“Seeing and Salvation” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on March 11th, 2018. (Readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent-B: Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3,17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21)
Sing: “Now the ears of my ears awake Now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”*
(*From the Spirit Singing Band’s version of e.e. cummings “i thank You God for most this amazing day”)
I love the way our scriptures today connect salvation, as the deliverance from the dominion of death, to sight. It helps us to get away from seeing sin, harming others or harming ourselves, primarily in terms of intent and choosing to do wrong. Because while we may blame people for what they choose or don’t choose to do, generally we understand that, at least in the moment, whether someone can see something or their vision is impaired—is not something we blame them for. It’s either something they can or cannot do.
What if our greatest sins have little to do with intent and are more about a failure of imagination, our inability to see the consequences of our actions, or our failure to act? What if they have little to do with consciousness and are more about unconsciousness? What if they are less about what we choose to do and more about what we fail to do? What if our preoccupation with intent is more about our wanting to feel we have control over sin, than actually about our taking sin seriously? What if this focus on conscious choice is simply our way of avoiding having to take responsibility for the great evils we face by blaming others?
If we understand that great evils happen in the absence of consciousness, for example through our inability to see the consequences of our actions, or our inability to see the humanity of another, then it enables us to move away from blaming others to focusing on the question of what will help us and others to see. What would have helped German Christians to see the humanity of Jews the way they were able to see the humanity of their disabled relatives who they fought for? What kept white slaveholders from seeing the humanity of their African American slaves including their own children that they had had by them? What for so long kept many men from seeing the humanity of women—even their wives and daughters? How is it through much of human history people didn’t even seem to see the full humanity of their own children? What keeps our oil company executives from seeing the consequences of their lying about the effects of their carbon pollution on our environment?
We don’t want to give others, or ourselves, a moral pass for our inability to see. (This is exactly what ends up happening when everyone focuses on conscious choice.) But we want to take seriously this idea that perhaps the reign of sin is better understood as the reign of a kind of blindness, of a lack of consciousness, or a lack of commitment to consciousness, then it is a matter of conscious choice to do harm.
If the reign of sin and death is rooted in a kind of inner blindness, we can understand the importance of the way Jesus’ confronted his disciples about their inability to see. (In the gospels, the disciples inability to see is contrasted with those who were healed and have gained their sight.) One of the great mysteries the gospels invite us to enter into and explore is why and how this group of unseeing disciples—come to a place where they are able to see, how in the words of Ephesians, they going from “being in the darkness” to “being light.”
Understanding salvation as a matter of seeing clearly also helps us to move away from the protestant preoccupation with belief in doctrine. Luther’s idea of being saved through belief, not through works, was supposed to get us away from the notion that salvation is something we earn or can purchase, but over time this emphasis on belief has become simply another form of works/righteousness. Instead of seeing faith as grace, as a free gift, as Ephesians todays says “by grace you have been saved”—we instead see people trying to manufacture faith. The result is that you get people blaming themselves, or blaming others, for their condition because if we or they just had enough faith—then everything would be okay. So, we see people coercing themselves, twisting their minds, twisting their feelings, trying to fit into some box they have identified as “believing” and the result is that on top of whatever they were suffering people get further cut off from themselves and their minds and feelings. That’s not helpful.
Sing: “Now the ears of my ears awake Now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”
The metaphor of sight as a means of salvation comes to us through the two inter-related scriptures we heard today from the Book of Numbers and the Gospel of John.
In Numbers, chapter 21, we hear the wild story of how the people of Israel become impatient and speak out against God and Moses : “There is no food and no water, and….. we detest this miserable food.” The story sounds like an action movie where the undeserving get their own as in response God sends poisonous snakes who bite people so many people die. So, the people come back to Moses and repent of speaking out against him and God and ask Moses to ask God to take the poisonous snakes away. God does not take the snakes away, but instead instructs Moses to make a bronze statue of a poisonous snake and put it on a pole and everyone who is bitten that looks on it lives.
Whoo…there are all sorts of good materials in this story. Here’s the God who says you shall bear no graven images, telling Moses to make a graven image and put it on a pole as a way to save people. That should help us not to take the idea of bearing graven images literally and instead try to focus on what idolatry is really about.
Even more interesting to me is the idea that looking on the image of what people were terrified of—becomes the means of saving them from its real poison. How does that work? It suggests to me that the fear of the snakes and of their bites is what’s making their poison so deadly. Facing that fear—the poison becomes less toxic.
Then we have this other wild passage, from the Gospel of John, where Jesus draws upon this story to talk about why and how his death will be a means of saving people from “the darkness of their deeds.” Does being saved from “the darkness of their deeds” mean we no longer do harmful things, or does it mean we become aware of our deeds, or both? We hear that the Human One must be lifted up so that whoever puts their trust in him may have eternal life. For me it’s an image of how looking at Jesus on the cross has the power to save. Again, I think it’s helpful to explore where and how this is true, because it’s certainly evident that many of us have been taught to see Jesus on the cross through a lens that is not saving and can in fact often be deadly. So how are we being encouraged to see Jesus on the cross?
John’s gospel presents a Jesus who is simultaneously the earthly Jesus, but also the Christ, the resurrected Lord who exists in and through all time. If this Jesus is making a connection between what’s going to happen to him and what Moses did with the serpent in the wilderness –how does that work? Is there some way that in seeing Jesus on the cross that we’re confronted with the fears that are killing us? If so, what are those fears and how does the image of Jesus on the cross help to save us from them?
I would suggest that perhaps on the cross we can see what it means to be human: vulnerable, in many ways weak, subject to pain and suffering. So much of the idolatry that is killing us seems rooted in our attempts to flee this humanity, to find a way to escape being human by becoming invulnerable, tremendously strong, not subject to pain and suffering. So I think John’s gospel is suggesting that, in the image of Jesus on the cross, we are given the very image of what we most fear in a way that somehow makes our fear less deadly.
If on the cross we see a God who is vulnerable, in many ways weak, subject to pain and suffering, perhaps we don’t need to be so afraid of these things, perhaps we don’t have to feel so ashamed of being human. Perhaps it’s our being ashamed of being human, and the isolation that that brings, that makes our fears of being human so deadly.
For John, the image of Jesus on the cross is also the image of a God who is not interested in judging and condemning, but rather in saving and who is willing to go to any lengths that we might know that saving love. Those who are able to see put their trust in this vision of God understand that God is not judging or condemning them. Those who can’t see this God continue to live under the reign of feeling judged and condemned. Here I would suggest John’s metaphor of being in the light is a metaphor for being able to see, being awake, being conscious, being aware.
I’ve come to feel that people are a little like dogs. (Coming from one who loves dogs you should know this is no insult.) In my understanding dog are incapable of attacking another dog if that dog lies down and bears its throat to them. Similarly, I suspect that people are incapable of hurting other people if they can see them in all their humanity. This means that when we hurt or exploit others it’s almost always because their humanity has become hidden from us, or we can’t see how our actions are affecting them.
On the macro-level, we can see how so many of the great evils done in human history—slavery, the holocaust, the killing of tens of thousands of women who were seen as witches, wars, always are partly based on the dehumanization of whoever is being attacked—to the point that they are seen as less than human, or even seen as a “thing” rather than a living creature.
We also see this on the micro-level. How often is the harm or exploitation we do to people we are close to based on our not seeing them in the fullness of their humanity, in such a way that we don’t really see how we are harming them? That can be a momentary thing or a long term thing. As the long histories of racism and sexism have taught us these macro and micro levels are inseparable. The history of how women and children have been treated, and of how people with darker different skin colors have been treated, or how people who display others kinds of difference have been treated, tell us you can do terrible things, even to people you love, because you don’t see them in the fullness of their humanity and that almost any kind of difference can be made into a way to deny the fullness of the humanity of another.
Here is where we all need to be so careful not to turn adjectives into nouns. Once an adjective becomes a noun people are being encouraged to see you as an object, not a subject. Thus we’ve seen our society turn our backs on people who are poor over the last fifty years, by viewing them as “criminals” or “cheats,” “crack babies” or “schizophrenics” or a wide variety of other phrases that encourage us to view people in terms of one aspect of who they are, rather than as full human beings.
Being able to see the image of a God who is willing to die, rather than condemn us, helps us not to hide from who we are and what we have done or are doing, because we are less afraid of being judged, condemned, and cut off. The more we are open to the light of consciousness, the light of awareness, the less likely we are to hurt or exploit others.
“Now the ears of my ears awake Now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”
“One you were in darkness, but now, in the lord, you are light.” (Ephesians 5:8) That’s an incredible image. Not only is it possible for us not to have to live hiding from seeing ourselves and our actions and our world, but we can live as light, as a means of bringing into the light, the light of consciousness, the light of awareness, the light of compassion, the light of empathy and understanding, all the realities that are keeping us and others enslaved and doing harm. And when we are able to bring any harmful reality into the light, that reality is transformed. It can’t continue to operate as it was, because harm depends on its not being seen for what it is.
Seeing the Human One lifted up, in Jesus on the cross, in Jesus in the resurrection, can be a means of delivering us from the idolatry that leaves us like idols with eyes that cannot see, with ears that connect hear, with mouths that cannot speak, with hearts that cannot feel.
Seeing the Human One lifted up, can empower us to no longer detach ourselves from the parts of our humanity we hate and fear by projecting it out onto others.
Seeing the Human One lifted up, can help us to see the reign of love and mercy-here and now—in our world,
Seeing the Human One lifted up can enable us to see God’s glory in ourselves and our fellow human beings.
Living in a universe where people don’t see you in the fullness of your humanity, which includes you in all your particularity, or worse, where people see you as some kind of object, some thing they are projecting onto you, is a really lonely place, a desolating place.
This means that the ability to simply see, to acknowledge without judgement, becomes one of the most precious gifts we can give one another. It’s a vital part of the journey towards feeling understood. It is part of the light that frees us from being a captive of the darkness of isolation and loneliness.
But for us to come to a place where we can offer others this gift requires a pretty significant transformation. It means we have to let go of the idea that judging and punishing people is helpful. It means instead trusting that all that is necessary for transformation to happen is the light of consciousness to be born, and that this light comes through those who are willing to see the reality of what is happening, or where someone is, or what someone has done or is doing, without ultimately judging them. This does not mean closing our eyes to the reality of what has happened, or is happening, as that simply helps to leave people stuck in the darkness of unconsciousness. It also doesn’t mean we can’t be angry when people harm or exploit others. That anger is natural. But it also means distinguishing between judging actions and making the kind of ultimate judgments about people that put them in the kind of box that only works to keep them from the possibility of discovering what it means to be truly human. It means realizing that almost inevitably our making such judgements about people reflects our unwillingness to deal with some aspect of ourselves.
May we learn to hold up the image of the human one, our own humanity in all its fullness, that the reign of the Human One might happen even here in the lands of the idols. For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.
“Now the ears of my ears awake Now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”