Date: March 2nd, 2008, 4th Sunday of Lent
Texts: I Sam 16:1-13; Ps 23; Eph 5:8-14; Jn 9:1-41.
Mud, made with dirt and saliva. This is such a great story. Jesus heals a blind beggar with his spit.
Thursday, around noon, I stopped by the Regulator Bookstore to pick up a book that I ordered. I parked along the street. Got out of my car. Started walking up the sidewalk. A woman, walking toward me, spit something nasty on the sidewalk, just before I passed her. Not a very pleasant experience. I stepped around the puddle of saliva.
Then I remembered this passage from John 9, and thought to myself, “Hey, that’s what Jesus did…. That story is disgusting.” Just picture it. There’s a blind beggar. Jesus wants to heal him. Now, Jesus doesn’t perform some kind of majestic miracle from on high. Jesus doesn’t simply heal the man with a spoken command. Nor does he heal the beggar with a graceful touch to his face. No. Jesus tears down all our pre-conceptions of what the divine looks like. Jesus gets messy. He spits. And it must have been a pretty decent one. I mean, he makes enough mud with that spit to cover the guy’s eyes, both of them.
John 9, verse 6: “he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud over the man’s eyes.”
After this, everyone is baffled. His neighbors, the people who pass him by on the street corner can’t believe it. Verse 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?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, it is someone else.’”
This can’t be the same guy, our friend, the blind beggar. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen. But there’s the beggar, formerly blind, saying, “Hey guys, it’s me!” They don’t want to believe their eyes. There must be some explanation. So the call the people who are supposed to know about these things. They summon the credentialed people, the ones with authority.
The Pharisees can’t believe it either. No one heals on the Sabbath. How dare this man make some mud with his spit and rub it all over our blind beggar’s face? It can’t be true. It’s impossible. So the Pharisees ask the beggar what happened. And he says, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”
The Pharisees’ shake their heads. No way. This guy’s a liar. He’s a beggar after all. So they ask the beggar’s parents. Wisely, they refuse to answer for their son. “Ask him,” they say, “he is of age. He will speak for himself.”
Dumbfounded, the religious leaders call back that lying, good-for-nothing beggar. They ask him again, What happened? And the beggar responds, “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?” That was it. This lying, formerly blind beggar went one step too far. How dare he suggest that the Pharisees follow this man with a spitting problem who plays in the mud on the Sabbath? Verse 34: “They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and you are trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.”
I have some friends who went looking for this beggar. They started their search in a stretch of dirt on the side of the road, the southeast corner of 15/501 and Mt. Moriah—across from the Bob Evans. Any of you are more than welcome to join them. You can find them there, every Wednesday at noon. They bring food and eat with beggars. They don’t do it for the sake of charity, but that would be a decent reason. They do it because among these people, among these beggars, some of them with saliva still in their beards, they may find the beggar from our story, this one who Jesus healed, this one who has been driven out into the woods.
I know this is hard to believe. I can’t say that I entirely believe it; because if I did I would spend more time with beggars. But it doesn’t matter if I believe it. The story tells us that Jesus seeks out beggars. And at the end of the story, when the beggar is driven out, Jesus goes after him. Jesus is absent for most of the story. But at the end, when Jesus shows up, it’s not with the religious authorities; Jesus shows up with the beggar.
While everyone in the story is concerned about discovering the sin that lies at the root of the problem, even the disciples want to figure out this beggar’s sin—when everyone is wondering about sins, Jesus gets his hands dirty and heals the man.
God is in the business of surprises, of showing up in unexpected places, of even disappointing our expectations. That’s what happens to the prophet Samuel in our Old Testament reading. God does not choose any of the expected sons of Jesse. As the oldest son passes before Samuel, God says, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (I Sam. 16:7).
God eyes penetrate. God sees things we don’t have patience to wait for. God has patient eyes. God waits for the least, the last one, Jesse’s youngest son. Patient eyes.
Seeing… how we perceive. That’s what this story from I Samuel and the story of the blind beggar are about. Can we really see what’s most important?
At the end of the passage about the blind beggar the Pharisees ask a lingering question. They overhear Jesus speaking to the beggar about blindness. The Pharisees turn to Jesus and ask, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” (9:39). Surely we are not blind, are we? Are we blind? Do we suffer from impatient eyes?
I ask myself that question a lot. I ask it because my life is so routine, uneventful, mundane, ordinary. Nothing much happens. At least, nothing with any mark of cosmic significance. “Surely I am no blind, am I?” Maybe I am. Why can’t I see God happen?
Maybe the first reason is because I don’t hang out with beggars. Our story from John 9 seems to show us a Jesus who tenaciously finds beggars.
But another reason could be that we don’t realize that we are beggars. Ryan told us last week that we are insufficiently aware of food as a gift, of the earth as a gift that our lives depend on. This dependency goes all the way down. We have nothing that was not first given to us. We are beggars. We are blind beggars.
We are the sort of people that can pray Psalm 23, if we dare to be beggars. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” It’s a Psalm about someone who has no idea where she or he is going. God leads. God provides. Sometimes we find ourselves along green pastures, and sometimes we are in the darkest valley. Sometimes we sit along pleasant waters, and sometimes we are surrounded by enemies. But the Psalmist is clear about one thing: God is there too. “You are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.”
But we, in general, don’t look at the world around us as places where God lives. We can’t see that all the stuff we take for granted, the ordinary stuff of life, all of it is gift—we are beggars that live off the generosity of God.
All of it, included you and I, and our ordinary and maybe annoying co-workers—it all comes from God, and it is the material that explodes with God’s light. God’s light shines in the darkness. It’s there. But we, like the Pharisees, are blind, consumed with our own expectations, stuck in our own categories of what counts as God’s work. We are too proud to realize that we are beggars.
Ultimately this is about hope. We are beggars awaiting the gift of hope. Hope in the midst of mundane existence, and hope in the midst of darkness. Ordinary life blinds us from hope; our eyes are lulled to sleep. Darkness blinds us from hope. But we believe that hope shines in the midst of darkness because God raised Jesus from the dead.
During the first few centuries of the church, the years of persecution, Christians went underground. They inhabited the labyrinth of darkness called the catacombs, underneath the city of Rome. Here they buried the dead, the martyrs, and they also baptized, in secret. Along the stone walls of the catacombs there are drawing, pictures of favorite bible stories, stories of comfort while in the darkest valley.
And this story of the blind beggar from John 9 is frequently portrayed on the catacomb walls. Why this story? Because it is a story about a man who lives in darkness. But Jesus finds him. And though the beggar is an outcast, shunned by society, Jesus comes to him, and shines light, new sight, patient eyes that pierce through the darkness. The church of the catacombs finds herself in a world of new life, despite the darkness. For the life of Christ is not overwhelmed in darkness.
Hope is the refusal to take the world as it is, and instead look with patient eyes to see the light of God shining in the darkness.
As Paul says in our passage from Romans, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” But don’t think you already know what this light of Christ looks like. If you go looking for what you already know, then you’ll miss it. This light is different. Remember that Jesus plays with mud. His light is a shine that glistens through saliva, spit, dirt, mud.