Sunday, October 28, 2012

What Do YOU See?

The lectionary this morning is the story of a miracle.
A blind man asks for help and is given sight.
In this story Jesus credits the healing with the man’s own faith.
Stay with me on this.
We are going on a journey from unbelief to faith.
I may say some things you don’t like, but we will all win in the end.

Ever since the renaissance in the 14th century,
through the reformation in the 16th century,
and the enlightenment in the 18th century,
and the rise of science in the 20th century,
people have questioned miracle stories like this one.

There is a basic reason that fewer people believe in such miracles.
We have never seen one.
I have known a number of people blind from birth or by accident.
None of them regained their lost sight.
I had an uncle, blind from childhood.
My wife is nearly blind in one eye.
I have known many good church members in many places who were blind.
A destroyed retina or an inoperative or severed optic nerve in most cases
results in permanent blindness.
To accuse these people of a lack of faith would add insult to their injury.

Some will say that these facts make no difference.
They say that because Jesus was the Son of God,
that because he was divine, he could make the blind see.
I have a problem with that.
What kind of God would put a healing power on earth for a short time
only for the purpose of healing a few suffering people
to demonstrate the power of supernatural divinity?
That God would be a cruel God.
Not the God that Jesus taught.

So, if this is a story that could not have happened as told,
     how did it come to be?
What other meanings could it have?
We are fairly certain that Jesus did conduct a healing ministry.
We do not understand it, but not because it was supernatural
or from God in some way that we do not now experience.
There were other prophets and teachers in the first century,
in the ancient world, who healed the sick.
But the key word here is “ancient.”
This was the pre-modern world
in which there was no modern medicine as we know it.
We can understand that Jesus and others were able to heal
psychological disease caused by trauma or emotional distress.
And we understand more and more what we could call social disease –
not sexually transmitted disease – but ailments directly caused by
living conditions and by the way people have been oppressed
and treated by people with power.

Also, religion itself was different in the ancient world.
It was expected that there were gods who walked among us.
How did they know?
Because of their special powers, of course.
So anyone who was a Caesar was proclaimed a god
people told tall tales about them.
If a prophet or teacher moved you, lifted you up, made you feel accepted and free–
     you might tell such miracle stories about them.
Such stories would be and are hope producing and satisfying.

More importantly, such stories are also metaphorical.
That is, a story about blindness might be about something else.
The story of a man with demons might be symbolic of something else
going on, in the man or in the society.
The story of a man paralyzed might be about how the Roman Empire
paralyzed thinking and caring people.
The story of a woman with a discharge might be about the status of women
in the Roman Empire or the treatment they received by the Jewish law.
A great deal of the Bible cannot be understood
unless we read it as metaphor.

We all know how blindness is used as a metaphor.
In “Amazing Grace” we sing  "I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see."
The songwriter, who later in old age became blind,
wrote of blindness, as ignorance about God.
In a song called “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan wrote
“How many times can a man turn his head,
and pretend that he just doesn't see...
How many times must a man look up, Before he can see the sky?”
John Newton wrote Amazing Grace after having been a captain of slave ships.
200 years later Dylan wrote about racism.

It’s an old proverb: “There is no one so blind as the one who will not see.”
We walk by the homeless in cities, averting our eyes
so that we will not have to think about them.

Being blind to something means not understanding or being aware of it.
A "blind spot" is an area where we cannot see in traffic.
In Jesus’ day lepers, people with skin diseases,
were sent away so they could not be seen.
In my lifetime we have done that with the mentally ill and with the dying.
We have many blind spots.

This story of healing a blind man has something to tell us
      about the concept of salvation.
Every word we use about salvation implies a problem.
The gospel of John speaks about salvation as light.
Seeing the light is a metaphor for seeing God.
If light is the answer, what is the question?
How do I find my way out of the darkness?
Darkness is a metaphor for ignorance.

Salvation has been described in the Bible and by many famous teachers
as answers to different problems:
I mentioned the line in amazing grace “I was lost but now am found.”
If we are lost, salvation is being found.
If you are lonely or isolated, salvation is belonging in community;
If you are the victim of hate or uncaring salvation is love;
If you are oppressed by tyranny, salvation is freedom and liberation.
If we are sick salvation feels like being healed.
If we see ourselves as sinners, salvation is redemption.

If we are separated from one another and from ourselves
and from our very being, from God, then salvation is reconciliation.
This is the understanding of salvation in the Confession of ‘67,
used often in the PCUSA.
Who can deny that separation and conflict and polarization
are major experiences of life’s problems in our time.
The basic meaning of salvation, however, is being made whole.
If we are feeling as if our lives or our relationships are broken,
or as if we are coming apart, then we want to be made whole.

Being healed of blindness would be being made whole.
Marcus Borg tells of many understandings of “faith” of “believing.”
One of them is of faith as a way of seeing.
So maybe regaining sight is a metaphor for coming to believe in Jesus.

The story says that his faith has given Bartimaeus sight.
This must mean that he has seen something that he could not see before.
Bartimaeus had seen something in Jesus through his encounter with him.
It’s like meeting someone and just knowing that you understand that person,
that you like that person, maybe even love that person.
Bartimaeus had understood something, he had seen something –
even before he could see.
He gained his sight by seeing Jesus truly.

If you haven’t ever done it,
you should read the gospel of Mark all the way through.
It is short. Reading it out loud takes about 2-3 hours.
Then you would see the context of the story of Bartimaeus.
It comes after three stories of Jesus on the road to Jerusalem
with his disciples.
In each case Jesus tells them that he must suffer and die.

In the first story Peter tells Jesus he won’t suffer and die.
This angers Jesus who answers that Peter isn’t seeing things
from a spiritual point of view.

In the second story some of them ignore what Jesus says,
and argue about which of them is greatest.
Jesus tells them “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all
and servant of all.” and “Whoever welcomes a child welcomes me.”

In the third story they ask him to grant them seats to his right and left
in the Kingdom.
Jesus teaches them “Whoever wants to be great must be a servant.
The son of man came not to be served but to serve.”

It is clear in these stores that they don’t understand him.
But Bartimaeus answered Jesus’ call to him.
He threw off his cloak, probably all that he had,
and asked for the one great hard thing he wanted, his sight.
He tossed aside what little security he had to ask for his need.
I think Bartimaeus understood Jesus because he was blind.

You see, faith is a way of seeing the world.
Faith in Jesus is seeing the world the way Jesus saw the world.
We know how Jeus saw the world from his teachings:
Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the peacemakers.
Blessings on all those who are not blessed in the world as we know it.
Be perfect in love: Not just don’t murder, but don’t be angry.
If anyone strikes you, turn the other cheek too.
Don’t just love those who love you, but Love your enemies.
Give without thought of whether anyone thanks you.
Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.
Don’t worry about tomorrow, but seek for the K of God.
This is a very quick summary of Jesus’ teachings,
but these teachings describe a world
where justice and peace and wholeness are the norm.
It is a world where people do what is just and what is right,
for the simple reason that these things are just and right.
But it is a world upside down from the one we know.
In our world the blind and the poor and the grieving
and the peacemakers are not highly esteemed.
In our world the rich are lifted up, those who have are given more,
despair and random violence are common.
The golden rule is not about thinking of others as equal to us.
The golden rule we know is: Those who have the gold make the rules.
Bartimaeus knew why Jesus had to die.
You can’t teach these things in an empire that allows no dissent.
And Bartimaeus is the only one healed who follows Jesus afterward.

So what do we believe? What is our faith?
Which means: What do we see? How do we see the universe?
How do we see our neighbors?
How do we see people who are different from ourselves?

[preached Oct. 28, 2012 at Charlton-Freehold PC]