Sunday, October 03, 1999

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
on Sunday, October 3, 1999
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: John 9:1-25

I find it singularly amazing that despite all our education, all the television programs advising us on health and preventions and cures and the numerous experts who are continually bombarding us with all manner of things about our health, that we are still a very neurotic society. So neurotic, that many times we are popping pills by the boatload. Never was this more apparent than a couple of summers ago when Marial and I vacationed in one of our favourite spots in Burlington, Vermont. It is a hotel we had stayed in two consecutive summers. We checked in and at about two o'clock in the morning when we were fast asleep in the cool of the hills, the fire alarm went off.

What made this particularly outrageous was that the year before, we had stayed in the same hotel for one night and at two-thirty that night, the fire alarm had gone off. We wondered whether or not it was our presence that triggered these things. But at two o'clock in the morning it is amazing how you determine what is valuable in your life. When the alarm goes off you grab all the things that are dear to you and that you want to save first and foremost. Naturally I wanted to save my wife first, then my car keys, then my teddy bear which I take with me, only to see all the children were running down the stairs with their teddy bears (much larger than mine), so I hid mine. Teenagers came out with their compact disc players, all manner came out with their make-up kits and one lady came out with a huge bag of vitamins and pills. There was her husband saying to her, "Doris, why on earth are you bringing all your pills with you? For heaven's sake, isn't there something more important that you could bring with you?" Doris and her husband had quite a conversation on the steps going down to the parking lot!

I couldn't help but think that this lady represented many people in our society. Now do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that there aren't pills which should be taken for illnesses, that there aren't medications that doctors should and must prescribe, but I do like the words of the great William Osler, the Canadian doctor who taught at McGill University and John Hopkins and is world renowned and was eventually knighted. He said, "One of the first purposes of a physician is to educate the masses on how not to take medication."

We do self-medicate. The first time a problem comes along, a little pain, we rush to the cabinet. We seem to have buckets of these things all over the place, many of which expired at the turn of the last millennium! We pop these things without any real thought because

we think: Oh my goodness, I cannot suffer. Oh my goodness, sickness is an aberration. Something must be wrong; if the doctors can't do it I have to find my own cure. There are hidden dangers when we do that. A physician friend of mine tried to illustrate the dangers when he told a story of a farmer who had a sick horse which wasn't getting any better. The farmer called the veterinarian who came over and said that indeed the horse was sick and would need extremely strong bouts of antibiotics. He gave them to the farmer and a few days later the farmer reported that he was having a terrible problem. "I cannot get my horse to take the pills." (Any of you who own a cat or dog know how sly they are when you try to pop a pill in their mouths and they spit them out. I find them all over the house, days and weeks later.) The vet said, "It's simple. You take a long pipe, you insert it in the mouth of the horse, you put in the pill and you blow. It's as simple as that." That seemed fine so the farmer went and did exactly as the veterinarian had suggested. The next day the farmer came back and said, "I'm sorry but it didn't work." The vet said, "You did put the tube into the horse's mouth and put in the pill?" The farmer said, "Yes, yes I did." The vet said, "And you put the pill in the tube?" "Yes, I did that too." The vet said, "Did you put your lips up to the pipe?" " Absolutely!" He said, "Well, what went wrong?" The farmer said, "The horse blew first! There are so many dangers when we play around with medications!

That's the nature of our society. We seem to think that somehow no good can come of suffering; we don't ask ourselves deeper questions about our illnesses. We certainly do not do what the ancients did and try and find out philosophically why we have illnesses. The ancients (by that I mean the Greeks and Jews of the biblical era), were consumed with illnesses and always wondered why it was that people got sick. There were many different schools of thought to try and explain why someone would have an illness. The Sadducees, who were a well-known religious group of leaders, said that probably if someone was sick it was due to some sin that they had committed. They must have done something wrong if they were getting ill. The Pharisees didn't believe that, but that it was simply God's providence. All sickness was somehow within the divine economy ? part of what God had willed. The writers of the Talmud and the Targums argued that often illnesses were inherited from the sins of parents. They went back to the book of Exodus where it said that the sins would be visited upon one generation unto the next. They argued, believing like Plato in the pre-existence of the soul, that even in the womb, a child could inherit the sinful problems of its parents.

So into this context, we have one of the most magnificent encounters in the New Testament, between Jesus and a blind man. The disciples, on seeing this blind man, ask Jesus a question which reflects the thinking of the day. "What sin has this man committed or what sin have his parents committed that he should be born blind?" But Jesus, never one to enter into the philosophical discussions, goes right to the practical issues, bypassing all the thinking of his day and says, "So that the work of God might be displayed in this man's life." In other words, the blind man was no longer a problem that needed to be solved. His blindness was not seen as a curse, but rather his blindness was seen as an opportunity for God's grace and love to be revealed. Therefore Jesus bent down and as we read, he took some clay and saliva and placed it on this man's eyes and he went to the pool of Siloam, which has great meaning in Israel. He bathes in it and he then can see.

The New Testament writers do not go into great lengths as to how this man was healed; there was no debate about the how of this. But as soon as he was healed, it was as if the knives came out at Jesus. People could not believe that Jesus would do this in such a way and to such a person who seemed unworthy of healing. There were many reasons given to try and explain all this away: some people said, "Oh this isn't the same blind beggar that we had seen down the street. This must be some other man who hasn't got such a serious problem." "No, no," said the man. "I am he." Then they looked at Jesus and criticized him because he'd healed on the Sabbath. This was not allowed. They wondered then if Jesus was actually evil. Maybe what Jesus was doing was sinful because he had healed this man on the Sabbath. Thus Jesus became the object of their derision. When they'd given up that argument, they tried to invite the man's parents to see whether or not they had done anything egregious in their lives,all the while wondering if they were the cause of this man's blindness. But they got no further with the parents. Then they turned to threats and actually attempted to use the idea of excommunication; if the parents didn't toe the line, they would be thrown out of the temple probably for thirty days and not allowed back into the temple or Synagogue.

Finally they came to this man and they tried to trick him. They said, "You do know that this man Jesus, is a sinner don't you?" They did everything they could because it didn't meet with the philosophy of their day and age. What Jesus did was completely other and they couldn't grasp it. What they really couldn't get was the response of the blind man. " I don't know if Jesus is a sinner or not. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see." This blind beggar stands as one of the immortal witnesses to the power of the Christian faith and he speaks of two things which I think have impact on our own lives.


The first is that even in sickness and infirmity there is still the divine opportunity. The
great Booker T. Washington, who himself as a black man suffered racial derision and was put down in his life many times, was someone who nevertheless rose from the ashes of such things and did great and magnificent things. One of the questions asked of him was, "How is it that you do such great things when you have so many things going against you?" He replied, "Because whenever I am faced with a challenge, I do not look at the problem; I look at the opportunity." That is why it is said of him: Salvitur Ambulando ? he walked in freedom regardless of whatever it might be that was around him to beset him. Jesus of Nazareth did exactly the same thing. Rather than try to keep this man out of the Synagogue, rather than try to find some sin in his background that had caused his illness, Jesus saw in this blind beggar the opportunity to reveal the power and light and love and grace of God. In this blind beggar was the opportunity for him to show that the light of the father was shining in his life. The healing power that he had been given was not just for himself, but to light up precisely the sort of person that this blind beggar was. This blind man had something more than simply his sight returned. He had a spiritual insight into who Jesus was, he saw with eyes that even those who'd had their vision all their lives, could not quite see. He knew that when he turned to Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus was the one who could give him what the world could not. In the midst of his suffering came the power and release of God.

Last week I dined with one of my friends, The Reverend James Chang, who is minister of Blythwood Road Baptist Church here in Toronto. Jim is a very gracious, kind and holy man and he shared with me a story of a funeral he had performed some time ago that had touched him to the quick of his soul. So powerful is this story that I shared it with our Women Together Group on Monday night and I think they, like me, were moved when they heard it. It is the story of a young woman whom he buried. As he got to know this woman in her dying days she and her husband helped him learn what had happened. The young woman had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (and it was a very bad, quickly advancing case of the disease), a few weeks before she was to be married. She went to her fiancé and realizing the illness and the possible disabilities, said to her husband-to-be, "If you want to call off the marriage that is fine with me; I would understand if you didn't want to go through with it." The young man however, would hear none of it. On the day of the wedding she was particularly weak from the stress of the preparations and the heat of the day. She could not stand to say her vows and at the end of the service was so weak that the husband actually picked her up and carried her down the aisle, out to the awaiting car.

For the next thirteen years this woman gradually declined, had to go into a nursing home, was extremely sick, incapable of performing most functions in her life. Her husband stood by her every step of the way. My friend, Jim, asked this man how he was able to tolerate such a thing, where his strength came from. He said, "This woman and her courage made my life complete." In the parting words after he had cared for her to her dying day he said to her, "I love you. I always will. Wait for me on the other side."

This woman and her grace and the way in which she dealt with her illness was so overwhelming that even those who had cared for her medically throughout it all, came to her funeral in great numbers. They said that despite the fact that she had no control over her functions for two years, it was a privilege to care for one such as this.

I do believe at the depth of my heart and soul, that indeed even in moments of the greatest sickness and suffering there is still the divine opportunity to witness, to experience and to know the sustaining power of God. Henry David Thoreau once said, "It is healthy, sometimes, to be sick." There are times even in our sickness, you see, that divine grace can manifest itself all the more powerfully.


There is one final lesson. Even our sickness can be an opportunity for human confession. By confession I do not mean all that I have done wrong (although we should confess our sins), I mean who it is who has a hold of our lives. The great Dean Inge, who for years was the dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London England, used to say that when everybody gave all their arguments for the existence of God, when they debated the cosmological and ontological arguments for the existence of a deity, when all the arguments come and go, there is one thing that we fail to do. We fail to call the best witnesses. And these best witnesses, according to Dean Inge, are people like the blind beggar. Those who do not speculate as to the nature of God, who do not speculate even as to the nature of suffering, but simply in the midst of suffering, recognize the One who is the giver of life. The One who is the sustainer of life. The One who is the ultimate healer. The One in whose hands we all must be held.

Recently I had a time with one of my friends who for the past ten years has gone on a regular basis to Rwanda every summer. He is a medical doctor at the University of Ottawa and Dr. Patrick is noted as someone who has a very strong faith in Christ and also a great compassion for the world. Every summer for the past ten years he has taken students for three months, raising the money on his own, taking his own medications because they have none, and gone into the bush and deserted areas of Rwanda and even into Burundi, in order to bring medical care. There are the most terrible problems there. There is the most terrible spread of AIDS, blindness amongst the people because of malnutrition and genetic problems. There are terrible health problems in families and in young children. He goes there on his own on the call of God just simply to care. I asked him how he gets the courage to go to such a God-forsaken place. He corrected me and said, "It is not God-forsaken! On the contrary; it is amongst people there who have faith who see with eyes you don't see. They understand the power and the grace and love of God. They celebrate the smallest things that God does in such a powerful and wonderful way. It is not I who brings anything to them. It is they who bring something to me!"

It has ever been thus. It is not always from the most eloquent or most powerful or most successful that we see the glory of God shine. It is sometimes through the blind who have a sight we do not have. From the poor who have a wealth we cannot buy, who have a depth that we can only aspire to. That is why the blind beggar is still, as one theologian put it, the greatest apologia for the Christian faith. The blind beggar is still the greatest advocate for what we believe; for his simple words, "I was once blind, but now I see!" goes right into our hearts. May Jesus Christ be praised! Amen.