6.20.10 Embracing Spit and Imagining Healing
I just returned from my work with the Montreat Youth Conferences in North Carolina – almost 2000 teenagers and a conference with a water theme. Seems like an appropriate time to preach a sermon about spit!
This morning I want us to explore this story from Mark with a spirit of imagination, exploring not just what the text tells us, but also how we could imagine this event from the perspective of two of the players in this text – really spend some time in the story. So I hope you will afford me a little creative license on this and give yourselves permission to do the same.
In this account in the gospel of Mark, Jesus and his followers travel into Bethsaida. In a situation that must have happened in so many other streets in so many other villages, some people approach Jesus and ask for his healing touch. This time, it was a man who was blind who sought healing. Jesus leads him out of the village, puts saliva on his eyes, restores partial sight, and then touches his eyes again so that the man sees everything clearly. . . Now before we get to our imagining of this story, let us pause on this act of Jesus putting saliva on the man’s eyes. The NRSV is perhaps appealing to our more modern sensibilities and hygienic tendencies by offering a more delicate, “Jesus put saliva on his eyes.” But really, if you look at the Greek verb, Jesus spit on his eyes. This small semantic change may seem minor, but I think it makes a big difference in terms of how we imagine this experience to have impacted those present for this event. So join with me as we imagine this text through two different lenses.
First, let’s examine this story from the perspective of the man who was blind. Imagine it, you have spent your life dealing with the challenges and societal barriers that come from the fact that you are blind. You need people to travel with you and help you prepare food. You are not allowed to worship in the temple because you are considered unclean. People revile you, and people pity you. But few take the time to really know you. Thankfully, you have a small group of family and friends who help you. One day, they tell you that they have heard about this man Jesus who is coming near the village. They hear that he has healed people just by touching them. They lead you by the arm out of your home, through the village, and over to the street where others are gathered to see Jesus. You wait, wondering what will happen next. Is there a line? Do you have to take a number? Does Jesus just know who needs healing? You hear people around you mumbling about who this man is and what they have heard he has done. You hear children laughing and playing. You notice that the wind has shifted a bit, and you savor the warm breeze on your face.
Suddenly, you hear a large crowd approaching. Then, you are pushed forward and you hear your friends asking Jesus to touch you. You realize that you are standing directly in front of Jesus. . . Jesus does not say a word to you or your friends, but suddenly you feel a new hand on your arm. Somehow, you know that this is Jesus leading you away from the crowd. Filled with anxiety and uncertainty, you wait. What if this Jesus guy is all talk? How do you really know that he has healed anyone? And then, it happens. Eeeww! Did he just spit on your eyes!?!? What is going on?!
But then, you hear his voice saying, “Can you see anything?” And you look, and you see something. What was in that spit? Everything looks tall and fuzzy, roaming around. Kind of like what you imagined trees to look like, but it must be the people, because it is back toward the village. Jesus then touches your eyes again. And then you see clearly. You are overwhelmed with this transformation and the look in your face clearly says that you cannot wait to run and tell everyone what Jesus has done for you. Jesus sees this look, and quickly tells you to go straight home and not to go into the village. You are not sure why he would say that, but you are not in any position to argue with this man. So you go. And life was never the same.
Now, imagine that you are Jesus. You have been traveling and preaching and teaching and doing amazing acts through the power of God that is in you. You know that people are starting to talk. Some love you. Some fear you. Some undoubtedly want to get rid of you. You have grown up among the religious teachers. You know the Law. But you also know what God’s reign of righteousness should look like. You have great compassion for the outcast and the marginalized. So you come into this village and are met with a small group seeking healing for their friend who is blind. Before you do anything, you lead this man away from the village. After all, you are not performing these miracles to entertain crowds – you are displaying the power of God’s boundless love. Besides, not everyone likes what you are doing; maybe you want to keep this a little low-key. You may know your ultimate fate, but you are not in any hurry to bring it about today. You look at this man who is blind, a man whose disability has kept him from participating as a full member of any religious or societal group. He is considered unclean. He is shunned as one cursed by God and not allowed to be in community. You think of the religious rules and social mores that have kept this man out, and you spit. You spit on this man’s eyes. You are not insulting him. But for what it means to restore his sight, you might as well be spitting in the face of the religious authorities. You are changing the rules of the game. If those who are marginalized cannot be allowed into this community, then you will use the power of God to transform them into people who can proudly participate as full members of society. You know there was nothing wrong with this man because he was blind. You look on those who are blind, paralyzed, plagued with seizures, and marginalized because of who they are, and you long for a time when they will be welcomed into the community because of who they are, not in spite of it. But you know the reality of the situation. And you know that people matter. You can restore sight to this man more easily than you can impose inclusivity on an entire people. So you spit. And then you touch his eyes, and you celebrate the joy with him. Surely, it was great that he could now see. But you know that this was not simply a restoration of sight. You have allowed this man to be restored to the communities that have excluded him for so long.
Was it magic saliva? Was it a symbolic statement to the religious and social boundaries that marginalized people? We may not ever know for sure. But what we cannot deny is the life-transforming event that happened when Jesus restored the sight of this man. Because in doing so, he not only restored his sight, but he brought this man back into community. That was the true miracle of this event. Jesus exhibits the kind of boundary-breaking kingdom of God that we are all called to strive for today.
As I look at our churches and pulpits today across the country today, I have to ask: Who are we keeping out? Whether it is through official rules or deeply engrained and unwritten practices, we all fall short of exhibiting God’s boundless love. Who are we keeping out? For some, it might be women. For some, it is gay and lesbian Christians. It might be young people. Perhaps it is the poor and the homeless, or the mentally ill. It might be the elderly members of our congregation who cannot leave their homes to come to church, and we do not take the time to bring the church to them. Whether we mean to or not, who are we keeping out? Can someone in a wheelchair easily worship and fellowship with our community? How much does our worship service assume that people know how to read? How might we be accidentally sending the message that churches are places you come once you have gotten your life together, rather than places of safety and healing for those in the midst of life’s storms?
Jesus did not heal the man who was blind because there was something wrong with him. There was something wrong with society and the purity codes that were marginalizing people like him. Jesus knew that God’s love was big enough to include all people and that we all can come before God in all of our brokenness and all of our struggles. Jesus allowed this man to be transformed so that he could experience the radical inclusion that all of God’s children deserve. Don’t the people we encounter today deserve the same? After all, is the gospel really good news if we keep it all to ourselves?
If we say that we are followers of Christ – if we take seriously his teachings and the teachings that we find in his healings, then we must act differently. We must acknowledge what God’s radically inclusive reign of righteousness looks like and then work for it every day of our lives.
And if the spit in this story teaches us anything, it is that this process might just be a little messy. Working live out the gospel message of justice and inclusion is not easy. It is uncomfortable, a little unsavory, and might even raise some eyebrows. In seminary, I had a chance to hear Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson speak on campus. I will never forget his challenging words when he said: “If you’re not getting into trouble, you might want to make sure you are actually preaching the gospel.” This is indeed dangerous business, but it is the business we are called to as Christians. May we all have the imagination, the courage, and (if the occasion calls for it) even the bad manners to bring about the kind of healing that Jesus would have us do. Amen.