Taking the Next Step
March 6, 2005
This is the second of three long narratives from the Gospel of John, which the church assigns for these Sundays of Lent. Like the one we heard last week, The Woman at the Well, the length of these stories allows us to see development in the characters who are in them. John uses these stories to reveal to us what decisions we need to make if we wish to encounter Christ.
In today’s gospel we hear that if we want to find Christ, we—like the man born blind—must be willing to take the next step. The gospel tells us that God has a plan for our lives, but we do not see that plan all at once. The only way in which that plan can unfold is if we are willing to take the next step as God gives us the light to see it. Look at the man in the gospel. He was blind from birth. What hope could he ever have of being able to see? How easy it would have been for him to wallow in self-pity and hopelessness. How easy it would have been to pass by the next step that God wished to give him. When Jesus said “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,” how easy it would have been for him to say, “Why? What difference will it make? How can this change anything?” Refusing to comply would be understandable, but the man born blind took the next step. He went, he washed, and he came back able to see.
What this gospel is telling us is that we must resist the temptation to remain in self-pity and hopelessness. When a step to move is offered to us, we must be willing to take it. We might be convinced that we are unattractive and unlovable and we will never find anyone with whom to share our life. We might say, “What’s the use of asking someone out to a movie or of taking up the offer of a blind date?” But the gospel says to us; if something is offered to you, take it. You might find the love of your life. We might be searching for a job for months without any success, but the gospel says God has a plan, keep following up those leads. The next lead you choose to follow could lead to a job that will give you satisfaction for the rest of your life.
We must be willing to take the next step, and we must be willing to take it more than once. Again, look at the man in the gospel. No sooner did he take the step that allowed him to see, than another step was offered to him, a step for something more. Now he could see physically, but, even before he could absorb that miracle, he was offered a step to believe in Jesus, a step that would allow him to discover the light of the world. Through the debate with his neighbors and the Pharisees, he was posed with a choice, a choice about Jesus. He was asked to decide whether Jesus was a sinner or whether he was from God. How easy it would have been for the man who was once blind to sidestep such a decision. He was now able to see. Was not that enough? Why should he risk doing something more? Why should he stick his neck out and risk offending the authorities? He was able to see, surely there was nothing more than that he needed. How easy it would have been for him to remain in the blessing he had been given, rather than to reach out for the next good thing God wanted to offer. But the man in the gospel took the risk. He accepted Jesus as the one from God. Yes, he found himself in trouble, but he came to see Christ as the light of the world. Had he not taken that next step, he could have continued to see physically, but he would never have seen eternally. For the rest of his life, he could have seen the sky and the trees, but he would not see the face of God.
The gospel is telling us that even though we are satisfied, comfortable with where we are now, God has a plan for our lives, and God is calling us to more. It reminds us that life is about more than playing it safe. When the next step is offered, we should be willing to take it. God is calling us to new relationships, to new abilities, to new possibilities. The future holds a deeper relationship with God.
The story of the man born blind is a powerful story, for it reminds us that God has a plan for our life. But if we are ever to see that plan, we must be willing to take the next step. Like the man who was born blind, we must have the courage to step out of self-pity and hopelessness. We must have the courage to step out of comfort and the status quo. We are always free to sit down where we are right now and say, “This is it. I will go no further.” But the gospel warns against that stagnation. It tells us that Jesus is leading us forward, inviting us to move into the future. Jesus is calling us so that step by step we may come to see him face to face.
The Power of One Truth
March 2, 2008
My mother is not a highly educated woman, at least not in the academic sense. She was raised as a child on a farm in Poland, and her life was seriously disrupted by the Second World War. She never went to college, and when she came to the United States after the war, she had to learn English as her second language. Through all of those challenges of life, her faith was her foundation. It was both strong and traditional. I know that my own faith comes from her.
But there was one period in the 1970’s when her faith was substantially shaken. It was during the period in which the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were being implemented. My mother always saw her faith as a rock foundation, as an immovable and unchangeable truth. But it seemed to her, during the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, that everything was changing, everything was up for grabs. So, since I was in the seminary, one day she said, “George, we need to talk.” It was unusual for my mother to arrange such a discussion, so I knew it was important. As we sat down to talk, she began. “Now,” she said, “you mean to tell me that from now on we can eat meat on Fridays?” “Yes,” I said, “Mom, except for the Fridays of Lent, you can eat meat.” “But I don’t understand,” she said. “When I was growing up, the priest told us from the pulpit that, if you ate meat on Friday, even a single sausage, you would go straight to hell.” “He might have said that, Mom, but no meat on Fridays is directive of the church, and it is one which has now been changed.” She shook her head.
“And you mean to tell me now that we can receive the bread of the Eucharist in our hands?” “Yes, Mom, you can do that now.” “I don’t understand,” she said. “The priest would tell us that we were never able to touch the Eucharist. When he placed it in our mouth, we had to be careful lest it touch our teeth. If it did, we would go straight to hell.” “Well, he might have said that, Mom, but receiving in your hand was the original practice, and it’s the one that we are returning to now.” Again she shook her head.
I could tell that these changes were hard on my mother. But since this was such a rare discussion, I thought I might bring up some of the other changes that the Vatican Council was implementing. I knew that Poland had a rather sad tradition of anti-Semitism, so I said, “You know, Mom, one of the other things that was clarified at the Second Vatican Council is that we as Catholics no longer believe that the Jewish people are cut off from God. We don’t believe that they are going to hell.” She looked at me and she said, “I never believed that!” This surprised me, so I said, “Didn’t the priest tell you as you were growing up that the Jews were going to hell?” “All the time,” she said, “at least once a month. But I didn’t believe it.” Now I was confused. I said, “Look, you listened to the priest when he said you couldn’t eat meat on Friday. You listened to the priest when he said you couldn’t touch the host. Why didn’t you listen to the priest when he said that the Jews were going to hell?” She thought for a moment. “Well,” she said, “we lived with them. They were our neighbors. I remember once when my mother, your grandmother, was very sick. We thought she was going to die. The Jewish woman down the street visited one day and brought a pot of chicken soup. She said to your grandmother, ‘Mrs. Buczkowski, this recipe for chicken soup has been in my family for generations. I tell you, if you take some twice a day, you will recover.’ So your grandmother did that, and within two weeks she was back again working out in the fields. From that time forward, whenever your grandmother ran into that Jewish woman, she would say to her friends, ‘Look, here’s the woman who saved my life.’ That’s, George, why I never believed that the Jews were going to hell—because of the chicken soup.”
Now there are many times in life where we become overwhelmed, overwhelmed and confused. There are times where it’s not clear to us what we should do. We very seldom get the whole picture or see every truth. But if one truth is clear, and if we hold on to that truth, we believe that God will use that truth to lead us to where we need to be.
This is what happened to the man born blind in today’s gospel. He was overwhelmed with the tremendous miracle of sight. He had been blind from birth. And yet from the moment that he began to see, people tried to convince him who Jesus was: that he was a sinner, that he didn’t observe the Sabbath. It was difficult for the man born blind to assess the truth of these statements made by people who were much more educated and had much more authority than he did. But he knew one thing, and he held fast to the thing that he knew. As he says in the gospel, “I know one thing. I was blind, and now I see.” And because he held on to that one simple truth, God led him to all truth. God led him to accept Jesus as his Lord.
The same is true for us. There are times when life overwhelms us, when it is not clear what we should decide, what we should do. But if we are given one truth, one clear truth, and if we hold on to that truth, we believe that God will lead us to where we need to be.
It is like the alcoholic who understands his life is falling apart. Nothing is working in his job, in his family, in his relationships, in his view of himself. But he knows one thing: unless I stop drinking, I will die. As long as he holds on to that one truth, he can find salvation. It is like a woman in an abusive relationship, conflicted in what she should do, conflicted over her self-image, her responsibility, her commitment. But she knows one truth, the truth that unless she leaves that relationship, her children will suffer. If she holds on to that truth, she can move forward. It is like many people who are devastated by the loss of someone they love, who are overwhelmed with grief, whose life is turned upside down. They become paralyzed. But if they can hold on to one truth, that there are still people in their lives who love them and who will be with them, that one truth can allow life to begin again. It is like all of us who deal with the many demands of life, with the demands that come from our work, from our family, from our education, from our service. We become confused about what to do next. Yet, if we can hold on to one truth: that we must find time to invest in our relationships, to spend time with our children, with our friends. If we hold on to that truth, that one truth will lead us to where we need to be.
Life frequently overwhelms us. We do not see the whole picture. Not everything is clear. But if we have clarity in one truth that we can see, and if we hold on to that truth, we believe that God will take care of the rest. That truth might be an act of kindness with chicken soup or a remarkable miracle that replaces blindness with sight. But whatever our truth is, we believe that God will use what is clear to lead us through what is unclear. We believe that God will use the little that we know to lead us to life.
Taking Time to See
April 3, 2011
It takes time to be able to see. Blindness does not let go of us all at once. It takes patience and repeated efforts to open ourselves to the light. This is the major theme of today’s gospel. In the first few verses of the gospel a man who has been blind from birth is healed by Jesus. But the major point of the gospel is that although this man has received physical sight, he still cannot see. Although he now for the first time he can recognize color and movement and people’s faces, he is not yet able to recognize who it is that healed him and how his healing leads to salvation.
This is why the major part of the gospel happens after the healing. As this man who was once blind interacts with other people, he gradually begins to see what has happened to him. He talks first to his neighbors, then to the Pharisees, then to Jesus himself. Step by step he sees more and more. At first he does not know who it is that healed him. Then he recognizes Jesus as a prophet. Finally he comes to worship Jesus as his Lord. Step by step, the man who once only has physical sight comes to see Jesus as his Savior. Now of course, anywhere along in this process, the man born blind could have stopped. He could have said what I see right now is enough. I need to see nothing more. If he would have stopped, his life would have been simpler and certainly less combative. But if he would have stopped the process, he would always remain partially blind, never able to open himself fully to the light.
The message of the gospel is rather clear. We can see, yet in each one of us there still remains a certain blindness. That blindness is something that Jesus wants to remove. He wants to take it from us, so that we can fully embrace the light. The only question is whether we will open ourselves to accept the light or stubbornly cling to the partial light that we already have.
How do we open ourselves to the fullness of the light? The man born blind shows us the way. His witness tells us that we open ourselves to the light through dialogue. The man born blind keeps talking. He keeps talking to his neighbors, to the Pharisees, to Jesus himself. It is not easy to keep talking. You have to be open and admit that you do not know everything. Only then is there reason to dialogue. You have to have courage to realize that you might face some opposition with people who disagree with you. But the man born blind does not quit. He keeps in dialogue until he fully comes to the light.
You might be experiencing some difficulty in your marriage or in some close relationship. From where you stand and what you see at this moment, you might conclude that the relationship has come to a dead end, that there are irreconcilable differences and no way forward. This gospel reminds you that there may well be a blindness in you that you have not yet recognized and encourages you to keep talking. Keep talking to your partner, to your friends, to counselors so that you might recognize what you do not see and allow Christ to bring you to a fuller sight. Perhaps, then, your relationship may be preserved.
You might know someone who has hurt you deeply, and from what you can see right now, you have concluded there is no way I can forgive. There is no way this relationship can be healed. Today’s gospel tells you that there are things about yourself and about the other that you still do not know. Keep the dialogue going. Keep trying to understand what you do not understand, so that Christ might lead you to a fuller light and perhaps reconciliation.
There might be someone in your family, in your workplace, in our government with whom you disagree, whom you feel is wrong. From where you stand right now, there is no way that you could understand such people or support them. Today’s gospel reminds us that along with the things that we see, there remains a certain amount of blindness. It is only as we keep discussing, keep thinking, keep talking that we are able to recognize that blindness and then perhaps move forward.
There is nothing wrong with being partially blind until you make the decision to make that blindness permanent. That is why Christ calls us out of blindness into the light. Christ asks us to keep talking, to keep dialoguing so that we might recognize what we do not know and be able to see more fully. As long as we keep talking, we will be able to understand and see more and more. It is when we close the dialogue and close our minds, that we condemn ourselves to blindness.
March 30, 2014
A man who was blind from birth receives his sight in the first few verses of today’s gospel. But that is not the end of his story. The gospel goes on to recount his conversations with neighbors, the Pharisees, and Jesus himself. This is because today’s gospel is not about seeing. It is about seeing more. You and I can see. We see trees, our computer screens, and the members of our families. But that does not mean that we see all that is necessary. This is why we are called to follow the example of the man born blind, living our lives with eyes open, seeing more and more until we finally see Jesus face to face. But all too often, we take the stance that the Pharisees adopt at the end of today’s gospel. “We see,” we say, “and what we see today is enough.” Jesus warns us that whenever proudly we say “we see,” we are only revealing our own blindness. It is only by our willingness to see more that we will be able to arrive at the place where God wants us to be.
You and I confidently say that we see ourselves, that we know who we are, that we recognize our own abilities, relationships, and potential. But then we experience divorce, sickness, doubt, or depression, and we need to see more. We need to see how it is still possible to have a life that is positive and fulfilling, even when who we are has changed. We need to see how we can continue to have hope, even when our relationships are shattered, our health is threatened or we must deal with the difficulties of growing older.
You and I can say that we see what our Catholic faith entails. We go to church. We say our prayers. We help people who are in need. Then someone like Pope Francis says that our faith is more than just having a relationship with God and helping those in need. Our faith is about changing our society. Again, we need to see more. We need to see how being Catholic is not limited to doing things here in this church or in our homes, but is meant to perfect the society in which we live. We need to see that following Jesus means that we are willing to become involved into the messy areas of media, culture, and politics and work to change the structures in society that threaten life and keep millions of people impoverished and powerless.
We confidently say that we see who God is. We read of God’s love in the Scriptures. We study God’s power in our catechisms. And then tragedy strikes, and we have to face the reality of evil. We begin to doubt. How can a good and loving God allow the innocent to suffer and violence to reign? How could God allow this bad thing to happen to me? Once again we need to see more. We need to see that the image of God that we formed in grade school is too small, that our God is a God of mystery who we cannot completely comprehend. We need an adult faith that is more about trusting than explaining.
We can only grow if we are willing to see more. That is why we can never say that what we see today is complete. But it is good news that our God is willing to lead us in the journey to greater sight. Our God is willing to use our abilities and our experiences, as God used the abilities and experiences of the man born blind, to lead us to a deeper truth. Our stance then must be one of humility and trust. We pray, “Lord, I can see, but help me to see more. I place my life in your hands.” Seeing begins with trust. That is why before we can open our eyes, we must be willing to open our hearts.
March 26, 2017
John 9: 1-41
The story of the man born blind is our story. It tells us profound things about our lives. And what it tells us is this: We do not always choose to see, and we do not see completely until the end.
The blind man in today’s gospel did not ask Jesus to heal him. Jesus was passing by, saw him, made a paste, spread it on his eyes, and told him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. How strange and unexpected this experience must have been for the man who was born blind. An unfamiliar voice from the darkness, a warm and wet paste over his eyes, a command to go and wash without any explanation, and then—light, vision, a new life.
The blind man did not choose Jesus, Jesus chose him. And the same is true for us. Often the most important steps in our lives are not choices we make, but choices we receive. Some of the most profound decisions that make us the people we are, are not our selections, but God’s gift. I can’t remember clearly when and why I first saw the possibility of being a priest, but it was early, while I was still in grade school. Once I saw that possibility I followed it. And look at me today: twenty six years as pastor of St Noel. I couldn’t be happier. Do you remember the first time you saw the possibility to enter your career, when you first thought: I could be a business person, a lawyer, a sports- medicine doctor. You saw it, and you followed it. Look at you now: years in which that career has supported you and hopefully nourished you. Do you remember the first time you met your spouse? I am quite sure you did not select him or her from some catalogue. There was a social event, a chance meeting, and suddenly you saw it. This could be more than what I first thought. Now there are years of shared life, children, perhaps grandchildren. Many of the key events of our lives began, not because we chose to see, but because we saw. They were turning points we did not seek out. They were given. This is the first lesson that the man born blind teaches us.
Here is the second. We do not see completely until the end. When the blind man first received his sight, he understood some things, but not all. It took conversations with his neighbors and opposition from the religious leaders before he could kneel before Jesus and say, “Lord, I believe.” The same is true for us. When we first began our careers or entered our marriage, we understood some things. But vision is only clear in hindsight. Only after looking back on our marriage—a marriage that faced crisis and survived or a marriage that didn’t—only after years of following our career, seeing its blessings and its challenges, do we come to see the people we have become and the people we are. No one sees it all at the beginning. It takes many joys and sorrows, successes and failures before true vision is possible.
And the good news of today’s gospel is this. Jesus is present at the beginning and at the end. He first seeks out the blind man to give him sight, and then he seeks him out again after he is thrown out of the synagogue. This should give us hope, because it tells us that Jesus is not only the one who launches our life, and our career, and our relationship, but he is also the one who returns to complete the vision. Jesus returns to celebrate with us all the gifts that have been given. Or, if necessary, Jesus comes to help us pick up the pieces of a life that has fallen apart.
So if your life has been one blessing after another, today’s gospel asks you to remember that those blessing come from the Lord, and expect the Lord to return at the end to bring those blessings to fulfillment. But if you are a person who feels rejected and lost, like the man born blind, a person who wonders why things which began so promising have all slipped away, then this gospel reminds you that Jesus will find you again. And then you will see everything. Either way, we hold he promise that Jesus will find us at the end, and in that moment we, like the man born blind, will be able to kneel before him and say, “Lord, I believe.”