The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Lent 4–Year A (video link)
I Samuel 16:1-13
Oh, Jesus is playing in the mud again, and that is always going to create a mess that is uncomfortable for those of us who like things neat and tidy.
Jesus is walking along, and he sees a man who’d been blind from birth, and in that time, people saw such a physical condition as an indictment—somebody somewhere did something to cause this. It was someone’s fault; it had to be someone’s fault. The disciples ask the question that was on everyone’s mind, “Rabbi, who sinned, the man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Somebody’s to blame, “So Rabbi, who?”
And in the first act of healing, Jesus refuses to play the somebody’s-got-to-be-to-blame game—“Neither,” he says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”
Can we just pause and take that in? Jesus refuses to fix blame for this man’s condition. It’s painful enough to be blind, but really, how does blaming the parents or the man help, other than to give everyone else the illusion that they can actually keep such a condition or illness or painful circumstance from happening to them? If it’s a matter of sin, then if you don’t sin, nothing bad will ever happen to you, right? So, how’s that strategy work out in the real world? Not at all. All that fixing blame does is isolate the ones who are already suffering—in this case, the man and his parents.
And, we know, the blame game isn’t just a 1st century phenomenon. We may not want to confess it, but when we see a tragedy, there is something in us that wants to assign fault. We don’t like that we do this, but we do it all the same. Why? Because to acknowledge that some things, many things, are beyond our control, to acknowledge that some things just are is to acknowledge our utter vulnerability in this world. And we will cling to our narrative for dear life rather than admit we don’t have control, even though clinging to that narrative of blame will actually rob us of the life we are trying to protect.
So, Jesus knows that there’s some work that he, and God through him, have to do to get our eyes opened, and not just our eyes, but also our hearts. There’s some revealing that’s got to happen; there’s some serious light that needs to be shed.
So, Jesus spits on the ground and makes what with his saliva? Mud. And he spreads the mud on the man’s eyes. Okay, stop, what? Ewww groce. But the mud is important. Really important.
Okay, children, what two things do you need to make mud? Thank you—dirt and water. Adamah, the ground. Water. And oh, we just got catapulted back to Genesis 2 when the waters were springing up through the ground, springing up through the adamah, making delightful mud, and God plunged those divine hands down into the mud and lovingly shaped and formed that human creation called a-dam.
With the water of his spit and the ground, Jesus makes mud and spreads it on the man’s eyes to take him back to his Source—“You aren’t just a man born blind consigned to a life of begging; you are created by God’s own hands, you bear divine breath in your being. Before anything else, you must remember who you are as God’s own creation.”
And then, Jesus tells the man to go, wash in the pool of Siloam (which means Sent). First, the man has to remember who he is as a divine creation, and then he is Sent down into the waters, and what happens in the waters? Who else was Sent down into the waters? Do you remember? “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.”
Yes, the man washed, and yes, he came back able to see, but it was about a whole lot more than getting the mud off his eyes. Having remembered that he was God’s own creation, he had to remember that his creation is beloved; the sum of his existence isn’t “the man who was born blind;” it isn’t “the pitiful blind man who begs”—no, he is a beloved son, one in whom God is well pleased. And having washed in those waters, the man can see again from a place that is both whole and holy.
And the story could have stopped there. Wouldn’t that have been a great ending? Oh yes, that would have been a great ending. Is that ending of the story? Oh no.
The neighbors saw, and those who remembered him as a beggar saw, and they were curious, really curious. There was an established order in their world. There were seeing people and blind people; there were sinful people and good people, and this shattered the established order of things. They just couldn’t square it, so they debate, “Is it really him?” “Yeah, I think it is.” “No, it’s not him, it’s someone like him.” For some, this just won’t do because that means the rules by which they have navigated the world just shifted. For others, they were unsettled, too, but in an immensely hopeful way. If the rules weren’t so fixed for him, maybe, just maybe, something could shift for them, too.
He kept assuring them, “I am the man.” And that hopeful curiosity won out, at least for the moment, and they asked him, “How did it happen? How did it happen for you? How were your eyes opened?”
And he told them about what the man called Jesus did. He told them about the mud, and how Jesus spread the mud on his eyes; he told them about going to that pool of Siloam and washing, and how he regained his sight.” And then, they really were curious—“Where is he? Where can we find him?” The man who’d regained his sight didn’t know.
And in that space of not knowing, the drive to get the world back in order grabbed the reins. They didn’t go searching for Jesus; instead, they carted the man off to the authorities who would get this sorted out. The religious leaders question the man about how he regained his sight, but their brains couldn’t fathom it. It didn’t fit the box.
Some of the leaders zero in quickly on the fact that Jesus performed this work on the sabbath. They said Jesus wasn’t from God because he didn’t observe the sabbath. Others couldn’t dismiss the fact that this man could indeed see—they gave Jesus more latitude because you just can’t perform these kinds of signs if you’re a sinner.
The leaders were puzzled so they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” The man said, “He is a prophet.”
Did you catch that? The man’s eyes are opened, but they still can’t see him as anything other than a blind man; they can’t see him as beloved son of God created by God’s own hands.
So, the religious leaders head down road #2 to try to keep their worldview intact. They don’t really believe that this man before them was born blind and has now received his sight. They call the man’s parents and grill them—“Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” The parents are afraid of challenging these leaders—“What would happen to them if they went against the authority?” They settled for the elegant dodge—“We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 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.”
So, the leaders call in the man born blind a second time. They beg the man to give Jesus down the river—“Give glory to God! We know that this man, i.e. Jesus, is a sinner.”
The man simply stood in the truth of his experience—“I don’t know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” Oh, the leaders are so frustrated, they just can’t square this with their worldview—“What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
Now, it’s the man’s turn to be frustrated, and he goes a little snarky—“I’ve already told you and you wouldn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”
That enrages the leaders; then they reviled the man, and they pull out the authority big guns—“You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
The man calls them on their twisted logic. They can twist and turn this all they want, but he knows what he knows. “Here is an astonishing thing,” the man says. “You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
But rather than let their narrative change, rather than let their worldview expand for other possibilities, rather than admit they might be wrong, the leaders double-down on their authority, and dismiss the experience of the man entirely. They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us? Who do you think you are?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and he went and found him, and asked if he believed 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 worshiped him. Grounded in his experience, the man could let his heart leap and trust in the Son of Man who stood before him.
Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, to distinguish, so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
Some of the [religious leaders] near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
And in that last sentence, Jesus circles back to where he began. The blindness is not the sin; the refusal to let what you see shift, change, expand—that’s the sin.
If we bog down in the miraculous nature of the man’s cure, we will miss what Jesus is really driving at in this passage. Yes, this man was cured of his blindness, but his healing was so much deeper. To begin with, his healing came in understanding that his blindness was never a matter of sin; his healing came in returning to the blessed Source of his creation; his healing came in going down into the waters and remembering that, while he may have been blind and he may have begged, he wasn’t a blind beggar, but he was, is, and always will be God’s beloved son; his healing came in the growing confidence to know what he knows and to stand firm in his experience of Jesus; his healing came in letting his heart trust that deep knowing and leaping into relationship with the One who showed him that it was okay see all that he sees.
And those who claim “to see”, they can be so daggone blind, clinging to narratives and authority just to keep a worldview intact, just to maintain the illusion that we are in control of our lives. We can twist logic, we can blame, we can dismiss, but none of these strategies will keep vulnerability at bay. All these strategies do is keep us separated from one another, keep us locked in battles with God, keep us from seeing all the unbelievable ways that God is working God’s healing power in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
Where have you allowed someone else, or allowed yourself, to assign blame for some tragedy that has befallen you or someone you love?
Where are you needing to be reminded of your divine creation at the hands of God? Where are you needing to be Sent into the waters to recapture your core identity as God’s beloved son or daughter?
Where are you turning to the authorities instead of trusting in your Godgiven experience and deep knowing? Where are you clinging to your narratives instead of letting them expand and change? And if you start to trust what is being revealed to you, what do you fear you will lose?
This story ends with all kinds of choices—do we wish to have our eyes opened, OR do we wish hold fast to the security of what we “see”?
Having our eyes opened is going to get messy, but oh, the mud will be worth it to be created anew and see as we have never seen before. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 26, 2017