Sermon March 22 Who Is My Neighbour? John 9:1ff (Healing of the Man Born Blind) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever heard the phrase “Here’s mud in your eye”? It’s a toast, really. Generally immediately followed by the hearty clinking of pint glasses and the swift downing of whatever’s in them.
And I have to admit that I’ve always assumed that this was a toast originally derived from today's passage from the gospel of John.
A sort of cleverly ironic expression of “May your eyes be opened” or “May you see clearly now” to accompany the downing of the aforementioned pint. As though said pint would help clear away the veils of unfortunate sobriety.
Not a sentiment I personally appreciate, being rather more familiar with the sight-compromising veils associated with unfortunate INsobriety, but I have to admit that the cleverness of the irony of saying “Here’s mud in your eye” as a toast in this way – that I DO have to admit I appreciate.
It does make me laugh. Or at least, it did. Until I made the mistake of googling that phrase – “here’s mud in your eye” – just to see if it really DOES come from that story in the gospel of John.
Because alas, it does not. There are theories about First World War trenches, mud being flung up by bombs -- there are theories about horse-racing, mud flung up by horses’ hooves -- there’s even a theory about the dregs in the bottom of the pint being referred to colloquially as “mud”. Which, if the glass is drained with conviction, would surely drop splat into the drinker’s eyes.
But what there is NOT is any evidence that it came from this story in John. In fact, since it’s a phrase that apparently arose in the early 1900s, it essentially COULDN’T have come from John’s gospel, because at that time the only English translation of the Bible that anyone used was the King James Version.
In which this story tells us of Jesus spitting on the ground and making not mud but CLAY. With which he anoints the eyes of the man born blind, and thus restores his sight to him.
And nobody’s ever raised a pint and said “Here’s clay in your eye”. So, a whole imagined theory gone. Leaving in its wake only mystery.
It would be nice to think that the disciples also bid farewell with humility to one of their pet theories, once they’d been firmly told it was quite wrong. Impossible to know for sure, of course, since they’re not questioned afresh about it afterward…
But when they first see the man born blind, begging by the side of the road, as they and Jesus travel along, what they ask Jesus – and not unreasonably, given the prevailing assumptions of the time –
But what they ask Jesus is “Who sinned? Who sinned so that this man was born blind? Did he sin, or did his parents?”
Because basically, as far as they were concerned, it was certainly what was assumed – basically, if someone was blind or otherwise disabled in any way, the reason for it must be that they’d sinned.
Some kind of wrongdoing must have occurred. It was the only explanation that made sense to people at that time. It was the only explanation that made sense to the disciples at that time. If something bad happened that couldn’t be explained, that seemed to basically be random – it was understood, it was assumed, to be because somebody sinned. Somebody did a wrong thing. Somebody made God angry.
And in the case of this man born blind and begging by the side of the road, the disciples are apparently just curious. Who sinned? Was it this man’s parents? Or did he himself somehow sin, like, in the womb? Or in a previous life? It’s kind of interesting, we have this brief moment with the disciples where they almost seem to be vaguely traveling into really quite far-eastern metaphysical territory…
But it doesn’t actually GO anywhere, of course, because Jesus just shuts it all down.
“Who sinned, so that this man was born blind??!” he says to them. “NOBODY sinned, so that this man was born blind. Nobody. That’s not how this works, that’s not how God is. Who sinned, so that this man was born blind? No one.”
It’d be nice to think that the disciples took that seriously. Set aside their pet theory, their usual assumption. Never defaulted again to that automatic cultural notion that where there’s disability, where there’s apparently random illness or infirmity there must be sin.
It’d be nice to think that wherever they went, ever afterward, whenever they heard someone TALK about disability or illness or infirmity in terms of sin, they shut it down just as quickly as Jesus did.
If so, though, they certainly had their work cut out for them. Because even after the man born blind is cured, the people around him are still talking about his having been “born in sin”. And you’d be amazed – or maybe you wouldn’t – how often, two thousand years later, people still think about disability, illness, infirmity, in terms of “what did I do to cause this”. “What did I do WRONG, that this happened.”
Some pet theories, cultural assumptions, are so ingrained that they’re really hard to let go of. But if this is a story about healing, which it is, obviously, the very FIRST healing that Jesus attempts, undertakes, offers us in this story is THAT healing. Of that terrible self-destructive theory and assumption.
Who sinned, so that this happened? Nobody. Nobody’s sin made this 'whatever' happen. Because that’s not how God is. Vengeful and vicious and doling out payback.
And hopefully the disciples carried those healing and freeing words with them for the rest of their lives. Breaking down that theory wherever they heard it. Repeating again those words of Jesus. And again and again, whenever they were needed.
But that would be in the future. For the present, there was a man born blind, begging by the side of the road.
And weirdly, without being asked, and apparently simply for the sake of doing a miracle because he could do a miracle, Jesus spat onto the ground, made mud from the dirt, anointed the blind man’s eyes, and told him to wash in the pool of Siloam and his sight would be restored.
Which it was. This extraordinary gift – unasked for, unearned. This man’s been shackled, limited -- by blindness? By his family’s shame? By his own shame? Remember, the assumption is that someone’s SIN has caused him to be blind. So he’s been chained into begging not only by disability but by the shame of that disability on top of it. And now he’s free.
This miracle by the side of the road – it’s so much more than just a miracle in which someone blind has his sight restored to him. As if that wouldn’t be enough.
But this really is a miracle of losing chains that have imprisoned someone. Weighed them down. Attached them permanently to that slippery slope down to rock bottom. Where every day they’re a little heavier. And every day it’s harder to lift your head. And every day you get a bit more discouraged, a bit less patient, a bit more exhausted. Maybe even a bit more angry.
We tend to like our healed people grateful. We like our miracle stories to end with the leper thanking Jesus and the woman kneeling in gratitude.
But the healing of the man born blind – we miss that part! We don’t see that moment of thanksgiving, the falling down in worship and praise. Not that I don't think it happened – I think it must have. This miracle of freedom, from blindness, from chains, from shame, it’s just too huge a miracle not to have been responded to with astonishment and thanksgiving. Tears and wonder and gratitude by the pool of Siloam when this blind man opens his eyes and for the first time, he can see.
But that all happens 'off-stage', as it were, in this story from John’s gospel. And instead where the story goes for us, as we hear it, after Jesus and the disciples have continued along the road, traveling toward Jerusalem, is back to the man’s own neighbourhood.
Where he’s returned from the pool of Siloam, now able to see. And if we’re imagining a scene of celebration, a kind of explosion of awe and wonder at this miracle that Jesus has made happen for this man – who once was blind and now he sees –
That is not what happens. Instead what happens is a whole lot of angry.
In fact, one of the most “real” things about this miracle story, I’ve always thought, is actually precisely how angry the man born blind really quickly gets with the people around him, afterward, when they’re all questioning him about what happened.
Because quite apart from the fact that if someone’s been blind from birth, and sneered at by all, and begging by the side of the road for however long, it maybe shouldn’t surprise us if maybe they’re already a little angry – quite apart from that… seriously?
“I keep telling you what happened,” he says to the crowd around him. “And you keep not listening to me. And now you’re asking me again? Are you actually going to listen to me this time?”
But no, they’re not. Nobody’s really listening to him. But the thing is, he was probably pretty used to that already: nobody actually paying attention to him. In fact we actually KNOW he was pretty used to that already. And how do we know that? Because when he came back from the pool of Siloam, having had his sight restored by Jesus in one of the great healing miracles of Jesus’ whole ministry –
This man who’s been begging by the side of that road for ages, years probably – the very first thing that happens when he runs back shouting “I can see!”?
Is that most of the people in his neighbourhood who theoretically would have walked right past him every day, as he begged blind by the side of the road? They don’t even know that he ever COULDN'T see.
Because they’re not actually sure they recognize him.
There’s actually all kinds of debate that happens amongst them all – is this that guy who used to beg by the side of the road? And they’re really not sure. They’re trying to remember, back and forth, checking with each other. Because when he was begging by the side of the road? They never actually really looked at him.
So now? Maybe it’s time, perhaps, after he’s tried to share his good news of this miracle, for him to raise a clever ironic toast to them. Because “You know what,” he might have wanted to say to them? “Here’s mud in your eye. Because I think you might need some. Because how are you going to know that healing and freedom and lifting off heavy chains and a fresh start and a changed life really is possible – really does happen to people by God’s grace – if you didn’t actually look at them, when you didn’t even notice them back when they were burdened? When you couldn’t even see them when they were right in front of you when you walked over them on the street?”
“How are you going to recognize the kind of power God has enabled in people, who are working, who’ve gone back to school, who are in recovery -- how are you going to recognize the kind of power God enables in people to be freed from what keeps them imprisoned – if you looked right through someone and didn’t see them when they WERE imprisoned?”
He’s angry, the man born blind. Or frustrated, exasperated, maybe is a better way to put it. It’s not the usual ending for a healing miracle story. We got the amazing miracle, but not the moment of worship, praise, and gratitude. Jesus is long gone.
But he’s left behind him the man born blind – maybe because what his neighbours need to hear, what we need to hear, is best spoken by a man born blind who’s just discovered that, ironically, none of those people who had eyes to see… had been seeing HIM.
So who are we not seeing? Here’s some mud in our eyes, thanks to this unprecedented weird scary unsettling situation we're in.
Because it's not JUST that this has made us realize that it's the grocery clerks and shelf stockers and truckers and cleaners we might long have taken for granted who are currently holding society together enough that health care professionals can save lives.
That's good mud in our eyes! But it's not the ONLY mud in our eyes we're getting right now.
Because when we're told to stay home – then suddenly we think 'What happens to people who haven't a home? Where do they go?'.
When we're told to stay home for days and days or weeks and weeks in close quarters with others – suddenly we think 'What must this be like for people who are afraid of their spouse? Or children who are afraid of a parent or guardian?'
When there's no school – what about kids who only get food at school? When the libraries are closed – what about people who only have internet at the library? If the busses were cancelled – what about people who can't otherwise get to work? When daycare and homecare are no longer available – what about those who have to quit work to stay home?
It's not a matter of becoming overwhelmed by sadness or upset. In a state of emergency when we're all responsible for protecting each other's health and safety by keeping a distance, there's a limit to what we can DO. Which can be tough, but it's also real. Our capacity for DOING is limited.
But this seeing can stay. This being seen can stay. God doesn't 'send' stuff as punishment or to teach lessons – that would be an abomination. Stuff just happens -- but whatever it is that's happening, the Spirit keeps moving, keeps moving, keeps moving, toward healing, toward goodness.
So even if all we can DO while we negotiate each of these days-that-feel-like-a-week is to remind ourselves – "now I am seeing, now I am being seen" – with words of gratitude and prayers for care, this seeing can stay. This being seen can stay. It'll mean we'll come through this changed. Closer to each other and the goodness of Godness that surrounds us.
So here's mud in our eyes as we continue apart but together. Amen.