Listen Closely—sermon by Nicholas Hayes, intern
March 26, Fourth Sunday in Lent:
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
Last fall, GBIO, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, was gearing up for the next phase of our campaign for comprehensive criminal justice reform in Massachusetts. As part of the process, we held several meetings for leaders from across our membership, to prepare them to engage their congregations. Now GBIO encompasses about forty congregations from the metro Boston area, spanning most of the lines that divide our city: race, class, religion, neighborhood. Our diversity is an incredible strength, but it also sometimes poses challenges. At one of our meetings, just such a challenge came up.
Leah, one of our senior leaders, was facilitating a conversation about how to raise interest in congregations about criminal justice reform when a white woman from a suburban congregation spoke up. “We’ve talked a lot,” she said, “about how the criminal justice system disproportionately hurts people of color, and in GBIO, our urban congregations. I know all those statistics. For me, that’s why I feel it’s so important to do something about it. But I worry that makes it difficult for many in my congregation to care about it. We’re a pretty privileged bunch, and I doubt many of us can really relate to the issue. How should I handle that?” This provoked a lively conversation. Several people, including Leah, brought up the importance of listening to the stories of people with personal experiences of injustice in the criminal justice system. That was why we needed to bring people from our suburban congregations together with others unlike them.
After the meeting wrapped up, another woman from a white suburban congregation stayed behind to speak to Leah. She had remained largely quiet throughout the conversation. “I needed to tell you something. I’m part of a suburban white congregation, and I live a comfortable life, but not everyone in my family does. A close family member of mine who took some hard knocks is in jail now, and it’s been so awful for him. I know a few other people in my congregation closely affected by this issue. We don’t really ever talk about it in my congregation, but I bet if you asked, you’d find it affects more of us than you realize. I was nervous bringing it up, because I don’t want to suggest our experience is equivalent, but this issue isn’t only an urban issue, or an issue for people of color. I think it’s important for us to listen to others from very different backgrounds, but this may also be an opportunity to listen to our own stories. Then maybe we could have more empathy for others, and ourselves.”
Leah, when she reported this encounter at our next core leaders’ meeting, was quite struck by it. “We talk a lot about the importance of listening in GBIO,” she said, “but it hadn’t occurred to me we needed to do listening work around criminal justice in our suburban congregations too. Until she spoke up, I’d been totally blind to that. We need to listen more closely.”
“Surely we are not blind, are we?” At first glance, today’s Gospel seems to be all about blindness, and sight—who sees, and who doesn’t. It tells of a blind man who Jesus heals, and draws an ironic contrast between him and the Pharisees. The blind man, long dismissed as a sinner on account of his disability is the one who sees Jesus for who he truly is. The Pharisees, confident that they know how God works, are blind. Though it may be all too easy for us, in hearing the story, to judge them, the Gospel challenges us to ask their question of ourselves. “We are not blind, are we?”
Yet if we look more closely at the Gospel story, we find it is as much about listening as it is about seeing. It begins and ends with an encounter between the blind man and Jesus. But the long middle section recounts, in essence, a series of failures by others to listen to the healed blind man. First, his neighbors, who question him intensively when they notice he is no longer blind. Some of them refuse to believe he is the person who was formerly blind, even as he repeats “I am the man!” And those who do believe him seem to doubt his account of what happened, and of who healed him.
So to settle things they bring him to the Pharisees, who also ask him questions but fail to really listen. Many cannot believe his account that Jesus heals him, because they are convinced Jesus is a sinner, and so they conclude he must not have been born blind—in spite of his assurances. The Gospel says that they did not believe he had been born blind, and had received his sight, until they go over his head and hear it from his parents. Hard pressed to argue with his parents, they call the healed blind man back and again question him, wanting to know what Jesus did. In exasperation, he says ““I have told you already, and you would not listen.” When he then testifies that Jesus must be a prophet from God, they dismiss him. “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” Like Jesus’s disciples at the beginning of the reading, they too assume that his disability was a punishment from God, a sign that he or his family were sinners.
The Pharisees’ encounter with the blind man is a cautionary tale. They can’t see what is before their very eyes—God’s work, and God’s very person—because they won’t listen. They won’t listen either to Jesus himself, or to the blind man, who bears witness to him. By contrast, the blind man is one who listens. He listens both at the beginning, when Jesus tells him how to have his sight restored, and at the end, when Jesus finds him again and tells him who he truly is.
To see, we must listen. So to discover how we are blind, we ought to ask: What are we not listening for? Who are we not listening to? And what is keeping us from listening?
This Gospel gives us a hint about what to listen for, and whom to listen to. The one in whom Jesus works, and the one who truly sees him, is a blind man: a person who has suffered much, and been pushed to the margins by those around him. It is a refrain throughout the Gospels that the marginalized and the suffering are the ones who see Jesus for who he is. They are particularly beloved of him, not in spite of, but because of, their suffering.
I think this is what Jesus’s remark to his disciples at the beginning of this Gospel really means. The disciples, like the Pharisees, assume the blind man’s disability must mean he’s a sinner. His suffering is a punishment, caused by God. Jesus refutes this assumption, denying that anyone’s sin is responsible for the blind man’s blindness. Instead, he sees, it is “that God’s works might be revealed in him.” While our translation might suggest that God caused the blind man to be blind so that God could heal him, the original Greek suggests something else. What Jesus is doing here is not providing another cause for the blind man’s suffering, but reframing what it means. Suffering, he teaches, should not be seen as a punishment from God, but as an occasion for God’s work. Which means God is to be found especially in suffering, and among those who suffer. To them we must listen if we are to see God.
Jesus’s disciples, like the Pharisees, also reveal what keeps us from listening. As Jesus says, they believe they see. Both see no need to listen to the blind man—before or after his healing—because they are confident they know all there is to be known about his suffering; they have an explanation and are content to rest with it. Their explanation is particularly pernicious—it effectively blames the victim, and in the name of God no less. While such an “explanation” of suffering may seem outmoded, alas this is far from the case. We members of the gay community will not soon forget the ways in which many Christians in the US claimed AIDS was a divine punishment for our sins.
But I think it’s more than just this kind of misguided theology that gets in the way of listening to suffering. We have, today, many non-theological explanations that allow us to blame the victim: the claims that the poor are poor because they are lazy, that blacks are in jail because they are violent, that Muslims are rightfully persecuted because they are inclined to terrorism. And even when we don’t blame the victim, we have many other ways of assuming “we know all there is to know” that keep us from listening. If we are confident enough in our explanation of poverty—whatever it might be—we can attempt to “solve” poverty without listening to poor people. A move which nearly always results in disaster. If we let ourselves be led only by statistics or stereotypes, we might make ourselves blind to the suffering of those who we wouldn’t expect to suffer. As we learned at GBIO.
If you wish to see God, listen to suffering. Listen especially to those on the margins—whether in our city, or in this community. Listen even to the marginal parts of yourselves, those parts which you lock away and try to forget. But listen also where you do not expect to find suffering. Do not assume you already know. Do not assume you already see clearly. Listen first.
And lastly, do not listen only for suffering. As Jesus teaches us, suffering is where God is at work, even if we cannot initially see how. One thing I have learned, over and over again, as an organizer is that listening carefully to the story of another person’s suffering inevitably also reveals their strength, their resilience, their agency, their sources of hope, their experiences of grace. If we listen only for suffering, we turn the sufferer only into a victim, which denies them their agency and dehumanizes them. It also prevents us from seeing how God may be at work in their lives. The blind man wanted others to know that yes he had been born blind, with all its attendant hardships. But he also wanted others to know that God had healed him, and that he put his faith in Jesus. To listen faithfully, we must listen for both the hurt, and the hope, the suffering, and the grace in others’ lives and our own. If we do, we may begin to see how God wants us to collaborate in the work God is already doing.
So as we continue to journey through Lent towards Easter, let us each ask ourselves: “How am I being called to listen? And who am I being called to listen to?” Take care. If you listen more closely, you may see God.