Another Way of Seeing
A Sermon for Covenant
Another Way of Seeing
1 Samuel 16:1-13; John 9:1-41
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
March 30, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
When Samuel goes to find the next king of Israel, he is explicitly told not to pay attention to what the sons of Jesse look like. I find it fascinating that the text first emphasizes how God does not look at the outward appearance, and then when David finally arrives on the scene, the first thing we are told about him is that he is ruddy, with beautiful eyes, and handsome. What is up with that? Are we supposed to ignore outward appearances or are we supposed to make note of beautiful eyes and handsome features?
If you try to stop altogether noticing the appearance of things, you aren’t likely to succeed. If you are human, you cannot deny that beauty is a thing with power, that beauty has a natural pull to it, that without even trying we like beautiful things and beautiful people. But if you are human, then you’ve also had the experience of suddenly seeing beauty where you had not see it before. In the wrinkles of a person’s face, perhaps, in a scorched piece of earth, in a funky piece of art, in a winter bare tree, in a painful memory, etc. Something you once saw as average, or dismal, or even ugly, you suddenly begin to see in a new light.
I have to wonder: Was David handsome before this moment or did he walk into this event and suddenly the light of God shone on him or out from him in a whole new way? Or was it not so much David’s countenance that changed, but Samuel’s vision? In that moment of anointing, did Samuel suddenly see as God sees? Was David’s inner radiance miraculously made accessible to Samuel’s frail human eyes?
This week I saw the Broadway musical Wicked, which tells the story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, whose only real wickedness was that through no fault of her own, she was born with green skin and thus lived her life as a social outcast. At one point she tries to stop her lover from telling her that she is beautiful. “Don’t lie to me,” she hushes him. He insists, “It’s not lying; it’s looking at things another way.”
So much of spiritual growth is how we see what we see. Example: We can look at this church and see a tiny little congregation struggling to make ends meet, which is one type of vision. Or, we can look at this church and see a wonderfully intimate family of believers tucked in the woods, listening for God.
I do not mean one should wear rose-colored glasses of denial; that when the going gets tough, put on your blinders. Ignoring reality is not spiritual maturity; it is spiritual malpractice. Spiritual vision isn’t limited; it is wide, wide, wide. It sees the truth of things, even when truth is painful, but spiritual vision also takes in the silvered hope that lines every despair. Spiritual vision sees resurrection colors budding at the tip of every withered branch. Believers are those who suspect that underneath the sackcloth, the heart of every repenter is gold just waiting to be set free.
The Gospel text today is about Jesus giving sight to a blind man and this is literal sight to a literally blind man, and I don’t want to jump too quickly to spiritual sight and forget that God dealt with physical bodies and physical ailments. Jesus is pretty quick, though, to use this miracle to talk to the Pharisees about their inability to see, and he means this in a spiritual way. I think the spirit and body are connected here: that even when we are talking about spiritual sight, there is a physical component to it. What you actually see when you look out your window into the backyard has a spiritual nuance. Do you look outside and see the long list of projects you’ve got to complete? Look out and see the grass that already needs mowing? Or do you look out and see the miracle of a budding plant or the gorgeous perch of a bird on a tree branch? Do you not really see anything at all but give your yard a blank stare while focusing your attention on all your worries and fears? What do you see?
In her poem, A Valentine for Ernest Mann, Naomi Shihab Nye writes,
Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he reinvented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of the skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.
Maybe if we reinvent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.
What do you see and is it made handsome by the light and anointing of God or are you so absorbed in the superficial that the deeper beauty of a thing is not readily visible to you? What you see with your physical eyes tells you something about the state of your soul. When you look into the eyes of your neighbor, do you see her worth looking back at you? Can you find in the features of any face the markings of God’s imprint?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say, and the important thing here is that the beholder is you. Your eyes will discover beauty where your eyes look for beauty. I wonder if the saints look out into the world and the sea of humanity and only see beauty?
Of course, Samuel does pick only one king, so there is not just new vision happening here, but also discernment. It is unlikely that you and I are going to be choosing the next king anytime soon, but we do make lots of decisions every day from a long line-up of potential choices. How do we know what to choose in life? What career, what new endeavor, what charity, what ways of spending our time and resources and energy? Lately I have been practicing discernment by looking for the choice that glitters at me. I do not mean the glamorous option, the sequins-covered option, the flashy, everyone-thinks-it-is-fabulous option. That would be to look at outward appearances only with spiritually-impoverished sight. I mean I choose the option God seems to be shining on or shining out from in that moment for me. If I squint my soul’s eyes just right, I catch a gleam in one thing or another. Some little shimmer that says to my soul, “Pick me.” This isn’t a foolproof way to make decisions, but it sure beats making a pros and cons list, and it has definitely taught me a thing or two about trust and risk, and it constantly lands me in the dazzling presence of the unexpected.
What in your life is asking to be anointed? Maybe there is a something you are being called to, and you’ve shoved it over to the side like the runt of the litter, but God is telling you, “Go ahead and bless that. Go ahead and take your passion off the back burner and bring it to the front. Stop simmering. Let yourself boil. See beauty and potential where no one else has seen it before, and then you will have found your purpose.”
Also, who is your life needs anointing? Who have you previously passed over as undeserving of God’s favor? But if you looked closer, God would tell you, “I love that one, so much.” Get out your anointing oil and slather it all over the kid picked last in the line-up for football and see if he starts to glisten in a whole new way. If that kid was you, slather yourself.
What I am saying is: Take oil with you everywhere. Help make as many things shiny as you possibly can. If you stop and pause and anoint the things of this earth, other people will pause too, and it will be like washing mud from their eyes. They will see what you see, if you show them. And they will help you see what they see, if only you ask, “What do you find beautiful?”
In high school, I read this story in Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel, and it has stuck with me ever since:
In his book Mortal Lessons, Richard Selzer, M.D., writes, “I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be thus from now on. The surgeon had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve.
“Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, greedily? The young woman speaks.
“Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.”
She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles.
“I like it,” he says, “It is kind of cute.”
“All at once I know who he is. I understand and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that their kiss still works.”
May we be given God-eyes and restored vision, so that everywhere we look, we see the things God sees, the way God sees them, like looking at a painting through the eyes of its artist. May we come to appreciate every hue and shade; may we drench the world in oil. Amen.