I Confess: I Failed to See
By Rev. Amy Butler
If you read scripture carefully you can see over and over that the adventure of following God has a lot to do with what you see.
Soon, we’ll be studying the books of 1 and 2 Samuel in adult Sunday School. When I think about it the anticipation about kills me because I love the epic stories telling of all the intrigue of the court during the first monarchy of Israel.
In fact, when I was in graduate school one of my part time jobs was tutoring players on the Baylor University football team in Old Testament. They would lean back, put their size sixteen sneakers up on the table in front of them and stare at me in disbelief: “Are you sure that’s in the Bible?” 1 and 2 Samuel, I tell you, are better than The Young and the Restless.
One of the juicy stories we’ll be studying when we study 1 and 2 Samuel is the one we heard a little snippet of this morning. You remember how the prophet Samuel was called into God’s service . . . right? It started with the heart-wrenching grief of his mother, Hannah, who, as far as she could see was looking out over a desolate landscape of childlessness—bitter and devastating for any woman, and especially for women of her time. Hannah cried out to God in desperation and, somehow her prayers were answered—her view of what God would do in her life suddenly changed.
Samuel was born and then given into service at the temple, given back to God. Through various circumstances, Samuel was appointed God’s prophet in Israel, right at a time when things were going rather sour. First king of Israel, Saul, was a rather insecure individual who was making a mess of things and God was not happy, not happy in the least.
God called on Samuel to go ahead and name the next king . . . while Saul was still on the throne, a sticky predicament! But the prophet Samuel was bereft; sad for the failure of Saul’s monarchy, sad for the job he’d been given. From Samuel’s vantage point there was no happy ending that he could see.
Yet, following God’s direction Samuel trudged to the house of Jesse, the Bethlehemite, at God’s direction, to name the next king of Israel.
What follows is almost comical, if you can picture it. Jesse begins parading his sons for Samuel’s approval. First, the oldest, Eliab. As Samuel unscrews the cap to his oil horn, ready to anoint, God interrupts—no, no! Can’t you see? It’s not him! So, next comes Abinadab, but as Samuel starts to anoint him God interrupts again—not him! Shammah was next, then son after son after son, seven in all, and to each one God would say—nope. It’s finally the youngest son, exiled to the fields with the odious job of sheepherding, who is called in for Samuel’s perusal and then he knows: this is the one God has chosen. The youngest; a shepherd. Samuel went on to anoint him and David did become the next king of Israel, but God taught Samuel a lesson that day. “I don’t see what humans see,” God told Samuel. “You humans have a tendency to look at outward appearance, to see only the obvious. That’s not all I see, though. I look deeper—to the heart of things.”
Samuel learned that life with God is all about what you can see—and what you can’t see–, and there are times when we refuse to see more than we’ve seen all along. The thing is, God always sees vastly more than we do, and God’s ongoing invitation to you and to me is the opportunity to open our eyes and see more than we ever thought possible, to see even the miraculous presence and work of God in the world . . . and in our lives.
Yes, faith has a lot to do with seeing in our Gospel lesson this morning, too.
John’s text tells us that Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles when, as Jesus was walking through town, he happened to see a man blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples also saw this man, and as a result asked what can only be labeled an innocent question.
You can’t blame them for asking . . . at this point in their relationship with Jesus they were devoted followers of the new rabbi . . . , intent on learning everything they could from him, committed to rising in the ranks of his student body. (Imagine them following him around, pencils behind their ears, earnestly taking note of everything he said, trying to make sure they understood the basic message he was preaching.) Why wouldn’t they ask him the burning question of human existence: why do we suffer? They could see the constructs of everything they understood to be true right in front of them: a man, unable to see. Whose fault was it?
Pencils poised, ready to write down his answer, the disciples, once again, were invited to see how very blind they were . . . how, while all they could see was a man blind from birth, there was, in fact, so much more to see here.
The problem they were asking Jesus to answer was a thorny one, and all the crowd gathered around trying to hear what he could possibly have to say about this situation. See, both the Pharisees and Sadducees looked to Torah for an explanation of the will of God, but they were in disagreement about how exactly a person’s destiny was determined. The Sadducees said that life circumstances were directly related to the choices one made. Pharisee’s maintained that God’s will was the defining factor in a person’s fate. Which is it, they asked Jesus to clarify.
Now, we modern readers have a little problem looking back over 2000 years to read this text. The problem is, ironically, the way in which we see the world. For example, as a modern reader, when I think of someone spitting and wiping it on my face, pretty much the only thing that comes to my mind was my ongoing attempts to avoid my mother—you know, “Come here, honey, you’ve got something on your face . . .”. But to the people among whom Jesus walked that day, the act of applying spit to someone was a holy act . . . a blessing almost, which many thought had healing affects.
This difference of perspective is a good illustration of the differing vantage points from which we view this text because a whole lot happened in between the time when human spit rubbed on a face was thought of as an action with healing potential and the time that we associate such a thing with an annoying habit of our mothers’.
Specifically, our whole way of viewing the world has radically shifted since that day when Jesus’ disciples and the crowd were trying to figure out the answer that age-old question of human suffering.
Back then, what you knew about the world was based largely on what you could observe around you, in combination with the great mysteries of the universe that you knew for sure were there, even though you couldn’t really put them into words. Like, it would have been widely known, then, that saliva mixed with mud and applied to a suffering person had healing properties. Nobody could explain how, exactly, and it didn’t always work of course, but there it was, gloppy mud on your face, something you could definitely see.
Still, the people around Jesus could not believe the man who they had known was blind could suddenly use his eyes. Question after question arose—”are you sure this is the same man?” “is this a trick he’s playing on us?” Because of the limitations of how they looked at the world, they could not make room in their reality for a man, blind from birth, suddenly healed, God, tangibly and miraculously engaged in the world.
And Jesus got frustrated with them, because their inability to see what was right in front of them really was an indication of deeper problems, of an inability to see God at work all around them, to open their eyes and their minds and their hearts to a God who comes to us often in ways we would never, ever expect, and asks us to take a leap of faith into a place where perhaps all that we know about the world would lead us to believe there’s nothing to see there.
And two thousand years later, after the Enlightenment and the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution, the question remains for us strangely the same, because God has this unswerving habit of continually working in ways we don’t expect.
Because, well, because we know, of course, applying human saliva isn’t going to help much with a medical crisis—we know that, of course, because we’ve seen that antibiotics and organ transplants are more effective than spitting on the ground. And it’s this modern viewpoint we have that often renders us unable tosee the world with the possibilities of God’s divine perspective.
Even today, Jesus is still asking us to look beyond the obvious and to notice God at work in the word in the most unexpected ways. How can we possibly take Jesus’ advice to heart and open our eyes to see—to really see—God at work in the world?
I’m afraid it’s going to entail taking a leap of faith, of not being able to see the world as God does but knowing with conviction that there’s so much more than we can see with the eyes we have. Anne Lamott says for her is was less of a leap of faith and more of a lurch, a lurch toward the possibility of seeing things differently. And however it is that you and I make the move to try to see the world as God sees it, this is the invitation Jesus extended to his disciples and to the crowd that day, symbolically illustrated by the restoration of a blind man’s sight.
Yes, we are like the crowd that day when we’ve decided, consciously or unconsciously, that we can see everything we need to see, thank you very much. We’ve figured out an awful lot, enough to make us think most of the time that, if we don’t know the answer, well it’s just a matter of time until we do. We can understand that God is working in the world, of course. And we can see it . . . that is, if it happens in the way we expected it to happen all along.
But living our lives this way makes us just as blind as the disciples and the Pharisees, who couldn’t for the life of them understand what Jesus was talking about when he said, “I’ve come into this world so that those who do not see can see.” Not physical seeing, silly. No, the crowd, the disciples, even you and me, invited . . . to profess a truth we cannot always see and to trust in a God who is ever-creating in ways we’d never expect, not in a million years.
What possibilities are you having trouble seeing? Does the view from where you sit seem obviously limited? Are you wondering if what you can see if all that there is?
These are probably not the questions to be asking. Instead, the question is: am I living my life with a view of the world that leaves room for possibility of God at work that I might not see? Is my life lived in openness to expanding the view?
Jesus wanted so much for all the people in his life who were blind to be able to see: starting specifically with those who thought they could see just because they had a visual understanding of the world. And Jesus invites us to open our spiritual eyes and look hard for the possibility of God at work, maybe even in places we never, ever expected.
The adventure of following God has an awful lot to do with what you can see. Today we pray: rabbi Jesus, touch our eyes, too, so we might see all the possibilities of your healing for this world.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2008 Amy Butler. Used by permission.