Listen to the sermon HERE.
Some of you may have heard of, or met Professor Fred Shriver, who retired from General Seminary a few years ago. Professor Shriver loved learning and teaching, and he hated pretension or misplaced ceremony. It was Fred Shriver who used to say that if he were leading a service on Ash Wednesday, he might impose ashes at the normal time, but at the end of the service, he’d be waiting at the back of the church with a washrag, mindful of the Gospel, “Do not practice your piety before others.” And while his field was technically church history, he often would sometimes teach other classes. When I took his course on Art and Spirituality of the Italian Renaissance, I just assumed that he had a background in art history. But he set that straight on the first day of class. He would teach almost like he was preaching: “Do you know how I know about art? Do you? Can you guess? Did I study in Italy, or France, or in graduate school here? No. I’ll tell you how I know about art. I know by LOOKING. And that’s how you will learn, too.”
Today, the scriptures are about LOOKING—about how we look at things, and about how God looks at things.
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. I remember a great friend of my former parish, a man who worked at the nearby florist, who had not been feeling well. He 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. With the right doctor (and a lot of prayer), the diagnosis changed, and was no longer one of cancer, but of an infection! And the infection got better. In that setting, healing came through the insight and vision of a particular doctor, but healing is often related to our seeing, our being awake, and noticing what God is doing in our midst. 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. In my first parish, 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.
At Holy Trinity, we’re blessed with a lot to look at in our church. But one of the most prominent images, right over the altar, is the healing of the blind man. I love that this image is central, reminding all who come in this place that Christianity is about our relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s about our allowing him to touch us, to heal us, and to help us see. That involves healing (sometimes physical, sometimes emotional, sometimes spiritual). It involves cleansing, and in involves God’s placing us in the fellowship of others who are also trying to see God and to see with God.
May God grant us vision to see his miracles within us and around us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.