Lent III, 2019
He was born for the sea. His father was a captain. He went to sea at age eleven. He learned the trade on voyages in the Mediterranean and the West indies. He served in the navy and was abandoned by a crew. Eventually rescued, the ship that saved him was nearly lost in a storm.
This second encounter with salvation lead to a conversion experience when he was twenty-three. He became a captain and avoided swearing, gambling and drinking. During the long, lonely voyages, he educated himself. He studied Euclid, mastered Latin to read Virgil and Erasmus. He turned his attention to Hebrew and Greek and studied the scriptures. All the while he continued to ply his trade as captain, moving the most valuable cargo of the era, human beings. These were some of the most dreadful years of traffic in enslaved Africans.
He suffered a stroke at twenty-nine, and gave up the sea. Yet still he invested in the trade. While recovering from his stroke, he studied for the priesthood and was eventually ordained. Gradually he began to see the horrors of the trade he over saw for a decade. Years later he would say, “I cannot consider myself to to have been a believer until sometime afterward.”
The anguish of his former slave trade experience could not be forgotten. He first began to reckon with his past in a collection of hymns that included Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, and finally, confronting his past head on, he put his religious experience in words:
“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound!
That saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
In those eloquent, lasting words, John Newton perfectly outlined work of Christ’s light in our lives, there is a time before the light, and there is a time after. Before he was a slave trader, after he became the motivating influence on William Wilberforce who lead the effort to abolish the slave trade in Great Britain.
He lived to see that pass parliament in 1807. He died shortly thereafter having penned his own epitaph which read in part: “John Newton, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.” An infidel before, a preacher after.
It is easy to talk and talk about the story of the Man Born Blind. In fact that’s all many of the characters want to do, to talk about his past, what his sins were, who is people were, how it happened, what was used, how did he do it, what did he say, what did you say? But to do so, as is clear from the continued testimony offered, is to get stuck in the weeds. Despite all the talking in this story, it is not a story about talking, it is a story about time: before and after, then and now, years ago and today, always and then suddenly.
In between is what happened. That’s where we get bogged down, worrying about what happened. You met a man, he touched you with mud, what kind of mud was it? It was made with spit, yuck!. He touched you, there was light and you saw. It makes no sense. We cannot explain this story. Some miracles, some conversions we can only tell what we know, say what happened and what we believe about it.
The moment of healing, of conversion, of salvation is not as important as the difference it made. All you can do is sing of before and after, Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”
The majesty of this story is that it is not about a converted sinner, it is about a man who encountered the world one way, then after an encounter with Jesus, literally saw, the world, in a different way.
In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the protagonist is Jean Valjean – called by his prison number, 24601. A person reduced to a number. He first sees the light of Jesus’ mercy in the person of a bishop. From then on, the story depicts prisoner 24601 as a complex character. Is he just a thief, plain and simple? Is he a victim of an unfair system of justice? Is he a compassionate businessman and mayor? A benevolent step-father? A valiant revolutionary of the Paris Uprising of 1832? A compassionate liberator of his most persistent enemy, Inspector Javert? Or, in his own words, is he “no better and no worse than any other man”?
The Man Born Blind is a figure not unlike Newton and 24601. That is, like them, the man is cast into a lifetime of darkness – he must be a beggar on the streets. What he says carries no weight. For him, as for Newton and Valjean, there is before and there is after. I once was…Now I am.
Even Jesus’ own disciples believe The Man is Blind because of his own or his parents’ sin. Note that the man does not seek to be healed. He is so marginalized that he does not even have a name. Jesus states that he is the light of the world, and as long as he is in the world there is work to do. After Jesus restores the man’s sight, he seeks to shed light on what real sin exists in the world.
For the man is not a victim of his own sin or that of his parents. Rather he is the victim of an entrenched system of fear that declares some people unclean. We watch and we listen as all those people and societal institutions expected to support the Man Born Blind just step away – they recoil, even though now he can see! His parents disown him. The Pharisees chastise him. The neighbors pretend he is not the same man. All those societal systems meant to be a support just collapse, until in a most astonishing moment, the Man Born Blind becomes not only his own advocate, but he defends Jesus against all criticism as now he is lecturing the Pharisees, the doctors of the law of Moses.
He whose being has had no standing whatsoever in the community when the story begins is now the one who is exhorting them, the arbiters of society and religion to “see” -to see the Light of the World – The Word that was with God and is God. Egads, he seems to say, this can be no other than the will and the work of God!
Leave it to people to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. The miracle is not that the man can see. The scandal is not that the Sabbath has been broken. The miracle in one part is the fact that Jesus is the Light of the World that can turn the darkness of blindness and the darkness of rejection and persecution of the world into light. There is before, darkness, and there is after, light.
But more than that, this story is meant to demonstrate that we can be people of that light. We can turn darkness into light. The Man Born Blind is given a new lease on life. He once was, Now he is…
Anyone, the neighbors, his parents, the Pharisees, whomever, could have granted The Man Born Blind more purpose in life, made him a more integral part of the community, rather than writing him off as an outcast. Jesus is the one who says, “There is something you can do for me.” The Man Born Blind becomes a vocal advocate for God and a defender of Jesus The Light of the World! He now dares to step beyond the barriers the others created for him. He once was, now he is…
There is something you can do for Jesus. Whatever it is, it will heal you and heal the world.
If The Man Born Blind, John Newton and 24601 can do God’s work so effectively, what are we being called to do? What barriers are we willing to break down so that people like Newton, the man and 24601 can be granted personhood? How can we become advocates for inclusion rather than exclusion? Where once we were silent, now we are called to speak. Where once we turned a blind eye, now we are called to see. I once was lost, but now am found.