Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ – The Gospel of John 9.35-39
There’s a great story I love about Walter Gretzky when he went to pick up his 19 year old son Wayne from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, for a trip back to the family home in Brantford. And when father and son met at the airport, they started talking. And there were these two boys in the airport from Halifax who were waiting for a ride. The two boys were blind and they couldn’t see Wayne’s face, but they instantly recognized from his voice who it was, and in their excitement, they started up a conversation with the “young Great one…” Walter was so deeply moved by their gesture, he wrote later that he felt this incredible compassion welling up inside him and from that moment on, he began to generously support and promote the CNIB foundation. (formerly the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.) It was one of the first, but certainly not the last ‘wakeup call,’ that Walter would incredibly experience!
If you could see what I hear…I always like to wonder what the blind man in our gospel lesson for the fourth Sunday in Lent, felt and ‘saw’ in his mind when he encountered Jesus. When Jesus took some mud and spat upon it and spread it over the blind man’s eyes, (apparently which was a popular element in healing stories in the Greco-Roman world -see Tacitus History, 4.18) and then slowly, the man’s vision having been dark, maybe started to lighten up, becoming hazy and blurry, and then finally coming into sharp focus! And there was Jesus before him!
And I love how this story unfolds; how once the man finds his voice, he even gets cheeky with some of the know-it-all pharisees saying: “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’….If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’” (John 9.25,33) I was blind, but now I see…I always like to imagine what a powerful witness and disciple of Jesus this man became!
As many of you know, Walter Gretzky in 1991, was in his childhood home in Canning whitewashing the old cellar, when he suffered a horrible brain aneurysm which destroyed his short-term memory. In fact, to this day, I always get a kick out of him every time I’m visiting my parents on the farm next door and he comes over and he tells the same joke over and over because he doesn’t remember telling it to us before: “hey, have you heard the latest news? <short pause> No? Well, that’s good cause’ I ain’t either cause it ain’t out yet!” But when Walter suffered his brain aneurysm, he had to relearn everything. He had to learn how to put on his shoes and dress himself and how to be himself again and one of the funny and moving stories that came out of all this was when he was in therapy and recovery, he would drive his rehab therapist crazy singing over and over the words to John Newton’s classic Amazing Grace!
As you well know, the author of this most beloved hymn John Newton, lived quite an amazing life! Before he was ordained an Anglican priest in 1764, he was a slave trader. And as the story goes, on one voyage home the ship he was on was caught in a horrendous storm off the coast of Ireland and almost sank. Newton cried out to God and the cargo onboard miraculously shifted to fill a hole in the ship’s hull and the vessel drifted to safety. This experience, powerfully changed Newton’s life. It was after this experience that he began reading the bible seriously, having his eyes opened up to the life-saving and changing grace of God and he would later join forces with the leadership of MP Wiliam Wilberforce and witness the abolition of slavery in Great Britain in 1807!
Now all these stories I’ve been sharing with you in this blog about Walter Gretzky and John Newton; I think they serve as powerful reminders of how our eyes too can become spiritually open when we see the profound truth that is in Jesus Christ and the powerful ways our lives can change for the better just like the blind man’s life did when we let Jesus go to work in our lives. Jesus says: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” (John 9.4)
And you know, especially today in relation to the panic and fears being spread by the uncertainties of COVID-19, more than ever, I think we too are being asked to be compassionate and in our own ways, to work the works of God so that not only ourselves, but that others might see, before it is too late, before night comes “when no one will work…”
For me, this is what the blind men teach to us. Whether they be the ones we meet in our gospel, or in airports, or in history, we see how people’s lives can be opened up to the love and compassion of Christ!
Now I’m going to close with one last story about Walter, because again, as many of you know, Walter now has Parkinson’s Disease and I’ve seen the great trembling in his left hand. But Walter, knowing how much his life has changed, especially after the aneurysm where suddenly this once shy and serious man became afterwards the man that now affectionately has a special place in Canadian hearts and minds. Walter says: “I don’t even think about it….I feel blessed, truly blessed, because everything is special to me, because I know what it’s like not to have something.”
And you know – that’s just it! That is the wisdom of Lent and the desert and also of life! I’m sure all of you know what it means to go without and what it means after so long to finally have your eyes open to the truth that is so beautiful, so meaningful, so powerful -that we see shining radiantly in the face of Jesus!
So let us not be in denial and close our eyes shut to the reality of what we are encountering today! But rather, let our eyes become fully open and let our hearts flow full of compassion and let us be the Church – the Church that continues throughout all the storms of life, generation after generation, to bear witness to the glory of God! Amen.