March 30, 2014
“Stirring Up the Mud”
Rev. George N. Miller
A few months ago I shared with Council a book called Alligators in the Swamp about ministry, leadership and the use of power.
The author made the claim that each church has its own culture, with three different levels. He used the image of a swamp as a metaphor.
According to the author, a swamp is a beautiful place in which diversity thrives and everyone is interdependent on one another, but it’s also important to acknowledge that if one is not careful and aware of the surroundings, they can be hurt.
According to the author, there are three levels of church culture that correlates to a swamp. On the first level is the shoreline; all the “stuff” we can see, like this pulpit, the altar, the hymn books.
The second level is the water; or to be more exact, the things below the surface. This is made up of the things we say; the symbols behind our stuff.
An example is when we state “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Or the beginning of service when we light the candles to represent the light of Christ.
Then there is the third layer; the most important layer: the mud. The mud is what holds everything together. It can’t be seen from the shore or the surface of the water, but it’s always there.
The mud is the unspoken, deeply held beliefs that are passed down from generation to generation. The mud comes from real-life experiences, things that happened in the past, things that were taught.
The mud consists of how liturgy should be, how pastors should dress, what kind of music we sing, the kind of flowers we order for Easter, etc.
I knew one church in which red drinks, such as fruit punch, were banned because they might stain the carpet.
You don’t realize the mud is there until someone new comes along and stirs it up, like a pastor who wants to remove the flags from the sanctuary, or wants to use new hymnals or someone creates an after-school program in which juice-boxes are served.
Then the mud gets stirred, which in turn can also affect the surface and the shoreline.
But stirring up the mud isn’t always a bad thing, because that’s also how new things come about; it is how stagnant water becomes fresh again.
That’s such a fun word to say, isn’t it? Especially if you put a southern drawl to it.
Say it with me: mud.
I would venture to say not many people think about mud. Where it comes from; what it’s made of.
No one has conversations about mud; not if it’s dry outside. Not if the front yard is looking good. Not if your children are grown and left the house.
We don’t think about mud until something happens such as when it rains and the front yard gets all wet and the brown dirt turns into black mud that spills into your driveway and gets stuck to your shoe.
Or you get new white carpet and your grandbabies come to visit after playing outside all day, and they forget to take off their shoes.
Or, unfortunately, you turn on the news and hear about the Washington mudslide and the lives that have been lost and the community distraught.
Then the topic of mud becomes real, especially if you are trying to clean it out of your carpet, wiping it off of your shoes, or digging through it to find a loved one or a remnant of your home.
Until this week, I’d venture to say mud is not something anyone here thought about unless if you happen to work with the earth for a living.
But go back 2,000 years and people did think a lot about dirt and mud. Back then, the world was a community of people in which you were either in or out, seen as clean or unclean.
The people of the day, desiring to have a close relationship with God, and fearful of being viewed as an outsider or unclean, followed a strict set of biblical laws found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
These were laws and instructions about how one was to live and act. Many of these laws made sense: don’t kill, don’t cheat on your spouse, and don’t abuse those less fortunate then you.
During a time when indoor plumbing and refrigeration did not exist, there were laws that dealt with issues of cleanliness and health.
Dirt in the field where crops grow, that’s soil. Dirt on your clothes, or on your dinner ware, well, that’s just dirt.
There were special rules about washing ones hands before a meal, about how to wash plates, cups, cookware; special rules about bodily emissions.
In other words there was to be no fruit punch in the carpeted areas.
If a person did not follow these rules, they were seen as unclean and part of the out crowd.
Just like being back in high school, being seen as part of the out crowd brought with it issues of shame and humiliation, not only upon oneself, but upon ones family and associates.
No one wants to be associated with someone who’s unclean or unpopular.
And yet Jesus did, and the Kingdom of God that Jesus talked about was a kingdom in which everyone, including the unpopular would be welcomed and loved.
In other words, God’s Kingdom is a place where fruit punch is allowed and God’s children don’t have to take off their shoes after playing.
With this in mind, let’s enter into this Scripture. Jesus encounters a man who’s blind. To point the way to God’s Kingdom, Jesus heals the man. But the way in which he does it literally stirs up the mud and upsets the local religious leaders.
First, Jesus performs this healing on the Sabbath, a day in which work is forbidden. Yes, the man was blind, but his condition was not considered an immediate emergency. It was the kind of work that could’ve been done during regularly scheduled office hours.
Second, there is the whole business of Jesus using spit, a bodily secretion, to heal the man.
Third, in order to turn his spit and dirt into mud, Jesus was kneading, as one would knead dough or fashion clay into a pot. Kneading was work.
Jesus was literally stirring up the mud as he violated at least three elemental rules of religious society.
Now add to the fact that Jesus applied mud to the man’s eyes.
Yuck! In today’s society of anti-bacterial hand cream that’s got to gross us out a bit.
Plus who knew what was in that dirt Jesus used: bits of broken down rock, decomposed pieces of vegetation and food, worm and bug excrement, flecks of dead human skin, pieces of feces from local animals, microscopic bacteria and other living organisms.
That’s what makes up dirt and that’s what Jesus used to mix with his spit, kneed into mud and apply it to the man’s eyes.
That’s the reality of what Jesus did. There is nothing neat or respectable about it.
Bad enough the man was blind, but now Jesus uses unclean excretions from his body to mix with the unclean dirt to place onto his eyes. It’s adding shame on top of shame on top of shame…
…and yet that is what Jesus does for the glory of God and for the sake of his children.
Jesus gets down and dirty in a world that tried so hard to be prim and proper, sanitized and saintly.
And here is where the scandal of Christmas continues and carries us into the season of Lent, and brings us one step closer to the Cross.
That the infant boy known as Emmanuel grows into a man who is unafraid to get dirt under his nails, who is unafraid to sit and eat with the unpopular, and who isn’t worried about what others may say about him or his means of ministry.
Jesus doesn’t feel the need to metaphorically take off his shoes when he walks across the white carpets of the day. He doesn’t let some fear of fruit punch stains get in his way.
And in doing so he continues to stir up the mud between himself and the so called righteous, religious leaders of his day.
Jesus wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty for the sake of God’s people, while others try to keep things neat and to always follow the rules.
Jesus enters into history, and the rules change. The kingdom of God is not just for those whom know the proper fork to use for their salad, but the kingdom of God is open to everyone who hungers.
The kingdom of God is not just for those who abstain from fruit punch but is available for all who thirst.
The kingdom of God is not just for those who wipe their feet before they enter a house, but it is also for those who track mud across the carpet.
Today we learn another lesson about what it means to follow Christ: the ability to get down and dirty and to stir up the mud.
Being a Christian is not about looking down upon people so we can keep our clothes and carpets spotless and clean, but it’s being out amongst the people: their bodies, their minds and their souls.
Being a Christian means knowing it’s ok to stir up the mud and to not be so worried about what others may say. It means utilizing the resources we have to reach out to others and introduce them to God.
It means that sometimes we ourselves may be seen as unclean or as unpopular.
Last week, the Gospel of John showed us that Jesus was willing to talk to a woman who was considered the enemy.
This week John shows us Jesus being unafraid to get his hands smudged for the sake of another outsider.
What can we take from this scripture? Perhaps that we should not be afraid to get our own hands dirty, nor our church.
We’ve already become a bit dirtier, with the advent of Vacation Bible School, Trunk or Treat, Sunday brunches and now the Shepherd’s Pantry.
Can we get even a bit dirtier; a bit muddier?
Because at the end of the day, we shouldn’t be so worried that we’ll get dirty, be we should be worried that we won’t get dirty enough.
Dear Ones: God is in our midst, the Holy Spirit has gathered us to worship and experience the Holy in new and astounding ways.
Christ is walking amongst us.
Are we ready to continue following, to do justice, love kindness and to journey humbly, unafraid to stir up the mud, willing to get dirt under our nails, and fearlessly reaching out to those who are hungry for healing?
May God bless our day with new realizations, may the Holy Spirit continue to empower us to work for the Kingdom and may Jesus lessen our fear of spilling fruit punch on the floor or tracking in some mud.
Amen and amen.