Sometimes We’re Blind
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
4th Sunday after the Epiphany
29 January 2006
I will begin with a Jewish folktale:
The great Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi was certain that all his knowledge of Torah and Talmud did not give him the wisdom for life that he sought, so he prayed for Elijah to come to teach him. When Elijah came, he said Rabbi Joshua could travel with him but not ask questions or voice comments along the way. Their journey was unusual: they stayed with a kind, poor farmer couple, after which Elijah prayed that their one prize cow would die; they visited a greedy, uncompassionate rich man, after which Elijah miraculously rebuilt a crumbling wall for the man so that it would stand for generations; they entered a rude and arrogant town for which Elijah prayed that everyone there would become a leader; they came to a small village of kind and generous people for whom Elijah prayed there would be only one leader. At this point Rabbi Joshua could be silent no longer and exploded with his demands to know the meaning of Elijah’s strange actions. Elijah then explained: he knew the first farmer was to die the next day and asked that the cow die instead; under the rich man’s wall was a chest of gold – now that the wall was rebuilt so sturdily, the rich man would never find the chest and reap its benefits; a community with too many leaders will argue and be discontent until they change their arrogant ways, while a village with one strong leader will grow and prosper – hence the prayers for the two towns. Then Elijah said, “Rabbi Joshua . . . You say you wish for the keys to wisdom and understanding of life on earth. The first key to wisdom is to realize that all that you see is not what it seems.
Fans of science fiction and horror films know that things are often not what they seem. Characters in shows like Star Trek or Stargate often have their bodies taken over by some alien consciousness. And in horror films terror often comes when and where you least expect it.
But there are so many stories in Western culture that teach this lesson. Isn’t that the moral of the frog turning into a prince when kissed? Or of the ugly duckling that becomes the swan. Or that the heroes that save Middleearth are the small, inconspicuous hobbits?
There are two different ways to see. One is to use our physical sight and take in the appearance of someone or some thing. The other way is to see beyond appearance, to use intuition, insight, or discernment. To see means to understand, and to understand in a deeper way. That’s the reason that Luke Skywalker shuts off his guidance system and uses the Force to guide his shot that destroys the Death Star. It is discernment that leads Indiana Jones to go for the humble goblet instead of the shiny, golden ones at the end of The Last Crusade.
Our culture has become obsessed with physical sight and appearances. We promote images of men and women that lead to unhealthy eating disorders or use of steroids. We become fixated on the advertising campaign or the soundbyte and overlook the substance of our political and economic actions. We’ve become so enamored with stuff that we horde more and more things.
Our obsessions don’t seem to be making us any happier or helping us to achieve the good life. Besides addiction and eating disorders, we have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and behavioural problems. And we end up participating in economic, cultural, and political systems that further evil. We in the wealthiest country in the world horde a disproportionate amount of the wealth and goods and destroy more and more of the natural environment.
When we read statistics on the environment or poverty or teenage eating disorders or rates of obesity or whatever, we feel a conviction and compassion. So, how do we get caught up in participating in these systems in the first place? Because we lack the ability to see. In our culture that’s obsessed with sight, we’ve lost insight, discernment, and understanding.
In Mark 4, Jesus tells a parable and then explains it to his disciples at which point he says, “See what you hear.” And with that a theme begins that will run throughout the gospel. In Mitzi Minor’s excellent commentary The Power of Mark’s Story, she points out that throughout the gospel Jesus uses the term “to see” until it becomes clear that this is a theme in the gospel.
Our study this Epiphany season is entitled “Seeing Jesus.” The Epiphany season is about those times in the life of Jesus when people’s eyes were opened and they saw Jesus for who he was. What we are talking about is developing the ability to have true spiritual insight. Once we grasp who Jesus is and what his message is all about, then we will begin to see things for the way they really are.
Jesus performs miracles and healings so that the diseased, mentally ill, and disabled will be seen as people of worth. Jesus’ teaching reveals him to be an authority greater than the scribes. The Pharisees are revealed as hypocrites. The religious system is exposed for its oppression of the poor and the outcasts. It becomes clear that the political authorities do not represent God’s will for humankind.
In the Gospel that we read today, it is clear that those around Jesus still don’t understand what’s going on. First the Pharisees come to him and want a sign. This reveals their blindness. If they’ve been watching and listening to Jesus’ ministry thus far, then they would realize that he is the Messiah, the Son of God as he is announced to be in the first verse of the gospel. Yet, we know that they have been present and have been engaging him in debates. So, it becomes clear to the readers that the Pharisees aren’t really watching, that they aren’t really listening. They don’t have the eyes to see or the ears to hear because their prejudices are blocking them. This is why Jesus warns the disciples to beware of the “yeast” of the Pharisees. As Mitzi Minor writes, in those days yeast was a metaphor for the “evil inclinations of human beings.”
But, then, the disciples aren’t much better. They’ve been present with Jesus, yet even they still don’t see who Jesus is. In fact, this is the point when Jesus becomes angry at their misunderstanding. For the third time in the gospel, they are on a boat. Jesus has already calmed the storm and walked on water. The gospel writer puts them on a boat again as if to emphasize, surely if they are on a boat, they’ll remember what he’s already done the two previous times and this time they’ll understand. But, no, they don’t.
This is also the third story including loaves of bread. Jesus has already fed 5,000 and earlier in the chapter he’s fed 4,000. Yet, they become concerned when they have only one piece of bread.
Exasperated, Jesus scolds them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?”
The author of Mark is a skilled writer. In case these two episodes of the Pharisees and of the disciples on the boat haven’t made the point for us readers, he next tells the story of the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida. The reason that this story comes next is because the author is telling us that there is still hope for those who are spiritually blind. This is the only healing that takes two steps to heal the person. Usually Jesus just speaks and the person is whole again. Why is this one story in this location different? Because it represents that some people do understand partially, they aren’t completely blind, but then they can’t see everything clearly either. This is the disciples problem. They understand a little bit, but still don’t have insight enough.
Mitzi Minor concludes,
Mark’s journey story shows us that following Jesus on the way calls forth an insightfulness that looks beneath the surface of any situation or circumstance for the truth hovering there. . . . [Insightful people] see beyond particular moments to the further implications, consequences, and possibilities of one’s words and deeds. In addition, their sight is not limited by what they cannot see with their physical eyes. Instead, they are able to imagine, and thus see, what yet might be. . . . They see where and how and when God is at work in the world even when surface appearances could suggest that God is not at work at all. Frankly, these seers may look like fools to most folks.
So, one lesson we learn from the Gospel of Mark is that we must develop the ability to see. And in the remaining weeks of this series, we will talk about how to develop this insight.
Today, however, we will act out such insight. Today we are licensing Mary Frances Albert to the ministry. We as her community of faith are saying, we see in you a calling to ministry. We understand that God has called her and gifted her, and we acknowledge that today.
And, you know what, it is something that many people are probably too blind to perceive. After all, here is a woman, and so many stubborn people still refuse to see that God calls women to ministry. And here is a lesbian. Oh, heavens. Surely a “practicing homosexual” (whatever that means) can’t be a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ! Some people might see a quiet, shy person and wonder how she could minister. Or how someone who has struggled with life could.
But you know what? We truly see. We understand that God’s Spirit is poured out on all people. That God will call whomever God wants, that God isn’t bound by human prejudices and expectations.
Today this woman, our sister, comes before us seeking something she has wanted most of her life. As a young woman in the 1970’s she felt God’s call. She attended seminary and served in one Episcopal church for a brief time while in school. Yet she never completed the process of licensure or ordination. Life got in the way. And for many years Mary Frances lost her dream, because surely she couldn’t be a minister.
Then she found the Cathedral of Hope. And with it a group of people who affirmed her gifts. Mary Frances has led our Prayer Team. If you are on that e-mail list, then you understand the gifts of Mary Frances. When someone submits a prayer request to her, she doesn’t just forward it along. No, she writes a prayer to accompany the request. And her prayers are rich, beautiful compositions. They reveal a depth of spiritual insight.
Finally a couple of years ago, Mary Frances realized that she could complete the process of being recognized as a minister, that here was a community of faith that would not deny her. So, she talked with Bob Wilcox and myself and submitted information to Rev. Hudson and last fall the Cathedral of Hope said, “yes, we will license you as a local minister.”
And let me tell you that even though she asked for it, Mary Frances is overwhelmed by the generosity of this gift. She has been quite nervous as we’ve prepared for the day. In fact, too nervous to share her own testimony, which is why I shared it for her.
Hers is a powerful, beautiful story of healing, salvation, and hope. And we are lucky to have participated. With our action today, we also take on a new responsibility. We are covenanting with Mary Frances to allow her to minister among us. We must be open to the grace that she will bring. We need to hear her ideas and encourage her work.
And Mary Frances, you too are taking on a new responsibility. Everyone in this congregation is a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But you are committing to help in equipping the rest of us to minister. You will be a leader. And so we will expect you to help us.
First help us to see what God would have us do. We need people of vision who can share their vision. You already lead us in prayer. You have also talked about helping with spiritual formation; one of your ministry goals is a weekend retreat. May you guide us to develop spiritual practices that open us to God. We need to learn how to shut off the distracting noises and images and to really see and really hear the divine.
And we also need your help as we move forward on the journey. Sometimes when we gain insight and see what God would have us to do we are frightened. So, the life of Christian discipleship requires courage. We need leaders who will bravely guide us on the road ahead. Please be that for us.
Let this day stand as a sign for all of us. A sign to remember all those who have ministered to us. A sign to remember that God’s work is often in places that surprise us. A sign to remember our own calling from God. And if we do remember it so, then it will be a sign pointing the way ahead in our journey together.
We need to develop the ability to truly see, because appearances are not always what they seem. May our eyes be opened to see Jesus for who he is.