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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent March 30, 2014

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Texts: John 9:1-7 and 26-41

                                    I See

You know the refrain of this popular hymn by heart. The lyrics utter a prayer to God to give us eyes to see God’s remarkable work on earth as in heaven. It goes like this: “Open mine eyes, that I may see, glimpses of truth thou hast for me, open my eyes, illumine me, spirit, divine.”

         From the time we are born into this world, we want nothing so much as to see and understand the world in which we live. As a little kid sitting in doctor’s offices waiting for my brother to get his allergy shots, I loved reading highlight magazine, searching for all the hidden images hidden inside the bigger picture. You know the ones I’m talking about: the shovel hidden in a tree branch, the cupcake in the center of a flower, the candle hidden inside the doorframe of a car.

Some of your who grew up with summers near the coast learned to endlessly squat on your haunches and search tidal pools for signs of life. We learned to see hidden things as children, to our perfect delight.

         Yet throughout history there have been those bright lights that have taught us to see things that are not hidden. Instead of searching for the mysteries of tiny creatures swimming in tidal pools, these brave souls taught us to see the world in a different way altogether, at great risk to themselves.

         Jesus is like that. He came to teach people to see the world in a new way. He wasn’t just helping them see things already present, fitting them with glasses to bring into sharper focus what was already before them. Rather God sent Jesus into the world to reveal that God was doing a new thing altogether: greater than Moses leading the people out of slavery, greater than Noah building an arc before the great flood, greater than Abraham and Sarah, out of their faithfulness, becoming the the father and mother of their faith so very long ago. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is at hand, not only for the Jews then, but also for us now. God invites us through this story to allow Jesus to give us vision to see what God is doing in OUR time. Through faith, we can then proclaim: “I see.”

         Jesus suffered and died for his willingness to invite people into the Kingdom of God, a new vision for God’s people on earth as in heaven. Though Jesus is distinct in his message, others throughout history have also suffered consequences for creating seismic shifts in how we see the world.   

You know the radio show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me?” Well like the segment called “Things You Would Have Learned In School If You’d Been Paying Attention”, you may recall a few of those persons who over time created a paradigm shift in how we see the world. For example, Copernicus didn’t invent the idea of a sun-centered universe but he was the first to advance it. He didn’t do so until he was quite old, for fear of retribution from the Catholic Church, of which he was a leader. His work called “On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres” was not published until after he died out of fear of persecution. And in fact, the Catholic Church banned the work in 1616, 73 years after he published it. Martin Luther called him a “fool who went against the Lord.”

“Let those who have eyes, see…”

We remember Charles Darwin, the father of evolution and perhaps the most controversial scientist in history, whose widely published work “On the Origen of the Species” in 1859 created a firestorm from religious communities for what they perceived to be his challenge of scripture that all matter was created in six literal days. He endured this backlash until his death in 1882. Now fully accepted by the scientific community, some Christians still wrangle over the reconciliation of the creation stories with his theories. While most now see the six days of creation as metaphor to describe God’s unfolding and continuous work of creation both in the beginning and over time, Americans lead the world among modern nations of persons who continue to discredit his way of “seeing” the world.

In our own time, Al Gore has been both lauded and reviled for his work “An Inconvenient Truth” that taught all of us about the onset and impact of global warming. Some have seen him as a scholar, others a prophet and some a fool. Just this past week the person delivering packages to the church office reviled him, as the twenty-degree weather kept spring at bay. He said, “Global warming? Humph, take this, John Edwards.” He didn’t quite have the correct man to blame for his complaint. But no matter: now more broadly known as climate change, 97% of 12,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies affirm that climate change is both real and man-made. Yet in 2010, when 97% of scientists confirmed the role of humankind in climate, only 50% of Americans believed that human activity is the source of the dramatic shifts currently under way.

Let those who have eyes, see…

Whatever you may think of these scientists or their theories and discoveries, each represents the many pioneers across history that has dared to challenge the prevailing way that people see and understand the world. As a consequence they have in every case suffered greatly for their risk, until such time as their teachings have been upheld, or in some cases, debunked.

How much greater then was Jesus trouble, in just such a way as this. Jesus became a popular healer and teacher who asked people to see the world in a whole new way that challenged everything they believed to be true about faithfulness to God. He challenged this by engaging in serious conversation with women, embracing the worth and dignity of children, healing and feeding on the Sabbath, claiming to have the capacity to forgive sins, including the outcast in God’s new plans– lepers, tax collectors, Samaritans, Roman soldiers. Jesus invited everyone he touched to see that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and not in the form they knew or expected.

Let those who have eyes, see. Listen to his message.  

In Matthew 13: 9, Jesus said, “Blessed are you who have eyes because they see, and you who have ears because they hear.”

In Mark 8:18: “Hear this oh foolish and senseless people who have eyes, but do not see and who have ears but not hear…”

He quotes the prophet as written in Isaiah 4: “Lead out those who have eyes but are blind, who have ears but cannot hear.”

And again, Ezekiel 12:2, “They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear.”

And yet again, Jeremiah 5:21, “Listen you foolish and senseless people, with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear.”

I think Jesus was killed in part because he showed the world a new way of seeing the Kingdom of God, and because the he repeatedly called the Pharisees “those who are blind”. They were accustomed to being the ones who named the blind as prophesied in scripture and I can promise you, they had previously not counted themselves among those numbers.

Who can blame them? We all have a tendency to believe that our way of seeing the world is correct. Sometimes we judge those who see things differently than we do. Sometimes we are charitable and imagine that others who do not see the world as we do are simply naïve or uninformed. Surely if they knew what we know they would draw the same conclusion. However, this is clearly not the case.

Anyone who has every earnestly sought to avoid talking about religion or politics at a dinner party knows that we sometimes try to keep peace with those with whom with disagree by not being disagreeable. This translates to keeping silent about what we think and believe, as we discussed last week.

Jesus will have none of it. I can only imagine how often his disciples desperately wanted him to be quiet. It seemed as if he took every opportunity to provoke the church leaders, including this story today from John 9. Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, a man blind from birth. He challenges the prevailing belief that such infirmity is caused by sin, either the man’s sin or that of his father. By healing on the Sabbath, he breaks the law and disregards its premise that strict obedience to the laws of God is the highest path to righteousness. He embodies a more excellent way. The Kingdom of God holds the command to love God and neighbor more highly, including acts of compassion such as the restoration of sight. As if this were not controversial enough, the story concludes with Jesus saying to the Pharisees sent to investigate this incident, “ ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see (or think they 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 sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Last week Jesus taught a new way of seeing when he conversed with the woman at the well of Samaria, saying that his ancestors worshipped in Jerusalem, and her ancestors on the nearby holy mountain. But the day is coming, Jesus said, when people would worship neither in Jerusalem nor on the holy mountain but in Spirit and truth.

Now this. What is it exactly that Jesus wants us to see? This is a hard question. It assumes that we can know. But honestly, the older I get the more I know that I don’t know. And I hear from those older yet that there is sometimes a niggling feeling that on certain matters that we have always claimed to be the case, we have to consider the possibility that we were wrong. While we’ve often thought we were doing the right thing, the most faithful thing, we worry that we spent too much time at work and not enough time with our family. We worry that we took too little care of our bodies and now suffer the consequences of too many fried foods and not enough vegetables. We bear the burden of our foolish youth as sunscreen, slathered with baby oil, and the harder to treat brittleness of judgment towards friend or neighbor which still divides us, but whose source we can not longer recall.

We read and listen to the news and develop like the Pharisees the uneasy sense that we may have been complicit in trashing what Mary Ross always refers to as our precious and fragile earth. By our silence at dinner parties we may have been complicit in prejudice against groups of people that we know in our heart God loves. We nod in agreement to be polite when someone tells a joke about a Latino in Arizona, or a gay in New York or a Moslem in Chicago. And like the Pharisees, we then have to quietly ask, “Jesus couldn’t be talking about us, could he?”

It takes a good deal of humility to see the Kingdom of God in our own time. It requires letting Jesus put mud in our eyes so that we won’t be able to see the world as we’ve always seen it. It requires a willingness to let go of sin and allow God to forgive us and begin life anew. It requires a willingness to suspend a few fast held beliefs that turn out to be popular among those who think like we do, but that are unfaithful according to God’s ways.

Learning to see again is hard, but we are not alone.

In 1620, when our spiritual forebears prepared to leave Europe for the New World, their pastor, John Robinson, sent them off with this historic commission: “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of God’s Holy Word.” God continues to illumine our faith in fresh ways, so that we see what God wants us to see and then do what God wants us to do in the name of our Still speaking God.

Be careful what you pray for. If you want to be among those who have eyes to see and ears to hear God’s kingdom among us, it will change your life. Therefore it is with great courage that we sing:

“Open mine eyes that I might see, glimpses of truth, thou hast for me, open mine eyes, illumine me, spirit divine.”

Amen