The scene opens with the Wicked Witch of the West cackling to her flying monkey. She gazes over a crystal ball, and she says, “Now, my beauty, something with poison in it, I think. Poison in it! But attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell. Poppies! Poppies will put them to sleep.”
The camera then zooms into the crystal ball to reveal a field of luscious red poppies that extends all the way to the Emerald City. At the edge of the field, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion have seen the great city, and they are anxious to arrive at this home of all their hopes. But first they must move through the field of poppies, the Wicked Witch’s poison. As they wade through the field, Dorothy and the others begin to get drowsy. And before you know it, the poppies overcome brains, and heart, and courage, and loyalty all. Despite their best efforts, and despite the Emerald City glowing and pulsating just before them, the heroes fall fast asleep.
Some children love The Wizard of Oz. I did not. The film always terrified me. And my fear wasn’t of the witch, or the flying monkeys, or the talking trees with their claw-like branches. Well, yes it was. I was scared to death of all those things. But mostly I was afraid of the poppies. I was afraid of the poison that was attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell, that could lull me into an unyielding sleep.
Sleep from which we cannot awaken is dangerous. It leaves us vulnerable. Trapped in such a sleep, the world passes us by. We mistake confused and darkened dreams for reality. Such sleep is like a living death in which we misunderstand everything.
In the Letter to the Ephesians this morning, St. Paul speaks to the Christians in Ephesus as if they are Dorothy’s band of friends in the poppy field. Paul seeks to jar the Ephesians from their stupor. The light of Christ now illumines them, he explains. The darkness of the night is unreal. “For once you were in darkness,” Paul says, “but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light…Sleepers, wake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Paul speaks, of course, in metaphor. He isn’t expositing in front of a congregation of nappers (though every preacher spies a literal napper in the pews every now and again). Paul is talking about those who are spiritually asleep. What would that look like? John’s Gospel gives us an idea today, in a story that interweaves the closely related biblical themes of sleep and blindness.
Walking along his way on the Sabbath, Jesus meets a man who has been blind since birth. This detail is important in order to impress upon us that this man has not fallen spiritually asleep. Others ask whether his blindness is punishment for sin, but we are told his blindness is not the result of any poison attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell by which he has been seduced. The man was, simply put, born blind. His is merely a physical quirk of fate. Upon meeting the blind man, Jesus creates a poultice of mud, spreads it on the man’s eyes, and instructs the blind man to wash in the healing waters of the pool of Siloam. The man returns able to see. Light supplants darkness. His eyes have opened! And to the gathered crowd Jesus offers the somewhat cryptic words, “I am the light of the world.”
This is where the story becomes comical. Some Pharisees wander up and see a group of people ooh-ing and ah-ing around the once-blind man. “What’s going on?” they ask. The crowd explains that this man, born blind, can now see due to the gracious action of Jesus. What would we expect the Pharisees’ reaction to this miracle to be? Wonder? Amazement? Incredulity? Any of these emotions would be apt. But no. The only response the Pharisees give is this, “This man who heals cannot be of God, because he’s not observing the Sabbath.”
It is as if when arriving at the Grand Canyon, we complain of the view. Or when gazing for the first time on our newborn child, we are disappointed that he doesn’t have more hair. Or standing face-to-face with God, we ask him for pocket change. The Pharisees have before their eyes evidence of God’s abundant grace, given freely to one in lifelong need, and they focus on the rules of the Sabbath. They are the ones who are blind. They are the ones who are asleep to the reality confronting them.
The Pharisees attempt to debunk Jesus. They twice interrogate the once-blind man. He, whose eyes are open, who is awake, says only “What I know is that I was blind and now I see…You say you don’t know where Jesus comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.”
Having no luck with the healed man, the Pharisees then accost Jesus himself. Jesus talks to them also about blindness and sight, and they—these leaders in the community—scoff at him, asking, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” They leave the scene, still sleepwalking in a confused and darkened dream.
I pray we are not Pharisees. I don’t believe that we are. As portrayed in the Gospels, the Pharisees are willfully obstinate in their blindness. Their spiritual sleep is so deep that they goose step through the world unwilling, and therefore unable, to see the grace of God in Jesus, grace that also blooms with every flower, is spoken in every kind word, and is furthered by every act of love.
For us, I hope, spiritual sleep is not so deep and extreme. I think our sleep is more like what Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion experience in that field of poppies. Before Dorothy and her friends enter that field, they see the gleaming Emerald City. It is a thing of wonder and beauty to them. They recognize it as that thing that can make them whole and see them home.
Just so in our lives, at times we recognize the God of our hopes in our joys and kindnesses. We know, deep down, that the world is not inert. We see that it is pregnant with grace, and in that vision the breath catches in our throats. Our hearts leap in our chests. We know it. We’ve seen it. Even if the last glimpse was years ago, it’s why we’re here in this place, week after week.
In The Wizard of Oz, though, the poppies surround Dorothy and the others. Their poison, attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell, lulls the friends into a stupor. Their drowsy eyes no longer see the gleaming city, and they are lulled to sleep. Just so, we are surrounded by little poisons, attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell, and sometimes we succumb. What are the poppies in our field?
Well, first, there are persuasive voices, both religious and secular, who claim the world is not infused with love and grace, that at its core is judgment, or division, or nothing.
There is glittering money and material things that fool us into believing they are what will satisfy our longing, if only we had a little bit more of them.
There is entertainment—popular music especially—that coarsens our sense of beauty, and denies human dignity, and thus debases our souls.
There is ambition. There is social status. Each of these things is a poppy in the field into which we rush headlong. We quickly find ourselves spiritually dulled, as the poisons overcome our brain, heart, courage, and loyalty all. Before we fully realize it, we are asleep, blind to God’s very grace all around us.
In The Wizard of Oz, though, Dorothy and the others are awakened when Glenda the Good Witch—an angel, surely—sends light snow to fall upon them. It quickens the heroes. It rouses them from their slumber and opens their eyes. The snow itself is a small measure of grace, and it demonstrates how powerful grace is to overcome the direst obstacle. The snow is a small thing that awakens the friends to the big thing, the Emerald City that is so much greater in beauty than the poppies.
The snow is simple thing, like an arc of polished, carved wood, or the glimmer of an altar candle, or a hand extended at the Peace, or a morsel of bread and sip of wine. But it is all that is required to wake us up, when deep down the blind want to see.
For the remainder of this Lent, let’s purge our lives of the poisons and throw off the stupor. Then the shadows will be dispelled, and we will again see that the world is infused with grace, everywhere. And the light who illumines it is the Christ for whom it is made, in whom our hope resides. Let the breath catch in your throat. Let your heart rise in your chest. The morning light is shining. Sleepers, wake!