Ray Stevens was wrong, I think. Everything is not beautiful, not in its own way or in any way we can imagine. Maybe some things are more beautiful than we are willing to see, some people more beautiful than they first appeared to us to be: the person who grates on our nerves and we dread to see approach, with the passing of time and the sharing of circumstance, becomes a wonderful friend. Couldn’t have seen that coming, wouldn’t have imagined it…some things, some people, are beautiful even if we can’t see it at first, but not everyone is beautiful. Not everything.
A young man, too young, is struck down by a cancer that seems a family curse almost: his dad and his mom both died before their time and now it will soon be his time, and there is nothing beautiful about it. His new grandbaby will never know him. His children are terrified, for him, for themselves in a few years. Nothing beautiful about any of that.
A young family, shredded by the infidelity of the mother; another family, cleaved asunder by the infidelity of the father: and the sins of the fathers and the mothers are visited on the heads of the children—if not theologically then relationally, and for how long will the cycle continue? Perhaps to the third or fourth generation, all that confusion and bitterness, anger and hurt bleeding onto other people and relationships… these wounds that do not heal cleanly, not even with the unguent of time or counseling or otherwise. Nothing beautiful about any of that, either.
A child dies. A parent loses memory. Soldiers are killed on far away battlefields, and if sometimes that kind of sacrifice is beautiful in its own tragic way, if there are times when war enobles a nation or a people, it is not always so. Sometimes the rush to war only diminishes those who fight, and I speak not only of the battles waged on foreign soil, either, but these fierce little wars we fight in the boardrooms and in our bedrooms, in the church parlors and fellowship halls…these wars diminish us each and all.
There are things worth fighting for, to be sure, but sometimes we fight just to fight; sometimes we fight because we are in the habit; sometimes we fight because we, too, have lost memory that our first and final task as followers of Jesus is to love our enemies, to forgive our debtors, those who trespass against us, our offenders; we sometimes forget that we are to bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ, that we are to love one another as Christ has loved us, that we are to see others as Christ sees them…but sometimes we don’t do that, don’t try to see others as Jesus sees them. Many times we screw our eyes shut to anything beyond our pride and prejudice because we don’t want to see beyond our own prejudice and pride.
Which is to say, sometimes we just won’t see the other side, just can’t see anything beautiful in the enemy, in the neighbor, in the friend or spouse. Which is to say we are so blind, sometimes. Can we all of us just confess that. Blind, sometimes because we will not see, other times because we can’t.
Jesus and his disciples are strolling the streets of Jerusalem when they see this man, blind from birth. The disciples, with all the sensitivity of a brick, begin debating the man’s condition, its causes, its effects: Did his parents sin? Did he?
They are so much like us, we are so much like them: if we can figure out a way to blame the victim, then we do not have to feel so bad about it one way or the other. Lung cancer? Well, if he hadn’t smoked all those years. She was raped? Well, if she hadn’t worn that short dress. Killed while driving under the influence? I always knew that kid would come to ruin. If we can blame people for their own problems, we can be satisfied that we are not like that, can keep ourselves aloof, condescending, can relieve ourselves of responsibility.
Oddly, Jesus refuses to see things that way, or people, refuses to debate cause. He just gets on his knees in front of the poor man, spits on the ground, makes some mud, rubs it on the man’s eyes…And in this whole wonderful story, which runs the length of John, chapter nine, that is my favorite moment, my favorite detail: Jesus, making mud with his spit, smearing that holy goo on the eyes of the blind man.
You know what this looks like, Jesus on his knees with the man?
Remember way back in Genesis 1 and 2, you have there two stories of “creation,” or if you prefer two versions of the one story, and the first of them is that majestic poem whose meter and verse we have known since childhood: In the beginning, when there was nothing but darkness and void covering the face of the deep, God created the heavens and the earth. There is darkness here, too, the blindness of the man, and also of the disciples.
Later in Genesis, later in creation week, comes the other story, how God got down on his knees in Eden, the garden he had planted to the east, scooped some of that damp, new earth into his hands, rich soil of the misty new world he had just made from nothing. God brow furrowed, beaded sweat as God patted and rolled and formed the first human—his fingerprints are all over Adam and all over us, too, all the days ever since…though there are some who can’t see it. God made us with dirt from the garden and sweat from his brow and God breathed divine breath into the little mud man, and there was life as well as light, but Adam was a lonely soul till God also made Eve.
God rose from that creation moment with us in the grain of his palms, the residue of all Eden’s children under his nails, and he has never been able to wash his hands of us entirely, not with the water of the flood, not even when blood poured from the hole where a roman nail pierced the flesh the creating Word had become.
And here, in John 9, Jesus kneels, scoops up dirt and with the spit of his mouth makes mud. Once again, there is creation, recreation, light. The man can see. Really see.
I wish Jesus would do that for me, truth to tell. The last few verse of this great chapter in John are scary ones:
Jesus said, “I am come into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Now some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin. But now that you have said, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
Which means my sin remains because I am the one who so often says, I see, which is to say, I know. I understand. I have this figured out.
I am like Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus by night—get it, by night? Because he is in the dark? And Nicodemus says, in effect, “I see,” when he is just as blind as he can be. Nicodemus says, “We know you are a teacher come from God…” and just by saying it that way Nicodemus, a really, really religious person, an elected official, a teacher of Israel, proves that he knows nothing.
Do you get it? We are the really, really religious people. We are the teachers. We are the officers of the church. And we are the ones who best be careful, lest we think we know. The only time Jesus ever said, “You need to be born again,” he was talking to a man like us when he said it. Not to an atheist, not to a pagan, but to a man like us, who thinks he has it figured out, that he is righteous, that he can see.
We best be careful, then, lest we think we see…in fact we see little if anything, most days. We do not see the horror because we have contented ourselves as to explain it, at least to our own satisfaction. Neither do we see the beauty, when there is beauty to be seen.
Listen! The Pharisees, the folk like us, could only see what was wrong with what Jesus did: he healed on the Sabbath! They could not see what was amazing and right and good: that he healed!
So maybe Ray Stevens was right after all, well, at least about this one thing: There are none so blind, as those who will not see…
If only Jesus would stop by here and put mud on our eyes.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.