Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked
“Can You See Anything?”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 12, 2020
6th Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture is filled with readings that invite us to celebrate. Psalm 150 comes to mind:
Hallelujah! Praise God in his holy temple….praise him for his excellent greatness…. praise him with lyre and harp, timbrel and dance; with strings and pipe…with resounding cymbals…. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.[i]
What a grand worship service the psalmist portrays. Yet, if we are honest, there are times when we gather as God’s people and we do not feel like singing and dancing. Instead, we feel like lamenting, falling on our knees and crying out to God, who seems to have left us on our own. When this happens, the psalmist has other words for us:
O God, you have shaken the earth and split it open; repair the cracks in it for it totters. You have made your people to know hardship…. Save us by your right hand and answer us…Hear our cry, O God, and listen to our prayer. We call upon you from the ends of the earth with heaviness in our hearts.”[ii]
We have been livestreaming worship in the safety of our home for the past four months. During that time, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc around the globe. Our nation has recorded over 134,000 deaths due to the virus; our economy has been shaken to the core; and there seems to be no end in sight. With heaviness in our hearts, we have cried out to the Lord. And another cry has reverberated around the globe, the cry of one man, George Floyd, who pleaded for his mother even as a police officer held him in a choke hold until he could breathe no more. In that moment, a seismic shift occurred that sent shock waves around the world. Since then, we have been inundated with heartrending images of alarming behaviors, flashing before us like lightning strikes in the midnight sky. So much tragedy, so much sorrow. O God, we call upon you from the ends of the earth with heaviness in our hearts…repair the cracks in the earth for it totters…
When faced with systemic problems that threaten to destabilize our fractured nation, we could easily fall into despair. We could let our lives be governed by anxiety that leads to loss of sleep and loss of perspective. As Christians, we know in our hearts that with Christ’s resurrection, all things are made new. But we also recognize that not yet are things as they will be when Christ returns. We live in the in-between times. In these in-between times, when we look at the world and wonder why evil continues to happen, it behooves us, whether virtually or in person, to gather with other believers and with all the saints who have gone before us to turn our eyes upon Jesus. In the presence of the Word, the Water, and the Table, dirt and grime that keeps us from seeing with heavenly eyes can be washed away. In community, we can re-gain perspective—re-gain holy perception.
Perception—the ability to see, hear, understand, or interpret something through the senses—is the focus of today’s gospel reading. On Jesus’ preaching tour, parables are told, storms are calmed, and people are healed. Doing the work of his Abba Father, Jesus feeds the multitudes and, just for kicks, he walks on water. Actually, business is booming until Jesus reaches his hometown of Nazareth. Then, because of the unbelief of the people there, only a few are healed.
When Jesus enters the village of Bethsaida, some folks bring a blind man to him and beg Jesus to touch him. Jesus responds by taking the man by the hand and leading him away—maybe Jesus wants a little privacy. Then Jesus puts saliva on the man’s eyes and lays his hands on him but when Jesus asks him if he can see anything, the man answers, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” The man can see—something—but his perception is impaired until Jesus lays his hands on his eyes again. Finally, his eyesight is restored, and he can see clearly.
Jesus’ healing ministry is writ large over the landscape of the gospels but there is something unusual about this story found in the Gospel of Mark alone. It is the only miracle Jesus performs that happens in two stages—as if he fails to get it right the first time. We are left scratching our heads, and as you might imagine, scholars have varied opinions about the meaning behind Jesus’ 2-step recipe for healing. Some suggest that Jesus’ power is affected by the lack of faith he finds in the people. Others propose the man’s own spiritual condition is a factor.
Of course, we cannot know why Jesus offers a second touch before the man’s sight is fully restored. But if we look closely, we may recognize a metaphor for the faith that Jesus finds in those around him. After all, even his disciples see through a glass dimly. Truth be told, the incident mirrors the faith journey of every believer because no one sees everything clearly in a flash. Instead, if we set our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, we may come to see more clearly—learn to see with spiritual eyes—moment by moment, day by day.
Learning to see with spiritual eyes—it is a process! James Fowler wrote a book about this process entitled Stages of Faith. In it he proposes that there are 6 stages of faith that begin when we are toddlers and continue through maturity. The progression is from blind faith, to seeing the world in black and white, to learning to see the world through the eyes of our peers and others around us. Then we gain some autonomy and begin to take responsibility for our own beliefs and attitudes—even as we develop a gnawing sense that life is too complex for us to rely on our judgment alone. By the time most of us reach mid-life, we accept that there are contradicting truths in the universe that we can never explain. We gain a capacity to make meaning in new ways and we learn to appreciate symbols and rituals and myths. The final stage that Fowler proposes—the sixth stage—is one most people never reach. The rare folks who do, live out their faith in absolute love for all people. They are engaged in spending and being spent for the transformation of the present reality. They are often honored more after their death than during their life—think Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, and Martin Luther King Jr. Of course, there is no greater example of faith fully realized than Jesus who demonstrates how we are to live into our baptism—loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
If our desire is to progress in our own faith journey, we may have to turn down the voices of the world that scream over our news channels and news-feeds—voices that encourage us to have fear instead of faith—voices that urge us to hate rather than love—voices that make it hard for us to see that the stranger is also made in the image of God—voices that keep us mistaking people who do not look like us or people who do not agree with us—as little more than trees, walking.
Maybe, though, we are satisfied with our vision. Happy with the status quo, we are comfortable with our prejudices, and we do not want God messing in our lives. If so, the last thing we want is for Jesus to show up and spit in our eyes to provide a different point of view. But whether we want it or not, clarity—clear vision—is what the world needs. It is what our nation needs. It is what we all need. And God is calling every believer to wake up to the wonder of what God might do with us, among us, through us, and for us. “Well, that sounds fine in a sermon,” you might say, “but in the real world…” As part of Adam Hamilton’s survey of “Christianity’s Family Tree,” he reflects on how Orthodox Christians see “the real world.” He notes,
The Orthodox remind us that our daily lives (our jobs, our schooling, our relationships) are not the real world. The real world is heaven, God’s eternal kingdom; and real life is found in participating in that divine kingdom now, here on earth; we are, in the words of Scripture, just pilgrims and aliens here. There is a heavenly realm that we cannot generally see. It is invisible, but it is all around us; and if we really knew and understood this, if we participated in this realm, our lives would be radically different.
What a wonderful way to see “the real world.” Would we behave differently if we imagined God constantly at our side? If we imagined the Holy Spirit within us and the heavenly saints cheering us on? How might we react to seemingly insurmountable challenges if we were convinced that there was something more real of which we are a part?
Yes, if we are honest, there are times when even the faithful do not feel like singing and dancing. Instead, we feel like lamenting, falling on our knees and crying out to God. Yet, we need not despair because in life and in death, we belong to God, and Jesus is our guide. With just a touch, he can help us see more clearly. He can help us love more fully. And if our hearts are open, he can show us our role to play in changing the world for his sake. In these dismal days, Christ stands before us and beckons us to speak love and not hate; to wage peace and not war. Let the transformation begin and let it begin with me! Amen.
[i] Adapted from Psalm 150, The Book of Common Prayer
[ii] Adapted from Psalm 94-95, The Book of Common Prayer
*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a
Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009