They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on is eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”
I was shivering at the front of our sanctuary with ashes all over my fingers. Whether at 7 am or 7 pm the services were virtually the same: it was cold and dark outside, those who came huddled together for warmth, I preached the same homily, used the same ashes, and said the same words as I marked each person: you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Ash Wednesday is one of those profound moments in the regular rhythms of church life where we admit something the world tries to claim the contrary: nobody makes it out of life alive.
I began both services with a brief introduction about the importance of Ash Wednesday, and the history behind it. We all prayed together. I read a selection from Psalm 51 about God creating in us clean hearts. I preached about living out our faith in the world as marked and cleansed people, and challenged each of us to act like the cross was still on our foreheads, even when the ashes faded away. I then prayed and blessed the ashes and invited everyone to come forward. There is something profoundly frightening and intimate about having people coming up to have ashes placed on their skin. We participate in an ancient ritual that is so contrary to the ways of the world. It is a privilege to come so close to the holy presence of God with each person who stood before me; looking them in the eye, holding their shoulder, touching their skin.
Before I offered a benediction for the services I invited everyone into a time of silence. While I prayed I was struck by the Spirit in a way that I had previously not encountered. I started thinking and praying for the people who were not in the sanctuary for the service. And I don’t mean for those of you who enjoyed Ash Wednesday from the warmth of your homes. I prayed for the people who came to our last Ash Wednesday service, but not this one. Because some of the people I held in my hands one year ago, I have buried in the months since. The words: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” take on a truly deeper meaning when the people go from worshiping in the pews, to resting in a casket at the front.
They brought the blind man to Jesus. Perhaps they wanted to see a public demonstration of his power and so they found someone for him to cure. Or they knew the struggles and sufferings of a friend and believed that Christ was the one to heal him. Whatever the case, the crowds begged Jesus to touch the blind man.
Jesus then took the man by the hand, and led him away from the crowds and out of the village. He spit into the man’s eyes, and laid his hands upon him. “What do you see?” Jesus asked. The man looked up and said to the Messiah, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on the man a second time. Suddenly, the man’s vision broke through and his sight was restored and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him back to his home, commanding him to not even stop in the village.
Is it strange that it takes Jesus two tries to get the healing right? Throughout the gospel accounts Jesus is the main man when it comes to healing and he gets it done right away. Paralyzed? Jesus says “take up your mat and walk!” Tied up with chains outside of the village because you’re possessed by demons? Jesus commands the demons out and sends you home. Your son is epileptic? Jesus says “all things are possible for the one who believes” and makes it so. But here in Mark 8 we have a strange story, a story that can only be found here in this gospel. Jesus is asked to heal a blind man, he uses his own spit for the first part, but it doesn’t work all the way, so he has to touch the blind man a second time.
I don’t know about you, but I love this story. I love how grounded it is in the material and physical world. I love the way that Jesus ignores the crowd and brings the man outside of the village. I actually love that it takes Jesus two tries to get it right because it says so much about our relationships with God. In fact, I love this passage so much, that I used it as the New Testament reading for Lindsey’s and my wedding. If I remember the wedding sermon correctly Jason, our pastor, said this about the choice: “The walking trees do-over miracle of Jesus with the blind man is a text that only a pastor would use at his wedding.”
Yet, even with its strangeness and bizarre imagery, I love this passage. I think it works well for weddings; You only really see the person you’re marrying, after you marry them. Dating and being engaged is like seeing the other as a blurred image, but in the vows and covenant of marriage the other comes into focus, and we see what our lives truly become together.
Moreover, I think this text works well for the beginning of Lent, as it reminds us that sometimes it takes two tries to get this whole discipleship-thing figured out. In fact, it often takes more than two tries to get it right.
The story with Jesus and the unnamed blind man is a reminder about what our relationship with God is like. Before we become Christians, we see and experience the world with extremely limited vision. We believe that we are the center of the universe, that our primary purpose is to love ourselves and serve our needs no matter the cost. But then a strange thing happens. Maybe it occurred when you were invited to worship for the first time, or maybe it happened on a mission trip, or maybe it happened in the middle of the night after awaking from a strange dream; whatever the experience was, God became real for you for the first time.
Some might say that as soon as that event takes place, you begin to understand God and see the world with clear vision. This story however, would claim the contrary. When we initially experience God’s wonder its like seeing people as trees walking. We are given a glimpse of what the world looks like turned upside down, we begin to grasp and understand what loving God and neighbor is all about. But our vision of discipleship is still dim and incomplete.
Frankly, this distorted and obscure vision of faith is where most Christians are located, myself included. We think we understand everything that God is doing and we think we are seeing things clearly, but its not the case. How many of us can rattle off all the words to the creeds and to the Lord’s Prayer, how many of us have the hymns memorized and can sing without looking down, how many of us really know and read our bibles, yet our vision is still dim?
Lent is the time for us to turn back toward God and see things clearly. We need to see God as God is. Not just the God of our liturgical creeds and hymnals, but the Lord of our hearts and homes, of our hopes, our prayers, and our needs. We desperately need a real picture of what faith looks like. Because faith cannot just be showing up to church once a week for an hour of worship. Faith is about giving your entire life over toward loving God and others 24/7, 365.
While I was praying after our Ash Wednesday services I realized that I don’t really know any of you. At least not to the degree that we are called to know and love God in our lives. While applying the ashes to some of your foreheads I saw what you allow me to see, I saw some of your celebrations, some of your failures, some of your hopes, some of your sins. I can strive to know you as deeply and as fully as I can, but I will only see you as a blurry tree depending on what you open up.
Yet, while preparing for funerals, I start to see a clearer picture of the person. It’s like God has touched me a second time and I finally begin to understand the kind of life that someone lived. Part of it comes from the vulnerability and honesty that families and friends are willing to share, but part of it comes from my willingness to finally ask questions that I never felt brave enough to ask while they were alive.
For all of us, our discipleship and relationship with God is often perpetually caught in this state of blurred trees. We show up to church, we pray, we read our bibles, but without a sure foundation of the basics of faith, our vision will always be limited.
That’s why, throughout the season of lent, we will take time each Sunday to return to some of the basics of faith. We might come to the table once a month to partake of Jesus’ body and blood, but do we really believe and know what we are doing? We might talk about being saved and affirming Jesus Christ as Lord, but what does salvation really look like, and why do we call Jesus our Lord? We might see the other people in our pews as brothers and sisters in Christ, but why is our relationship with them limited to Sundays mornings or church activities?
It is my hope that over the next few weeks all of us will receive that second touch from the Lord; by returning back to the basics we will begin to see faithful things and then to see all things clearly: God, ourselves, and others.
But that’s where we’re going. For today I was to focus on this: Our lives are gifts. We are privileged to be surrounded by such beautiful and unique people in our lives. From our co-workers, to fellow students, to friends, and family, and even strangers, we are blessed people. Yet, do we really know any of them? Do we really see them as they truly are? I promise that for all the perfect exteriors you might encounter, there are at least a few who, on the inside, are looking for someone like you to see the real them.
If we take this two part healing seriously than it’s up to us to initiate the second touch for the people around us. We could wait for them to show up and open up, but most of the time it will never happen. Instead we are given the chance to ask deep and important questions of the people in our lives. Questions like: How is it with your soul? What are you doing right now that is saving your life? Do you feel loved?
When you find someone and bravely ask them questions, you are like the crowds bringing the blind man to Jesus; you go into the world as Christ’s body, and by learning more about the other, you discover what it means to see things clearly.
We begin our challenge here at the Lord’s Table. After we are invited to feast and confess our sins, we will exchange signs of Christ’s peace with one another. This is the chance for us to begin opening our eyes to the truth around us; We are a church of broken people, and when we love on each other and gather at God’s table, we start putting all the pieces back together. Amen.