The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Lent 4—Year A; I Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
What a mess of a story we have today!
Jesus is walking along, and he sees a man who has been blind since his birth. Jesus’ disciples, Jesus’ disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Okay, let’s decode that, “Rabbi, who’s to blame? Rabbi, whose fault is it, because somebody’s got to be to blame?” And we think our litigious society has a corner on this market? The search for fault and blame, it’s one of the most common, most human of reactions to tragedy, and why? Because if you can assess fault and blame, then it removes that element of randomness, it erases that element of complete and utter out-of-control-ness; if you can assess fault and blame, then you’ve recaptured the ground of predictability and control and some sense that maybe you can keep that tragedy from happening to you or to those you love. This is an illusion, of course, but we do it nonetheless because it helps us manage the anxiety we would certainly feel if we really admit the fragility and vulnerability of our lives.
And Jesus gives a very Jesus answer, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” He says some other sort of cryptic things, and then he spits on the ground and makes mud with the saliva and spreads the mud on the man’s eyes, and says to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then the man went and washed and came back able to see. Spit and dirt. That’s pretty earthy. I don’t care if it’s the Son of God’s spit, spit is spit and dirt is dirt and mud is mud—it’s pretty earthy. Jesus spreads the mud over the source of the blindness, and simply says, “Go and wash,” which the man did, and he came back able to see.
This man couldn’t see, he physically couldn’t see, and I have to be honest here, I don’t quite know what to do with this passage as it relates to people who are physically blind or who are going blind and who yearn for Jesus to stand before them, who yearn for him to touch their eyes, who would gladly go to the pool of Siloam if it would allow them to see. We hit this dilemma with every healing that Jesus does in the Bible. Why does this person get cured, but all the other blind people in the world remain blind? I don’t have an answer for that. I do know that there is a huge difference between curing and healing. I do know that some people who are physically blind see better than some of us who have our physical sight but shut our eyes to so much. I am not a modernist who tries to explain away all of Jesus’ miracles. Sometimes, miraculous cures happen, things that defy what should have been medically possible, and sometimes they don’t, and I can’t tell you why that is when people pray equally hard in both of those situations. So, I want to acknowledge the complexity of these healing stories and all the questions they inevitably raise, and I wish I could resolve all those questions—but those answers have not been made known to me, or I doubt to any human being. So, let’s own this ambiguity and just let it be there for today and see what we might see as we look into the heart of this story.
There are so many ways to be blind. There are so many ways that we don’t see. In some sense, the man had the advantage of knowing how he was blind. He also had the humility to allow Jesus to touch him in this very earthy way, and he had the willingness to take the actions that Jesus asked him to take. In the end, he was able to see again. Are we in touch with our places of blindness? Are there things that we are simply not able to see? Do we have the humility to allow God, Jesus, Spirit to use some really earthy avenues to open our eyes? Do we have the willingness to follow a mystical intuition to go here or go there and do something that seems a little nutty trusting that we will be given some new capacity for sight that we didn’t have before? Do we trust in Jesus’ capacity to restore our sight in some pretty unbelievable ways? Are we willing to mix it up with spit and dirt and mud, or is that too messy for our tastes? Healing is rarely a neat and tidy process.
And then it really gets interesting. The man’s neighbors see that he can see, but that doesn’t make sense, so they break out into an argument about whether or not he really is the same guy. They take him to the authorities. The authorities question the man about how it is that he sees, and instead of taking it at face value and rejoicing at this wondrous turn of events, they start arguing about Jesus and whether or not he, Jesus, is from God. The old he-did-it-on-the-sabbath (i.e., he didn’t follow protocol) argument comes up as a way to dismiss what has just occurred.
Then the larger group, known as the Jews, come into the picture. They, like the neighbors, have their doubts—they dismiss it all by not believing the man had been born blind in the first place. They call in his parents and question them. His parents don’t want to have anything to do with this question because belief that Jesus was the Messiah was grounds for being thrown out of the synagogue. If they acknowledge this healing and how it occurred, they could lose their community. His parents tell them to ask the man because he is of age to answer.
So, they haul the man in again. They have decided that Jesus is a sinner; after all, he did heal on the wrong day for goodness’ sake. The man is getting a little weary with all of this, and maybe a little sassy. He’s like, “I’ve told you already, and you won’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” (That’s the sassy part.) Then, his questioners really turn on him—the text says, “Then, they reviled him.” Then, they play the my-authority-is-better-than-your-authority card. “You are his disciple, but we’re disciples of Moses.” The man pretty much loses it—“Here’s the deal! You don’t know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships 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 the man’s answer just doesn’t fit their worldview. It’s just not possible in their frame of reference. So, they respond to the man the only way they can, they dismiss him completely by appealing to his sinful state and playing the purity and the expert authority card—“You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
When Jesus heard that they had driven him out, he went and found the man. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man isn’t quite sure who or what this Son of Man is, but he wants to believe in him. And when Jesus says, “It’s me,” the man is all in, without an ounce of doubt, “Lord, I believe.” And then, Jesus unravels some of the larger meaning of this whole daggone story—“I came into the world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees nearby heard him, and they said, “Surely we’re not blind, are we?” They can’t conceive of the possibility that they might be blind in some way. Jesus simply replies, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
Fix blame and fault for the illness. Fix blame and fault for the healing. Dismiss it out-of-hand. The healing is just as uncontrollable as the tragedy of the illness. And when the healing comes, they don’t do any better with it than they did with the illness to begin with. Given a choice of maintaining control and order and rational explanations and understanding and something that challenges their worldview, something that expands their frame of reference, something that is way beyond their control—they choose control and order. Healing is not neat and tidy and will rarely fit in the boxes we had before. True healing busts our old frames. New wineskins are needed to hold the new wine that fills our being when something in us gets healed. And it may well be that those around us aren’t prepared for us to change that much. Family systems theory has long known this, a change anywhere in the system will affect the whole system, and systems are very resilient—they will do anything to return that system back to homeostasis; they will do anything to regain their balance, even if it means keeping the sick person sick.
Would we rather live in cynicism than admit the possibility of hope and healing that might call us to change in some radical ways? Is it easier to play the blame game than it is to allow God to open our eyes to see in new ways? Is it easier to look for the loopholes about why this shift, or this change, really doesn’t count because it doesn’t fit our preconceived notions and rules about how things are supposed to work, is it easy to do that than it is to acknowledge that sometimes plates shift and the earth moves and new things, heretofore deemed impossible, are all the sudden unfolding before our very eyes? Is it easier to cling to our certainty, cling to what we see, even if it keeps us cut off from our neighbor, than it is to have Jesus open our eyes to a new reality that will compel us to see our neighbor in a new way? When you’re blind, and you know you can’t see, you don’t have the luxury of disconnection because it takes others to help you navigate this world, and in that sense, you don’t have sin, you don’t have separation because connection is your lifeblood. It is our sense that we don’t need any help to see, thank you very much, that keeps us cut off from one another.
How ready are you, really, to be healed? How ready are you, really, to have others in your circle be healed? Are you ready for the turmoil and chaos that always accompanies healing? We’re back to the same question that Jesus was asking Nicodemus a few weeks ago—are you ready to be born anew? Are you ready for a life that will have to be different from your old one? Jesus is asking for a lot here; he’s asking us to risk dying to an old life, and he’s asking us to risk walking into a new one. It’s a lot easier to blame, find fault, dismiss, and drive out these possibilities. It’s a lot easier to stay blind and to keep others blind than it is to see in a new way.
But that is his invitation today. Spit, dirt, mud, pools of water. Knowing in our bones that healing is possible, even when all the forces around us conspire against it. Let Jesus touch your eyes, even if it involves spit and dirt and mud and cold water, just don’t shy away from his touch—it will be humbling and so vulnerable to be sure, but oh, what you can see when you take the risk. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 30, 2014