Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Problem of Seeing Clearly

John 9:24-41
Lent 4
March 26, 2017
William G. Carter

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

How curious that we should hear two Bible stories about people who look and look, and do not see a thing.

In the first story, Samuel perceives the next king of Israel will be found in the house of Jesse. So he goes to the house, only to discover it’s a multiple choice exam. Which one is most suitable to be the king? The oldest? The tallest? The strongest? The smartest?

The answer, as you know, is none of the above. God wants the shepherd boy out in the fields, for God does not regard what the human eye sees.

Then we have the conclusion of a long healing story in John, chapter 9. There's a beggar on the corner every day. People see him but don't look at him. Instead they want to do a spiritual diagnosis: who sinned - this man or his parents - that he should end up blind? Somebody must be at fault, they figure, because look at how this man has been disabled.

You see, they would rather talk about him as if he couldn’t also hear, even though there is no evidence that they even know his name.

So Jesus comes, and Jesus heals him, and then Jesus disappears out of sight. This doesn’t make life any easier on the man who can now see. He has to negotiate his new situation. His parents won’t support him. The religious leaders interrogate him, figuring he and his healer must be sinners since the healing happened on a Sabbath, the wrong day of the week. The great irony is that the man didn’t even ask to be healed!

The man ends up getting excommunicated from the synagogue because Jesus came and opened his eyes. And Jesus comes back to him at the end. That’s how it goes, you know – Jesus opens the eyes, then there’s a lot of trouble, and finally he comes back at the end. And Jesus finds him and says, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man says, “And who is that?” Jesus says, “You’re looking at him.” So there’s a happy ending.

Well, almost. Because the Lord goes on to say what he has said before in the Gospel of John: “Because of me, there is a crisis in the world.” This time, he says the crisis goes like this: those who were blind shall see, and those who see shall become blind.

His pronouncement resembles a lot of other reversals of fortune: the first shall be last and the last shall be first, the proud shall be humbled and the humbled shall be lifted up. And here: the blind shall see and those who see won’t see at all. And to this, the religious people say, “You’re not talking about us, are you?”

Leave it to the religious people to assume that they are the arbiters of clarity. Leave it to the pious and the pure to adjudicate the sins of an unfortunate beggar, much less his parents. Leave it to the holy rollers to presume Jesus is a sinner because he never stops healing, or that the man, once healed, wasn't really without sight in the first place. Leave it to the religious people who believe they see it all: Jesus says they are still bumping into the pews and stumbling on the altar steps.

So what do you think about that?

One of my teachers said you can read the story historically and go back and kick all those Pharisees, even though the Pharisees haven’t been around since the second century or so. The truth of the matter is, the Gospel of John was probably written sixty years after the events it describes, and in that time, even the good-hearted Christians could become sanctimonious and close-minded.

As he says, “To become self-assured, to close the mind to any further word from God, to be the possessors of the final truth with no need to listen to the prophets, to build institutions without the means and occasions of self-criticism would be to write into the script ‘disciples’ instead of ‘Pharisees’ and ‘church’ instead of ‘synagogue.’”[1]

We think we see so clearly, but we have no clue of our blind spots.

Barbara Brown Taylor’s last book is about not seeing so clearly. She said that’s what it means to be spiritual these days. Nobody can presume that they see it all or know it all. And maybe that’s not so bad, she said. She writes about a restaurant in Zurich opened by four blind entrepreneurs. If you want to eat there, you need to make reservations months in advance. The owners were inspired by a blind Swiss pastor who routinely blindfolded dinner guests when they came to his house. He said they paid more attention to the food that way, and they also listened to each other better.

So in Zurich, waiters wear little bells on their shoes. Patrons have to pour their own wine by slipping one finger inside their wine glasses and tipping the bottle until they can feel the fluid on their fingertip. The server coaches them on where to find their food: grilled salmon at twelve o’clock, sir, roasted potatoes at nine, and snap peas at three.[2]

Imagine what that would be like, to presume that you don’t know it all, that you don’t see it all. It would be humbling, which would be appropriate for Lent. It would force you to trust in wisdom greater than your own, which would be appropriate every day of the year. To take a cue from Jesus, the problem with seeing clearly is that we don’t.

I remember a college Bible study group. We had a couple of experts in our group. I don’t intend that as a compliment. These two classmates, a man and a woman, were constantly impressing us with how much they knew. Their faith was vibrant, they were excited, and they were also obnoxious. One or the other kept pointing out what they had underlined in their Bibles. And if we knew as much as they did, we would underline it too.

There I’m sitting on the dormitory floor, my red third-grade Bible open on my lap, listening to all that yammering, all that grandstanding, all that pretentious I’m-holier-than-the-rest-of-you-slobs kind of talk. I’ve never been one for writing something in my Bible, but I did that day. I wrote, “If you think you have learned it all, you probably have.” I didn’t mean it as a compliment.

Those who see shall not see.

No doubt it is a common characteristic. When the Titanic grazed an iceberg, the captain said, “It’s just a scratch.” The man falls down the stairs, breaks two legs and an arm, and says, “I am OK.” The Mafia wife says, “Honey, how come the FBI doesn’t sit outside other peoples’ houses?” And my goodness, who knew a national health care bill could be so complicated?

Let’s say it. If we think you see everything, we are blind – and I don’t mean visual impairment. In fact, we have a Presbyterian elder out in the countryside of our presbytery. He lost his vision as a young man, but went to college and trained to be a counselor. He’s really good. Sometimes we have sent him into a terribly conflicted situation. He taps his white cane, people smirk a little bit, and he disarms them. And when he listens, he is so good that he can even hear what they are not saying. Vision can be overrated.

The Gospel of John is hinting that you can look directly at Jesus and not know who he is. His incarnation is so complete that he totally blends in. And even if you see the signs that he does and hear the liberating Word he speaks, you still might not perceive his identity. I mean, he had splinters in his hands and dirt on his feet. You think this is the Son of God?

By contrast, the man born blind doesn’t know much at all. Listen to what he says. “I don’t know if Jesus is a sinner.” “I don’t know who is the Son of Man.” There’s only one thing he knows: “I once was blind, but now I see.” There is no self-deception in him. And that’s really the important thing. Self-deception is a corruption of our consciousness, a corruption that covers its own tracks. As somebody observed, “First we deceive ourselves, and then we convince ourselves that we are not deceiving ourselves.”[3]

A few years ago, the world lost Brennan Manning. He was one of my favorite Christian writers, if only because his life was a mess. Brennan quit the Catholic priesthood to marry a woman, and she later divorced him. He was a recovering alcoholic who kept falling off the wagon, yet he never gave up on Jesus because he knew Jesus never gave up on him.

Brennan had a simple message, that the best way to save our lives is through honesty, simple honesty, honesty about ourselves, and an even deeper honesty about God. Here’s how he says it:

The Good News means we can stop lying to ourselves. The sweet sound of amazing grace saves us from the necessity of self-deception. It keeps us from denying that though Christ was victorious, the battle with lust, greed, and pride still rages within us. As a sinner who has been redeemed, I can acknowledge that I am often unloving, irritable, angry, and resentful with those closest to me. When I go to church I can leave my white hat at home and admit I have failed. God not only loves me as I am, but also knows me as I am. Because of this, I don’t need to apply spiritual cosmetics to make myself presentable to Him. I can accept ownership of my poverty and powerlessness and neediness . . . My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.[4]

That’s the word for today. To be honest. To get over ourselves. To give up all pretending. To present ourselves to God, as we are, and not as we imagine ourselves to be. If we claim to see, there is something we do not see. God has to deal with us as we are – and the sooner that we can be honest about who we are, the sooner God can get to the hard work of rescuing us in Christ.

And some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”

Well, let me tell them what Martin Luther once said. “Beware of ever aspiring to such purity that you do not want to seem to yourself, or to be, a sinner. For Christ dwells only in sinners.”[5] They are the only kind of people that he has to work with.

Can’t you see?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Fred B. Craddock, John: Knox Preaching Guide (Atlanta: John Knox Press), p. 73
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014) 93-95
[3] Lewis Smedes, A Pretty Good Person (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990) p. 74
[4] Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publisher, 1990) 25-7.
[5] Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, LCC, vol. 15, translated and edited Wilhelm Pauck, lvii-lviii.

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