The scriptures today are threaded with the theme of vision, or really lack of vision, short sightedness, myopia. Samuel is sent to Jesse’s house to find a new king to replace Saul. He sees seven big strong young men, all of whom look like they could be king. But each time the Lord said ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’
And the Gospel lesson from John is meant to be ironic for even as Jesus restored sight to the blind man, the neighbors and the Pharisees, even the disciples had trouble seeing. The disciples were worrying about whose sins made him blind, and showed no vision that he might be healed, the neighbors had overlooked the blind beggar so much that they didn’t even recognize him once it was healed, repeatedly asking, is it he? No, it just looks like him. Even as he insisted “I am the man.” The Pharisees were worried about Jesus breaking Sabbath laws by healing, and worried that the healed man might worship a sinful teacher rather than God, and no one recognized that the Messiah was among them, until the end when the man was with Jesus alone.
Myopia is the stumbling block of faith before us today. Myopia, shortsightedness, the inability to see God, to clearly see God at work in the world and in our own lives. And it’s a big stumbling block in our world today. A couple of years ago I asked the congregation for sermon topics that would interest you. Someone wrote back – seeing God in everyday life. Even within the churches, people often come and go, sit for worship, donate their money, baked goods and lots of elbow grease, but many rarely catch a glimpse of the God they have presumably come to worship and serve. I bet you if you gathered the last 40 years’ worth of the Annual Reports of United Methodist churches in Massachusetts and read their historian’s report they would tell of the events they held, the money they raised, the building projects completed, but less than 1% will mention what God did in their midst in the past year.
This was not always the way. In the early 19th century New England Methodists always talked about seeing God, participating in the work of God, experiencing God. Here are some examples I’ve come across in my dissertation research:
There has been a gradual work of God in Duxbury and Marshfield since the Camp Meeting last Aug….A spirit of prayer is cherished in the church, and the prospect for a more extensive revival is flattering. Some opposition is made, but God gives his people holy confidence to face the enemies of the cross; young converts speak and pray to the astonishment of multitudes who flock to hear. At Scituate, especially at the Harbor, the Lord is visiting the people in mercy.
The congregation still increased...and a general solemnity prevailed and God was known to be present.
“With feelings of deep humility, we have the pleasing satisfaction of announcing the great things which God has done in this place.”
“Over seventy souls have professed religion, forty of whom are joined in society according to the rules and regulations of our church discipline, and seem determined to honour their profession and to walk humbly before their God. A great change has been wrought in the character of the town, and the prospects are truly reviving. “What has God wrought!” we may well exclaim, while we gaze upon the wonders which a few weeks have brought forth in a spot that had been proverbially cold and indifferent as it respected religious matters. And what may we not expect if we are faithful and zealous in the discharge of our duties. The Lord is on the giving hand; his arm is made bare, and his all-conquering power is abroad in the land.
Friedrich Nietzsche, the son of a pastor, commented on our more modern relationship to God in a quirky little essay called The Madman.
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!”
Because many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there he caused considerable laughter. “Have you lost him then?” said one. “Did he lose his way like a child?” said another. “Or is he hiding? Is he scared of us? Did he emigrate?” They shouted and laughed in this manner. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his look. “Where has God gone?” he cried. “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I.”
The essay ends,
It has also been related that on that same day the madman entered various churches and there sang a requiem aeternam deo. Led out and told to shut up, he is said to have retorted each time: “What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?” from Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche The Carefree Science - Section 125
I think Nietzsche has something here – for if the people of the church don’t see God in our everyday lives; if souls can come into this sanctuary during Sunday worship and leave without having felt the presence of the living God then we are living and worshipping as if God is dead. But if we cling to our faith in Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully human, who did indeed die completely, but after that was resurrected to everlasting life, a miraculous act that sets the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve free for eternal life as well, then the problem is not with God, it is with our ability to see God. If we don’t see God at work every day, if we don’t feel the presence of the almighty God here with us, or wherever two or three believers are gathered in the name of Jesus, then we have a bad case of myopia.
Spiritual myopia causes people to be prejudiced. We they think they know something about someone, whether it’s based on past experience, or on superficial characteristic like the color of someone’s skin, or their economic status, it is easy to disregard that person, and even treat them as less than human. This is spiritual myopia because we are blinded to the truth that every human being is a beloved child of God.
Myopia also lets us waste our time and resources doing useless things. Spending our money fruitlessly on items we don’t need, games of chance that never pan out, food that does more damage than good, 1,000 t. v. channels when we still can’t find any shows worth watching, computer games whose main selling point is that they are “addictive,” and waiting for hours to be the first one in line for the great tickets, or the coveted limited edition Cabbage Patch kid. This is spiritual myopia because we are blinded to the truth that everything in the world belongs to God, that God provides for all we truly need, and requires that we share what we have until there is no one who is in need. It blinds us to the truth that God means for us to use all of our time and energy for the glory of God and the building up of his kingdom.
We teach our children to be myopic when we make tests that only have one right answer, expect them to memorize facts without knowing why, or give into the temptation to “help” too much with their homework and science fair projects. Teens experience tremendous social pressure to be myopic when they are shunned for not going to unsupervised parties, or trying the newest drug. A lovely young woman I know is blinded to her true beauty. She was a little over weight as a child, but now, when her cheekbones and rib cage are showing clearly, she is obsessively worried about losing another 30 pounds. I fear her spiritual myopia is threatening her very life with anorexia.
When searching for a term to encompass the prejudice and lack of vision named in the scripture today I thought of Meg Murray, the heroine of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. In this classic science fiction fantasy Meg struggles with myopia. In the course of her adventures she learns that the source of the myopia is evil. Brought to a place in the universe where visibility was best, Meg could see a dark shadow “so terrible that she knew there had never been before or ever would be again anything that would chill her with a fear that was beyond shuddering, beyond crying or screaming, beyond the possibility of comfort.” The shadow was blotting out the stars. Whenever Meg passed through it she became utterly cold. The shadow was also covering the Earth like a sickness. It was evil, the power of darkness.
But Meg was also enabled to see that the evil powers were being challenged. There was a cosmic fight. Stars in their brilliance were giving up their lives for the sake of increasing the light. She was directed to notice the fighters of our world Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespear, Bach, Pasteur, Einstein, Gandhi, Beethoven, St. Francis, and none less than Jesus Christ.
The Christians in Ephesus had their fair share of myopia. Paul wrote to them, “You groped your way through that murk once, but no longer. Don’t waste your time on useless work, mere busywork, the barren pursuits of darkness. Expose these things for the sham they are. It’s a scandal when people waste their lives on things they must do in the darkness where no one will see.” But Paul also reminded them that even though they were once darkness, now they were light because they were in the Lord Jesus Christ. By their baptism into Christ they had been enlisted into the army of light, and empowered to live as children of light.
Paul urged the Ephesians to “do what is pleasing to the Lord.” As Eugene Peterson puts it, “Get on with it! The good, the right, the true—these are the actions appropriate for daylight hours. Figure out what will please Christ, and then do it.” But how? How can we start living more fully as ones who see the work of God all around us, and join in that work, when we don’t quite see God clearly? Madeline L’Engle gives us three things we can do, even in our myopia.
First: Our church can keep practicing seeing each person as God’s beloved, and extending that love to everyone. At one point of A Wrinkle in Time, when Meg had been dreadfully wounded in body and spirit she was brought to a planet where none of the creatures had eyes. The one who tended to Meg, called Aunt Beast, was instrumental in her healing, and her compassion helped her to see that Meg’s ugly behavior was a result of her wounds, they did not come from her true self. Aunt Beast kept giving Meg love until she was fully healed in body and spirit. We, as a church, need to help one another see people in this way. Each person who we encounter is a beloved child of God. No matter how angry, selfish, critical or unpleasant they are. We need to boldly and firmly keep loving them. We need to remind one another constantly that sinful character traits can be overcome, transformed by the love of Jesus Christ. Churches are meant to be hospitals for sinners. Those among us who do not see God, or who do not reflect God’s light perfectly are spiritually wounded. Or to use another metaphor, we are asleep. This is why Paul bursts into song. Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Second: Each of us can be intentional about hanging out with others who see God in their daily lives. In A Wrinkle in Time Meg Murray was coached by others who were well practiced at seeing. She became aware that spiritual seeing is done with more than our eyes. At one point, though her guides were not visible, Meg knew that they were with her – the fact of their presence was strong about her.” We learn to see God by spending time with those who see God. Think of the people in your life who seem closest to God. How can you spend more time with them, and less time with those groping around in the dark? What authors can you read who will direct your thoughts toward God, and give you new insights into God’s ways, and the work of God in the world? These may be the ancient saints, or contemporary people like Madeline L’Engle, Kathleen Noris, Tony Campolo or T. D. Jakes. Spend more time with people who see God at work, and you will start seeing God at work too.
And finally: We can practice seeing God and the world the way that our spiritual mentors see. Meg was given a pair of glasses to look through that helped her to see the truth. Often that truth seemed paradoxical. For example at the beginning of A Wrinkle in Time Meg is frustrated with her faults – especially impatience. Yet when sent into the most dangerous part of her mission Meg was given her faults as a gift. And one of her friends quoted from 1 Corinthians 1:25-28.
Human strength can’t begin to compete with God’s “weakness.” Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”?
God’s grace Christians have been baptized into the light and life of Jesus Christ. By God’s grace alone, we are light. By God’s grace alone, we can learn to overcome our myopia, and see the Work of God all around us. And we are invited to participate in that work because Christ empowers us to live as children of light.
You groped your way through that murk once, but no longer. You’re out in the open now. The bright light of Christ makes your way plain. So no more stumbling around. Get on with it! The good, the right, the true—these are the actions appropriate for daylight hours. Figure out what will please Christ, and then do it.
11-16 Don’t waste your time on useless work, mere busywork, the barren pursuits of darkness. Expose these things for the sham they are. It’s a scandal when people waste their lives on things they must do in the darkness where no one will see. Rip the cover off those frauds and see how attractive they look in the light of Christ.
Wake up from your sleep,
Climb out of your coffins;
Christ will show you the light!
So watch your step. Use your head. Make the most of every chance you get. (The Message)