Kenzie Bok is a Harvard College History Concentrator, President of the Harvard College Episcopal Chaplaincy, and a graduating Senior. Traditionally, Seniors in the chaplaincy have preached a sermon the spring semester of their final year, and Kenzie did so last evening. Her texts were:
1 Samuel 16:1-13, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41
“As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither.’” With that “neither,” Christ decouples the realm of worldly good fortune and misfortune from the realm of righteousness and sinfulness before God. The world, we learn here and elsewhere in the Gospel, is not set up to be an earthly system of reward and punishment; the blind man is not blind because he was bad, nor because of the misdeeds of his parents. This assertion is potent because it eliminates one of the easiest ways for people, in Jesus’ day and in our own, to make peace with the injustice of the world: by simply assuming that those who do well really are better, and those who suffer are lacking in some way. Using that calculus, we could take things at face value, praising those who are fortunate and turning our eyes away from those who are not. But our reading in Samuel today could not have said it more clearly:
"But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature (…); for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’"
This idea is picked up again and again in the Gospels, as Jesus uses parable after parable to praise those who society barely recognizes. In a sense, this point is meant to be reassuring: when human life is difficult or seems unfair, God is there to comfort the sufferer, not to add to the pain by piling divine condemnation on top of misfortune. How cruel if challenging life circumstances indicated estrangement from God!
But of course this message is also unsettling, especially for a particular group of people: those who are fortunate in the eyes of the world. Those for whom it would be just as well if accomplishments, talents, possessions were the things that God focused on. Most likely many of you are familiar with the Beatitudes, Jesus’ famous sayings from the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful.’ Well we’re here at Harvard, and if there were one place in the world that could rest easier if the Beatitudes read: ‘Blessed are the powerful, the wealthy, the successful, the privileged, the intelligent,’ surely it would be here. Nothing about the decoupling of the realm of worldly fortune from the realm of righteousness says that a fortunate person is not in right relationship with God; one could certainly be both. But for those of us who ordinarily feel ourselves so secure about our position in the world, this decoupling unsettles us, leaving us anxious and unsure about how to know whether we are living rightly.
So what do we do? Well, we turn to rules and authority, we seek systems that will allow us to feel secure, to feel that we have it all figured out again. And then, if something disrupts our new system—threatens to shift the rules beneath our feet—we resist with all our might. You see a textbook case of this in the Gospel today. The blind man is healed, and no one wants to believe it. They see the man and they ask ‘Is this the same man?’ Even when the man bears witness to the miracle himself, they continue to doubt. They call in his parents, who reluctantly confirm that he is their son and was born blind, but refuse to speculate on the cause of his healing.
These people are not us, 2000 years later, doubting the veracity of a miracle we didn’t witness. It has happened before their eyes. So why are they so resistant? Why, in the face of a wondrous work, do they respond with fear? Because it upends authority. Jesus is not authorized to do this sort of work: as the Pharisees say, “We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” And he is breaking a very established rule to do it: he heals the blind man on the Sabbath, when one isn’t supposed to do any work. So the temple authorities are ready to label him a sinner, but they’re dogged by the question “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” This situation seems to upset their settled categories. The parents of the blind man, ordinary practicing Jews, are afraid of stepping into the midst of this controversy: they believe in the miracle, but the power of the sign is not enough to overcome the power of the authorities, who will exile them from the Temple for saying the wrong thing. The formerly blind man has no such qualms: he feels the reality of his own healing too strongly to disavow it. He tells the authorities: “I do not know whether he [Jesus] is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
There’s an implicit rebuke in this exchange: the authorities have gotten so caught up in the rules that they’ve lost perspective. Keeping the Sabbath is important, but healing the blind is more so. Jesus’ action follows the logic of the two commandments he laid down in Mark’s gospel; asked what commandment is first of all, Jesus answered that the first is to “‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and the second is ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ As he says, “there is no other commandment greater than these.” So in this story, Jesus is carrying out an action of love for his neighbor, the blind man, which supersedes the restriction against work on the Sabbath. This order of precedence resonates with everything we feel about how we ought to prioritize the alleviation of human suffering. But as this story shows, such self-evident truths can be missed when we try to distill God into a rulebook.
Now let us be clear: this criticism is not meant to be left at the feet of the ancient Hebrews. As always in the Gospels, we are intended to meditate on how the failings of its characters reflect in our own lives, to ask “Would we too do this?” Karl Barth, a twentieth-century neo-orthodox theologian, often criticized Christian churches on precisely this point, arguing that when the Church tries to reduce and master the divine by “transforming the service of God into ‘pious practices’ and righteousness into a law of righteousness,” it pursues the human activity of religion but loses sight of God. We end up with an ossified structure, one that concerns itself with correct and incorrect behavior but not with justice and injustice and not with the transcendent power of the Holy Spirit. Today, in our churches and in broader secular society, we continue to draw up such limiting scorecards. We are eager for something straightforward: we like rules we can follow, games we can play. I for one am extremely fond of games, as a number of people here today can attest. But the problem is that God doesn’t want us to live life like a game we can win or lose according to a rulebook.
So what does God want for us? If we become suspicious of our efforts to take refuge in authority, what is the answer to how we should act in the world? Must we just stand paralyzed, or decide that there is no such thing as a right or wrong way to live? I think today’s readings answer that question with the language of sight and perception. God is not trying to give us a rulebook by which to assess the world but instead a light by which to see the world illuminated. God wants to strip away our blindness, to renew our sight. What would seeing the world with renewed sight look like? Well, it would mean seeing a world in which our fellow human beings—those neighbors we are meant to serve—show up more brightly than anything else. Picture it this way: you stare at a room full of dazzling treasure—something like those mountains of gold in Disney’s Aladdin, for example—with a few people sitting and standing amongst the piles. The treasure is likely what you focus on: it’s astonishingly beautiful, and you begin to plan how you might snag some. But then imagine seeing the same scene with infrared goggles on. The treasure would fade into the background, turning various shades of grey, while the living people would stand out in the red of the thermal imaging. You’d see a world in which the most important things are not treasure of various types—power, fame, wealth, recognition—but the living, breathing people who surround you. Based on the Gospel, this is how God means for us to see the world. Indeed, I’d go even further and say it is how we see the world, deep down. But we fear disrupting the authorities we’ve established for ourselves, and we want to think that the treasures we cling to are as shiny as they appear. So we wear blinders, often made for us by our society but held to our eyes by our own volition, since we fear the responsibility that would come with stripping them off and fully recognizing God and other people.
This is a pity, because when we open our eyes as God calls us to, we see something far more dazzling than the Aladdin treasure piles: we see the image of God. That image is inscribed in our hearts and our persons as human beings. But often the easiest place for us to see it is not in ourselves but in the face of another. It’s when we feel connections that transcend our differences that we start to recognize the common image that we human beings really share. And tracing the outline of the image of God in each other is what inspires us to live into that image by doing God’s work in the world. When we see things as they really are, when we perceive the world illuminated by God’s light, we are inevitably drawn into participation in God’s work, drawn into service and love for one another. This is what our Ephesians reading for the day means when it says: “Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” When our world is bathed in light, we become able to live as we could not when we were submerged in darkness. So we must not be afraid of light, we must not be afraid of seeing. We must step out from behind the security of superficial measures of success that assure us we are doing well, step out from behind the security of rulebooks and authorities that tell us exactly what to do. We can each think of times that we have taken refuge in such things—I for one certainly do so multiple times a day. Abandoning this security is scary, but it’s also the only way to live honestly and courageously, in our full stature as human beings. God calls us to step out and open our eyes.