love.
Erin Raffety concludes her book, by saying, “After all, true love comes from God. It cannot be anything other than what it is in this world. The challenge for non-disabled people is to stop trying to get it to conform, so that we can simply receive it. The challenge for disabled folks is to be dignified and amplified in the ways they give it so that others can receive it. The challenge for all of us is to journey toward justice with Jesus…”
Giving and receiving, abled and disabled, each of us and all of us at once. In the company of Jesus may we find ever more ways to welcome and lift up, to include and dignify, to see and perceive the love of God that is at work in each one of us. Amen.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina
 Erin Raffety, From Inclusion to Justice: Disability, Ministry, and Congregational Leadership (2022)