Dear Working Preacher,
Some passages are simply too rich to be only heard. They need to be experienced. Such is the case with this week's story of the man born blind in John 9.
So here's my proposition. This reading is all about sight, particularly, seeing as a metaphor for believing. Words for blindness, sight, seeing, and so forth crop up 24 times in this 41-verse story. But let's be clear, "seeing" isn't only a metaphor. The man born blind really can't see. And when he regains his sight his life is literally transformed. So what would it be like to give folks a physical experience of both not seeing and seeing?
As I've said before when we've engaged in these kinds of "participatory-preaching" experiments, you'll know what will be most effective in your own context better than I. But in order to prime the pump, here are a few suggestions: You could prepare simple blindfolds -- strips of cloth -- that people would wear during part or all of the reading of this story. (Alternatively and more simply, of course, folks could just close their eyes, but I think there's something about being physically inhibited from seeing that would be valuable to experience.) You could either have all the people not be able to see for the whole reading, or have some groups remove their blindfolds at certain parts -- perhaps folks can number off by three and 1) some can see the whole time, 2) some are blindfolded and regain sight when the man born blind does, and 3) some be kept from seeing for the whole story.
What is it like to experience the story in this way? After listening to your introductory remarks (see below) and hearing the story, people can discuss with those sitting near them how they heard the story -- what details and gaps they noticed -- and what it was like to retain sight, gain sight part way through, or be kept from seeing until the end.
The other questions for discussion I would suggest (I'll indicate these with a "Q") each relate to some observations about the passage that might be helpful to share with your congregation before the reading to heighten their experience of the story:
1) Many scholars see in this story the historical experience of the community to which the Gospel of John is addressed. That is, John's community may very well have been expelled from the synagogue for confessing Jesus as the Messiah and this narrative tells their powerful story. Q: When have you felt isolated or abandoned? How do you think this passage addressed those feelings for John's community? How might they address our feelings when we feel left out or alone?
2) The passage works to undermine simplistic understandings of sin. When the disciples voice a common view of the day -- disability or hardship is the result of sin -- Jesus disagrees. Similarly, when the Pharisees assume that knowledge of the law automatically grants righteousness, Jesus counters by saying that precisely because they deny their sin and claim to "see" they are in fact sinning. If they were able to admit their blindness, they would not be sinning and receive sight. In John's Gospel, "sin" at its most basic is not recognizing Jesus as God's messiah, the person through whom God is at work to save the world. Q: How do we typically define "sin"? How does this story broaden our understanding of both sin and grace?
3) The turning point of the story may be when the man born blind receives his sight. It may also be, however, when he confesses his faith as a result of his new found sight. Many Christians since -- including John Newton, the slave-trader turned abolitionist and composer of "Amazing Grace" (the hymn of the day, perhaps) -- have been inspired by the man's confession, "One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see!" Q: Where have we felt blind in our lives? Where have we experienced a sense of new sight, new life, a new chance to be the persons we have been called to be?
(Quick note: if you want, you could hand out your "orienting remarks" and discussion questions on a half-sheet of paper to help folks stay focused.)
As with last week, there is no simple way to "finish" this sermon -- but that's part of the point, that these stories leave church with us. My hope is that be engaging in this kind of experience and conversation, our people will keep thinking about this encounter between the man born blind and Jesus and how it can inform our lives of faith in the world. It may be that you can draw the sermon to a close -- even as the passage continues to work on us -- by sharing this promise and making this invitation: Jesus still comes to those in need to grant sight, faith, and life to all those who ask.
Three closing notes:
1) This would be a great passage to have read in parts, choosing someone to read the lines of the disciples, Jesus, the man born blind, his parents, and the Pharisees (2 groups). If you do that, spend a few minutes in preparation, even if only a bit before the service, as there is great humor and irony woven into the narrative (for instance, when the man who has regained his sight asks the Pharisees, "Do you, too, want to become his disciples?!").
2) I'd suggest reading only this passage. I think folks will take more away from this reading if it is the one passage they hear rather then the fourth of four.
3) John 10:1-20 is the continuation of this story, as Jesus offers the "good shepherd discourse" as a reflection (perhaps to the Pharisees) on this episode. It might be worthwhile sending this additional passage to folks by email later in the week and invite them to read and listen to it in light of the experience they had at church on Sunday.
As I said last week, Working Preacher, I know that trying different things in worship means taking a risk, and I very much admire your courage in however you work with these passages as well appreciate your faithful proclamation. Blessings on your week.
Yours in Christ,