Seeing more deeply

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A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 30, 2014.  The lectionary readings are 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14 , and John 9:1-41.

There’s a proverb from the Bible that appears on the wall of many a church retreat. Whether it’s a vestry, the diocesan council, or some national meeting of the Women of the Church, the phrase is often written on a banner, put on a white board, or printed on a the official meeting’s t-shirt: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18)

“Where there is no vision….” the group loses its focus, the goals get fuzzy, and in place of THE vision, there spring up countless visions with energy, creativity, and passion all getting dispersed, and then frustrated.

At All Souls, we have a vision statement that was developed years ago, “… to be a Christ-centered sanctuary where a diverse community worships and serves. We live this mission through faithful celebration of the Eucharist, Christian education, and loving nurture of both members and neighbors.”

We revisit that somewhat wordy vision from time to time and set goals within it. We’ve also come up with a more succinct vision statement that keeps us in focus and works as a good “elevator phrase”—At All Souls, we tend to be about “traditional worship, and progressive thinking.” The progressive doesn’t describe us all politically, necessarily, but it describes our way of looking at the world, our theological and philosophical outlook. We try to be open to life, and we try to be open especially to God.

Today, the scriptures today invite us to pause, to shift our gaze, and perhaps deepen our vision.

The reading from 1 Samuel marks a major shift for the people of Israel. The people have wanted a king, like other nations. But the priests have reminded them again and again that power corrupts, and kings go bad. God alone is ruler and king. But the people have prevailed, God has heard their prayers, so the big shift began with Samuel anointing Saul as king. But over time, just like the prophets and priests warned, Saul went bad and as scripture says, even God was sorry. And so something new is stirring, and it will take good eyes to notice what God is doing next.

But in today’s reading, Samuel goes to the village of Jesse. The sons are paraded out one by one, the strongest, the smartest, the bravest. But we, who have inherited this great story, know that Samuel is going to ask for someone else. Someone, who is—scripture tries to paint as the obvious choice all along—good looking with beautiful eyes—but even that can’t cover up what is for everyone a strange and unpredictable choice by God. The key to the passage and the key to the calling of David comes to Samuel from God, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

In the Gospel, we have the obvious centerpiece of the story being that of a man who is healed of his blindness. But if we listen to the whole drama, God is really inviting everyone in the story to see differently, to deepen their vision. The village (the neighbors are all confused if this is the guy who used to beg on the corner, or is it someone else?). The Pharisees (who are worried about how and when he received his sight, thus missing the miracle). The parents of the man (Who seem like they’d rather not have been pulled into all of this. ‘Ask him, he is of age,’ they say.)

When the man is brought back in front of the Pharisees, the religious authorities, he’s asked about the man who healed him, since they refer to Jesus as a sinner. The man who has been healed begins to see more than with his eyes: he sees the whole picture and is even able to be playful with the Pharisees. “Why do you ask about him? Do you want to follow him, too?” The man who has been healed has that wonderful detached perspective of understanding the whole picture, and thus, not being threatened by the Pharisees. With perspective, there is humor, and that’s how the man can respond with such calm and confidence. But the man is thrown out of the synagogue.

When the man finds Jesus, Jesus asks him somewhat cryptically, “Do you believe in the Son of Man,” using the old term for prophet, seer, man of God, and messiah. In all humility, the man asks, “After what I’ve seen, given what I’m seeing, tell me who he is and I’ll believe.”  Jesus says, “You have seen him and are seeing him.” And the man believes.

The scriptures today work together for joy as they invite us to improve our vision. We’re invited to be healed, to be cleaned, and to lean on someone else for a better view.

In church and in private we pray for healing. We know that healing doesn’t usually happen like we might see at a revival or on television or in the movies. But healing does happen. A great friend of this parish went into the hospital a few weeks ago and was told he had cancer, the cancer had spread to the brain, and things were not looking good. We prayed. Friends of his prayed, and friends with no faith sent their intentions of love and strength and healing and God has used all of this. The diagnosis is now no longer one of cancer, but of an infection that is getting better. If we’re not seeing God, or seeing the path of God before us, we can pray that God would give us new sight. We can pray for ourselves and others that God would remove scales from eyes, clear up tunnel vision or too narrow a focus (which is so often unable to see anything beyond ourselves.) God deepens our vision through healing.

Some of us, for better spiritual vision, simply need our eyes cleaned. Baptism does that, the lingering effects of baptism, remembered and reclaimed work for cleaning. The Letter to the Ephesians contains language many scholars believe was used in some of the earliest Christian baptismal rites: “once you were darkness; now in the Lord you are light. Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

God improves our vision by healing, by cleansing, but also by giving us others who might have better vision or see differently. I used to have a parishioner who loved to visit people with me and she would always insist on driving her big Buick. As we would roll down the road, she would occasionally say, “John, what does that sign say up ahead. Is that our turn?” At first I was worried to have an older woman behind the wheel who couldn’t see, but then I realized she was asking me for assurance, for confirmation. She could see the sign well enough, but wanted my insight, too. (Increasingly, when I forget to wear glasses for driving, I’m that person asking another—what does that sign say? Why do they write them smaller and smaller?)

In the spiritual life, we’re giving companions for the way, people who see over things and under things, who see around them, and even seem to see through them. To benefit from others, it only takes our acknowledging that we don’t see it all ourselves. We are sometimes blind, but with God and God’s friends, we can see more clearly.

When I think about that proverb I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, it really is not the sort of thing to have on the wall for a retreat or a time of discernment. For us to imagine a place “without vision” is to imagine a place without faith, without God, without one another. We are never without vision. And so, with God’s healing, with Christ’s cleansing, and with one another’s help, may we live joyfully as children of light, seeing more clearly each new day of faith.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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