Beginning in March of 1905 – one hundred and sixteen years ago – Albert Einstein published papers which convinced doubters that atoms exist; that described special relativity; and introduced the photoelectric effect. He persuaded the world that light travels faster than anything else, and that space and time are not distinct, but a continuum.
His papers and their consequences bombarded the world as a fusillade of ideas … new ideas … ideas that turned the academy on its head.
Because of Einstein, 1905 was, arguably the single most important year in the history of the human mind. Physicists call 1905 Einstein’s annus mirabilis, Latin for “year of miracles.”
Remarkably, Einstein was just 26 years old and working as a lowly patent clerk when he changed the way we see the world.
Jesus was nearly the exact same age as Einstein when he, too, inaugurated a period of remarkable achievement … unlike any the world had known.
His, however, was not so much an achievement of the mind (although one would not be wrong to describe it in that way). It was more an achievement the heart and of the spirit.
The young Jesus and the young Einstein both shed light on things that had previously been mired in darkness. They opened our eyes and, in Jesus’ case, our hearts as well. They each provided a viewpoint and perspective from which the world can never again look the same and from which there can be no retreat.
In the story from John’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are walking in Jerusalem. They happen upon a man who was blind from birth.
The disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”
Perhaps it takes the contrast of Einstein’s achievements of only 100 years ago to give perspective to the achievements Jesus wrought over 2000 years ago. Two thousand years ago blindness – and other human ailments: physical, emotional and mental – were universally regarded as the result and fault of human sin.
“Who sinned?” his disciples ask, “that this man was born blind?”
In the first century, the equation between sin and suffering was absolute, incontrovertible. You sin, you suffer. Or, if not you, your child.
Yet, without a pause Jesus dismisses this equation. Without equivocation he declares: No one sinned! The man’s ailment is not caused by human sin … God’s world is not so cruelly laid out as that.
And then Jesus makes a remarkable claim: As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.
As Jesus speaks, I watch as a pool of warm, bright light encircles this blind street beggar, this wretched nobody. Can you see the light encompassing him, embracing him, warming him from the inside as, for the first time in his life, he hears that his blindness is not his fault. It is not his parents’ fault. It is not a consequence of his sin, or the result of his parents’ sin.
As Jesus speaks, I see another pool of light bathing the man’s household and family. I see his family—his mum and dad, his older sister and younger brother, his grandparent—letting go of years of tortured anguish and guilt and shame over whose fault it was that their son—their beautiful, shining baby boy—was born blind.
In my mind’s eye I see yet another pool of light. This one disperses the shadowy, furtive conversations between neighbors as they speculate in whispers as to who to blame for the infant son’s blindness.
A simple question is asked of a first century, itinerant preacher: Whose fault is it that this man is born blind?
By denying and dismissing out of hand the premise of the question, Jesus gives us brand new eyes with which to see into human suffering. Jesus sheds the light and warmth of God into the darkness and coldness of human ignorance. He exposes thoughtless assumptions as base cruelty. He relieves human suffering for in an instant he lifts from this man and his family the unbearable burden of guilt and shame.
This past November, something happened, something changed out there. It was just before Thanksgiving and we noticed—anyone at all who passed Old South Church in the evening could not but notice that suddenly, one night … and then night after night after night, a large group of homeless persons (15 to 18) converted our Portico into a makeshift hostel.
They’d arrive around dusk, in twos and threes or singly, each choosing corner, and lay down cardboard, sleeping bags, or blankets. Our portico was suddenly accommodating 15 to 18 people, night after night after night.
We asked: What happened? What has changed that you are all gathering here at night?
We learned that someone, some group or agency, had instituted a coordinated effort to shoo and to sweep the homeless from their various haunts: from Back Bay Station, from the benches of Copley Square, from the steps of Trinity Church, from the long stone bench that runs across the Boylston Street wall of the Boston Public Library.
Someone was behind a coordinated effort to shoo and sweep the homeless from their usual haunts. Now, with nowhere else to land, they landed on our doorstep, under the shelter of our portico.
Then I started getting calls. Calls from local hoteliers complaining that our “guests” were frightening their clientele. One hotelier demanded to see our “lodging license.”
I received calls and letters from the Back Bay Association asking us, pleading with us to join in on the sweeping and the shooing so that, together, we might sweep and shoo all the homeless from the Back Bay.
Now, I am not without sympathy for the businesses—the shops and restaurants, the hotels and salons. They have a job, a business. Their clients and patrons matter. I do not dismiss that.
And, I am sorry, pained, when we find ourselves out of sync and out of sorts with our neighbors.
And, not least, this matter is not between me and the Back Bay. It’s between Old South Church and the Back Bay.
So I reached out to church leaders: Deacons, Council leaders, church officers, and Old Southers who live in the neighborhood and I consulted them. I wanted to hear their perspective.
And to a person, they—YOU—agreed that for Christ’s sake we could not join in the shooing and the sweeping.
Quite the contrary, we hosted a meeting here with the key players in the City and in homelessness prevention to discuss the harsh realities of life since the closing of the Long Island Bridge, and the harsh realities of an unprecedented opioid epidemic. Representing us at this meeting were Debbie Leonard and David Albaugh.
And, then (God bless him) Ralph Watson went about organizing food and clothing and sleeping bags and wrapped Christmas presents for our guests.
And you, Old South Church, you took these out on wheeled carts and fed and clothed and comforted and ministered to our guests: to Daria and James, Grasshopper and Gage, and Dominica and others.
These were our version of Jesus’s saliva mixed with mud … our own version of the pool of Siloam.
And a pool of light, Christ’s own bright and shining light, warmed our guests from within and revealed their names, their faces, their stories.
And no one asked, “Who sinned?”
As I said, I am not without sympathy for the businesses—the shops and restaurants, the hotels and salons. They have a job, a business. Their clients and patrons matter. I do not dismiss that.
But here’s the thing: Old South Church also has our own God-given role: a purpose, a ministry, a perspective. Our role and purpose is markedly different from that of the hotelier. It is demanded of us, by God, that we regard the homeless beggar, not as a sin to be dismissed or explained—nor as refuse to be swept away —but as a person to be known … a person with a story … with a life. A person with blistered feet and shivering limbs … A person with a name, a story, and agency.
One of our guests wrote to us. I found her note in my mailbox at the Front Desk. Listen.
Hi Old South Church & Congregation … My name is Daria. I am homeless due to domestic violence and now live on the streets of Boston. I don’t know much about the shelter system but I am definitely scared of being in one.
Anyways, the reason for me writing is to express my GRATITUDE for allowing me as a homeless woman to sleep under the arches of your church. It’s been super hard to find places to sleep where the police don’t harass us, or as sheltered as under the arches.
God knows I am truly thankful for the kindness your church has been to me. I am truly grateful. Thank you so very much. Daria
Two thousand years ago, Jesus opened our eyes and he opened our hearts. He pried them open. It was hard going. It cost his life. But he did it.
He introduced a viewpoint and perspective from which the world can never again look the same and from which, for Christ’s sake, there can be no retreat.