On Seeing Through the Eyes of God
September 5, 2021
Proverbs 22:2: The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.
James 2: 1-5 and 14-17: My brothers and sisters, do you, with your acts of favoritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Mark 7: 24-30: From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Today’s sermon is titled On Seeing Through the Eyes of God. When I look at the moon without my glasses, I see six moons instead of one all arranged in a circular pattern like some kind of mythical moon flower in the night sky. Without my glasses, street signs are impossible to read and at a distance and I can only tell the difference between a squirrel and a bird by the way they move. Without my glasses I am legally blind but, thankfully, I can still see quite clearly at close range. The kids come to me to get out splinters or untangle necklaces.
When I go to the optometrist for my eye exams, my favorite part is putting on those glasses that are full of tiny pinholes. With those glasses I can read every line on the eye chart and I feel like I possess a superpower all of a sudden. The pinholes limit the amount light that reaches my eye and my eye is not overwhelmed; it can direct the small amount of light to where it needs to go to form clear images, even that teeny tiny row of letters on the bottom of the eye chart.
Living with shortsightedness for most of my life has certainly shaped who I am. I would like to say that because I am myopic, I live with a constant reminder that people and things are not always what they appear, on the surface, to be. For example, without my glasses, you would all appear as nearly indistinguishable one from the other; I know that’s not what you really look like. But my glasses provide me clarity that makes it even easier to judge people based on their appearance. It’s difficult to override my inclination to make assumptions about people because of what they wear, what they drive….even what bumper stickers they put on what they drive!
Just last week while in the White Mountains of New Hampshire I was sitting outside at the Pinkham Notch Lodge, located below Mount Washington. I was trying to recover from a day hike to Glen boulder that had almost finished me off. I was mesmerized by watching the vast array of people there. It was easy to distinguish the day hikers, like me, who were in over their heads and either under prepared or completely laden down with daypacks that were way too heavy. Then there were the experienced hikers, often an older crowd, with all the latest gear and very good shoes. In a class all their own, though, are the Appalachian Trail through-hikers that hiked up from Georgia. They are the easiest to spot…physically honed from hiking 2000 miles already, a little ragged around the edges, and they stick together in a pack on the outskirts of all the activity. There I sit in an Adirondack chair and make up all kinds of narratives about all these different groups of people; it’s fun and it seems harmless in that context but there is always danger in making distinctions based on physical appearance and yet our brains are wired to make distinctions based on appearance. Dr. Juan Manuel Contreras, of Harvard University, discovered the region in our brains that first interpret the visual information we gather when we first see another person’s face. This region, named the “fusiform face area” recognizes two characteristics simultaneously: ethnicity and gender.*
Differences of race and gender are very much at play in the interaction we hear about today between Jesus and the woman from Tyre. Jesus has traveled, for the first time, into communities that are predominantly Gentile, or non-Jewish. Jesus is no longer surrounded by his own community with the old familiar injustices of social hierarchies and political corruption. Jesus is now in a different sociopolitical landscape in what we know today as Lebanon. Tyre is near a Phoenician port so there is a great diversity of people, but it is still 2000 years ago and there are cultural norms in place that would make it extremely unlikely for a woman to directly address an unfamiliar man.
We are served to remember here that although stories of Jesus healing the afflicted are elevating him into celebrity status, in these foreign lands he is still being distinguished at first glance in the same way we distinguish one another today; he is distinguished by his ethnicity and his gender. He is seen first and foremost as Jewish and male. I have no proof of what I am about to propose, but I will offer it nonetheless. I imagine that in Jesus’s travels, he likely experienced unwelcoming attitudes and perhaps even hostilities because of his ethnicity. This might explain, in part, why he reacted unkindly to the woman from Tyre who was asking for healing for her daughter.
In this encounter between Jesus and the woman from Tyre, we see a side of Jesus’s humanity that may be unsettling if one holds an ideology of Jesus as being completely and thoroughly divine in nature since his birth. That version of Jesus is kind to everyone. That version of Jesus would look at this woman, this mother, through the eyes of God. He would look beyond the fact that she was a Gentile and a woman; he would see her desperation to have her daughter healed and he would immediately help her. But the story does not unfold like that. Instead we see a side of Jesus that is condescending, dismissive, and downright disrespectful.
The modern theologian, Frederich Buechner, warns of about turning away from such insights into Jesus’s nature that we would just as soon avoid; he writes, “The danger is that we hold on only to the moments that one way or another heal us and bless us and neglect the others. Woe to the preachers and to all of us who stay only in the bright uplands of the Gospels and avoid like death, avoid like life, the dark ravines, the cave under the hill.” ** Friends, there is a gift we find if we do not avoid this difficult passage. For me, it is a most precious gift because I can see something in Jesus that reminds me of myself. In his moment of poor judgement I find hope that I will not, in the end, be defined by my own poor judgements. And when I forget to see others through the eyes of God, when I forget that each and every person is cherished in the heart of God, I pray for a strong voice like that voice of the woman from Tyre to remind me.
Friends, this walk with Christ is no cake walk. The words from James give us a sobering reminder that it is human nature to make assumptions and judgements based on physical appearances and we must proactively and intentionally work against these tendencies each and every day of our lives. James reminds us that faith alone will not save us. Without actions that prove our priorities, without works that show where our heart is, “faith by itself is dead.”
Last week while in the bustling village of North Conway, I walked down the street and enjoyed making eye contact with the people I passed along the way. One older couple in particular, were especially warm as we met one another’s gaze as they sat on a bench by the sidewalk. I ran my errand and met a man who was selling his artwork for donations so he could buy some food for his dinner. I asked him to follow me back to our car where I had some cash. Together we walked now, one white woman and one black man, down the same sidewalk I had just walked down not 15 minutes before. This time, no one met my smile, no one looked me in the eye. Even the sweet couple were up now and walking towards us and they looked straight ahead as if I did not exist. I felt less than unseen. It was a sobering reminder of the human condition. How difficult it is to truly see one another through the eyes of God. Friends, we must try.
In closing, I wish to renew my own commitment and to invite you to join me in making more of an effort to look past outward appearances and look for the light inside a person instead. If only there were something like those pinpoint glasses that could help us see clearly the worth in every human being. I do not have magic glasses for that, but we do have our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. He shows us that we are not remembered for our mistakes, but rather how we recover and make amends after our mistakes are made. If we are willing to try, the life and teachings of Jesus will teach us how to see one another through the eyes of God. That will change everything! So be it. Amen.
God of all, we lift up those that are in need of your assurance this morning, those of us struggling with illness, loss, and uncertainty and also those of us facing changes that will be taking us to unknown places within ourselves and within the world. In all we labor to do, Lord, remind us to circle back to you with an openness to reassess our next steps, so that we remain in tandem with your loving, life-giving presence. I pray a special blessing on all the children this morning as they prepare to return to school. And for all the adults that will be working with them, and for those in parenting roles. May the children feel the loving support they need and the security within the boundaries that keep them safe. Help us all to be extensions of your divine love, your infinite compassion, and tireless patience. These things I pray in the name of Jesus, who gave us this beloved prayer…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words of prayer written by Bishop Joseph Butler in 1657:
“Help us to improve to Perfection, till all partial affection be lost in that entire, universal, one and Thou, O God, shalt be all in all.” Amen.