Seeing God in the Mud

We are now well into the season of Lent and our Gospel readings from John have invited us to appreciate our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit by listening to our God-given breath (which is also God’s life-giving spirit within us) and by tasting (drinking and eating) the consecrated bread and wine and water through which the Spirit of Christ enters our bodies and quenches our deepest thirst. Today, the Gospel invites us to open our eyes and to see; to be liberated from our blindness and to see the world as Christ sees the world.

“As Jesus walks along, he sees a man blind from birth.” His disciples also see the blind man, whom Christian tradition has given the name Celidonius; but the disciples seem to see Celidonius as an object for theological debate and as an opportunity to apportion blame, in this case to blame the victim. They ask, “Who sinned this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus’s response to their question reveals the stark difference between how Jesus sees and how the disciples see. He says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that the works of God might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me.” Where the disciples see an opportunity to blame Jesus sees an opportunity to heal. And with this response, Jesus reveals our true blindness. We are all blinded to an extent by our compulsion to blame and to scapegoat.

I remember preaching here several years ago at Pentecost and asking you all, “Why do you think we have ordained clergy since we believe as a church in the priesthood of all believers?” I remember someone here said that we need leaders who have studied the Scriptures and traditions well enough to teach and preach effectively. But I also remember someone saying in a kind of tongue-in-cheek sort of way, “Well, we got to have someone to blame.” And I’ll never forget that because I think it is so insightful. (And I am actually quite sure that it was our guest music director Jay who said that). It is true that a significant part of being a leader is not only receiving praise when things go well but also bearing the blame when things go poorly. Some leaders strategically deflect this blame by scapegoating various innocent victims either within or outside of the community; and this has been a very effective strategy for fascists, who capitalize on our blindness, our compulsion to blame. World leaders have risen to power using this scapegoating strategy and sometimes priests use it as well. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus rejects that strategy; he rejects that way of seeing and invites us to be healed of our compulsion to blame which so often blinds us from the larger and more complex reality.

Blaming and scapegoating others is not the same as trying to locate the source or sources of a complex problem in order to try fixing it. Blaming and scapegoating others involves grossly oversimplifying a problem in order to unleash our own frustrations, anxieties and insecurities onto someone else, who is often innocent. Although Jesus himself is scapegoated, he refuses to scapegoat others, which we see very clearly in this passage. In fact, this entire chapter of John which we read (chapter 9) exhibits the consequences of this way of seeing, which is essentially blindness, being blinded by our compulsion to blame. The disciples first blame the blind man for his physical blindness; then the neighbors and the Pharisees seek someone to blame for his new ability to now see; the parents deflect blame by redirecting it back to their son; and it all ends in deeper division, exclusion, and eventually expulsion. No wonder Jesus concludes by saying that those who think they can see are actually the ones who are truly blind.

John’s Gospel shows us the ways that we are blinded by blame and how this blindness leads to deeper division and even destruction. There are also many ways that Jesus tries to heal us from this blindness and help us to open our eyes and to see more deeply and expansively.

As I have said many times before, the Gospel of John is a sensual Gospel in that it uses the bodily senses in order to communicate spiritual truths while also inviting us to appreciate our bodily senses and sensuality, which can be infused with God’s Spirit. It is only in John that we see Jesus getting his hands really dirty and muddy as he makes healing clay out of his own saliva. It’s hard to think of a more natural and organic ointment than mud made out of saliva. And yet it’s also quite startling and even disturbing. The disciples must have been fairly confused when they saw Jesus respond to their question by spitting on the ground, making mud and then putting the mud on the man’s eyes! This is a muddy sensuality. And yet is through the muddy sensuality that healing takes place. From an outside perspective, it might seem like Jesus is just making things worse and messier. But Jesus is trying to get his disciples and us to open our eyes and to see how the healing and illuminating power of God is at work in the muddy messiness of our lives. Jesus wants us to see God in the mud. Rather than rushing to remove the mud or fling the mud on others whom we want to scapegoat and blame, Jesus invites us to let go for a moment and let God work his healing power through what appears to be very messy. In his book Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli writes, “Spirituality is not about being fixed; it is about God being present in the mess of our unfixedness.”

There are indeed many problems that need fixing in our lives, in this country, in this church and in the preschool. We have lots of work to do and there is an urgency. As Jesus says, “We must do the works of him who sent me while it is day. Night is coming.” Jesus certainly does not condone a lazy passivity. But Jesus is inviting us to expand our vision by first recognizing how much we limit ourselves and our purview by blaming others; how we are blinded by blame. And he invites us to expand our vision by seeing God’s presence with us and God’s healing power at work in what might appear to be very, very messy.

As we read in First Samuel, the Lord does not see as mortals see; he does not judge by outward appearance. And Psalm 23 also invites us to see as God sees, to look deeper and broader in order to see God walking along side us, comforting us, even as we walk through the dark and muddy valley of the shadow of death. And Ephesians invites us to wake up, open up our eyes of faith and rise from the dead blindness of blame so that Christ may shine upon us and help us to see his rod and staff guiding and consoling us through the muddy valley so that we may be healed and enter what the Psalmist calls “the house of the Lord” where our cups overflow and where goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives. Let us open our eyes in order to start seeing as God sees. Amen.

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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2 Responses to Seeing God in the Mud

  1. Caroline says:

    Lots to ponder on here thank you! I hadn’t thought of Johns gospel being the senses one – but it makes sense! For me I have felt a directness beyond the words.
    Good too to be reminded that our messiness, our perceived lacking can be opportunities for Gods glory.

    • deforestlondon says:

      Yes, I initially thought of John as the “Spiritual Gospel” (as Clement of Alexandria put it), but after reading the Gospel more carefully with the aid of William Temple, Dorothy Lee, Robert Kysar and some others, I saw that it is indeed also the “Sensual Gospel.” Thanks for you comment!

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