Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
Listen to the audio
Scripture: Psalm 23 & John 9:1-41 9:1
I’ve spent more hours awake in the middle of the night in the last few weeks than I prefer. I won’t get into all the details of all the things that decide that the middle of the night is prime time to worry about them, but maybe you have your own set. I find that at first when I wake up, it’s a steady stream, worry after worry after worry. It’s as if my awareness wakes up right in the middle of a full onslaught of data processing that my brain was in the middle of, and goes from zero to 80 in the moment it takes to be jolted awake.
The problem is, that I’m still actually super sleepy and not very conscious or purposeful at this point, so I dive right in. “Oh, we’re worrying, I know how to do that!” And I send my full adrenaline rushed resources straight in to help out. “I’m awake, I’m awake, let’s worry!”
It’s not until I’m awake a bit more that I have the insight and consciousness to remember that actually, it is not that helpful to worry in the middle of the night, and that these things are real worries, but we have a plan and we’re working on trust, and that really, sleeping is a much better idea in the end. But at this point, I’m awake. So then it’s time to get back to sleep, to pray, or to check Facebook or watch another episode of “How I Met Your Mother.” Something to calm my mind, breathe, and let go of the spinning enough to fall back asleep.
Our two texts this week have me thinking about rest and about wakefulness, about the need for calm and peace and sleep, and the need to have our eyes opened, to be awake, to see.
This Psalm, well worn throughout the decades, maybe the one you memorized as a child or have heard at many a memorial service. The Lord is my shepherd, God as comfort, and protector, and guide. I shall not want, God as provider and nurturer, this can be that scripture that calms us, that assures us, that invites us to lie down in green pastures and rest. It’s one that we turn to in those moments when we need comfort. The tough moments of struggle, when we need to lean back and be held. The times in the middle of the night when we need to be assured, comforted, and to be able to rest.
And then, there’s the times when we need our eyes opened, when we need to stay awake. Our gospel text today is all about that. But maybe not just in the way we first see it.
We see that Jesus spitting in the dirt and wiping mud on the man’s eyes and telling him to go wash in the pool of Siloam is central to what happens in this story. But, I don’t think that it’s just about this man being healed. He receives sight, yes. Yet, I wonder if it’s also the crowd watching who receives healing, even if it’s painful and awkward for them. Here is this person that they are used to seeing in a particular context—“Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?” Others are saying, “No, no, it can’t be him, it must be someone like him,” while the man is insisting, “That’s me, that’s really me that Jesus just healed.” They see something they don’t want to see.
Jesus opens the people’s eyes to the humanity of the person right in front of them, the person who they likely had been just walking by beforehand, judging him as “that blind man who begs.” And now their eyes are being raised to see as Jesus sees him, loves him, and grants him sight. This is what seems to happen when we hang out with Jesus, when we try to see through the eyes of love—our eyes are opened to the people around us, even the ones we don’t want to see. And we’re healed, because as we become awake, as we see, we are healed of our indifference and apathy and fear.
Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” And when we hang out with the Christ, he starts to shine his light around, and we have flashes of seeing the world and the people around us through the eyes of love.
It reminds me of an experience described by modern day mystic and saint, Thomas Merton. He had a moment in 1958 as he was walking through the busy streets when his eyes were opened and he saw through these eyes of love. He writes:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.
It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
When we encounter love and encounter others, and have this light shining on a situation—if even for a moment—our blind spots are taken away, and we wake up. We see the humanity in someone we didn’t before. We open and wonder to how God is at work in us and each other.
There’s a lot to wake up to in the world right now. A lot of hard things to see. There are so many things to highlight that we need to be awake about in our community, in our nation, in our world. Just this weekend I’m aware that we can be marking National Weekend of Prayer for Transgender Justice, that today is Epilepsy Awareness Day, and that it’s Women’s History Month.
My heart and mind have been thinking a lot this week about our undocumented neighbors as I met with an activist to talk about how our San Pedro congregations could come together to offer sanctuary and support, and also hearing from one of you about witnessing an ICE raid of a grandmother at the local park.
I can celebrate the continuing of healthcare for millions, while strengthening a resolve for its improvement and the dignity and care of all. All this while being acutely attuned to many of you who are living on the street, those of us who struggle with physical and mental illness, family stress, finances, hard decisions, and the wisdom and energy to keep going. There is so much to be awake to, and it is in painful and uncomfortable to keep our eyes open…
Which leads me back around to the Psalm and the hope and belief and prayer that sometimes opening our eyes means that we see this Shepherd God, leading us through.The line in our Collective Confession that we’re focusing on this week is this: We have neglected prayer and worship, and have failed to commend the faith that is in us.
Sometimes when we wake up in the middle of the night with the world on our shoulders, we are gently reminded to lie down in the green pasture, with the gentle sounds of the still waters in the background. And sometimes when we open our eyes we find ourselves standing in the prayer garden, witnessing the tears of a precious broken soul and find the brokenness and preciousness in our own hearts. We have failed to commend the faith that is within us. It is there, it is in us, it is available, we are gently reminded to keep waking up to it. And when we do, we might begin to find this liberation that Merton talks about, “I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are.”
In God waking us, when our eyes are opened, it’s not just to the pain and suffering in isolation—it’s to the whole picture. We can awake to see how the gift of humanity is that we are in it together, leaving behind our preconceived notions and perceptions of each other. And we may just find that if we reach out, we’ll find another human being on the other side. When the mud is cleaned off our eyes, we can start to see each other as God sees us, all precious flaws and fears and warts and all. I mean, even in the healing Jesus uses mud.
Jesus could have spoken a word, or touched the blind man. Instead, he bends down and scoops up the dust of the earth, turns it to mud, spreads it on his eyes and tells him to go wash. Dirt and dust mixed with human spit, the most elemental pieces of the earth, that ash and the humanity of saliva, mixed together, washed clean, and then he sees.
There’s something so elemental about this mud. It takes me back to the ashes of Ash Wednesday that remind us that we are dust. And to the water and washing that Rev. Asher used last week to remind us that we are also beloved. Dust and rocks and water and ash—God is in it all, reminding us that we are beloved children of God.
This gospel story, this well-worn Psalm, take us back to these elemental realities of the Divine with us. Green pastures and still waters, overflowing oil and tables spread out before even the people we consider enemy, eyes open after mud is mixed and water cleanses. God is no sterile removed deity, only interested in abstract ideas or staying far removed, God is right here in it with us, ready to enter the messy muck with us, because that’s where the sacred shows up, that’s where we see the face of God, that’s where, as Jan Richardson writes, “the sludge becomes sacramental, and through grimy eyes we begin to behold the face of Love, beholding us right back.”