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Fourth Sunday of Lent: “The Eyes of the Heart”

 

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41
Psalm 23

 

Have you ever heard this wise maxim: “We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are?”

 

That’s certainly true for many of the characters in our readings today who are blinded by the fixed lens of their assumptions. Take Samuel, for example. God sends him to anoint the son of Jesse who will be king. But who is it? Which one of the seven brothers paraded before Samuel should rule? He sees the oldest, Eliab, handsome and tall. He sees things by his society’s standards and snaps to the judgment that Eliab’s the chosen one: “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.”

 

But it’s a case of mistaken identity. The youngest, the eighth son David, still out with the sheep, so lowly that he’s not even invited to the parade, is the one God has chosen. “For the Lord does not see as mortals see. . . . the Lord looks on the heart.”

 

And look at all the identity confusion in the Gospel story of the blind man’s healing. It’s almost comical. From the moment Jesus restores the beggar’s sight, this story becomes one of “who is it” and “whodunit.” Everyone in Jerusalem is scurrying around so frantically to explain this miracle according to their own fixed assumptions, their own view of power, that they cannot see or accept what is. We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.

 

At first, the person most overlooked in the confusion is the healed man himself. Sadly, there’s no public celebration or rejoicing for him. But he does become the center of attention in one regard. He’s pulled into repeated interrogations about Jesus’s actions and identity. But, with his sight restored, no one can be sure if this person being quizzed is even the same man. His own parents have to ID him before the Pharisees.

 

My guess is that he’s been glanced at carelessly so many times, walked past, looked down on as a beggar, by so many in Jerusalem, that he’s almost unidentifiable when his vision is restored. When the label “blind beggar” is taken away, who is he? When he’s released from the dark social box where he’s been confined all his life, can his neighbors even recognize him? Can he be seen in a new light?

 

Of course, this new light is his total transformation by Jesus―physical, social, and spiritual. And in this frantic story of “who is it” and “whodunit,” I’d like to slow down and focus on this blind beggar himself, so often disregarded. What his direct experience of Jesus might have been like. What he teaches us about recognizing God—and seeing as God does, from the heart.

 

I invite you to play along with me in an imaginative experiment and put yourself in the place of the blind beggar right now. Please gently close your eyes as I speak until I invite you to open them again.

 

You’re sitting in a hot, noisy, dusty street in the spot where you beg each day, listening against the noise to the passersby. You’re straining to discern the character of the people rushing by you without having any visual cues about their wealth, status, or attitude. Without sight, all your other senses have become extremely acute because your living depends on knowing whom to ask, whom to trust, whom to tell your story in exchange for bread.

 

I pause and ask you: do you feel rather vulnerable now with your eyes closed? This is the blind beggar’s way of life.

 

An unknown man approaches you in a group and comes close. I ask you, with your eyes still closed, in this crucial moment: What does Jesus’s voice sound like to you against the busy Jerusalem street? What is the smell of his skin as he crouches low and tenderly leans toward you? What is the quality of his touch, as he pats mud and his saliva on your eyelids? What is the taste of that intimate mixture, as it drips down toward your lips?

 

And I ask you: What do your senses tell you that makes you trust this unseen man? Enough to break through the dark box in which you’ve been forced to live?  Enough to challenge the Sabbath rules and walk, still in darkness, to the Pool of Siloam? Enough to believe that you will be healed?

 

Please open your eyes and reflect on this moment. What does your restored sight feel like? A gift? A release? A miracle? Consider what the return of sight was to one who had never seen.

 

To describe Jesus’s action, the writer of this gospel prefers not “miracle,” or “mighty work,” but the simple word “sign”: “[This was] not a naked display of power [or] a neat magic trick to impress the masses, but [a] significant, powerful act that pointed beyond itself to a deeper reality that could be perceived with the eyes of faith.”[1]

 

And I suggest that the blind beggar’s eyes of faith began to be opened through his other senses even before his vision was healed. He recognized the deeper reality of Jesus’s love and compassion through sound, taste, smell, and touch. Through the exquisite quality of their interaction.

 

In that moment, the still-blind beggar saw God—and was able to see as God does, with the eyes of the heart. He saw, even in darkness, the Divine Essence before him—and opened himself to the light, physically and spiritually.

 

This healing, of course, gives him a new social standing that confuses everyone around him. His neighbors and the ruling Pharisees do not want to see things as they are: to accept that Jesus has once again chosen to redeem and elevate the lowliest among them. As David was chosen; as the Samaritan woman was chosen for a revelation.

 

They insist on seeing things through the lens of their power structure, struggling to prove that this could not be the same man, that the healing could not have happened, that it could not be a sign of God.

 

But this is no case of mistaken identity—but of new identity. As part of his spiritual healing, the man humbly but surely takes on more and more power. Relying on the truth of his senses, he states the facts plainly: “I am the man.” “I do not know” where Jesus is. “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”

 

As the Pharisees’ questions intensify, so does the healed man’s understanding of Jesus’s identity—and their relationship. As with the Samaritan woman at the well, his spiritual awakening becomes brighter and brighter until Jesus returns in a final, tender moment, like the Good Shepherd in the 23rd Psalm. In this reunion, these two men fully see each other’s humanity and truth: “You have seen [the Son of Man], and the one speaking with you is he.” “Lord, I believe.”

 

What does this story teach us about how to recognize the presence of God around us? How to experience God within us? How to open up to the light?

 

I suggest we start by following the example of the blind beggar and heighten all our senses to experience God’s presence. The Divine Essence is right before us, Christ’s light is right before us, just as it was before our brother on that Jerusalem street; and right within us, just as he discovered in his spiritual healing.

 

With the simple spiritual practice of paying attention to our senses, we take God out of the box we’ve put God in and gain a greater clarity about where God is and what God does. So I invite you this Lent: Set aside your fixed assumptions. Slow down each day, and look at your life through the eyes of your heart,[2] as you did in our exercise this morning.

 

In your day-to-day experience, what does God look like? The white lace on the trees this morning or a cherished friend or light breaking over a Sierra mountaintop? What does God feel like? A compassionate touch or a gentle lake breeze on your face? What does God sound like? A beautiful choir or a cheerful hello or an honest opinion? What does God smell like? A welcoming pot of coffee as you came in church this morning or snow-filled air? What does God taste like? Bread and wine?

 

These are questions worth asking. For when we “cultivate the gifts of the senses,” in the words of Kim Orr,[3] we not only wake up to the richness in the most common activities of our lives. We begin to sense a deeper reality. We begin to perceive signs—of God gently leaning in toward us in love and compassion. We begin to perceive signs of our subtle healing. We begin to see the world and each other as God does, from the heart.

 

This practice can transform us, as surely as the blind man received his sight. And in this gradual transformation, this opening of our senses to the Divine, we can see things both as they are and as we are. As “children of light.”

 

 ~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Associate for Interfaith Ministry

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada

March 30, 2014

 

 



[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p. 175 as referenced in https://bible.org/seriespage/first-sign-jesus-turns-water-wine-john-21-11

 

[2] Christine Valters Paintner and Betsey Beckman, “The Senses of God,” in Awakening the Creative Spirit: Bringing the Arts into Spiritual Direction (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2010), pp, 130–31.

[3] Kim Orr, “Cultivating the Gifts of the Senses” (2014) [http://contemplativejournal.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=88:cultivating-the-gifts-of-the-senses-consider-sight&Itemid=960