Seeing Is Believing

Lent 4

Previously I have talked to you about epiphanies and about transfiguration. This morning I want to talk about seeing and believing.

I think there is an extent to which, when we look at something very intensely and very deeply, our seeing becomes believing. We become convinced, or convicted, by the reality we encounter. We have what I would call a “seeing heart.”

Like many of you, I was blessed by growing up in a small town. We walked to school. In so doing we not only exercised our bodies, we also exercised our powers of observation and imagination. Mr. Jones’ lawn wasn’t cut. Was he away or possibly ill? The paperboy threw the paper up on Mr. Smith’s porch roof. It’s been there for a week. He’s such a fussbudget; why hasn’t he taken it down? Where is the Johnson’s nasty dog? Has he been put down? Mrs. Wilson’s hair is not as shinny as it has been. Is she ill or pregnant again?

As a child many of us learned to be observant, to mark the seasons and the rhythms of life. Through looking at people over and over you learned their motivations and how they coped. You looked at nature both human and otherwise. From the industrious ant you learned that if you don’t work, you don’t eat. From the raucous crow you learned that some creatures are all bluster and scavengers.

Often you could learn as much from the interplay of shadows, as in the light of the moon, as you could from the stark nakedness of the sun’s glare. My friends, Hugh, Tony, Colin, John and I were not voyeurs. We were simply observant. We learned about seeing and believing. Colin was a gifted artist. John wrote symphonies. Hugh read classics and Tony became a history professor. We looked and looked and looked until we came to an encounter with reality behind the appearance. Then we believed. We had an affinity for what we saw. We learned that in order to see more one had to believe in order to see - be it as an artist, a musician, a classicist or a scholar. We developed “seeing hearts.”

Was this not true of your experience of growing up? Did you not learn about the folkways of your neighborhood? You took off your hat in church, didn’t wiggle and sat up straight. You never took the first cookie on the plate, but rather offered it to someone else. You noticed that the Bishop and his wife were always introduced as The Rt. Rev. John Brown and his Lovely Wife Maude. (Was that her title? Were bishops’ wives ever ugly?) You also learned the mores of your community. Voting was the first Tuesday in November. Ragweed was mowed in vacant lots or else you were fined. You rode your bike with the traffic.

Did you not learn to discern appearance from reality? Mother thought her friend Audrey was sweet and lovely until one day I said, “Mother that is not true. She is nice to you but she shrills at Peter and Mary from dawn to dusk! I know because I play with those kids.” Of course you noted that long suffering Mr. Beister always parked just a little too far away from the church to make it easy for his wife to reach the front door. You realized that he was “evening the score.” My brother once noted the discrepancy that when the phone rang in the midst of the battle of the Brittans, Mrs. Brittan always answered the phone in the sweetest, kindest tone.

There were of course, the stock town characters. John and Tom were the disabled ones. Bill and Bob fought constantly. Sally and Lucille were congenitally “happy in the Lord.” If you looked closely you could see that John and Tom coped very well, Bill and Bob actually had an easy peace between them. Sally and Lucille were in denial of the pain which loss and disappointment had brought them. Everyone had their place and role in town. God help the one who challenged it, probed the light and shadows or unpacked the conundrum of appearance and reality.

Maybe it was this experience of growing up in a small town, of knowing it was not really Andy Griffith’s “Mayberry” or Thorton Wilder’s “Grovers’ Corners,” that heightened my appreciation of the Gospel of John. I had learned to see through to the grounds of belief, of seeing with the heart. Many of you, I suspect, have from your own experiences learned to look through things to the reality at the core and to see others with the eyes of the heart. Consciously or unconsciously we understand a little about the paradoxes of appearance and reality, light and darkness, the seen and unseen. We know that language is as much connotative as denotative, that tone and inference carry the weight of what is meant in a conversation. Somehow we feel comfortable with John’s Gospel and its broad themes and “signs.” For us the bare boned Gospel of Mark is not sufficient in depicting the world as we know it. Matthew is too clothed in the thought of the Old Testament and Judaism. Luke is overly eager in appealing to the gentiles of the Hellenistic world.

When we are told that there was a man born blind, our antennae perk up. Here it comes, we think, an intentionally chosen individual with a problem that is going to tell us something about ourselves and about Jesus. Of course, we think, the story is going to have overtones of the expectations of the Jewish people. Of course it is going to tell us about the conflicts within their society. How could it not be emblematic, use imagery and be a sign of things to come?

Consider the blind man. His place in society is to beg, be dependent and despised. He has been blind since birth. Was it the sin of his parents or his own sin? Would we not today wonder if it were because of alcoholic parents, AIDS or drug use that a child had problems? Perhaps an individual’s disability is because of his/her own willfulness and failure to be obedient. Did he get into mommy’s pills or daddy’s cigarettes? Perhaps the blindness is genetic (nature) or poor nutrition and abuse (nurture). Do we not, as did the Disciples stigmatize and seek to assign fault and blame? Jesus turns the tables on the Disciples and says that the blind man’s infirmity is not a liability but the opportunity to see the work of God. Jesus spat on the ground, made a poultice of mud, put it on the man’s eyes and told him to wash in the pool of Siloam. Behold, the man could see! This was not simply healing but a cure! Have you not heard of this in your own experience? Were there not times when someone recovered whose infirmity was thought to be hopeless? My brother had a brush with polio and escaped seemingly unscathed. Of course then the skeptics raised their voices. It was not really polio; it just imitated the symptoms. Blah, blah, blah. My brother recovered. That we knew and that was all we cared about.

It probably was the same way in Jesus’ time. Jesus healed the blind man. In His day there were healers and Jesus was one of them. Why not accept the act? But no. The Disciples, Pharisees and the blind man know that something special is going on here. They can see that this is not an ordinary healer. Is Jesus a prophet, the messiah? The messiah was to heal the lame, make the blind see and raise the dead. Could Jesus be that prophet/messiah? The Pharisees call in the man’s parents. Have they been running a ruse? The parents respond, “He is of age. Ask him.” The son replies that he doesn’t know what happened, but he was blind and now can see. Instead of shouting “allelujah,” the Pharisees probe deeper. They do not know where Jesus comes from or what He is about. The blind man replies, “You worry about where he comes from in spite of the power that he shows. You cannot see that God is active in him?” Cornered, the Pharisees ask how he, a blind man, obviously a sinner since he had an infirmity, should now rebuke them. How dare he try to teach the teachers! They drive the blind man away. He has violated the mores and customs of his community. The man looks for Jesus and finds Him, acknowledging that Jesus is the Son of Man, or in other words from God. The man who could not see before now says, “Lord, I believe. And he worshipped Him.”

When Jesus confronts the blind man, He is in effect confronting both His own disciples and the religious community. He is forcing them to look beyond the surface, past the cultural and religious mores. By His presence He challenges them to look at the facts. Like Billy Budd, or an honest man in an organization, Jesus personifies the essence of goodness and truth. He thereby convinces, or convicts, those before Him. Those who can see deeply are able to go beyond images and appearances to the reality which elicits trust and belief. When that happens, they (and you and I) can say, “This I know to be true.”

I bid you this Lent to recognize Lent for what it is. It is a time for seeing. At the forum this morning we are talking about the “Lively issues of Death” and about advanced medical directives (part of living wills). In so doing we are looking at life as it really is - what it means and can continue to be. Through responsible stewardship you and I can direct and redirect the impact of our lives both now and later on. This is but one example of using Lent as a time for seeing. I bid you to spend some time these next few weeks looking beyond the blinders of habits and conventionality. Look to the essence of God, the presence of God, the power of God, the grace of God, the faithfulness of God, the strength of God, the love of God. Look through life as you know it. Look to Jesus the Christ.