Sunday’s sermon: Seeing is Believing?

vision 2

Texts used – John 20:19-31 and Revelation 1:4-8

  • Let me tell you a story this morning.
    • Folk tale from India – “The Blind Men and the Elephant”[1]:Long ago six old men lived in a village in India. Each was born blind. The other villagers loved the old men and kept them away from harm. Since the blind men could not see the world for themselves, they had to imagine many of its wonders. They listened carefully to the stories told by travelers to learn what they could about life outside the village.

      The men were curious about many of the stories they heard, but they were most curious about elephants. They were told that elephants could trample forests, carry huge burdens, and frighten young and old with their loud trumpet calls. But they also knew that the Rajah’s daughter rode an elephant when she traveled in her father’s kingdom. Would the Rajah let his daughter get near such a dangerous creature?

      The old men argued day and night about elephants. “An elephant must be a powerful giant,” claimed the first blind man. He had heard stories about elephants being used to clear forests and build roads.

      “No, you must be wrong,” argued the second blind man. “An elephant must be graceful and gentle if a princess is to ride on its back.”

      “You’re wrong! I have heard that an elephant can pierce a man’s heart with its terrible horn,” said the third blind man.

      “Please,” said the fourth blind man. “You are all mistaken. An elephant is nothing more than a large sort of cow. You know how people exaggerate.”

      “I am sure that an elephant is something magical,” said the fifth blind man. “That would explain why the Rajah’s daughter can travel safely throughout the kingdom.”

      “I don’t believe elephants exist at all,” declared the sixth blind man. “I think we are the victims of a cruel joke.”

      Finally, the villagers grew tired of all the arguments, and they arranged for the curious men to visit the palace of the Rajah to learn the truth about elephants. A young boy from their village was selected to guide the blind men on their journey. The smallest man put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. The second blind man put his hand on his friend’s shoulder, and so on until all six men were ready to walk safely behind the boy who would lead them to the Rajah’s magnificent palace.

      When the blind men reached the palace, they were greeted by an old friend from their village who worked as a gardener on the palace grounds. Their friend led them to the courtyard. There stood an elephant. The blind men stepped forward to touch the creature that was the subject of so many arguments.

      The first blind man reached out and touched the side of the huge animal. “An elephant is smooth and solid like a wall!” he declared. “It must be very powerful.”

      The second blind man put his hand on the elephant’s limber trunk. “An elephant is like a giant snake,” he announced.

      The third blind man felt the elephant’s pointed tusk. “I was right,” he decided. “This creature is as sharp and deadly as a spear.”

      The fourth blind man touched one of the elephant’s four legs. “What we have here,” he said, “is an extremely large cow.”

      The fifth blind man felt the elephant’s giant ear. “I believe an elephant is like a huge fan or maybe a magic carpet that can fly over mountains and treetops,” he said.

      The sixth blind man gave a tug on the elephant’s coarse tail. “Why, this is nothing more than a piece of old rope. Dangerous, indeed,” he scoffed.

      The gardener led his friends to the shade of a tree. “Sit here and rest for the long journey home,” he said. “I will bring you some water to drink.”

      While they waited, the six blind men talked about the elephant.

      “An elephant is like a wall,” said the first blind man. “Surely we can finally agree on that.”

      “A wall? An elephant is a giant snake!” answered the second blind man.

      “It’s a spear, I tell you,” insisted the third blind man.

      “I’m certain it’s a giant cow,” said the fourth blind man.

      “Magic carpet. There’s no doubt,” said the fifth blind man.

      “Don’t you see?” pleaded the sixth blind man. “Someone used a rope to trick us.”

      Their argument continued and their shouts grew louder and louder.

      “Wall!” “Snake!” “Spear!” “Cow!” “Carpet!” “Rope!”

      “Stop shouting!” called a very angry voice.

      It was the Rajah, awakened from his nap by the noisy argument.

      “How can each of you be so certain you are right?” asked the ruler.

      The six blind men considered the question. And then, knowing the Rajah to be a very wise man, they decided to say nothing at all.

      “The elephant is a very large animal,” said the Rajah kindly. “Each man touched only one part. Perhaps if you put the parts together, you will see the truth. Now, let me finish my nap in peace.”

      When their friend returned to the garden with the cool water, the six men rested quietly in the shade, thinking about the Rajah’s advice.

      “He is right,” said the first blind man. “To learn the truth, we must put all the parts together. Let’s discuss this on the journey home.”

      The first blind man put his hand on the shoulder of the young boy who would guide them home. The second blind man put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, and so on until all six men were ready to travel together.

    • Very often, we put so much stock in what we can see – what we can concretely sense, very often with our eyes but also what we can hear and touch and even smell. But no matter how keen we think our senses are, there are times when they don’t provide us with the whole picture. Like the men in this folk tale, we may be convinced that our experience has given us the right answer, but we may be lacking in some key element of understanding.
      • Scripture readings this morning = idea of seeing vs. idea of vision
        • Seeing = sensory input + all the filters we have to go with it
          • Personal experience
          • Biases
          • Cultural context (family, societal, educational, economical, etc.)
        • Vision = larger picture
          • Requires understanding
          • Requires insights/input of others
          • Requires openness/willingness to expand our ideas and preconceived notions
  • Gospel story about Thomas = story of proof vs. belief, story of seeing vs. vision
    • Always called story of “Doubting Thomas” because by demanding his own proof of the risen Christ, Thomas gives voice to his own doubts: Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand in his side, I won’t believe.”[2]
      • Exactly this demand that earns Thomas such a bad rap → labeled no longer “Thomas the Twin” (meaning of ‘Didymus’) but Doubting Thomas
      • But I feel the need to point out here that Thomas wasn’t the only one who didn’t see/believe in the risen Christ right away.
        • Luke’s account of the empty tomb[3] → At first, Peter didn’t see or believe.
        • John’s account of the empty tomb[4] → At first, Mary didn’t see or believe.
        • 1st resurrection appearance in Luke = two disciples on Road to Emmaus have an entire day-long conversation with risen Christ and sit down to a meal with him before recognizing Jesus[5] → At first, they didn’t see or believe.
        • Even other disciples in today’s text: Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy.[6]
        • So Thomas’ request for visual confirmation wasn’t actually all that out of the ordinary. Thomas was just looking for that sensory input, that concrete evidence. Thomas wanted to see.
    • But Jesus’ expectation wasn’t about simply seeing. Jesus wanted his disciples to go further. He wanted them to see past all of their preconceived expectations, all of their presumptions, all of their biases, and all of their limitations to the amazing things that God could do. Jesus wanted his disciples to have vision.
      • Definition of vision: a vivid, imaginative conception or anticipation; the act or power of anticipating that which will or may come to be
      • Samuel S. Wise, rabbi from Hungary who emigrated to America in late 1800s: “Vision looks inward and becomes duty. Vision looks outward and becomes aspiration. Vision looks upward and becomes faith.” → Turn that imaginative anticipation inward, and we uncover our expectations for ourselves: duty. How can we make ourselves better? Turn that imaginative anticipation outward, and we uncover our expectations for the world around us: aspirations. How can we make the world around us better? But turn that imaginative aspiration upward, and we begin to catch a glimpse of God’s expectations. And to follow – to dive in and explore those expectations and what they mean for us and the world around us – requires faith. – as we said with vision:
        • Requires understanding
        • Requires insights/input of others
        • Requires openness/willingness to expand our ideas and preconceived notions
  • Vision = critical element in the life of the church
    • It takes imaginative anticipation to worship!
      • Read these ancient, ancient words and continue to find meaning and inspiration and an important message in them → have to see beyond just the black and white words on the page
      • Prayer → Taking all of those complex and complicated pieces of our lives – our joys and our concerns for ourselves, for the people we know and love, and for the world – and placing them in God’s hands requires vision.
        • Jesus’ words to Thomas: “Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”[7]
      • Even our concept of God requires vision! → we say that …
        • We have only one God … yet we speak of the three persons of God: Father (God)/Son/Holy Spirit
        • Our God came to earth, lived among us, died, and rose again after three days
        • We celebrate and participate in the love of God by eating bread (which we call “body”) and drinking wine/juice (which we call “blood”)
        • We speak again and again about this thing called “grace” – about God (who we cannot see or hear or touch or prove) forgiving our sins because of grace
        • And the list could go on and on. There are elements of our faith that are strange, that are mysterious. There are elements of our concept of God that are difficult to understand and oftentimes even more difficult to explain … and yet we believe. We come together to worship this incredible, baffling God. It takes going beyond what we can concretely sense with our eyes and our ears and our hands to believe. It takes vision.
          • Passage from Rev = example of just how earth-shaking, just how disrupting, just how presumption-shattering, just how revealing vision can be
            • Entire book of revelation = genre of apocalyptic literature – characterized by …
              • Symbolic language
              • Vivid imagery
              • Thick with metaphor
              • Just the kind of vivid, imaginative conception or anticipation that faith requires!
            • Text: Grace and peace to you from the one who is and was and is coming, and from the seven spirits that are before God’s throne … “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “the one who is and was and is coming, the Almighty.”[8] → Just this description requires vision. It requires imaginative anticipation to even begin to wrap your mind around a God who was and is and is to come.
  • Key element of vision = it challenges (concepts, beliefs, prejudices, fears) → And the challenge of vision is where the rubber meets the road, friends. Because our faith also require vision to be enacted not just within these walls but outside these walls. How do we take that challenge and the inspiration that comes from being challenged and let it open our eyes – and, more importantly, our hearts – to the world around us?
    • Open ourselves up to the “thin places”
      • Phrase coined by George McLeod, founder of Iona Community, ecumenical Christian community located in the Scottish isles whose purpose is to work for peace and social justice, to rebuild community, and to renew worship[9]
      • “thin place”: those places that God seems to haunt, where the veil seems more fragile than usual, places to which people have always been drawn to pray, listen, watch, or just to be. A “thin place” is a place to which you feel drawn back, a place in which you feel enriched, enlarged or accompanied.[10] → It takes vision – it takes imaginative anticipation – to be able to find those places in our lives and in our world.
        • Places of renewal
        • Places of contemplation
        • Places of being touched by God
      • But it also takes vision to see those places of greatest need in the world – the places where God says, “I have brought you here for this purpose. Help. Feed. Clothe. House. Comfort. Encourage. Be my hands, my feet, and my love. Whenever you do it for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do it for me.”
        • Sometimes these places are more obvious – see when someone doesn’t have a home or doesn’t have a decent coat/gloves/shoes in the winter, see when someone comes to women’s shelter/Dorothy Day House/food shelf for help → But even these encounters require vision to see beyond the need to the person behind it.
        • Sometimes places of need are invisible
          • Blog post from Young Clergy Women’s Project – Austin Crenshaw Shelley (Assoc. Pastor for Christian Ed at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia): Debilitating hurt emerges in many forms. Job loss hurts. Depression hurts. Grief hurts. Severed relationships hurt. Loss of ability hurts. Loneliness hurts – and this list represents just a slim cross-section of the hurts we might otherwise ignore because they are seldom on display.[11] → Those “invisible hurts” are just as much a part of who we are – as individuals, as a society, and as the church. They are just as much a part of how we function and just as much a part of our interactions with the world as the language that we speak, the way that we dress, the hand gestures we use – all of those things that we can see with our eyes. But it takes vision – it takes an openness and a willingness to be led and challenged by God. It takes that imaginative anticipating to not only see those places of need in the world but to have the courage to step up and help. Because it’s guaranteed to change the world around you … but it’s also guaranteed to change you.
            • Helen Keller quote: “It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision.” → It is a terrible thing to believe … and have no vision. It is a terrible thing to have faith … and have no vision. It is a terrible thing to be the church … and have no vision. Amen.

[1] “The Blind Men and the Elephant” from The Peace Corps website. http://www.peacecorps.gov/wws/stories/blind-men-and-elephant/. Accessed Apr. 4, 2016.

[2] Jn 20:24-25.

[3] Lk 24:9-12.

[4] Jn 20:14-16.

[5] Lk 24:30-31a.

[6] Jn 20:19b-20 (emphasis added).

[7] Jn 20:29b.

[8] Rev 1:4, 8.

[9] from “Our Working Principles” on the Iona Community website: https://iona.org.uk/about-us/operating-priciples/. Accessed Apr. 10, 2016.

[10] Tim Marks. “Being in a Thin Place” on The Leadership Institute: Advancing Christian Leadership website. http://www.tli.org.uk/being-in-a-thin-place. Accessed Apr. 10, 2016.

[11] Austin Crenshaw Shelley. “When the Hurts Don’t Show” from Fidelia’s Sisters online magazine, publication of The Young Clergy Women’s Project. http://youngclergywomen.org/when-the-hurts-dont-show/. Written Mar. 24, 2016, accessed Apr. 4, 2016.

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