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St.Paul’s – Lent 4 – 3/19/23

Homes built particularly in rural areas and on farms in the early part of the 20th century often had within them, usually coming in from the back or side door of the house, a special room called a mud room. Perhaps some of you had one in your homes or wished you had one.

A mud room had pretty much one single purpose: it was a place for messiness. Farmers coming in out of the fields, work-folk coming in from a hard day’s labor in mines, rivers, farms, or creeks, would shed their muddy boots, overalls, coats, or other equipment and hang them up in the mud room before entering into the living part of the home. Once they walked through the kitchen door, they stepped into clean territory. The mud room served as an intermediary space between the outdoors and the home. It was a kind of liminal space where mud and mess were allowed and expected.

In a sense, when you looked at someone’s mud room, you saw signs of their relationship with the land, of their industry, of their commitment to their families, and of their origin story, for we are people of the earth –born of Adam (adama – earth or dirt). As a culture, we took pride in getting down and dirty and in creating something nourishing and sustaining from the land. We learned about the world through experience, we trusted in the providence of God to get us through hard times, and we knew that much of our success lay outside of our control. Whether the weather, elements, seasons, seeds, calamity, or hardship –we moved in a rhythm that unified us with our environment. We held ourselves in an interdependent relationship with our natural world. Our lives were messier, but our hearts felt surer.

Today, we are a people preoccupied with cleanliness, speed, success, and order. We are also a society suffering from more anxiety and stress than any generation before us. We set higher and higher bars. We put our faith in efficiency and control. And we demand to steer our own ships. While an overwhelming percent of women and worked on farms in the early part of the 20th century,

Today, most people work either in immaculately ordered, technologically savvy offices, or from their own wired homes. As a result, we have lost touch with the land that feeds and nourishes us, and with our own origin story, our roots if you will. We’ve lost our acceptance of mud and mess as a vital and expected part of our lives. We devalue mess. We disdain mess. We no longer create space and place to be messy.

For many of us, this may seem like a good thing. But perhaps it isn’t. A number of years ago, Tim Harford wrote a book called Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. In this book, Harford notes the need for order and control that permeates our culture today, the need to control our future, our success, our relationships, and our plans, and he calls instead for us to embrace messiness. He tells stories of inspiring people doing extraordinary things and notes that our most impressive human qualities, such as creativity and resilience, are produced by disorder and disarray in our lives, not by order and control.

Think about it. Unexpected changes of plans, unfamiliar people, unforeseen events –these generate new ideas and relationships. Disorder is integral to our spiritual and emotional health. In opposition to that, our inclination for tidiness in our lives can mask a deep and debilitating fragility that keeps us from innovating and growing. Muddiness and messiness birth new things, grow ideas, generate thoughts, create new beginnings. Everything renewed or created, whether a brainstorming idea, molding a piece of pottery, or forging a new relationship, begins with an amorphous, ambiguous mess.

Messy entrances give way to new and interesting beginnings.

Messy re-entrances give way to renewed and revitalized beginnings.

In our scripture for today, Jesus offers us a vital lesson about mud and about how we truly see: how we perceive God, ourselves, and our world, and how we accept messiness and muddiness — truths that lie beyond our limited realm of intellectual or sensory understanding.

If you listened closely to the scripture reading, you would have noticed that everything Jesus says seems to be upside down and inside out! What we imagine to be true, clear, and obvious deceives us. What seems muddy, hard to understand, miraculous, and that in which we need to suspend our systems of knowledge in order to embrace faith and belief, represent cleanliness and purity.

For Jesus, clear as mud makes a whole lot of sense! In order to see and know Jesus, we need to make things muddy.

We need to muddy our certainties, muddy our expectations, muddy what we believe to be true, muddy our need for boundaries, divisions, and judgments, and muddy our need for control of what we demand as our truth. We need to blur the boundaries that divide us from our perceptions of ourselves, Jesus, and others around us.

Our sense of order, divisions, judgments, and imposition of boundaries and rules is literally keeping us entrapped in sin and preventing us from seeing the truth of who Jesus is in our lives, who we are in relationship to God and others, and who others truly are apart from our imposed categorizations and biases. Left to our own devices, we will mess things up (and not in a good way). Allowing ourselves instead to marinate in the muck of life, to live in the grey areas, to tolerate ambiguity, to be ok with some confusion, mystery, difference of opinions, and supernatural truth, allows us to gain new clarity and a clearer understanding of what it means to be alive, to be vital, to feel creative, renewed, and to be relational.

In order to see our world more clearly, we need to muddy and blur our vision. Certainty of vision creates division. The more we think our own eyes can predict our truth, the more divisions we will create. Only when we blur our boundaries can we truly see the truth of our humanness and our unified, common origins.

The bulk of this gospel story today sees the Pharisees literally asking the same questions over and over again, demanding an answer that makes sense within their system of control and belief. They simply can’t see beyond their own two feet. The result?  Shunning!  Anyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah will be banned from the synagogue. Only people who agree to abide by the specific beliefs set forth by the Pharisees will be sanctioned, declared clean, and allowed into that community! This is the ultimate in exclusivity!

Shunning is about control and order. Believe as we do or get kicked out! It’s alienation. And this kind of intolerance, lack of acceptance and division creates collateral damage. It creates a fragile culture.

Think for a moment about a piece of pottery. Pottery is made by combining mud (clay) and water and forming it into a jar or bowl. As long as the pottery is messy and moist, it can be formed and changed. When it hardens, it becomes fragile. It cracks and breaks.But here’s the beauty of that clay pottery. It can always be renewed. As long as it isn’t oven/kiln-fired, even hard, crumbling, cracked, or broken, the potter can add water to the clay, heal it, re-form it, re-mold it, and renew it into a fresh piece of art.

This is essentially what Jesus (the Divine Potter) is doing when he heals the blind man in our story for today. Born blind, the man has been unable to physically see. He has been sidelined from his community and blamed for his handicap. Jesus turns this upside down and declares that in fact, this man has been born blind, so that he can better see, and so that he can declare the glory of God. He then takes dirt and spit (clay and water), makes a poultice, and creates eyes –the same way that God created the first human adam out of dirt and water. Jesus, the Messiah, is Creator in this story, just as God is Creator. He restores eyes to the man, and with them, the blind man gains spiritual vision as well as physical eyes to see. He begins to believe in and know/recognize Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

He sees for the first time the truth of God’s grace and love, the truth about what is pure and what is sinful, and the truth about God’s desire for restoration of all God’s people. He is restored to his relationships, restored to his community, restored most of all, to God. Seeing for Jesus is not about making things clearer in our own point of view, but about making things muddy enough, so that we can see the truth of God’s mystery, revelation, glory, miraculous healing power, and majesty!

While hardened hearts promote fragility, intolerance, division, and blindness to God and others, muddiness and messiness allow us to see beyond ourselves, to let go of our controls, and thereby to heal, to again become one with our world and to experience what it feels like to feel in sync with creation, to get in touch with the wild and free creative and relational spirit within us.

Throughout the world today,  mud is used as a healing balm. We know that mud has therapeutic and medicinal properties. It’s a natural healer. Mud draws out toxins and increases blood flow. It infuses us with valuable minerals and heals the skin. It can even help with arthritis.

But our world has need of more than physical mud baths. We need a little more mud in our lives and in our world to blur our divisions and heal our hearts. And our churches need to lead the way. Our churches, St. Paul’s need to become Mud rooms or in our part of the world, Adobe rooms in which people can once again come together without judgments, without divisions, and without unrealistic expectations in order to see Jesus together.

For many people, both in Jesus’ time and today, Jesus’ messages are about as clear as mud. For Jesus doesn’t give us clear, unadulterated facts that we can control and regulate. He gives us miracles and truths that may seem muddy and messy but give us the space, room, and permission to look beyond ourselves and our own limitations and to embrace a more creative vision of ourselves, God, our world, and others around us. The more we allow ourselves to marinate in the muddiness and messiness of faith, relationships, questions, and uncertainty, the more authentically beautiful, creative, whole, and vital our lives will become.

Today, I invite you as you leave this place to let go of certainty, judgments, and control and to embrace faith, humanness, and the unexpected in your life. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the amazing things –and people—that you see that you never noticed before.

During this Lenten season, may we, too, confess our blindness and receive sight.  May we also praise the one who kneels in the dirt and gets his hands dirty in order to heal us.   May we also soften and prepare the ground we stand on, so that when new life appears in whatever surprising guise God chooses, we will embrace, cherish, celebrate, and share the good news, too.