First Congregational Church, UCC
March 15, 2020
"Mud on Our Eyes"
Scripture Reading John 9: 1-41
Our scripture reading today from John is dense in theological themes; it also can be comical at moments, as the blind man who receives sight, his astonished parents, the skeptical Pharisees, and Jesus all are forced to confront a series of at-odds beliefs. It is also a passage that can be problematic for us encountering it today, in our own context. As with the Gospel of John in general, we read this passage almost 2000 years after it was written, knowing how passages such as these would be misused in polemics against the Jewish people, causing irredeemable harm and suffering. We also read this passage, with its miraculous healing, at a time when we have a better understanding of our abilities and disabilities, the diversity of bodies made in God’s image.
John 9: 1-41 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
1 As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The 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?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He 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.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then 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.” 16 Some 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. 17 So 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.”
18 The 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 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but 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.” 22 His 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. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24 So 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.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He 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?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
Sermon “Mud on Our Eyes” Minister David Jones
I have the very good fortune of having a best friend, Jordan, who is working toward his PhD in theology at the University of Toronto. After confessing to a Deacon earlier this week that I was struggling to find a clear message for Sunday, I found myself turning to a lecture that Jordan had just delivered a few days earlier. This is how he began:
“In these strange times, I can barely concentrate on much of anything. The threats of doom, the anticipation of so much horror, for so many; the collective trauma the world is undergoing and right now and will go through...I can barely organize my thoughts. Our ‘normal’ for so long has emphasized superhuman productivity, the pursuit of excellence in all things at all times, as much profit as possible--no matter the cost to the well being of people and the earth--no rest, not quite enough money, food, or shelter to relax; for many, not enough even to survive; destroying wetlands, forests, the oceans: the conditions for life itself threatened so GDP can keep going up. It has been difficult to focus. If this moment now is revelatory, it is because [...] the anecdote of the struggling individual is no longer as easily dismissed by the dominant of our society.”
Jordan is putting precise words to the shock of confusion I think many of us--certainly myself--have been feeling as the situation we face has become more urgent and dire. What he is suggesting, I think, is that this shock of confusion is the uncovering of what lies beneath our sense of “normal.” Even as people of faith, we have had mud in our eyes, and this strange, revelatory moment is beginning to wash it off.
That said, I’m mindful of the fact that this crisis affects each of us differently even as it unites us in our vulnerability. Because I am still spending much of my time at the hospital, I have been inundated with heart wrenching stories; in a very visceral way, I am aware of how unprepared the healthcare system is despite the best efforts of local administrators and medical staff. I have had the difficult job of turning family members away, no longer allowed into the hospital to visit their loved ones. On the other hand, those who are able to work from home or who have been given paid leave may be enjoying unprecedented leisure time, rediscovering hobbies or developing new skills with the gift of found time; young families may be gathering in their gardens together as Spring blooms, feeling new freedom from the confines of the classroom or office. Then there are those among us who are working as usual, because they must, because the rest of us depend on their sacrifice--or because their families do. And there are those who have simply been laid off, who are scared not only for their health but their livelihood, their whole future up in the air, through no fault of their own.
As a community, we are feeling a variety of things at once: relief, to have time to rest; anger, that many of us are busier and more distressed than ever. We are united, I think, in feeling uneasy, unsure about what comes next, and in experiencing a thrum of fear for those we love--in our congregation, in our communities, in our families--who may be acutely vulnerable. What is important is just what my friend Jordan has highlighted: the individual anecdotes of the most vulnerable are not easily dismissed at a time of universal distress like this.
Our reading from the Gospel according to John could not be more well suited to this strange moment. You have to read between the lines a little bit to get the full picture, but the passage tells us about a man who all his life has been condemned to homelessness, who has had to depend on the charity of others to survive because he is blind. It is this man who Jesus decides to miraculously heal. Before he intervenes, even his disciples assume the man is blind from birth--and therefore also poor--because of his or his parents sin. After Jesus intervenes, and as word travels of his deed, the Pharisees confront first the formerly blind man, then his parents, and finally Jesus. They are scandalized for two reasons: first because they assume, as the disciples did, that the man’s blindness and marginalization has been punishment for past sin; and secondly, because Jesus has performed his miracle on the Sabbath, the appointed day of rest. With all this sin going on, how could a sign of God have been achieved?
We see however in our reading that Jesus has come not only to transform the blind man but also to transform the man’s surrounding society, to teach a new ethics of community; there is sin, but not where we have been looking. Jesus certainly does not subscribe to the notion that blindness is related to sinfulness. We should pause to recognize how subversive this teaching is, which today we perhaps take for granted: against the assumptions of his own disciples, and against the teaching of religious authorities, Jesus dismisses a connection between the man’s individual physical condition in this world from his individual sin or righteousness. Instead, Jesus recognizes the power of insight that this man’s blindness and his experience of marginalization have conferred. The social situation--and the fulfillment or realization of God’s will--does not hinge on one’s personal virtue or vice but on the gift of sight conferred by experience. To have been blind is to be able now to see truly. Questions of a poor, blind man’s sins are shockingly irrelevant to Christ; instead, it is how we structure society to impede or to safeguard that man’s access to grace--to dignity--that truly matters. And when we have mis-structured society, the tragic burden of the oppressed and marginalized among us is to receive the gift of sight, from their experience, that the powerful do not have access to--unless they are willing to follow Christ into transformation, into solidarity, into the dark valley of our own vulnerability until God’s light can truly be seen.
Finally, we can be grateful for the concreteness, the earthliness, of Jesus’ method. Jesus does not wave a wand or hold his hand aloft; he spits on the soil to make mud, and turns the task over to the blind man--over to us all--to wash our eyes clean and see clearly for the first time. It is a spiritual sight, an ethical sight, but crucially it is rooted in our embodied experience, in getting mud on our eyes. In New England, with spring arriving, there is no shortage of mud. And in the midst of this pandemic, there is no shortage of experiences of vulnerability to nurture new insight. In this strange time, the burden of seeing truly is spread a little lighter over many shoulders; this strange, frightful moment is confusing precisely because what was “normal” has been displaced, and all that was uneven and unjust has been uncovered. The blind man begging can not be dismissed any longer.
Jordan closed his lecture with a series of challenging but exciting questions:
“When you think of your community, at its best, what is it like? Who is there? What do they wear? Where do they live? What do they eat? Drink? How do you get your food? Who grows it? How? Harvests it? Cooks it? Do lost loves return to this picture? What happens to those who don’t belong? Refuse to belong?”
These are the questions our church in Ashfield has been asking. And now is a time for each of us to imagine even more fully the picture of our beloved community, the picture of a life without regret, a life of clear sight, that our faith and God’s love is perpetually calling us toward. The mud is being washed off, but it will be up to us to finish this work, to open our eyes, to see God’s world in the place of the one we had made. And in this task, as ever, God is our trusted shepherd.