St. Augustine's in-the-Woods Episcopal Church People of Faith Serving Beautiful Whidbey Island


Compassion ~ Commitment ~ Reverence ~ Reconciliation

The messages delivered each Sunday by our clergy at St. Augustine’s in-the-Woods are powerful expressions of our values and theology.  Below is the most recent.  To read a  particular favorite, read one you may have missed or get acquainted with our clergy, please visit the sermon archive, here.

Fourth Sunday in Lent – Year A – The Rev. Jennifer B. Cleveland 3.19.23

 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm23, John 9:1-41

Unexpected upsets and reversals. The underdog overturning expectations. Everything topsy-turvy and upside down. The extreme outsider becoming the unlikely star of the show. We are in March Madness, indeed! Not the NCAA basketball tournament with the Cinderella teams March Madness (crazy and exciting as that is for those who are watching), but the wild and unpredictable, make no mistake about it, Great Reversal of the Kingdom of God March Madness! We might not talk about the Sweet Sixteen or the Elite Eight, but we do have the Fabulous Five.  Five amazing gospel stories—four of which come from John—during the five Sundays of Lent. Since that first Sunday, when Jesus went into the desert, each week has revealed more about this constantly surprising God. Here is our March Madness recap. Lent I: enter the unknown desert wilderness, those dry, most difficult places, and know the presence of God, even where God seems most absent. Lent II: as a seeker, like Nicodemus, ask hard questions—the harder the better—and honestly wrestle with the Wind. Lent III: Go to the well. Remember the essential nature of water for all living things. Know your thirst. Meet the One who is at the well and is the well and drink deeply from that Well. Today, Lent IV, the man born blind is front and center.

With this man born blind, there are so many directions we could explore. We could talk about how Jesus dismantled the age-old belief that things like blindness are caused by sin, a result of God’s punishment, and challenged the notion that people get (or should get) what they deserve. Or, we could focus on the irony of how the man born blind is the only person who really sees Jesus for who he is. It is an Abbott and Costello, who’s on first-like back and forth that some day I will write up, but not today.  Or we could wonder about all of the sending in this story: Jesus, the Sent One, sends the man born blind to the pool of Siloam—which, we are helpfully told, means sent— and then the man is sent forth to proclaim Jesus. But it is March, a month of shifts in the weather from rain to sun, so let’s focus on mud and sight and light, and how a man born blind gets his unseeing eyes washed in a gritty mixture of Jesus’ spit and water, and begins to see all sorts of things clearly.

The gospel and the psalm share the same core moment. While the gospel is quite long, at 55 Hebrew words (translated into 6 verses in English), Psalm 23 is quite brief and to the point. And right at the exact center of those 55 Hebrew words, with an equal number of words preceding and following, is this statement: For you are with me. Precisely in the moment when the psalmist is describing the valley of the shadow of death, the hardest of times, the psalmist says, You are with me. This is the beating heart of the psalm, the eye-opening, moment when the psalmist moves beyond deep yearning for God’s presence in the third person (the Lord is my shepherd), to speaking directly to the One who abides, to seeing that God with him, close and compassionate, right there. Right here. (See Chad Bird, Three Hidden Hebrew Treasures in Psalm 23, 1517, July 27, 2019).

That little nugget is at the heart of the gospel, as well: You are with me. All the back and forth in the gospel—the many questions and comments between Jesus and the man, the disciples, the pharisees, the man born blind’s parents—all that back and forth has to do with people questioning whether or not the Shepherd, the God of creation was walking along, saw the man, crouched down and mixed a little mud to rub on his eyes. Because if it is true that God is with the man born blind—if we say that God is with him (and I am presuming to speak as one of the other characters in the story now), then who else is God with? If God is with me, God must be with you. And if God is within you, God must be within me. The shepherd in Psalm 23 holds the sheep so close to his chest that not only can they feel one another’s hearts beating, but they can feel the other breathe. The man feels the warmth of Jesus’s fingers and gritty mud, mixed with God’s own spit and a little dirt, on his eyes. That is Who is close, here, with us.

Many of you are familiar with Lectio Divina—the ancient practice of reading the Bible with an open heart, to listen for God’s voice speaking through the sacred text. The desert mothers and fathers approached sacred reading this way, as did St. Benedict in the 6th century. To read with an expectant heart and expectant ears. The man born blind introduces us to the ancient practice of Visio Divina, a way of seeing ourselves, and others, and the world with the eyes of God. Visio Divina. See God. So to practice Visio Divina is to pay attention to where the God of Love and Compassion is present: in nature, in people, in the painful shadowed valley of Psalm 23 that so many are in. To practice Visio Divina is to pay attention—to see—where the God of Love and Compassion is present within us. To put it in the words of the psalmist, Vision Divina is about looking for the ways we might say to the Shepherd, You are with me. I’ve thought about our weekly challenge, taking this gospel and the Psalm 23 to heart and it seems a good week to practice Visio Divina. To look for the ways Jesus is visible, walking within and around. And to wonder how God might see particular situations you find yourself in.

How might my sightlines need to be stretched, lengthened and expanded?

There is an old Hasidic tale about a rabbi and his students. The rabbi asked, “How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?” One of the students suggested, “When from a distance you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep?” “No,” was the answer of the rabbi. “Is it when one can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?” asked the second student. “No,” the rabbi said. “Please tell us the answer,” pleaded the third student. “It is,” replied the wise teacher, “When you look into the face of a stranger and have enough light within you to recognize them as a brother or sister. Up until then, it is night and [blindness] is still with you.” (from Jubilee Justice, p. 54)


A friend of mine puts this less gently. He says that in this story of the man born blind, Jesus says, “I’ll fix your damn blindness, here’s mud in your eye, now get off your bottom and go to the light.” (KDP email)