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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
What is courage? By definition it is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear. The word courage itself comes from Middle English French word “corage” or of the heart. We often speak of courageous moments in war and battle, but I believe there is another occasion for courage. Count Vittorio Alfieri, an Italian poet, dramatist and founder of Italian tragedy wrote, “Often the test of courage is not to die, but to live.” Indeed, true courage, may be learning to live faithfully in life’s shadow lands. It is for that reason that I have titled this sermon, “A Profile in Courage,” for I believe that the Blind Man at the center of this morning’s gospel is a man of true courage.
It seems that the blind have always been a center of attention. Blindness invokes both sympathy and humor. You may be a bit uncomfortable, but you laugh, when a friend at work tells the story of “A blind man who walks into a store with his guide dog, and starts swinging his dog around in the air. Upset by this, the manager of the store demands to know what he was doing. The blind man calmly replies, ‘I’m just looking around.’ ” Or you chuckle, when your kindergartener comes home and tells you of the “Blind porcupine who falls in love with a pin cushion. There’s a sweetness to the innocent story, but that was not attention the young man born blind often received.
From the day he was born, he heard voices around him. Observers often had a harsh and brutal way of characterizing people they did not know. In front of the sufferer, they made judgments based on their understanding of the world. Jesus’ own disciples dismissed the man born blind at birth. “Rabbi,” one disciple asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In the disciples’ minds there were only two possibilities for sickness and tragedy. Ancient tradition had taught them that someone had to have sinned, “The sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” Or as the prophet Ezekiel had written, “The soul that sins, it shall die.” They believed that the nature of God was to punish.
Of course, there were the rewards and consequences as well. The disciples and Pharisees accepted that the true nature of God was to bless those who did good works. Yes, the good life they enjoyed today was the result “that somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.” It was a neat theological world of rewards and punishments.
There are many today who still believe this. They don’t say it directly, but they practice it in their words and actions. And more painfully, they impose their beliefs on those who are hurting. “Rabbi, who’s to blame? Who’s to blame that this child suffers with leukemia, the child or his parents?” Who’s to blame that the young man down the street was killed in a car accident? Who’s to blame that this child is different, nature or nurture? Who’s to blame that one child should be born deaf while another is born hearing? For the Pharisees and disciples, and for many believers, even today, sin and blame provide a neat, logical explanation to what takes place in our world.
But Jesus doesn’t accept such an understanding of the world. Who caused this to happen, this man or his parents? “Neither,” Jesus responded. Then he answered with a third option, one that the disciples had not thought of. “This man before us is blind, so that the marvelous works of God can be shown.”
It was a kind and gentle way of treating those in need, as opposed to those who brushed them aside treating them as a burden and curse. When Jesus saw someone in need, he didn’t use that person’s plight to underscore his own moral and theological agenda. No. Jesus saw an opportunity to do God’s work. And he has invited his disciples, ever since, to do the same.
Now, I must admit that Jesus’s healing technique is a little strange to modern listeners. Jesus spat onto the ground, made a little mud, and then smeared it into the man’s eyes. He then told the young man born blind to go, and wash in the pool of Siloam. And for some odd reason, the man born blind went. He experienced taunting and teasing every day and the journey was not easy. The pool of Siloam was outside Jerusalem’s city wall. He would have to descend a long flight of stone stairs maneuvering against the crowd of pilgrims. And yet somehow, he found the human courage to do it. But how?
The great American defense lawyer William Jennings Bryan once said, “Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice.” In this chance encounter between the Jesus and the man born blind, the man was greeted with a choice. Destiny is a choice. Jesus made mud and spread it on the blind man’s eyes. With courage, the young man chose to follow Jesus’ instructions. And when he came back he could see. But that wasn’t the end of the miracle, my friends. No, the true miracle was the young man was becoming a new man.
Certainly, the man didn’t consider himself courageous, but he was surprised by the reaction of the Pharisees. He expected that they would marvel at the miracle of sight. He thought that they would joyously talk with him about his new life in a seeing world. He expected that he would be presented before the temple as a man who had been blessed by God. But that is not how their world of rewards and punishments worked. Instead stocky men in brown trench coats and dark glasses led him off to an interrogation room. With bright lights glaring down into his eyes they drilled him with questions. “What is your name? Tell us your story. Who did this to you? When did it happen?” He answered as best as he could, but he sensed that something was just not quite right. At the end of his questioning, he found himself driven out of the Temple. The Pharisees would have nothing more to do with him.
Now you may be wondering: What could be so offensive and disturbing about this blind man’s story that the Pharisees would refuse to listen to him? Was it because Jesus had used mud and saliva? Or was it because Jesus had healed the young man on the Sabbath? Perhaps. But I rather suspect that the Pharisees were angered because the timid young man had changed. He was no longer a poor beggar pleading for mercy and loose change. They were expecting a weak coward, one who in perilous emergencies would run away. Instead the young man was filled with confidence and courage, and boldly cried out, “Do you also want to become his disciples?”
Perhaps that is the confidence and courage that you are searching for in your life. You know that God is opening your eyes to new possibilities. You know that there is a healthier, happier and brighter day out there, but you’re still seeking the strength to make that journey to the water and to wash your muddied eyes in the Pool of Siloam. It’s not easy. For you, there is still too much of the path, too many expectations, too much labeling “marked blind from birth” to break the bonds. But my friends, Jesus is inviting you to come to the water to be healed and to be changed.
The profile in courage of this man born blind suggests three steps in your journey. First of all, you must be prepared to take a chance. The blind man didn’t come to Jesus, but Jesus came to him. He heard the voice, “I am the Light of the World,” but the blind man didn’t know Jesus. He recognized simply that someone was showing him respect and honor and care. And so, in spite of his blindness and hopelessness and the ridicule of the crowds, he allowed himself to be touched by Jesus. He allowed him to place the saving earth and spit upon his eyes. And then he took a chance… he went to the Pool of Siloam and he was healed. What is that you are being invited to do? Perhaps there’s a risk for you- the possibility of failure is real. My friends, if you’re looking for the courage to make changes in your life, you need to take a chance.
Second, you must be prepared that people will doubt you and your intentions. For those who are struggling to turn their lives around personal change doesn’t come easily. No one believed that this was the same blind man. His own neighbors couldn’t be sure it was him. They never questioned that he could see, but they questioned how he had changed. For you, there will always be those who doubt you. They will question who you are, and try to lure you back to your old patterns and habits. It will be easy to follow and fall away. In these moments you must be prepared to be strong to your convictions and to seek the sources that will strengthen you. The blind man nobly confessed, in spite of all the doubts swirling about him, “One thing I do know, once I was blind, but now I see.” My friends, what is that one fundamental truth that you can cling to when men and women doubt the sincerity of your faith and the change in your life? Yes, you too must be prepared to make your confession, even when people still doubt you.
And finally, remember that loyalty has it price. The Pharisees cast the young man out of the Temple, but the true Lord of the Temple found him. Your Christian witness may not always be welcome in a hostile world. Your loyalty to Jesus may have its price. But Christian loyalty is two fold. If your Christian witness separates you from your fellowmen, your witness will bring you closer to Jesus Christ. Jesus is always faithful to the one who is true to him. And so we read that when Jesus heard that they had driven the young man out of the Temple, he went and found him. Yes, the young man was surprised that his daring to take a chance, his courageous persistence in the face of doubt, and his loyalty to the unknown man, would drive him out of the Temple. But he wasn’t surprised when Jesus came to him. “Lord, I believe,” he said and he worshiped him. Courage, faith, and destiny, you see, are all matters of choice.
The beloved hymn “Amazing Grace, How sweet the Sound” was written by an Anglican priest John Newton. Twenty-one years earlier, however, people doubted his faith and sincerity. He was a slave trader on the west coast of Africa. Every Sunday he read the church liturgy to his crew twice, in the morning and at evensong. And throughout the service he heard the sounds of a doomed humanity rising up in his ears from the hold of the ship. After a long personal struggle, he heeded God’s invitation. He took a chance and abandoned this lucrative trade in slaves. With a new courage he changed his life.
What is the price of Christ’s loyalty for you, my friend? Our Savior offered himself upon the cross, so that you could see. He offered himself upon the cross, so that you could be free. He offered himself upon the cross, so that you could make a choice and begin again. What courageous step do you need to make a change in your life? Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.