Sunday, March 30, 2014

Light and Sight

Remember those stereogram pictures that were so popular about 10 years ago? They were a colored pattern that if you looked at a certain point in the picture and unfocused your eyes, you could see images that appeared to be sticking out of the page. I could always see them. Other people squinted, crossed their eyes, moved the picture closer or farther from them and just couldn't see the 3-D effect.

Most people can see the incredibly realistic chalk drawings people do that make it appear that the sidewalk has opened up beneath the street, revealing chasms, monsters or underground rivers. However you do have to stand in a certain place for the forced perspective aspect of the picture to work.

There is a 3 dimensional optical illusion you can see on the internet. The sculpture looks like a dragon but as the camera moves from left to right and back the dragon's head appear to follow you. Only when the camera moves too far to the side do you see that the dragon is made in such a way that the head is concave rather than convex and that's what makes it seem to move.

But those are optical illusions, things created to fool you. Your eyes don't anticipate the trickery and see them in a way that makes sense to our brains. Surely you can see things in plain sight.

Not necessarily. In one notorious experiment, which you can see on the internet, people are asked to watch a basketball game and count how many times the ball is passed. Folks are so intent on counting that they don't see the man in the gorilla suit walk right up into the middle of the game, beat his chest and saunter off the other side. People in this experiment could not believe that they missed such an obvious thing until the tape was played back to them. It turned out that they only saw what they expected to see.

Our nose can detect up to a trillion different scents according to a recent study, yet despite optical illusions and our own selective ability to see what's right in front of us, despite the ability of computers to manipulate video and photos, we use our eyes as our primary sensory organs and we trust them to tell us the truth about the world around us.

Sherlock Holmes often told Dr. Watson and various Scotland Yard detectives, “You see but you do not observe.” With that in mind, Stephen King wrote a short story in which Holmes was fooled by an optical illusion while Watson figured the mystery out. The great detective blames his oversight on his allergy to a cat who has been all over the crime scene. Holmes did occasionally get things wrong even in the original stories, though it was not because he didn't see something but because he misinterpreted it.

Today's lectionary choices are all about sight and lack thereof. In 1 Samuel 16, the Lord calls upon Samuel, the last of the judges, to anoint a new king for Israel. Samuel is sent to Jesse from Bethlehem, one of whose sons will rule over God's people. Samuel is impressed by the looks of the first young man he sees. But God says, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” God passes over all 7 of the sons Jesse presents to Samuel. Only when the prophet inquires is he told of the youngest son, David, who is currently watching the sheep.

It is said that during the presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy that those who watched them on TV felt Kennedy had won the debate, whereas those who listened on radio felt Nixon had done a better job. Even Nixon later came to think that his refusal to let the makeup people tone down his 5 o'clock shadow, combined with Kennedy's good looks, caused that perception. Ironically Kennedy's own strong features and healthy tan were due to the steroids he was taking for his Addison's disease. Many pundits wonder if in today's media saturated world we will every again elect a jowly man like Nixon or a big-nosed big-eared man like LBJ or a bald man like Eisenhower even again. 

Studies show that people tend to assign good character to those who are handsome or beautiful even if they have no other data on them. Unusual looking actors are restricted to comedy or villainous roles. The latest rumor is that 71 year old Harrison Ford will be replaced as Indiana Jones by young and handsome Bradley Cooper. Steve Buscemi, an excellent actor who is 14 years younger than Ford, was never even a contender.

Studies show that better looking people are more likely to be hired even when their resume is no better than that of an average-looking person. We trust in appearances. God does not. He looks at the heart of people.

David was short, or at least shorter than Saul whose armor was too big for the shepherd. He was ruddy, which may mean he was redheaded and fair-skinned, a rarity in the Middle East. (Esau is the only other person in the Bible described as ruddy.) Redheads are in vogue today but throughout history, cultural attitudes toward redheads has been polarized. They were sometimes revered and sometimes feared. Egyptians associated redhaired people and animals with Set, the god of the desert, storms, disorder, violence and foreigners. They considered the color red to be unlucky and frequently burned red-haired maidens. The Greeks thought redheads became vampires after they died. Aristotle said they were emotionally unhousebroken, whatever that means. Traditionally redheads have been considered volatile and quick tempered. So despite being handsome, David was not what Samuel had expected. Ironically, David, anointed as king over all Israel, becomes the archetype for the Messiah, God's anointed prophet, priest and king. When God sends Jesus to fulfill that role, he is also not what people expected.

In our gospel (John 6:1-41), Jesus encounters a man born blind. He is not what the disciples expected. His condition causes them some theological confusion. As was common at the time, they consider disease a punishment for sin. But if he was born blind, it couldn't be a punishment for any sin he committed, could it? Perhaps it was punishment for the sins of his parents?

Believe it or not, people still think this way. Things go bad and we think God is punishing us. I once had a patient at a nursing home, who, when she learned her husband, also a patient there, was diagnosed with a terminal disease, thought God was punishing her! I assured her that Jesus took all of our punishment; she could stop torturing herself.

We have had some TV evangelists opine that natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake that hit Haiti were punishments from God for the sins of the people. Jesus would disagree. In Luke 13:4, Jesus dismisses the idea that the tower of Siloam fell on and killed 18 people because they were bigger sinners than anyone else. And here Jesus refuses to accept the premise that sin caused the man's condition. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned...” he says. Jesus instead sees the man's blindness as an opportunity to reveal God's works. He will heal the man. Jesus doesn't care about fixing the blame; he is all about fixing the problem.

A lot of people blame the victims of misfortune for their problems. People blame rape victims for being too scantily dressed. Folks blame the unemployed for not having jobs and the poor for not having better paying jobs. But even when face with a woman taken in adultery, Jesus is more interested in saving the woman's life from a righteously indignant mob than in passing a verdict on her. At the end of the incident, Jesus asks about her accusers. They are gone. And Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Jesus, like his Father, sees things differently than other human beings do. He sees people as those created in God's image whom his Father sent him to save. So he doesn't write them off. He is especially drawn to those who know they need to be saved, which is to say, people who are often despised by respectable people, like tax collectors and prostitutes, as well those who were powerless in his society, like women and children. Since they needed saving, he disregarded parts of the law that got in the way of his mission, like rules against doing work on the sabbath or about being rendered unclean by touching lepers or being touched by menstruating women. He talked with Samaritans, healed the slave of a Roman soldier, and cured the daughter of a Gentile woman.

The people Jesus did not respect where those who let things get in the way of saving people: religious leaders who put rules before alleviating suffering, men who put their wealth ahead of helping the poor, moneychangers who put profit ahead of providing for the needs of worshipers. In our gospel it is Pharisees, so opposed to Jesus that they cannot believe that God would heal folks through him on the Sabbath. And so in contrast to the man he cured, Jesus pronounces them sightless. Their inability to see and acknowledge the truth that is right before their eyes meant they were spiritually and morally blind.

“Once you were darkness,” writes Paul in our passage from Ephesians 5:8-14, “but now in the Lord you are light.” Note that he does not say “you are in light” but “you are light.” Like a candle lit from another candle, like a mirror reflecting a bright light, like an optical fiber, we are to convey and conduct Christ's light and illumine whatever part of the world we find ourselves in.

Bad conduct loves the darkness. As Chris Rock said, “Drugs are illegal but ATM machines are open 24 hours? Have you ever taken out $300 at 3 am in the morning for something good?” Paul says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” We are to expose the lies, the decay and corruption, the things people deny about their lives and activities, which are unfruitful, producing nothing good. We are to do this not out of maliciousness, but so that they can face the ugly truth of their conditions and hopefully turn to Jesus to be saved.

Nor need we be nasty about it. If someone uses the N-word, you can merely say, “You mean an African American.” If they talk about the poor in a disparaging way, you can say, “You mean the average poor person, a single white woman with children?” If they make snide remarks about the homeless, you can say, “You mean the average homeless person, who is a child of 9, or the half of all homeless women and children who are fleeing domestic abuse, or the 40% of homeless men who are veterans?” It can at least force people to check sweeping generalizations that blame victims for their plight.

More importantly, we need to see others through the lens of Matthew 25 where Jesus tells us that what we do to others we do to him. Mother Teresa used to emphasize this to the sisters in her order by doing rounds like this: “Jesus in room 301 couldn't keep his lunch down today. Jesus in room 306 is getting dehydrated. Jesus is room 207 needs to be turned frequently to prevent bed sores.” She was reminding them whom they served.

Appearances and status and prejudices blind the world to the truth. God sees us clearly. As his followers we need to open our eyes to the fact that everyone is created in God's image and everybody is a person for whom Christ died. They should be treated accordingly so they have a chance to see those things in themselves. If they don't see them or don't act like it, that's not our concern. What's important is that we are light to those who are willing to see and to follow Jesus' steps through this dark night until we see the dawning of his new creation. 

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