The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourth Sunday in Lent: Laetare (Year A)
March 26, 2017
I have a confession to make. When I’m tired, when I just want to unwind, relax, and not think very hard, I like to watch comedies. Just plain, slapstick, easy joking, non-thinking comedies. A professor at the divinity school once told my class that we should have something light to read—a vampire novel or something—between theological tomes. Well, comedies are my vampire novel. And one of my favorite comic actors is Ben Stiller.
If you like Ben Stiller, maybe you’ve seen the film “Zoolander,” a lighthearted mashup of a spoof on the fashion world and a spy thriller. The title character, Eric Zoolander, is a fashion model who has made a career out of various signature “looks,” or facial expressions. “Blue Steel” is his newest “look,” but the joke is that all of his looks are exactly the same. Zoolander, with his runway couture and studied expressions, moves through life easily, without much thought for anything but his good looks, until he is wrapped up in an incident of international intrigue, a la “The Manchurian Candidate,” and a rival model has to save him from assassinating a visiting dignitary. One of the funny lines in the movie is also a prescient one; Zoolander says, “I'm pretty sure there's a lot more to life than being really, really, really, ridiculously good looking. And I plan on finding out what that is.”
By the end of the film Derek Zoolander is inching only slightly closer to figuring out what’s more to life. But maybe you, like Derek, have a feeling that being really, really, ridiculously good looking is actually quite a useful thing.
I remember reading almost two decades ago, during George W. Bush’s successful campaign for the presidency, an article in the New Yorker on polling and research into how people pick their candidates. The details are lost on me at this point, but the gist of it was that a staggeringly low percentage of voters pick candidates based on issues. A much higher percentage of folks pick candidates based on how they look. “He looks honest.” “She looks evil.” “I just have a good feeling that he would be the kind of President I want in office.” These are the sorts of feelings-based responses we might hear in an election. And online dating apps are largely dependent on visual appeal alone. Tinder, one dating app, asks users to view photographs of potential dates—and to swipe right if the person is, well, interesting to date, or left if the user isn’t interested—all based only on visual appeal. Here’s a photo—swipe right, swipe left. In sixty years, children will be asking their grandparents, “Grandpa, how’d you meet Grandma?” And the response will come, “Well, dear, I swiped right.”
Samuel is responding to visual cues—to appearance—in the first reading we hear today. Just for context, let’s remember that Samuel has already anointed Saul as Israel’s king, and that didn’t go so well. Saul has disobeyed God, and God has told Samuel to name another king. And so Samuel goes under the cover of making a sacrifice to Bethlehem to see Jesse, whose son God says is the one to name king.
And what happens next is like a soap opera. It’s like Tinder for the 8th C BC. There Jesse’s sons are, coming to the sacrifice, and Samuel is looking to see who the contender is. Who will date Israel. First comes Eliab, and he’s so tall and really really really ridiculously goodlooking, and Samuel swipes right! “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the LORD,” Samuel says. (1 Sam 6) And God just rolls God’s eyes and says, Samuel, it’s not about how he looks! “For the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (7b) I love that line. That’s what Derek Zoolander is looking for—the meaning to life that’s more than just outward appearance, that’s more than just how things look on the outside. And God’s given this great lesson to Samuel, and so poor Eliab is rejected—let’s don’t feel too bad for him, after all, he is ridiculously good looking, he’ll be fine. But he’s not the next king.
And so the parade continues. And Samuel swipes left. And left again. And again. And again. Nope, the LORD hasn’t chosen this one. All the way through all seven of Jesse’s sons. But wait! It turns out there’s an eighth son, the youngest, and he’s out in the fields with the sheep. And so they send for him. And here comes David. And we know that it’s David who will be chosen, because, after all, he’s the last son. There are no more. But still, we’re waiting there on the edge of our seats, and here he comes, and what is it that we hear next? Remember, mortals look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. And Samuel looks on David’s heart and discerns he will be a great king, right? No. Nope. That’s not it at all. Samuel looks at David and thinks, Wow. He’s really really really ridiculously goodlooking. “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” (12a) And God rolls God’s eyes and says, Yes, Samuel. This is he. Get on with it and anoint him. And Samuel does it.
Maybe I’m being too hard on Samuel; maybe I am expecting too much. He sees as mortals see. And somehow, mostly, the will of God gets done. But Samuel sees just like David, just like you and I, just like the world. He sees what’s on the outside. That echoing pronouncement, God’s reminder of how God sees the heart, not the outside, is followed by that howling tear in the text pronouncing David even better looking than Eliab. How can we get free of our sight? How can we learn to see differently?
It’s happening again in the gospel lesson. No one but the man born blind from birth seems to be able to see clearly. The blind man really cannot see physical faces. He can’t see anything visually, he can’t process light shining on his retina and traveling through his optic nerve to the brain. That’s not how he sees. But he’s the ONLY character in the story who really sees, who really understands, who really comprehends, what’s going on.
Look again at the structure of the gospel story. We have the character of the man born blind. Jesus’s disciples think that his blindness is related to sin—that the man himself has sinned, or that his parents have sinned. It’s a common thought in the ancient world and maybe even ours—conventional wisdom, if you will—that the difference, the affliction, as those around him see it—is related to some act, some sin, on the part of the person or his parents. But Jesus sees differently—Jesus sees clearly—he knows that the man’s difference is not a punishment or a consequence of sin—it’s just the way he was born. And he gives sight to the blind man to reveal God’s work, to show God’s creating power.
And the man comes back, no longer blind. But his neighbors no longer recognize him. “’Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’” (John 9.9) How frustrating it is for this man, to return to his community, to the people whom he has known for his entire life—the people that have known him—and they don’t recognize him any longer. He’s no longer an outsider, marginalized by what they see as his disability. He’s the same person. But they still won’t listen to him. He’s still marginalized. “I am he!” he cries. No, it’s not the same man. It’s just someone like him, they say. They can’t see him.
All they’ve been able to see is what they perceive as his disability. They’ve seen him as a blind man, as a beggar. They’ve failed to really see him as a person. And when these details are changed, they can’t even recognize him as the same person.
And so they bring him to the Pharisees, the scholars of the law. And (in the portion of the gospel we don’t read today) instead of seeing the miraculous nature of his healing, the Pharisees become concerned about the manner of the healing—that it was done on the Sabbath. The man born blind can see more clearly than they; he makes the argument that, while the Pharisees think Jesus is sinning by healing him on the Sabbath, that the miracle of his sight is enough to demonstrate that Jesus is revealing the works of God—that Jesus is acting within God’s will, expressing God’s desire. “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing,” the man says. (33) And the Pharisees, in their spiritual blindness, drive him out. They cannot see the man for who he is. They cannot see him as Jesus sees him. They cannot see the very work of God in their midst.
Seeing is a real problem for us—for our culture, our society. What are the things we can see clearly? What are the things we value? Too often it’s the outward appearance, the trappings of wealth, the systems we’ve grown used to, the economic values of the market—over and above the value of people, the love of God, the flourishing of all.
As I’ve mentioned before a group of us are reading Archbishop Justin Welby’s book Dethroning Mammon: Making Money Serve Grace as part of our Lenten practice. The book is a reflection on what we value—on aligning our own values with those of the kingdom of God. One of the phrases the Archbishop uses is about seeing: “What we see we value.” What the world teaches us to look at, how we learn to understand what we see, creates value for us. And what the Archbishop is suggesting is that we learn to see differently. That we learn to look at the things Jesus loves. That we learn to value what Jesus values.
We’re not very good at seeing. Samuel can’t seem to see past the outward appearance of Jesse’s sons. Many of the people of Bethlehem can’t seem to recognize the man born blind after he’s been healed. The Pharisees can’t see the great gift that is Jesus’s healing—they fail to recognize the presence of God—because it doesn’t LOOK to them like what they’re expecting. It doesn’t fit the rules as they understand them. They don’t recognize God working in and amongst their community, their faith, themselves.
Part of the Christian project is learning to see. Learning to see God’s hand at work in the world, to see God’s presence in our lives, to give thanks, to rejoice. And part of the project is learning to see differently. To see God’s presence in the lives of those around us—even in unexpected places. We value what we see. It’s a powerful counter narrative—to love the things that God loves, rather than the outward appearance, the values that the world embraces.
The man born blind has the greater sight. When Jesus goes back—remember, he’s not seen Jesus—Jesus put the mud on his eyes and sent him to wash it off… When the man is driven out, and Jesus goes back to find him, he asks, “‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.” (9.35-38)
Out of this experience of Jesus’s great love, his transforming power—the transforming power of God—the man comes to know Jesus—to know and believe even before he has seen him. Can we do the same? Can we, in the presence of Christ made known in this sacrament at the altar, come to know and experience Jesus, to discern the presence of Christ moving in our lives, in the world around us, in the lives of others whom we meet? I invite you this week as part of your Lenten practice to look for Jesus. In the people you meet. In the most unlikely places. To look for God showing up and moving in the world around us. And then to tell that story—that counter narrative. Let’s learn to see differently—and show that great love we’ve seen to the whole world.