Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Now I See” John 9:1-38
It’s been twenty years since the death of Fred Rogers. Fred was a college student, home on break, when he saw his first television set and immediately recognized it as a powerful tool for communication and education. Fred later worked as a program manager for Pittsburgh’s first public television station, but he attended seminary classes on his lunch hour. He was ordained by the Presbytery of Pittsburgh in 1963 with the unusual charge to do ministry through mass media. In describing his sense of vocation, Fred felt he was called to use every talent that had ever been given to him—writing, music, puppetry, faith, kindness—in the service of children and their families.
From 1968 to 2001, Rogers ministered to pre-school children through 896 episodes of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Fred tapped into his past experience as a chubby, chronically sick, lonely kid to help children face their own childhood fears and insecurities. He tackled tough topics, like divorce and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. He explored how good people could sometimes do things that weren’t so good. Through his puppet Daniel Tiger, Rogers even voiced the grief and alienation that children feel when they sense they are unwanted or unloved. Those 896 visits to “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” were an extended tutorial in the core Christian values of caring, inclusion, and kindness.
In our reading from John’s gospel, we meet a visually-impaired man, who had known little of caring, inclusion, or kindness before he met Jesus. Born blind in a world where disability was attributed to sin, people took one look at this man and presumed that either he, as an unborn child, or his parents had violated the Torah and invited the wrath of God. His disability rendered him unclean, unable to enter the Temple to worship or to work and associate with his Torah-observant neighbors. He was forced to beg for a living from a mat stationed outside a gateway to the Temple. There, he hoped that some would do a good deed—a mitzvah— on their way to prayer by placing a coin in his bowl.
Then one day, Jesus and his friends were leaving the Temple. Spotting the disabled man, the disciples asked Jesus a rabbinic question, looking for Jesus to interpret the scriptures, “Who sinned, Rabbi, this man or his parents?” But Jesus refused to engage their assumption that disability was the result of sin. Instead, Jesus stopped, spit into his hand, added some dirt to make a muddy paste and applied it to the man’s sightless eyes. Next, he instructed the man to wash in the Pool of Siloam, more than half a mile away. Jesus didn’t even stick around to see the outcome of his kindness.
What happened next was an extended public debate involving the neighbors, the man’s parents, and some powerful religious leaders. Reading this story again this week through the lens of Mr. Rogers’ neighborliness and caring got me thinking about the visually-impaired man—and how the characters in this story are blind to who he really is. To the disciples, the man is an opportunity for a teaching moment. To the neighbors, unable to recognize him even though the man has been in their midst for years, the man is his disability. To the parents, who should be in the man’s corner, he is a source of shame and danger. To the Pharisees and Temple leaders, the man is a sinner, so they ban him from the Temple. A teaching moment, a disability, an embarrassment, a sinner? No one truly sees this man.
It’s tempting to judge the neighbors, the parents, the Pharisees, and Judeans, until we look in the mirror and see our own inability to see. We constantly make assessments and assumptions about one another. Even the best of us makes assumptions that spring from our understanding of gender, ability, race, age, and political convictions, beliefs that we often acquire very early—in our homes, our schools, our communities, and even our churches. We all carry pictures in our heads, whether we want to or not. The big rainbow flag that Duane and I have on our porch may lead you to make some judgments about us, just as the enormous Trump banner that our neighbor has been flying since 2015 may lead you to make some judgments about him.
In 1922, psychologist and researcher Walter Lippman coined the term “stereotype” to name our inherent bias and prejudice. We all have a cognitive framework that we fit people into. Indeed, it feels natural, normal, dependable, and comfortable to slip people into that cognitive framework. The trouble is that it isn’t true because we don’t take the time to really consider or understand who people truly are. Lippman rightly described our stereotypes and prejudice as a casual cruelty. We do not see people. We don’t take the time to go deeper, to understand, to know. We can be blind.
The only person in today’s story who truly sees the visually impaired man is Jesus. It’s right there in the first verse, “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.” The Greek word here for “saw” is ʽorao, meaning to perceive, to know, to have spiritual perception or insight. Behold, Jesus saw the blind man and knew that this man was someone to hold onto, hold close, hold up. Jesus saw the blind man and knew his vulnerability and loneliness, his shame and grief, his isolation and hurt. Jesus saw the blind man and recognized not a disability, not a scandal, not a sinner, but instead someone intended to glorify God.
If Jesus and Fred Rogers were here with us this morning, they might invite us to wonder together. Can we imagine a world where we do not fit people into those convenient mental frameworks of gender, ability, age, race, or politics? It would be a world where we “see” that all people deserve our compassionate care and all have the inherent capacity to give God the glory. It is a world where, in our true and authentic interactions with others, we come to know one another better, and we learn to serve God more truly. That’s what they call the Kingdom.
I think that Fred Rogers did his best to give us a foretaste of that world. He did that by calling us his neighbors. Not his friends, not his little learners, not his flock. His neighbors. He wanted us to honor that great commandment to love God and neighbor. He, like Jesus, wanted us to see one another, in all our frailty and difference, and to know that we are loveable, that we owe one another the debt of noticing, caring, welcoming, and sharing kindness.
In subtly subversive ways, Fred showed us who our neighbors are. When pools were still segregated in some parts of our country, Mr. Rogers invited the Black policeman Officer Clemmons to dip his feet into a kiddie pool with him. The two even dried off using the same towel.
In Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Lady Elaine Fairchild taught us that girls could move past the gender limits placed upon them. They could become managers, doctors, mayors, or even astronauts.
In a time when families of children with disabilities were fighting for access to schools and facilities for their children, Mr. Rogers featured children with disabilities on his show. One was a seven-year-old quadriplegic boy, Jeff Erlanger. They had met two years earlier when young Jeff was scheduled to undergo major surgery and asked his parents if they could first arrange for him to meet Mr. Rogers. They wrote to Fred and he made time during a promotional visit to Milwaukee to meet with the family. Afterward, they continued to keep in touch. When Jeff made his appearance on Fred’s show, he explained how his electric wheelchair worked and why he needed it. Then Jeff and Fred sang a duet of that corny-but-deeply-true Mr. Rogers’ song, “It’s You I Like.”
When later asked by a reporter why their five-year-old child would want to meet Fred Rogers before undergoing major surgery, Howard and Pam Erlanger explained that Jeff “always said that Mister Rogers told him that he was special and that he was just fine the way he was, and it gave him confidence and it made him feel good, and Mister Rogers just seemed to love him.” It was as if Mr. Rogers could really “see” Jeff, kind of like the way that Jesus could “see” the blind man. Fred Rogers beheld Jeff, knew that this child was someone to hold onto, hold close, hold up.
Nearly twenty years later, when Fred was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, Jeff surprised him, rolling onto stage to present the award. In true Mr. Rogers’ form, Fred got so excited that he ran up onto the stage and hugged Jeff as if they were the only two people in the auditorium. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Jeff said in presenting the award to Fred, “It’s You I like.”
It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, my friends. It’s a day, like every day, made for us to notice and care, love and share. May we go forth to truly see and serve our neighbors.
Jason Fraley. “Remembering Mr. Rogers Twenty Years after the Death of Our Favorite Neighbor” in WTOP News, Feb. 27, 2023. Accessed online at wtop.com.
Robert Hoch. “Commentary on John 9:1-41” in Preaching This Week, March 30, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Osvaldo Vena. “Commentary on John 9:1-41” in Preaching This Week, March 26, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Shea Tuttle. “Seven Lessons from Mr. Rogers that Can Help Americans Be Neighbors Again” in Greater Good Magazine, July 13, 2018. Accessed online at greatergood.berkeley.edu.
Maxwell King. “How ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ Championed Children with Disabilities” in Guideposts. Accessed online at http://www.guideposts.org
–. “About Fred Rogers” in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Accessed online at misterrogers.org.
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
Click the link above to hear Jeff and Fred singing “It’s You I Like.”