Sermon March 19 Hidden in Plain Sight John 9:1ff Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you know where the phrase “here’s mud in your eye!” comes from? Well, it does NOT, alas, come from the story Anne just read for us from the gospel of John. Which when I first discovered that, I was really quite disappointed.
Because how perfect that would’ve been. For “here’s mud in your eye!” -- a phrase that usually toasts downing in one fell swoop a pint or a shot literally designed to impair someone’s vision – to have actually originated as an ironic reference to the man born blind in this story having his vision RESTORED – thanks to mud in his eye.
I’d have enjoyed that a lot. And in fact I did! Until I looked it up and discovered it wasn’t true. It’s not exactly certain where “here’s mud in your eye” came from – there are theories about the dregs in the bottom of the glass, dropping splat like mud into the eyes in a ‘bottom’s up’ situation. There are theories about horse-racing and wartime trenches, and mud being flung up in both –
But it’s quite clear that the answer does not lie in John chapter 9. Not least because “here’s mud in your eye” first arose when the only English translation of the Bible was the King James Version – which refers not to Jesus putting ‘mud’ in the blind man’s eyes, but instead ‘clay’.
So, my whole fun imagined theory gone. Abandoned with regret, but conceded with humility once I learned it was quite wrong.
It’d be nice to think that the disciples also conceded with humility 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, insofar as the disciples had a theory about it, if someone was blind or otherwise disabled in any way, the explanation for it was somebody’s sin. Some kind of wrongdoing must have occurred. It was simply the prevailing assumption at the time.
So as outrageous as this question may sound to our ears, in the case of this man born blind and begging by the side of the road, the disciples are presented as apparently just being 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 actually 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 ultimately it doesn’t GO anywhere, of course, because Jesus just shuts it all down. Completely. Because “Who sinned?” he says to them, “so that this man was born blind??! “NOBODY sinned, so that this man was born blind. Because that’s not a thing, 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, it’s a manifestation of 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 and clearly and fiercely 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 cast disability, illness, infirmity, in the language of sin.
Some pet theories, cultural assumptions, it appears, are so ingrained that they’re really hard to let go of. But if this is a story about healing, which it is, obviously, then 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. Because that’s not a thing – disability as a manifestation of sinfulness.
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’s 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 behold the SECOND healing Jesus does that day: the man’s sight is restored.
An 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 healing 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 healing of liberation. Here’s mud in your eye, says Jesus, and off goes the man to the pool of Siloam to wash – and he’s freed. From his blindness, yes, but also from the rejection and ostracism and shame that his community has inflicted on him because of it.
And we know there must have been gratitude. 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. Because 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 “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. He was essentially invisible. Hiding in plain sight.
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 in service of their OWN healing.
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 don’t actually look at them, when you don’t even notice them when they’re burdened? When you don’t even see them when they’re 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 the chains, the poverty, the trauma that keeps them imprisoned – if you look right through them like they’re invisible, hiding in plain sight, in that imprisonment?”
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. The disciples are healed of their destructive assumptions, the man born blind is healed of the blindness that’s condemned him to poverty, but there’s one more healing needed and 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.
It’s a third healing in this story. It’s not completed, it’s invited. In us, if we let the man born blind provoke us with its questioning. Who are we not seeing? Who are we looking right through like they’re invisible, hiding in plain sight? Here’s some mud in your eyes, Jesus says to us. Clear them so you can see. Amen.