Seeing With New Eyes (Lent 4, 2020, Washington National Cathedral)
March 22, 2020
But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’
1 Samuel 16:1-13
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light--for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. I’m honored to speak with you today. My prayer, echoing the words of an old hymn, is that God will grant you wisdom and grant you courage for the living of this hour. And I pray that God will use this time and my imperfect words to speak in your heart what you most need to hear.
I can’t help but think of a line from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, when the reluctant young hero, Frodo, confesses to his mentor Gandalf, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Gandalf goes on, “There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.” That is a statement of faith, there are forces for good at work in the world, even in the darkest hours. I believe that God wants us to trust that, in the midst of this pandemic and the enormous cost of efforts to slow it’s spread, there are also forces for good at work now, and that we are our best selves whenever we join those forces and do our part, tipping the scales ever more slightly toward the good in the midst of trial.
Jesus often said to his followers, “Do not be afraid.” But it’s important to remember that he wasn’t scolding them for their fear. Fear was an understandable response to the realities they were facing, as it is for us. What he meant then, and what I believe he is saying to us now, is that in the midst of all there is to legitimately fear, the spirit of wisdom and courage and love is also here; that Jesus himself is here. Fear in itself is not a bad thing; we are meant to pay attention to legitimate fears. Yet they need not be the only lens through which we see, and thus the sole driver of our lives. There are other forces at work for good in the world and in us.
I’m not suggesting that any of this is easy. But we are here for the living through this pandemic whose end we cannot yet see. Lord knows we wish the virus had not come to us. So do all who live through such times. But that decision was not ours to make. What we can do is decide how we will live now.
And how we live now will be determined in large measure by what we see--what is revealed to us and what we are willing to face, eyes wide open.
All of the Scripture passages appointed for this, the 4th Sunday in Lent, are about sight and blindness. In the story of the prophet Samuel’s search for the one God has chosen to be Israel’s next king, God warns Samuel not to look as mortals do, on physical appearances alone, but to see, as God sees, with eyes of the heart. In the letter to the Ephesians, we hear an exhortation to live as children of the light--light being essential to vision, both physical and inner light. From the Gospel of John, we read the first part of a very long story describing how Jesus healed a man who was blind from birth while at the same time the religious leaders of Jesus’ day willfully blinded themselves to Jesus’ identity.
This theme of the relationship between sight and blindness runs through the entire Bible. The prophets of Israel were those who saw what others refused to see and initially paid the price for it, yet in the end were those whose sight others came to trust. In the gospels there are numerous accounts of blind people receiving their sight. I’m reminded of the man Bartimeaus, a blind man who waited on the roadside for Jesus to pass by. “Jesus, have mercy on me!” he cried out. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. “Lord,” Bartimeaus answered, “I want to see.”
If we are to live with strength and courage in this hour, we need to see with as much clarity God can give us. So consider with me some of the things that affect our vision, and indeed, how many forms of blindness there are. No one knows this better than the physically blind, who must live alongside those of us who are blind in other ways, but with far less awareness than they of what we can and cannot see. There are also gradations of sight and blindness; ophthalmologists can measure our eyes’ varying degrees of blurriness and distortion, some of which can be corrected and others cannot. But the relative health of our faculties isn’t the only thing that affects vision.
Our emotional state influences what we can and cannot see, as can the level of anxiety within and around us. That’s why it’s helpful to try and bring your anxiety levels down through exercise, meditation, a good laugh.
Another factor that affects our vision is where we’re standing relative to whatever it is we are looking at. Consider how our perspective on the spread of the coronavirus has changed and continues to change according to geography as the virus spreads. Time is another factor: What was unimaginable as little as two weeks ago we now see all around us, which humbles us as we consider the future. For we don’t know what the next few weeks will reveal.
Relationships affect vision. We can’t see one another clearly if we aren’t in right relationship, and as a result we lose the needed perspective that others might have. Finally, there is the factor of character. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “What you see depends a great deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are.”
And sometimes it just happens--our eyes are opened and we see something we didn’t see before. It can be a wonderful experience. Think of people who have known each other for years who one day are given new eyes with which to see, and they fall in love. Or how we can see something breath-takingly beautiful as if for the first time, when in fact, we’ve walked by it a thousand times without seeing. Other times, however, having our eyes opened is jarring, for we now can see a truth that had been hidden or that we had been avoiding, that others around us could see and didn’t tell us. Or the world simply turns upside down and we see everything through the lens of a new reality. It feels that way now.
So what are to do?
I think we’re to pay careful attention to what’s happening, with all our faculties in play.
Years ago, my husband Paul and I traveled to Ireland and spent a week in the company of the poet David Whyte. On the very first day, as our group arrived exhausted from international travel, instead of encouraging us to go to our rooms, David and his team took us all on a long hike. He said to us, “I want you to pay particular attention to what you see right now, for jet lag and physical exhaustion have a way of lowering your natural defenses. You are more vulnerable tonight than you will be tomorrow, and you are more open. Pay attention to what you see tonight, for you won’t have these eyes again.”
We are not going to see with coronavirus eyes forever. Yes, we are vulnerable and we are open. So I ask, What do you see now that you didn’t see before? What new revelations is God giving you, and me, that we are particularly and uniquely open to receive now?
Some of the revelations are hard and frightening. But we have no choice but to face them. It may be that some of the harder revelations will be temporary, for this season only and will then pass. But others may last a long time. I suspect that we don’t see well enough now to distinguish between the two, although some may be instantly clear for you.
Some of the revelations are pure grace, as we’re given eyes to see beauty we’ve missed, experience our own resilience and innate goodness as individuals and community. It turns out that we needn’t be as divided as we’ve allowed ourselves to behave as a nation. We actually can rise above less pressing concerns and foolish polarities when something really big happens. We are capable of greater sacrifice for the common good than we realize.
And God is able to take even the worst that can happen and bring good from it. That’s a statement of faith. Dare to believe that there are forces for good at work and strive to align with them.
Let me close with this simple exhortation that you be as gentle with yourselves and one another as you can in these vulnerable days, even as you may need to make difficult decisions in light of what has been thrust upon us all. Don’t rely on your eyes alone--reach out for support and guidance from those you trust and even try listening to those with whom you might otherwise dismiss. Tend to the eyes of your heart--be sure to focus on something of goodness and grace and lasting truth.
Each and every day ask God to open your eyes, so that you might see what you need to see now, in this new reality. Remember that there are forces for good around and within you, within us all.
May God grant you wisdom, and grant you courage. Never forget it is for this hour that you are here.