Sight Unseen

Having the wrong theory can prevent you seeing what is right in front of you...

SJF • Lent 4a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
For the Lord does not see as mortals see...

This Sunday the designers of the Lectionary — the scripture readings we hear week by week — have interrupted our exploration of Paul’s Letter to the Romans by inserting a reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians instead. But Paul’s theme continues: that God has come to us to us to find us, not because we are worthy, but because we are lost. Today’s readings all present this “lostness” as blindness, real or metaphorical.

For Samuel this takes the form of a quest: looking for something important, but not being able to find it, not recognizing it when it is right in front of him. Samuel is sent in search of a new king for Israel. The old king, Saul, has lost favor with God. Saul has disobeyed God, and God withdraws his favor, and the royalty drains out of Saul like a slow leak from a punctured tire, leaving him driving on the rim. Samuel grieves over this loss as much as poor deflated Saul.

Finally God tells Samuel, “Quit your moping, and get on down to Bethlehem, down to Jesse’s house — you know, Ruth’s grandson. I’ve taken a mind to make one of his boys king.” So Samuel heads down to Bethlehem with his oil-horn full, and he starts looking for majesty. And this is where his eyesight fails.

Have you ever seen a friend coming up the street, gone up to say hello and then discovered that it wasn’t who you thought it was? Or have you ever experienced the opposite, having what seems a total stranger come up to you with a cheery hello, and then suddenly you recognize them?

This is what happens to Samuel. Prophet though he is, his vision is not always clear. When he sees Jesse’s oldest son, the first son, big, strong son Eliab, he thinks, “Why, he’s just like Saul — a strong warrior — surely he must be our new king.” But God says, “Hold your horses. Yes he looks like a king, but there’s more to kingship than strength, as experience with Saul should have taught you! Learn to look at the inside.”

One after another the candidates pass by, and God surveys them with divine X-ray vision, like the quality control at the assembly line. The defective would-be kings pile up at the end of the conveyor belt at the end of the line, and Inspector Number One keeps shaking his head. Imagine how frustrating this must be for Samuel, and how embarrassing for poor Jesse — especially after the big buildup and swelling pride that one of his sons is going to be king!

Then just when Jesse seems to have run out of sons, he remembers David, the one nobody thought was even in the running, the one nobody thought even needed to be called to come. And I suspect that even when God says, “This is the one,” Samuel’s heart must sink for a moment, reflecting doubts a later prophet would have about himself, “He’s only a boy!”

But when that anointing oil touches that boy’s head, there is no mistake. The presence of God’s Spirit is manifest, and all of their eyes are opened. What was inside David, all along, sight unseen, the potential for love, obedience and courage, suddenly becomes visible on the outside; and the shepherd boy becomes the king.

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Having your eyes opened is a gift, but it is a gift not everyone receives. We see that most clearly in our Gospel account of the man born blind. This man doesn’t ask to be healed. He’s just minding his business, begging by the roadside. Unlike blind Bartimaeus of Jericho, who made such a fuss that Jesus had to stop, this unnamed blind man doesn’t yell out to be healed. You see, he’s been blind from birth, and no one blind from birth has ever been healed, so why waste the healer’s time. He’s just happy to sit and beg; he doesn’t expect anything; if he gets a coin he’ll be happy. This blind man regards himself as a hopeless case; he and everybody else knows it.

And no doubt the blind man has heard the debate about what caused his blindness many times. Rabbis have stood around him with their students, arguing about whose sin caused this blindness. And you’ll notice that the disciples want to pull Jesus into just such an argument, right at the beginning of our gospel. You can imagine the kinds of conversations the rabbi would have with his students, as the rabbi would ask: “Was the blindness of this man caused by the sin of this man or his parents — he is blind from birth? Surely he could not have sinned before he was born, could he? So it must be the parents!” Then one bright young student would say, “But does not the prophet Ezekiel say that ‘Only the one who sins shall suffer’?” “Ah,” says another, “but does not Moses say that ‘God visits punishment to the third and fourth generation’?” And all the while the poor blind man sits patiently, literally like a patient at Einstein, surrounded by doctors and med students discussing his incurable case as if he wasn’t even there.

I don’t want to put too much blame on physicians, as I value them too much, but the rabbis and the man’s neighbors are another story, with their own sort of blindness. They don’t see a human being; they don’t care enough even to ask his name; he’s just, you know, “The Man Born Blind.” Every city has people like him, the Man who Begs on the Corner of 183rd Street; the Woman who Sits Outside Penn Station — thousands of people pass them by every day; no one asks their names. They are landmarks, fixtures of the cityscape, so familiar as to be passed by sight unseen. After this blind man is healed, some of his neighbors don’t even recognize him any more. Without his defining blindness, they can’t see him as the same man any more.

And of course, he isn’t the same man any more. Not only is he no longer outwardly blind, but his inner vision is amazingly clear. He doesn’t offer speculation as fact. He isn’t clouded by preconceptions or prejudices. He is an ideal witness, which infuriates the lawyers, who desperately want to convict Jesus of Sabbath-breaking — that’s what they want. The healed man sticks to the facts as he clearly sees them: he was blind, now he sees. He will not be cornered into theorizing about Jesus being a sinner, as he himself had been theorized over from his childhood on.

The Pharisees in their own blindness can’t see a work of grace has been done, the unheard-of miracle that a man born blind now can see. They are completely caught up with theories about the Sabbath, theories that block the vision of grace at work, the grace that alone gives meaning to the Sabbath.

The irony is that this is exactly the opposite of what a theory should do. The word theory means “a way of seeing.” It is a way of seeing that makes sense of everything, that covers all of the evidence, that pulls things together so that finally you can understand what it is you are looking at. And the ultimate theory that God gives us, the ultimate way of seeing, is supposed to be about grace and forgiveness, not sin.

But just as all they see in the man born blind is a sinner, all those Pharisees see in Jesus is a Sabbath-breaker. Their theory is about sin, not about grace. They look at the world through sin-colored glasses. They expect to see sin everywhere, and so that’s all they see.

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All of us have suffered from some kind of spiritual vision impairments in our lives. One could argue that our blindness results from sinful unwillingness to see things from other people’s point of view. One could argue that we are all “blind from birth” due to the corrupting influence of original sin. But I don’t want to fall into the trap the Pharisees’ fell into with their theory a bout sin. I don’t want to spend my time debating why we are spiritually blind. Rather, I want to rejoice that whatever our past condition, though we were blind, yet now we see. Amazing grace has been poured out upon us and is being poured out still.

Our big brother calls us at the last minute from the sheep-fold, and a wild old man pours oil on our head, and suddenly we feel the power of God flow into us and through us; power to take responsibility, power to deliver others from the domination of injustice and tyranny, the royal power of God to be who and what we were always meant to be.

While we sit begging in the street, dull and oblivious to the pointless voices arguing about how bad we are, and why we are so bad, a man comes by — a man we don’t even know, a man we didn’t ask for, a man we cannot see. And he touches us, and says, Go, wash. And we go and wash, and our eyes are opened.

And after the religious authorities have driven us out of the synagogue because they can’t accept this miracle of grace, someone asks us, Do you believe in the Son of man? We hesitate; how can we know him? Who is he? Like Samuel, our thoughts run, What would such a man look like? We remember past disappointments, when we’ve put our trust in people who turned out not to be what they seemed, or what we hoped.

And the one who asks us knows this. He is patient. He smiles, and says, “You have seen him.” He pauses as our thoughts race in excitement. When? Where? Our eyes have only just been opened and yet we’ve already seen so much and so many! And then the man before us says to us, “I am he, the one who talks with you now.” And, as Saint Paul told the Ephesians, we who once were darkness are now light.

Sight unseen the Lord has been with us all this time, and we did not know it. But the blindness has been lifted from our eyes, and we see in this man before us — even as he is nailed to a cross and dies for us — we see all the power and the majesty of God — the power to love with the strongest love which isn’t afraid to be thought of as weak, the purest love which does not fear to be called names by the blind and ignorant, the greatest love that gave itself to the world for the sake of the world, that all might see, and believe, and be saved. To him be the royal glory, henceforth and for evermore.

Looking and Seeing

When we come to the place of a skull, what do we see: a king or a criminal?

Proper 29c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The beloved Son… is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

I am sure that everyone here is familiar with optical illusions. These are the sometimes puzzling images that fool our eyes — or perhaps I should say, fool our brains, since it is the eyes that look, but it is the brain that actually sees. In these images our whole visual apparatus is tricked either into seeing something that isn’t there, or seeing something as other than it actually is. Some of those illusions can make two lines of the same length look as if they are unequal to each other — but when you get out a ruler and measure them, they turn out to be the same. Your vision may fool you, but the ruler tells the truth.

Another kind of illusion presents us with a picture that at first we see as one thing, but then realize with a shock that it can be seen as something else. Likely you are familiar with that image of two faces in profile looking at each other — and then you realize that it also forms a chalice.

Or perhaps more striking, I’m sure you’ve noticed the image I’ve included on the back of our worship bulletin today. It is called “All Is Vanity”; it was drawn by an 18-year-old artist, Charles Allen Gilbert, back in 1892; Life magazine bought it, and reprinted as a poster, a greeting card, and in just about any other form you can imagine. If it was around today they would produce it as a mouse pad and a screen-saver. The image was so popular that almost a hundred years later, the perfumer Christian Dior used an updated photographic version to advertise their new perfume aptly named “Poison.”

So what did you see first — the woman sitting at her vanity table, or the skull? Some of it depends on how close your eye is to it, or how far away; the further away you hold it, the more you see the skull; the closer you get, the more you see the woman at her vanity. You might say that that is the “real” picture — the one of the woman at her vanity table — certainly in the Dior advertisement, it’s a photograph of a woman seated at a table, posed exactly as in the original drawing - and that’s what the photographer recorded. Yet that skull — and the message it conveys — that all is vanity — is very hard to miss. So hard that it strikes me as odd that a perfume company would think it a good idea to use it to advertise their perfume; though I also wonder why they thought “Poison” was a good name for something you dab behind your ears! It is a bit like using the graveyard scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to advertise cosmetics: as Hamlet addresses poor Yorick’s skull and says, “Get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come.” It is a sobering reminder to see a vanity table as “the place of a skull.”

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Today’s celebration of the last Sunday in the church year presents us with just such a double image — and death is involved in it, and as well as a “place of the skull.” For we are told on the one hand that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. That is to say, God is invisible, but in Jesus you see of God all that can be seen; in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. But we are then confronted with the image of that same Jesus mocked and crucified, about to die upon the cross, with its mocking label, “This is the King of the Jews.” The irony is brought home by the fact that this Sunday is popularly known as the feast of Christ the King — but here that title of kingship becomes the means for mockery.

The problem is that the mockers — the bystanders, the soldiers, and one of the two thieves — look at Jesus and they do not see a king, but a failed revolutionary, perhaps even a madman who imagined himself to be a king. The English Christian author C.S. Lewis, the 50th anniversary of whose death fell just this past Friday — yes, the same day as John Kennedy’s assassination, so there’s another double image for you — he once wrote that people make a huge mistake when they try to picture Jesus as just a good man or a wise teacher. Jesus presents himself and describes himself as more than a mere wise teacher; at least the Gospels portray him as doing so. He presents himself as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. If that is not true, and he made those claims, then he is either lying or mad. As Lewis put it,

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil out of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.

So Lewis said, and he was right. The problem is that most of the people standing at the foot of the cross cannot see Jesus as a King, cannot see him as the son of God or the Messiah, in spite of the fact what that sign over his head says — even if Pilate was merely making a cruel joke. Perhaps Pilate had begun to see something in this man more than most of the people could — it is always hard to tell exactly what politicians think. But for the most of the crowd, this was no son of God, this was no King — they simply couldn’t see it.

Its like someone who could look and look and just not see the skull in “All Is Vanity” — someone who insists “This is just a picture of a woman at her dressing-table, with her reflection in the mirror. What do you mean, a skull? Look, there’s the woman, her reflection, there’s the table, there’s the little drapery in front of the table; there are all her bottles of perfume, and her cremes and jellies. There’s no skull there!” And to a degree such a person would be right, for that is what the picture is.

Yet for those of us who see it, as the artist intended, it is the skull that stands out, rather than the woman at her vanity, even as we appreciate because of that artistry the artist’s message that life is fleeting and vanity is no refuge — with perhaps an echo of Hamlet in our ears that you can put on as much makeup as you want, but the bones underneath the skin will be around long after the rest of us has turned to dust. “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity, saith the Preacher!”

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There is a huge difference between looking and seeing. Some who followed Jesus even from the beginning knew him to be more than simply a good and wise man. Yet some of those are also among the ones that fled when he was taken prisoner, were those same people. How deep was their trust? How deep was their faith, if they could run off like that? It is a lesson to us that Peter, the first one openly to proclaim Jesus as Messiah and son of God, was also quick to deny him three times that night he was arrested, when suddenly it seemed that everything was falling apart.

However, Luke gives us one short glimpse of a character entirely new to the story, not a follower of Jesus who had been with him from the beginning on the road, or who had heard his teaching, as far as we know, yet one who recognizes him and sees him — even though all he knows him as is a fellow prisoner, a fellow criminal for all he knows, condemned to death just like that other thief — and yet this crucified thief somehow is given the grace to see in the crucified man beside him, not only innocence, but salvation. At least one person there at the “place of the skull” looked at Jesus and saw him — not as a failed huckster or a madman or a demon, but as the Messiah, the Christ, the image of the invisible God, the Way to Paradise, the Truth of God, and Life everlasting.

May God give us the grace to see that Christ in the unlikely places, even the crucified places, in our lives — to rejoice with him in our joys, but to know him as well even in our sorrows and in our pains. May we look and see the one through whom God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross; even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Lessons for the Rich

To work with what you have while you have it and can use it... for good.

P21c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

One sign that fall has arrived, as sure and certain as the leaves on the trees turning from green to red and gold, is the appearance of another kind of green and gold — money — in the Scripture readings appointed for worship. This is no coincidence, as fall is the time when churches take up planning their budgets for the next year and engaging in stewardship campaigns. But money and its right use are major concerns not just for the church, but for every person trying to live an ordered and just life.

Money, in spite of the misquote of Scripture, is not the root of all evil. It is the “love of money” — as Paul reminds Timothy. Money itself is neither good nor evil. It is how you relate to it, how you make use of it — or how you allow it to make use of you — that is good or evil. Money is no more evil in itself than food, or sex, or relaxation. But all of these things provide a means to sin when they are misused. Something good, good when used as God intends, can become a gateway to evil when used to excess or to the wrong ends. Gluttony is the misuse of food; sloth is the misuse of leisure; lust is the misuse of sex; and greed is the misuse of money.

All of our Scripture readings today point an accusing finger in the direction of greed, and counsel ways around it or away from it. Amos issues a strong condemnation of the rich — not just because they are rich, of course, but because while they are rich, they “are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph,” that is, about the impending day of doom that is about to fall upon Israel. Like Nero fiddling while Rome burns, these easy-chair loungers are oblivious to the coming disaster. They will be horribly surprised when their world collapses around them, and their lives end, having spent their wealth almost as a kind of anesthetic, insulating them — but not protecting them — from the realities of a troubled world.

For that “real world” breaks in, shattering the plans even of the virtuous, even of the innocent. Whether from a suicide bomber last week outside a church in Peshawar, or 50years ago outside a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or from a gang of terrorists invading an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, or a madman in a Navy Yard, horror and disaster can overtake even good and innocent people. As poet Kofi Awoonor, one of the victims of the attack in Kenya wrote in a prophetic poem,

We are the celebrants
whose fields were
overrun by rogues
and other bad men who
interrupted our dance
with obscene songs and bad gestures

If such horror can overtake even the innocent and perceptive, how much more the prideful and ignorant? In the midst of our shock and horror, it is well to learn the sad lesson that you can take your life in your hands even going to an upscale shopping mall, even going to a humble church. Upscale, downscale, or no-scale, Anglican or Baptist, — ruin can come upon you unawares.

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And so, being aware is part of what Jesus offers us in the cautionary parable of Lazarus and the rich man. We don’t get much detail about this rich guy, other than that he feasts every day but ignores — remains unaware of — that poor, sick man who lies at his gate. His riches seem to blind him to reality. Even the dogs pay more attention to Lazarus than this rich man does, this oblivious rich man. He is not even bothered enough to chase him away, far less give him something to eat. He is unaware — ignoring the poor man as much as those who were at ease in Zion and Samaria ignored the world falling apart around them. He reminds me of another verse in Kofi Awoonor’s prophetic poem:

On the seaside, the ruins recent
from the latest storms
remind of ancestral wealth
pillaged purloined pawned
by an unthinking grandfather
who lived the life of a lord
and drove coming generations to
despair and ruin

This rich man is clueless; he lives the life of a lord, but he is ignorant, he doesn’t even know what he is looking at. He is like that rich man who couldn’t believe it the first time he saw a one-dollar bill; he couldn’t believe they made money in such small denominations. It must be a joke someone cooked up! (He should have come to church more often...)

So too should have that the rich man in the parable — at least to the synagogue, where safe from bomb-blasts or not, at least he would have heard the warnings of Moses and the Prophets — perhaps risking his life, but hearing, learning, marking and inwardly digesting those words and so gaining his immortal soul. Instead, when his proverbial sell-by date arrives he is bundled off to Hades, there to suffer torment both physical and mental.

For not only is he roasted in flames, but he realizes that his five brothers are just as bad — and just as doomed — as he. They will join him in the pit of Hell if they do not repent and amend their ways — and yet when he shows perhaps the first spark of interest in anyone other than himself in his whole life, in wanting to warn them, he receives the sad sentence that nothing special will be done for them, any more than was done for him. The warning sign was there in the Law of Moses: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; and that warning was proclaimed by the Prophets.

But this man not only did nothing for his neighbors, he didn’t lift a finger to help a man dying on his own sidewalk. That poor, sick, starving man was a beacon shining right on his doorstep, a light that could have saved him, had he not closed his eyes and turned the other way, pulling the blinds of his heart, closing the door of mercy, and barring the gates of grace.

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We too are shown such beacons of need; they shine on every street-corner of this great and terrible city. I don’t think that any of us here is so rich as to be blinded by wealth, and are much more likely to find it enough to be content with our food and our clothing. Yet we are still called to share what we have — rich or poor — what we have, with those who have not, as Paul reminded Timothy, “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” And as for those who truly are rich, Paul has a word for them as well: not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on their uncertain riches, but rather on God who desires that everyone be rich in the Spirit, and richly provides us with everything we need.

So there is no way out of the responsibility to keep an eye open for the signs of need, those beacons of need — whether one is poor, rich or middle-class, there is always someone less well off who can be helped by one who has more. The important thing, as the parable reminds us, is to do this while we are able — for once the time of parting from this life arrives, all that we have accumulated will be beyond our reach. When the time of parting comes, we lose the power to do good with whatever resources we had, and only if we’ve made a will and given direction can they do any good at all, after we have gone.

This truth is brought out very poignantly in a scene from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Jacob Marley, unlike the rich man in the parable, is given the opportunity to warn his old friend Ebenezer Scrooge, so that Scrooge can escape his fate. And what is that fate? It is not quite like that of the man in the parable — whose punishment in part is not to be able to warn his brothers. No, Marley’s punishment, what he suffers, serves in itself as an additional warning to Scrooge when Scrooge looks out the window and sees, that, as Dickens describes it,

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s … One old ghost ... with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle... cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

Their fate is that terrible frustration not to be able to make use of earthly wealth — even for good — once they have departed earthly life. They end up helpless, chained to ghostly wealth that they cannot share in this world.

God calls us all to make use of what we have while we are able, as Dickens says, “to interfere, for good, in human matters.” We can still heed Moses and the prophets, heed the beacons of need on our doorsteps, on our sidewalks, and even more: heed the words of the one who did rise from the dead, who speaks to us still in the voice of Scripture and by echoing of the Holy Spirit in our own consciences — to do good, each as we are able, by the strength and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Not What It Seems

Jesus comes to us in the humble form of bread and wine, as he came to his village in the humble form of flesh and blood. A sermon for Proper 14b.

Proper 14b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
They began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?”

Two great mysteries confront us today. The first is in the Gospel of John, concerning Jesus Christ and who he claims to be — and is. And the second, like unto it, and alluded to in the Gospel passage, concerns the bread that we break and share in the Holy Eucharist, how it becomes — and is — the Body of Christ, the bread from heaven, given for us.

The problem for us, as for the people who surrounded Jesus and pressed him for answers, is that things are not always as they seem. We’ve all heard stories, or perhaps even had the experience, of mistaken identity. Perhaps the most cautionary tale is that of the man at a cocktail party chatting with a stranger and commenting about a woman across the room. “Will you look at the outfit that woman has on! I guess there aren’t any mirrors in her house... heh heh heh. Some people just don’t know how to dress, I guess.” At which point the other man finally says, “That would be my wife you’re talking about.” Oops!

The people in our Gospel passage are in a somewhat different position, in that they think they know just who Jesus is, but they’ve allowed what they know to limit what they think could be. It is because they know he is the son of Joseph that they think it is impossible for him to be “the bread of life” or “the bread that came down from heaven.” Like Nicodemus, about whom we spoke some weeks back, these folks can’t seem to understand the difference between earthly birth and heavenly birth — the difference between being born as a son of Joseph and being born from above — from heaven. The earthly part — they’re sure about that. But this heavenly bit — that makes no sense to them, because their minds are fixed on what seems to be rather than upon what is; on what Jesus seems to be, rather than upon who he is.

I’m reminded of the story of the Bishop who was asked about believing that the bread of the Holy Eucharist was the Body of Christ. Referring to those dry, flat little rounds of communion hosts, he said, “I have no trouble at all believing it is the Body of Christ; I do have some difficulty believing it is bread!” Of course, for most of us it isn’t ordinary bread, because for us bread is not a thin round wafer but a larger piece, fluffy and cut from a larger loaf, something with a crust. The bread we use in the Holy Communion is not like ordinary bread in any sense of the word.

The problem for the people confronting Jesus is the reverse. The problem for them is that he does not seem to be extraordinary at all. He is all too ordinary for them to see him as anything else. He seems to be just a very ordinary man, a son of the Joseph, whose father and mother they know. But who Jesus is — that is another reality, another matter entirely. They can not easily believe that while he is a man of flesh and blood, flesh and blood as real as any of them, he is also the Son of God come down from heaven for the life of the world. Nothing visible about him, nothing they can know on the basis of the five senses, or of knowing his family, can help them to see that he is on a mission from God: to be the salvation of the world that God loved so much that he sent his Son into it for that very reason, so that they might believe in him and believing hin hm might be saved and have everlasting life. And Jesus puts this truth into the language of bread, which nourishes our earthly life, promising that he is heavenly bread that nourishes unto eternal life. And the bread that he will give for the life of the world is his flesh.

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Which brings us to that second mystery to which I alluded before: the bread we break and share week by week here at this altar. A skeptic or an unbeliever might well say, taking a leaf from that bishop, “It is only bread — a little different from the kind I use to make a sandwich — more like a cracker, flour and water rolled thin and baked crisp.” Bread is bread, the objective observer might well observe — and so it seems to those who stop short of belief, abiding only in what they can see with the eye of the flesh.

But to the eye of faith, the bread is not just what it seems to be. It looks to the earthly eye the same before as after it is prayed over and blessed and consecrated — there is no visible difference between the bread that is carried forward and set upon the altar, and the bread that is broken and placed into your hands as you receive Communion; it looks just the same, just ordinary though slightly unusual bread.

But just as Jesus looked the same as any other ordinary man, and yet was deeply different, so too the consecrated bread of the Holy Eucharist may look no different from how it looked before — but it is profoundly changed. The fact is that many important and substantive changes take place in the world without any apparent external change in appearances. Some things continue to seem to be just what they look like, even while being deeply changed inside, transformed inside.

This is especially true of the sacraments and rites of the church. Even though they make a real and profound change in people, the change is, as Jesus would say, “from above” or “heavenly” — it is not visible to the earthly eye. Baptism, for example, we believe to make an important change in the life of every child who is baptized: we believe that baptism transforms us from a merely earthly life into participation in a heavenly life, through our union with the death and resurrection of Christ himself. The water washes our foreheads, which are sealed with holy oil, but the only difference is the moisture and the scent of balsam that comes from that holy anointing oil. But the inward change — what cannot be seen — is the renewed life of the Holy Spirit, of God himself now adopting the one baptized as a member of his holy family, the Body of Christ, the church. I can assure you that I’ve baptized many a child — and will baptize two more today! — and believe me, they all look more or less the same after as before the baptism — just a little damp. But oh, my friends, I know that they are changed, profoundly changed, deeply changed by the action of God upon them, a change visible only to the eye of faith.

The same is true of the Bread and Wine of the Holy Eucharist — they still appear to be Bread and Wine, and yet have become the Body and Blood of Christ. Our Lord and our God is truly present, as Martin Luther said, “in, with and under” those outward forms of bread and wine. And if some skeptic sitting next to you in church some day should nudge you and say, “Look at that bread the priest is holding up there. Why it’s hardly even worth calling ‘bread’ it’s so dry and thin and almost tasteless,” don’t be at all shy to say to that skeptic, “That’s the Body of Christ you are talking about my friend.”

Jesus comes to us in this humble form of Bread and Wine as he came in the humble form of flesh and blood: the flesh and blood of a man whose family the villagers thought they knew. Some rejected him in that humility and humanity because they thought they knew better. They thought they knew him for who he was — and yet how deeply they erred in their misunderstanding. He came from God, from heaven above, as bread come down for the life of the world, as one who loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Let us give thanks for that offering and sacrifice, and celebrate the feast he has committed to us, and instructed us to do, until the great day comes when sacraments shall cease, and we behold him as he is, in his glory and in his majesty, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Why Believe

Belief comes by experience or testimony... and as a gift of God. A sermon for Epiphany 2b

SJF • Epiphany 2b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

I’m going to ask a question of you that might seem odd coming from a priest to a congregation gathered in church for worship on a Sunday morning. And the question is, “Why do you believe?” I’m specifically thinking of why we believe in God — after all, right after this sermon I will invite us all to affirm our faith and the faith of the church in the words of the Nicene Creed, where we will sing a whole long list of things we say we believe about God.

But there is a larger question here: why do you believe anything? I think most of us would say, starting at the simplest and most personal level, that we believe the things that are evident to our senses — as the old saying goes, seeing is believing! There is an old story about an Anglican bishop who was confronted by someone who was from a church that believed only adults should be baptized. This Anabaptist challenged the bishop, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” To which the bishop responded, “Believe in it? Why, man, I’ve seen it!”

So for most of us the first stage of belief is based on our personal experience; we believe what we see. I know that London is real because I’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt! But the fact of the matter is, I believed there was a London long before I got there and saw it with my own two eyes and walked its streets with my own two feet, and breathed its foggy air. And that brings me to the second reason for belief: testimony.

Much of what we know and believe, probably most of what we know and believe, is not based on our own personal experience — our senses — but on the experience of others reported to us. I spoke a few weeks ago about secondary sources in writing history, and this is precisely where they come in. We believe on the basis of the testimony of others. Unlike personal experience, which is by definition unique to each and every person, belief by testimony can be shared and multiplied. I can tell dozens of people that I have been to London, and talk to them about what I saw there, what the food and weather and the architecture are like, and if they accept my testimony they too will believe that there is a large and populous city on the River Thames, the seat of English government, full of incredible buildings and well supplied with fish and chips — and curry. And not only can I share my own testimony, but those who come to believe through me can share their new belief with others, and they with others still. In this way, many who have had no personal experience of London may come to feel well informed about it.

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So far, so good. It all seems free and clear. But what about people who believe things that are not true? Experience shows that experience can be fooled — the doors of human perception are not always open, and the windows are not always clean and clear. As we are only a few weeks from Christmas, I recall Ebenezer Scrooge’s argument with Jacob Marley’s ghost, right at the beginning of the story when the ghost challenged him to his face as to why he doubted his own senses:

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” To which the Ghost responds, “Man of the worldly mind! Do you believe or not!?”

Our passage from the Old Testament this morning reveals some of the problems with the senses — and with our ability to make sense of them. The old priest Eli has grown blind — not just literally, but figuratively as well, as he has turned a blind eye to the blasphemous corruption and crime of his own two sons, who have corrupted the worship of the temple, stealing the people’s offerings for themselves. The whole nation seems to have lost its senses of hearing and sight, too, for the word of the Lord is rare and visions are not widespread. The corruption in the leaders has infected the people.

It takes a child — a child with fresh and open ears, young Samuel — properly to hear the voice of God gently calling him by name. And even though he does not at first — or even second — recognize who it is that is speaking to him, he eventually comes to know the Lord, and becomes a witness to the presence and power of God, so that the whole land, from Dan to Beer-sheba, comes to know and respect him as a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

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Which brings me to the second problem with belief — it is one thing to trust your own senses, or not to trust them; but it is quite another thing to trust someone else’s senses, someone else’s testimony. The extent to which you believe someone else’s testimony is based on how much you trust them. Whether you believe will be based to a greater or lesser extent on the degree to which you trust their testimony, or their general trustworthiness.

When Philip tells Nathanael that he has found the Lord, Nathanael’s first response is one of doubt, not trust. Perhaps he’d had some bad experience with Philip; or perhaps he found it too hard to believe that the Messiah had actually come — especially from the unexpected direction of Nazareth; or maybe he was just a skeptical person by nature and didn’t trust anybody. Whatever the reason, doubting other people or their testimony can be a block to our believing what they say.

So, as Philip suggests, perhaps with a shrug or a smile, Come and see; if you don’t believe me, let it be your own senses that convert you, convince you, and bring you to belief. So it often comes back to personal experience. Just as Thomas said he would not believe in the risen Christ until he saw him with his own eyes, and even put his finger in the place where the nails had made the wounds, so too Philip offers Nathanael the only thing ultimately that you can offer to a doubtful skeptic: Come and see! And Nathanael goes, and he sees, and he believes. Big time.

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So why do we believe? Is it simply because you accept the testimony of those who walked with Christ, in those ancient days, and passed along their testimony in the form that eventually came to be published abroad in the Gospels we now have, those precious pages in that book? Do you believe because people whom you respect have told you of their experience of God at work in their own lives? Or do you believe because you have, in some way perhaps you cannot fully describe or even understand, heard the voice of God calling you gently by name, have felt the hand of God at work in your life, guiding you along right pathways for his Name’s sake? Very truly, I tell you, those who believe will see greater things than these. You will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.+