Who sinned?

Who sinned?

John 9:13-41

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.” 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 Jesus to be the Messiah 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, 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.

35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? 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, 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 who were with 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.

Let us pray. Oh Lord, uphold me so that I might uplift thee. Amen.

This story is about much more than physical blindness or Lasik miracle mud. It is how we see Jesus and how we see each other. But, in our day, it’s a rare person these days who would associate physical blindness with some kind of individual or genetic character deficiency as they did in Jesus’ day. So, if you’ll bear with me, I allowed this story to speak to other kinds of blindnesses in our world, some very personal, and I’ve never loved this story more.

The muddy waters of the Dan River flow sleepily until they get to Danville, Virginia, where two dams block the water and generate unseen undercurrents of energy. It is a town that often feels defined by what used to be there. Folks even give directions this way. “Well, go down Memorial Drive.” Which is now called Business 29, though there are few businesses left. “Just past what used to be King of the Sea,” which is now a gift shop, “behind the old Barkhouser Ford, then head over the old Smurf bridge, and you’ll be there.” In the ‘70s and ‘80s the Robertson Bridge was painted Smurf blue. I feel for Robertson, whoever he was. Can anyone’s name really be more memorable than a color of a Smurf?

I grew up in this town with a muddy river, where the past and present pool together. There’s a rebranding campaign underway so that Danville might be known as The River City, as opposed to the other things it is known for: the site of the Wreck of the Old ’97, that famous train wreck, or the World’s Best Tobacco Market.

I grew up at First Presbyterian Church, the oldest church in town, whose colossal white steps sit right next to the Last Capitol of the Confederacy, the third of Danville’s dubious monikers. Yes, next to the church stands the old Sutherlin Mansion, where Jefferson Davis slept for one night on his way to Appomattox[1], back when the church would have been about 25 years old.The history there is muddy, dammed up, especially when it comes to who fought what and why and when. The history is forgotten like poor Robertson. But the energy and undercurrents are powerful.

I was born blind to all of that. I never knew that Martin Luther King Jr. had declared the three fronts of the Civil Rights Movement to be Birmingham, Selma and Danville.[2] I never knew that King declared the police force of Danville to be most brutal in the South.[3] I had never heard of Bloody Monday, a day when 50 protestors were beaten and spat upon in Danville in June of 1963. It made headlines across the world, everywhere except Danville.[4] Never saw it. Never heard it from a pulpit growing up. Never watched it on a film reel in 4th grade when we were learning about the history of our state. I was blind to the forces that kept me from playing with my black friends, Kelly and Wynette, starting sometime after 2nd grade. I was also blind to the poverty in Danville that had sent Baptist youth groups from all over the mid-Atlantic to our town for mission trips[5], as I would hear in college. The Dan River was muddier than I thought, and it turns out there is no darker blindness than the blindness of those who choose not to see.

The disciples asked, “Who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus said, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Then Jesus mentioned something about working the work of God while there was time but the people didn’t get it.

So, Jesus got some dirt and mixed it with spit and put it on the man’s eyes. He sent the blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam. Maybe someone led the man by the hand or maybe he felt his way there along the cool stone walls, but as he went, Jesus tossed him a word study, “Siloam … it means sent.” Huh. Who knew?

Siloam means sent? Elsewhere in Scripture, we learn that the Tower of Siloam had fallen, killing a bunch of people. Siloam was a place of senseless tragedy that was too hard to describe so we just say the name of the place and the feelings come flooding back… Siloam. Like, Birmingham. Selma. Ferguson. Baltimore. Minneapolis. Charlottesville. In the Bible, Siloam was a place where senseless tragedy and healing pool together. That was where the man was sent, mud still on his eyes.

The man washed at Siloam and suddenly there were so many things he simply couldn’t un-see. His eyes took in the world as it was for the first time. It must have been overwhelming.

But no sooner had technicolor world begun to sink in than he was besieged by the faith community, very upset about the timing of this restored vision. It is so easy to question the when and the how of the healing rather than why it was needed in the first place.

Nevertheless, the healing became extremely controversial. It occurred on the Sabbath, a major no-no, such that the man’s family was afraid to discuss publicly what had happened. “Talk to him! He is of age!” They didn’t want to be ostracized from the congregation. Somehow faith leaders were concerned that any new vision must be suspect. So, they antagonized the no-longer-blind man right away, “Oh, you’re trying to teach us now? What do you know? Any former blindness you had was your fault, not ours, so, please, spare us the lectures. Your theology is dangerous. Get out.”

Fast forward to 2019. A permanent Civil Rights Museum opened in Danville. I was proud to attend and be able to see people who had been spat on and had  had fire hoses turned on them in 1963 receive ribbons of honor place over their necks. The town finally saw them as heroes and leaders, as treasures not threats.

But while I was home, I was also given a binder that had been made by my grandmother, documenting our family history. It was like a mini-museum of my Dad’s side of the family tree. In there were the stories of my grandmother’s organizing efforts to integrate the school system of Macon, Georgia. I knew those stories. I am proud of those stories. But curled toward the back of the binder was a will. It read:

In the name of God, Amen, I, Thomas Friend of Dale Parish, being of perfect mind and memory, blessed be to God for it, do order and make this my last will and testament. First, I commit my Soul into the hands of Almighty God, hoping through the meritorious death and passion of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to receive free pardon and forgiveness of all my sins, and later, I give to my son, Thomas Friend, his heirs and assigns forever, a tract of land, the mansion house, together with the following negroes and personal estate, namely, Lewis, Doctor, Doshey, and Cloe, one bedstead, featherbed and furniture… six common sitting chairs, one horse of the value of one hundred dollars, and all the hogs that may be on hand at my decease.”

This…. Given to his heirs and assigns forever in the precious name of Jesus. My eyes dripped tears on those pages. There are things one can’t un-see. That muddy Dan River. It had all happened somewhere around there. Suddenly, my eyes were opened. To the blindness that had been part of my family long ago, a moral blindness to the freedom and dignity of other human beings and the incumbent spiritual blindness required to believe slavery might be sanctioned by God. It read not like a will, more like a bankruptcy notice. A debt that could not be paid back.

And around the same time the Civil Rights museum opened in Danville, two Confederate Flags[6] bigger than the American flags at Barkhouser Ford were erected on the way in and out of town, on Highway 29, Lee Highway, a trail that winds from the last Capitol of the Confederacy through Charlottesville where I went to college through the Civil War Battlefields of Manassas right to my current home. It might just be the scar that runs across our state and my life.

Well, after the dust settled, Jesus returned to the story after 28 years, I mean verses, to find two kinds of people by the muddied Siloam waters. One, a man who could see clearer than ever before and yet he was struggling to recognize Jesus. Mostly he was stinging from the blow-back he’d received from God’s people when he thought he was on the path of healing.

And another group, standing in that same dust, people whose stark religious clarity was blurred, for the first time, maybe ever. The people said, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” We may have asked that tender question ourselves, when the dust of racial tension rises on the news or in the school system or in our community.

But Jesus didn’t answer them. Jesus doesn’t tell us what side of the line we are on either. Jesus doesn’t come to bring shame and blame. The only times Jesus draws lines in the sand in the Bible are to heal people, like in today’s text, or keep them from hurling stones at other people, like in the previous chapter in the Gospel of John. Jesus simply tells people to work the work of God, and he promises that this work will reveal God’s work all around us.

What is the work? Prayer. Confession. Telling the truth. Seeking justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God. Tearing down the dividing walls of hostility and breaking bread together with holy hope. And I am glad to say that we are sharing Maundy Thursday worship this year with First Baptist Church of Vienna, a predominantly African American congregation, whose pastor has been working the work of God in Virginia with me. I hope you come for that.

I’ve still got dirt on me. And the more open my eyes get, the more I see the dirt of racial pain everywhere.  No handy sermon illustration can pretty that up. But the more I open my eyes to scripture, there God is, creating new things out of dirt all the time. I see muddied up people being called to that baptismal water all the time. I see a fountain of grace that was never labeled for one race and not another, a fountain that can cleanse our muddied story as a person, as a church, as a nation. I see a fountain of grace that dares to claim that we are no longer defined by what used to be. And as that water rolls down our chin, pooling with tears and mud, perhaps we can say the same faith statement the man born blind did, “Lord I believe.” I believe in the power of Jesus Christ to turn every cross and instrument of harm into resurrection and new life. I believe in the power of the communion table to tear down the dividing walls of hostility between people and create the beloved community. I believe in Jesus Christ and a future drenched in his grace, a heavenly banquet where we are all belong and sit side by side with the Lord of hosts. I believe, oh deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.


[1] http://www.civilwar.org/civil-war-discovery-trail/sites/sutherlin-mansion.html

[2] http://www.peoplesworld.org/article/virginia-town-was-center-of-civil-rights-struggle/

[3] http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/civilrightstv/wdbj/segments/WDBJ04_25.html

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloody_Monday_(Danville)

[5] http://passportcamps.org/blog/mission-monday-cardinal-village-youth-center/

[6] The large flags flying along highways in Virginia and now other states are sponsored by a group called “Sons of Confederate Veterans,” also known as the Flaggers. They were inflamed by the move of Danville City Council to ban the flying of the Confederate Flag over the Sutherlin Mansion, the last Capitol of the Confederacy. The flag was brought inside for display and now resides in the same museum as the newly opened Civil Rights Museum.