I am going to take a little bit of artistic license here in how we enter in to the scripture passages and the theme of the morning. The creators of our Lenten worship materials have structured the six weeks of the season around six very simple images, with each image reflecting the theme of that particular week. Last week was the bow from the flood story, the sign of the first covenant in Scripture that God makes with all of creation. Future weeks will include a beehive, a snake, water, and a palm branch. Each of these images are included in this wonderful wall hanging that Connie Briggs has made, which sort of acts as a beautiful outline of the worship themes of this season. And as is there in the wall hanging, and as is there on the bulletin and was just in the children’s story, today’s image is the tree.
The original idea of this tree was that it represent the family tree of our spiritual ancestors Abraham and Sara – out of them blossom and grow not only the Jewish and the Christian tradition, but also, through Abraham and Hagar, the Islamic tradition — the three great monotheistic religions. Approximately half of humanity today find themselves on some branch of this great, ancient tree. As Genesis tells the story, it’s a tree that almost never made it out of the ground. Only in their old age, well beyond the expected time of blooming does this tree start to grow.
I’m going to stick with the tree image, and eventually come back to Abraham, but want to start in a place that I’m almost certain the Lent planners didn’t plan. The other reading of the day comes from Mark chapter 8, where Jesus teaches about saving one’s life by giving it up while having a confrontational exchange with Peter about the meaning of Jesus being the Messiah. And just a little bit before this, there is another tree that shows up that I think gets right at the heart of what’s going on in both the Genesis and the Mark stories.
I’ll be reading that passage, and if you’d like the follow along and hold it in front of you, you’re welcome to open your Bibles to Mark chapter 8, verses 22-26.
“They (Jesus and the disciples) came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus 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 his 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.’”
If for no other reason, this would be a great story just because Jesus puts his saliva on this guy’s eyes. The NRSV sanitizes this a little bit, it’s not quite clear how the saliva is applied, but what the language really says is that Jesus spits on the dude’s eyes. In folk healing of the time, saliva was thought to have certain powers from the healer, and here Jesus serves up a direct delivery from the pharmacy to the patient. Very nice.
But what I’m really interested in is the way that the trees show up in the story. Jesus spits on the man’s eyes and touches them, asks him if he can see anything, and the man looks up, adjusts to the light starting to pour into his body, stands there for however long, and then says, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” The man is not completely healed on the first touch. His vision is still in the process of coming into focus, still hard to differentiate between the trees planted in the ground and what look like those trees that are walking around.
It takes two touches from Jesus, first touch, second touch, before Mark notes that this person “saw everything clearly.”
Like the other gospel writers, Mark has artistic control over the material that he working with. He is like the creator of a patchwork quilt, having all these different patches of story in front of him – Jesus going to this village, Jesus telling this parable, Jesus healing this person, eating this meal, the disciples responding to this teaching –each with its own unique set of intricate details, and he is able to patch these together in a way that forms an overall story. Each patch takes on a certain quality and character depending on where it is placed in relation to other patches, shaping the overall pattern of the work. Each gospel writer has their own way of arranging these stories in a way that makes for a unique creation and a unique perspective on the good news being communicated through Jesus.
The center of Mark’s gospel is a crucial piece to his overall message. To use another metaphor, this center section, beginning perhaps with the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman in chapter seven, continuing through the feeding of the four thousand, a second feeding story, and including this story of the healing of the blind man, Jesus’ question of ‘who do you say that I am’ and the confrontation with Peter that results from that, up to Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain – this center section is a great hinge between the first half and the second half of Mark’s gospel. A pivotal point that sets Jesus on the course toward Jerusalem, much to the perplexity of the disciples.
And this story of this blind man, and more specifically, this picture of him after the first touch believing that he is seeing trees walking around, is the place where the disciples, and anyone who is part way into the story, find themselves.
For us this morning, this tree image represents half-sight; partial vision, fuzzy and blurred; real, but incomplete perception of that on which we are gazing. At this point in our journey we are like this person with light streaming into our infant eyes, looking up, trying to make sense of the world we see, being only somewhat successful.
One of the things we are learning about perception and sight is that we see according to what we have already seen. The way that we know is by comparing what is new with what is familiar. We have frameworks and structures that we create in our minds and we tend to filter what we see through those frameworks, through a particular set of glasses that we wear. We file our experiences in these compartments which help us make sense of the world. The blind man knows about trees, so people to him are trees, walking.
I think I’ve told the story before about the first time Dad and Mom brought us to the ballpark to see a Reds game. We were farm kids, used to listening to the Reds on the radio, with the game of baseball fully mediated into our imaginations through the voices of the announcers Marty and Joe. So when we got to the ball park the thing my older sister Rachel was most excited about seeing was the bullpen. For a farmgirl used to being in the barn with the cows, I can only imagine what kinds of daring and suspense-thrilled action she was looking forward to seeing when the Reds pitchers would be warming up in the bullpen.
We interpret according to what we already know. One of my questions in moving to Cincinnati was how the neighborhood Over-the-Rhine got its name. Apparently, and some of you probably know this story, the early German immigrants who settled there would often walk over the bridges over the Miami and Erie canal that separated their neighborhood from downtown. The water of the canal reminded them of the river of their homeland. The place where the canal was is now Central Parkway, but Over-the-Rhine has stuck as the name for the neighborhood.
When ninety-nine year old Abram gets word that he and his wife with whom he has no children will become a multitude of nations, he has no prior framework for grasping this. What kind of world is it where those who are old are giving gifts to the world that will last for generations to come? Abram’s response is to fall on his face. Sara’s response is a little more graceful. She laughs out loud.
In Mark 8, not so coincidentally right after Jesus has sort of and then completely healed the blind man, he asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Not surprisingly, the disciples report that the people are interpreting Jesus according to that which they already know. Jesus is John the Baptist come back to life, he’s the new Elijah, he’s one of the prophets, like the Isaiah or Jeremiah of their time.
What follows is often interpreted as Peter’s confession of faith. Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” and Peter answers, You are the Messiah, the Christ.” It’s a great answer, the right answer according to Christian faith, but Peter has no idea what he’s talking about. Messiah and Christ are another set of terms onto which people have already loaded all sorts of their own frameworks – maybe a superhuman figure, maybe a warrior type, or a solver of all our problems. When Peter sees Jesus, he sees a Messiah, the Messiah, but what does it mean? Jesus knows that Peter doesn’t know, can only see according to what he has already seen, and tells him to be quiet. Jesus is not all that interested in titles, especially ones that have so much baggage with them. Peter’s confession of faith tells of just as much unknowing as it does knowing.
Annie Dillard has a chapter on seeing in her book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” Here is a piece of what she says, “I used to be able to see flying insects in the air. I’d look ahead and see, not the row of hemlocks across the road, but the air in front of it. My eyes would focus along that column of air, picking out flying insects. But I lost interest, I guess, for I dropped the habit. Now I can see birds. Probably some people can look at the grass at their feet and discover all the crawling creatures. I would like to know grasses and sedges – and care. Then my least journey into the world would be a field trip, a series of happy recognitions…But I don’t see what the specialist sees, and so I cut myself off, not only from the total picture, but from the various forms of happiness.” (pp. 16,17)
Jesus’ invitation to the discipleship community – to Peter and to all who follow after him, is an invitation into a way of seeing. A new, Spirit infused form of imagination that sees the world, perhaps for the first time, with unblurred eyes, or at least, unblurring eyes. A series of happy recognitions in which we are beginning to see life through a renewed set of eyes. We who have been socialized into a particular form of blindness are welcomed into a new framework of knowing that Jesus calls, throughout his ministry, the kingdom of God.
When Jesus silences Peter, Peter has experienced the first touch of Jesus. Jesus’ second touch, a medicine for healing, this time with no spit involved, comes in the form of an invitation to walk alongside him. For Jesus, a new way of seeing can’t come about simply by thinking our way into it, or by saying the right words. It involves placing ourselves, our bodies, along the path of Jesus. Walking as he walks. Viewing the world from his perspective. It involves allowing our daily patterns to be reshaped by the gospel way. Jesus says, “If you want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and yet forfeit their life?”
This pattern of being is not introduced as easy. But it is introduced as life-giving. If you want to save your life, let it go. The Messiah is offering that we gain our soul. Our true humanity. That our lives be reoriented around the abundant life of God.
Abraham fell on his face, Sara laughed. The blind man looked out on the strange new world. Peter is silenced and then invited down a new path. For Lent may we look anew at the baffling reality in front of our eyes. Life grows out of barrenness. The cross is the way to wholeness.