The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 19, 2023
Deborah asked me to preach today, and I did my best to respond joyfully (as we commit to doing in Seekers) even though I had no idea what the lectionary readings were going to be. I feared they would be difficult or confusing or completely mystifying but I was pleasantly surprised to find them so rich that I immediately had a lot of ideas about where to go with them. Especially the story of Jesus healing the blind man, which contains a wonderful interplay of so many possible ways of seeing and being blind. I’m not going to go into all of them here—it would take all day—but let me name four major categories:
- Physical sight
- Psychological sight
- Social sight
- Spiritual sight
A person with physical sight or vision is someone who can use their eyes to perceive and register objects in the external material world. A physically blind person cannot, though rarely some may experience what’s called “blind sightedness.” Such people can react to visual stimuli but cannot register or retain what they see due to damage in a certain part of their brain, so they are not aware that they are seeing, even though their reactions show that they can. There are also people who can use their other senses to navigate as if they can see. Echolocation is such a technique, also used by bats and whales. People who can do this make noises that sound different when they bounce back from a surface, providing information about obstacles ahead.
Even when we possess the gift of physical sight, we often do not see what is right in front of us. Some experts call this “normal blindness,” meaning that we tend to see what we expect to see while blocking out rare or unusual occurrences. It is a shortcut the brain uses to cope with the vast amount of information present in our visual field at any one time. (https://www.today.com/health/health/normal-blindness-new-study-explains-dont-see-things-right-front-us-rcna40119).
In a famous study, participants were asked to count the number times a white-shirted team passed a ball. In the middle of the experiment, another actor, in a gorilla suit, walked into the room, pounded on her chest and then left. Later, when the participants were asked questions about what went on, only 50% of them said they saw the gorilla. The Pharisees questioned whether Jesus had really healed the blind man or whether he had really been blind in the first place even though they had witnessed the healing. At Seekers, we commit to seeing the world as it really is, even when (or especially when) we don’t expect or like what we see. In yesterday’s Inward/Outward, Marjory Bankson wrote:
During this Lenten season, my eyes are being opened to our thoughtless destruction of God’s good creation….The season means to rouse us from our self-absorption. Absorbed instead in the beauty of other creatures, we see how they value their lives, lives woven together across species in beautifully complex webs…. Once alive to the exquisite web holding all creatures, we also see the holes slashed through it. By us. We’re enraptured by the animals’ beauty and we’re horrified by the suffering we inflict on that beauty
Physical sight is not necessary for a person to possess psychological sight. Examples of American folk heroes who were physically blind but were known for their insightfulness and self-awareness include Helen Keller, musicians Doc Watson and Stevie Wonder, and many others.
Psychological sight or vision, often called insight, involves the ability to understand people (including ourselves) and situations in a very clear way. Some of the qualities related to insight are empathy, accountability, willingness to listen, and cognitive flexibility. An obstacle to insight is denial, or the refusal to admit to something that disturbs us or makes us uncomfortable. Jesus made it clear to the Pharisees that it was not sin that made the sightless man physically blind. But psychological blindness, or denial, can be a sin. Scott Peck has argued that the problem is not doing something wrong – that is human fallibility. The sin occurs when we refuse to acknowledge we have done it. Denial and psychological blindness can be sins. Our egos and our need to defend them can get in the way of our seeing that we have done something wrong.
It is especially difficult to have insight into what Miriam Greenspan calls our “darker emotions” and our less honorable behaviors. Greenspan calls our repressed emotions (such as grief, fear, despair, anger and jealousy) dark emotions because our culture keeps them in the dark, along with other shameful things. People who are experiencing these dark emotions often get the message from our culture and other people that it is time to “get over it” and move on. Many negative conditions such as depression and addiction can result from our inability to tolerate these dark emotions. Barbara Brown Taylor, after emerging from a dark period of her own, said that she “learned that sadness does not sink a person; it is the energy a person spends trying to avoid sadness that does that.” Taylor says that one of the most helpful things to do with dark emotions is to bond with and listen to other people who are also experiencing dark emotions.
In Seekers there are many opportunities for us to share our darker sides and bond with other Seekers
- in Circle Time
- In the part of the liturgy set aside for confession
- In our Mission Groups
- In our School for Christian Growth classes
- And sometimes even in our sermons, though I’m not planning to do that today.
Some social psychologists focus on what they call “social vision.” This field of study is based on the premise that the visual system is especially attuned to social cues in the environment. Research in this area studies how people are able to use vision to accurately perceive characteristics of other people and how individual beliefs and stereotypes may bias the way they see other people. At Seekers we work hard to free ourselves of such biases and stereotypes. “Woke” is a word derived from the dialect that is now being called “African American Vernacular English.” It refers to being aware of racial discrimination and other forms of oppression and acknowledging that they are wrong. Being woke does not require physical vision but it does require social vision. I did some Google searches with the word woke and found that almost all the links connected to negative or critical opinions. It was very depressing! I think that being aware of racial discrimination and other forms of oppression and acknowledging that they are wrong is one of the most positive and good things we can be doing. I’m proud of our Racial and Ethnic Justice ministry, the Sacred Conversations we share with the Covenant community and others, and our commitment to working for peace and justice. And I’m grateful to another member for his outreach to people who are homeless.
Spiritual sight or vision involves the ability to perceive the spiritual or transcendent realm, a reality hidden from the physical or even the psychological eye. Spiritual blindness occurs when we cannot connect to the spiritual dimension of reality. The anonymous 15th century author of The Cloud of Unknowing defined it this way:
“When I say “darkness,” I mean a privation of knowing, just as whatever you do not know or have forgotten is dark to you, because you do not see it with your spiritual eyes. For this reason, that which is between you and your God is termed…a cloud of unknowing.”
Tiresias, the blind seer and prophet from Greek mythology who appears in Sophocles’ plays Oedipus Rex and Antigone and Homer’s Odyssey has spiritual vision without physical vision. Tiresias’ gift for seeing the future only came in the years after he lost his physical vision. It is interesting that though people came to him for his gift of vision, few ever followed his advice. Odysseus was a notable exception and following Tiresias’ advice was what got him home safely from his long and dangerous journey. When Jesus healed the blind man, he healed him of all four kinds of blindness: physical, psychological, social, and spiritual. Once healed, the blind man could see the physical world, had psychological insight into who Jesus was, had social insight into the elitism of the Pharisees, and had spiritual insight into the God Jesus represented.
Jesus made it clear to his disciples that physical blindness was not caused by sinfulness. But in talking to the Pharisees, he made it clear that spiritual blindness was itself a sin and that they had a bad case of spiritual blindness. I’ll repeat a bit of today’s gospel that have you already heard:
“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind. Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we? … if you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
The Pharisees weren’t physically blind. But they were psychologically, socially, and spiritually blind. Their psychological blindness was thinking, in their arrogance, that they had no flaws. Their social blindness was thinking that they were better than other people. They were spiritually blind because they thought that when they obeyed their laws, they were right with God, regardless of their lack of compassion and charity. And because that they didn’t believe in Jesus. The Pharisees were a powerful and influential sect at the time. Jesus called them “blind guides” and said, “if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
For a lot of people, the spiritual dimension involves a relationship with God or what some call a Higher Power. But this is not necessarily the case. The spiritual world is whatever there is about us that transcends the material world. Kolya Braun-Greiner has formulated some questions that can help us become aware of our spirit or soul whether or not we connect to a Divine Presence. They are:
- How are you growing?
- What wants to grow in you and what does it need in order to grow?
- What evokes awe or amazement in you?
- Where or how do you experience joy?
- What, if anything, are you learning about/from pain – or suffering – or grief?
- What would (or does) give meaning to your life.?
- What is your “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver) yearning to do or be at this time?
- Or saying it another way: What might be divinely intended to unfold uniquely in you? Where do you witness the Spirit in this?
So many different kinds of sight, vision, and blindness. We owe it to ourselves and to the holy mystery we call God, to see clearly along all four of the dimensions I have just elaborated on: physical, psychological, social, and spiritual.
I’ll end with a prayer:
Holy One, we ask you to heal our blindness and help us to see clearly. Help us to recognize the truth when we see it, even if it makes us uncomfortable or ashamed. Give us the gift of honest insight into ourselves and others and free us from our denial and defensiveness. Keep us aware of racism and oppression and help us acknowledge that they are wrong. Open our hearts to your holy mysteries and give us the vision to know and do your will. For these things we pray. Amen