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Overlooked: The Fourth Sunday of Lent

April 14, 2011

The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on The Fourth Sunday of Lent, April 3, 2011 

1 Samuel 16: 1-13      John 9: 1-41

Seeing and being seen are themes for the fourth week of Lent. David was overlooked by his father because he was young and small, until Samuel, that discerning prophet of God, persisted in questioning – is there anyone else? And it does cause us to wonder what God might be up to among our own young and small Presbyterians in our own congregation! Samuel was able to “see” God’s hand upon this little boy who would, one day, become the future leader of Israel.

In our gospel text, Jesus heals a man born blind. The irony of the story is that the man born blind is the one who is able to “see” and know Jesus as the Human One, while the Pharisees cannot. The ones literally “with eyes to see” seem to willfully overlook both Jesus’ miracle and Jesus’ identity.

Who is blind? What does it mean to truly “see”? What and whom do we regularly “overlook” because, like David’s father, we make or have made assumptions about their fitness, or because like the Pharisees, our assumptions about God are frozen.

Well, Lent is a good time for getting our eyes checked.

A couple of years ago I came across a parable in the writing of storyteller Megan McKenna. McKenna collects stories from around the world and from different faith traditions, and she particularly loves Zen stories from Japan, because they are written to leave us feeling bewildered, wondering about the threads that intrigue us. Zen stories unsettle us by throwing us off the path. Much like Jesus’ parables, they defy “right answers”. Their purpose is principally to disorient us so that we can begin to see. I’d like to share one of her stories this morning.

Once upon a time there was a man who was born blind. He had never known anything else, and so it was part of his nature, incorporated into everything he learned: talking, walking, relations with others, and acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary for life. His blindness did not really bother him, and he made a point of not letting it stop him from doing anything that he wanted to do.

And as he grew older, he grew surer of himself. His house was arranged so that he knew where each piece of furniture and utensil was placed and he got around easily. With time, he knew each street in his village and the paths and places within walking distance: the market, side streets, the temple, and the roads out of town into the forest and fields. He even mastered traveling to the surrounding villages, knowing the paths over the mountain and back to his own home. His senses were more acute than most, and he felt his way along, using what he smelled, heard, touched, and just sensed as he moved. Being blind didn’t bother him as much as it seemed to bother others or make others uncomfortable.

One day he traveled over the mountain to visit friends on the outskirts of another village. He had been there before; the way was easy and uneventful. The gathering with his friends and others that he met for the first time was one of the best he could remember in a long while. They feasted and talked, sang and told stories, drank and enjoyed each other’s company immensely. And slowly, in twos and threes or alone, each headed for home. He was the last to leave. As he lingered at the door of his friend’s house to say his thanks and goodbyes and good wishes, his host urged him to take a lantern on his way home since it had grown very dark and there was no moon out. The blind man laughed at his long-time friend. Had he forgotten that the darkness didn’t concern him? He would find his way home just fine. There was an awkward silence, and then his host spoke again: “My friend, it wasn’t you I was concerned about. The lantern is so that others who do not see well in the dark and are not used to being blind might know you are on the path and not stumble into you or be startled or frightened.”

The blind man had never thought of anyone else needing his light before and so, humbly, he took the lantern from his friend and headed over the mountain. He cleared the top of the rise and headed down, feeling his way along as he did and savoring the memories of the day and all that they had talked about and shared together, rejoicing in such good company.

And then all of a sudden someone slammed head on into him, throwing him off the path and sending his lantern flying off away from his grasp. As he groped his way to the path, getting back on his feet again, he spoke into the darkness at the other person. “What is wrong with you? Are you blind? Did you not see my light?”

There was an awkward silence for a moment, and the voice came back: “Forgive me, friend, I saw no lantern. Your light must have gone out.”

And so each went his way, the light left lost by the path. It is said that both went home blind.

The man born blind in this story overlooked the need for others to be able to see him. He was self-concerned, even if embarrassed to be identified as such.

The traveler on the dark road who slams into the blind man, also was not thinking of others. The story says that he could not see the blind man because the blind man’s lantern must have gone out. But where was the traveller’s own lantern? Why did he not carry one in order to see his way on that dark night?

And both the blind man and the traveler overlook the opportunity brought about by the collision. The traveler utters the words, “forgive me friend, I saw no lantern. Your light must have gone out.” But that forgiveness and even understanding of the situation don’t lead the traveler to do anything but get up and move on. The sighted man doesn’t offer to find nor to light the blind man’s lantern. Is he frozen by embarrassment or does he feel that it’s somehow the blind man’s responsibility to find the lantern and get it lit? And it also appears the blind man gives up on carrying a lantern that he might be seen by others; is he discouraged that his lantern’s light went out, does he feel his effort to be seen by others was ultimately fruitless?

The story raises certain questions for us. Are we blind, and have we grown so accustomed to our blindness that we never think of the effect our way of life has on others? Are we a danger to others on the way? Has our light gone out without us even being aware of it? Are we ever the host in the story, who is the only one to think of others, to speak the truth, and to give the gift of light to share in the darkness? Has the light been left unattended on the path after our last collision in the darkness? Is it time to go see our friends again? In what areas of our life is God wanting to shed light? And do we believe that our failures, sufferings, and surprise collisions in the dark are the places that God uses to show forth the divine glory as new and strange, to expose our blindness, or to bring others to the light? (The questions in this paragraph are McKenna’s)

Lent is an opportunity to pause and consider what and whom we’ve overlooked as we travel on life’s way. It is a time to discern what God is doing in our midst both in expected and surprising ways. Lent is a time to examine the rulers or rules we use to measure fitness for God’s purpose – is such measurement ultimately ever even possible by us? And Lent is a time to reconsider how even what we call our faith may blind us to the new thing God is bringing about.

May this Lent be an opportunity for us to discern and to dare. Amen.

See: Megan McKenna. Lent: The Sunday Readings. Orbis Books, 1997.

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