callout - Seth

Seeing Clearly

The Rev. Dr. Seth E. Weeldreyer
Fourth Sunday in Lent
1 Samuel 16:1-13; John 9:1-41

We try to see what God sees and wants for our world. In Lent we try to focus the eyes of our hearts even more. In this story, Jesus heals a man who’s physically blind. And like all of the gospels, it’s really about Jesus, how people see him. Through John’s literary development and theological revelation, notice where Jesus is or not in the story, and when the man who is healed actually sees him. {Read John 9:1-41}

Chuck and Phyllis might help us know challenges the blind man faced, how he felt. They talked about it in our newsletter last summer. Chuck began to lose vision thirteen years ago, Phyllis more like seven. As long-time members, they get around the church pretty well. Chuck can distinguish light and dark, but doesn’t read at all. Phyllis can read some of our large-print worship bulletin. High contrast, like black ink on white paper, is much easier to see than black on blue or red. They often can’t visually identify a person speaking to them, or food on a table, or even doughnuts at coffee hour. They fill their coffee cups by listening carefully to the changing sound!

Through a Veteran’s Administration program Chuck has devices that read books, newspapers, and magazines to him. Phyllis listens to recorded books, and enjoys having things read to her, as she has no other tool or device. Phyllis and Chuck would both be helped if people would introduce themselves when greeting them. And gentle offers– such as “Tell me how I can help you” – are greatly appreciated.

As I try to understand practical complications of impaired vision, I also try to imagine effects on relationships—frustrations, separation from others and our shared experiences. As John tells the story, the disciples look at the man’s relationships to reason out why he’s blind. “Who sinned?” they ask. What’s the cause? Where’s God? We, too, can wonder why things happen. What did he or she do to deserve this? We try to explain, plan, order our lives and world to give us comfort and minimize threats, chaos, anxiety. When something bad happens, there must be a reason. And if God is all powerful then that reason the cause and consequence must rest with God.

Jesus doesn’t go there, at all. He doesn’t accept such assumptions, which blind the disciples to seeing holy love and purpose otherwise. Jesus turns their question, their hearts entirely to what we can do to help. This translation of the third verse conveys what I believe is the real point of the Greek. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but in order that the works of God might be revealed in him, we must work the works of God who sent me …” i

You see, John talks a lot about seeing as a metaphor for faith. Jesus clearly rejects connection between physical blindness and unfaithfulness. Still, if we get that real experience we might sense how it resembles our spiritual relation to God and others. For John, to see really means to know fully, to relate intimately in ways that define who we are and guide what we do. This miracle story isn’t really about physical sight. It’s about how everyone sees Jesus, and responds to God’s love in him. The ironic truth is that one who is blind ends up seeing Jesus clearly. And ones who think they’ve seen it all and have it all figured out are the most lost in the dark.

In that Spirit, Samuel gets surprised when anointing the next king. He’s not quite a stooge. But there’s irony and a wink of Hebrew humor and he’s play twenty questions. He tries to divine God’s plan amid a parade of sons. “Surely this must be the one!” Nope, try again. This one? Nope, try again. What he’s looking for, and even where he looks, proves all wrong. Wrong attributes. Wrong priorities. Wrong person … nope, nope, nope until the big shocking reveal … wait for it, he’s coming in from the hills, almost here, he appears! A ruddy boy—that is, rough and unrefined, clothes ragged and scented with eau de sheep, probably unpretentiously whistling a well-known ditty … maybe something like “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound.” The right one proves to be the lowest, the least, the last, the one who’s not even in the frame of reference, rather left out in the fields. We note his beautiful eyes. (Or is it an eye for beauty?) God looks upon his lovely heart. It proves hard for humans to see as God sees.

The real question posed by both texts today is: What makes us blind to God’s presence? What makes us unable to see Christ for who he is and who we can be? Unable to see in him the beauty, the inspiration of Divine Love and its power to transform us and our world? Unable to follow Jesus, and be swept up in his purposes or grace and peace? Why can’t we see clearly?

A few observations come to my mind and heart. Maybe it’s hard to focus on love and peace as the source of life, because there’s simply too much busyness. So many words and images inform us, market us, bombard us. Maybe we have too many activities running us around with no pause to attend to anything prayerfully, to look a little deeper, to feel gratitude, to long
for meaning and joy. And in our scripture texts today we find two particular problems.

John tells us people don’t recognize the blind man after he’s healed. He’s been among them his entire life. Surely they’ve helped him, interacted intimately. Why fail to know him? Because the way they identified him, what defined him in their eyes above all was his blindness. His deficiency. How do we see others that way? How is our sight limited? Critically seeing what’s wrong not right. Failure not goodness. Inadequacy not possibility. And closely related to how we see others, how do we look in the mirror? With eyes of envy or insecurity comparing, competing, wondering if we measure up? And so cataracts of judgment and fear, grief and anger cloud our vision. We can’t see the beloved beauty, the image of Sacred Grace right before us, within us.

Or maybe Richard Rohr is right. Nothing is more dangerous, he says, than presuming we already see and know it all. We lock on to an experience as the absolute consummation of divine love. Explained. Comfortable. Controlled. And it keeps us from noticing the next revelation waiting to be seen. ii  The next moving story to be told. The next beautiful song to be heard. The next inspiring person to meet. The next ethical question and insight to move us in action. That’s the Pharisees, who can’t believe the blind man or see who Jesus is, because it doesn’t fit their recognized frame of assumptions and lens of religious practice.

Like the woman at the well last week, the blind man’s vision of Jesus develops gradually, grows clearer as events unfold. He overhears conversation about himself and must only imagine “the light of the world” as he feels muddy hands. Then asked to explain his sight, he envisions a “man called Jesus”. When Pharisees press further, he perceives Jesus is a prophet, and under duress he defiantly deduces that he must be filled with God. Finally face to face he sees, he knows, he believes Jesus is “Lord”, giving his heart in worship. And all of this shows how he lives into the name of the pool where he’s told to wash. Siloam. Which means “sent.” iii

In the end, friends, we can’t explain or defend faith any more than the blind man. God’s love in Jesus is no calculus equation. The Holy Spirit does not move by scientific formula. We can’t rationalize or quantify and thereby control it. We can feel Holy Love touch us, fill us. We can be transformed by Grace. We give our hearts to Christ. In the end, beyond all explanation, we come to a simple affirmation, a song that sticks with us: I once was blind, but now I see. Our life together begins when we’re washed in the baptismal pool and sent. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect. David certainly wasn’t. It doesn’t mean we’ll always see, understand, and act perfectly in life. David certainly didn’t. At best, we see a bit better than before, but never completely.

We keep trying to glimpse holy love in relationship with others. No one sinned to cause our blindness. As we pursue God’s work in this world, we trust Holy Love will be revealed. As we are sent, we’ll see more clearly. And at the heart of these relationships, I believe is confident humility. Maybe that seems like an oxymoron—impossible opposites—when so often insecure arrogance masquerades as confidence, and doormat meekness passes for respectful openness.

Confident humility like Samuel—courageous enough to pursue a direct political threat, an act of treason to fulfill divine purposes. Yet humble enough to keep listening, keep discerning what is of God and what isn’t. Confident humility like the blind man who engages his inquisitors out of his experience and even gets a little twinkle in his eye: “what … do you want to hear it again so you can become disciples?” Yet he remains humble enough to remain open to further insight, and to gratefully follow Jesus as the way of Holy Love becomes more clear.

With confident humility in our relationships we face hard question, problems in our personal lives, and issues of our society. Quite the opposite of being opposites, maybe they’re necessary complements. Maybe the difference between confidence and arrogance is precisely humility. Maybe we truly live humbly when feeling confident. Confident in God’s vision for a better world more than our plans, and looking for ways to be sent in that Sacred Service amid ordinary life. Confident that though however incomplete our vision and knowledge, however imperfect our words and deeds, nothing can ever separate us from Divine Love revealed in Jesus Christ. With confident humility we speak of the meaning experiences and insights, we’ve gleaned. And we remain open, flexible, affirming of others we discern and encounter. Like Phyllis and Chuck, living with blindness, we listen carefully. We distinguish contrasts. We see people like we’ve never seen before. And more than thinking we have all the answers, maybe we’re at our best when we ask: “Tell me how I can help you.” Just maybe confident humility is our most hopeful sign for working through our worst personal conflicts and intractable cultural division from Facebook to face to face conversations to legislative decisions.

With confident humility we see more clearly. As Rohr says, once we get rid of illusions, and our defenses are out of the way and we are humble, then we’re able to see true visions of Sacred Grace showing themselves. iv We can receive revelations of extraordinary beauty and goodness around us all the time, even in the worst places and situations. And as John promises later in his gospel, then we will know Jesus Christ. We perceive his Way, Truth, and Life for us, the promise of peace he offers. And we share life abundant in his name, his presence, among all who join the body of the risen Christ. With confident humility we see more clearly and act more compassionately, more faithfully in community.

Both Chuck and Phyllis feel how church members are thoughtful about their special needs, including assistance with transportation as needed. And both are willing to be a resource for others who have questions or concerns. Chuck gathers here with men every Tuesday morning, serves sausages at their Breakfasts, and cleans and organizes the sanctuary pews every week. Phyllis gathers here for Celebrate the Vision every week, participates in many class conversations, and still offers her nursing perspectives whenever possible.

This week I spent time with Frank and Vicentia Abror. Frank came here to study at WMU in the early 1990s. Through our personal relationship with him, we connected with his home village Sokode Bagble in Ghana. Frank is blind. We talked about life experiences, work he does helping people who are blind live fully in real practical everyday tasks and realities. It’s healing work for others and for him, as he helps in part out of his experience. Somehow we came around to our text for today. I asked how he connects it with his life. Joy radiated in his smile, as he stressed that in no way did he see that any sin in his blindness. Rather he focuses on how much good has come of it all in God’s grace. You see, Frank came to WMU on a scholarship for visually impaired students. His blindness enabled connections here in Kalamazoo. In those relationships, he met many wonderful people. And our friendship in Christ brought so much goodness to his family, friends, and neighbors in his home village. Through his blindness, God’s blessings have abounded.

In a few moments we’ll ordain and install two more members to service as deacons. Samuel anointed David. The blind man was taken up into life of the One who said come and follow me. Through the eyes of our hearts, may we all grow to see more clearly Holy Love in our lives, and to seek it ever more fully. When we ask questions of Mike and Aedin about following the Lord Jesus, furthering peace, unity, and purity, and serving with energy, intelligence, imagination and love, may we all answer in our hearts with confident humility: I will, with God’s help!

Thanks be to God. Amen.

i Frances Taylor Gench, Encounters with Jesus (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 65.
ii See Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003) 31, 52.
iii See Karoline M. Lewis, “Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) 119, 121.
iv See Rohr, Everything Belongs 120-121.