The Eyes Have It
Rev. Catherine Smith
In the desert,
long before John’s gospel was written,
there was the story of a people always walking backwards,
their eyes turned toward what had been,
people always ready to be distracted from life’s unfolding,
by the sightless golden calves.
These people, so the story goes,
were bitten by snakes.
Strangely it was the first time in all those years in the treacherous wilderness
that this had happened.
It was as though all the serpents they might have met individually over the travelling years,
snakes that singly could have been avoided,
had followed some secret parallel path,
adding to their reptilian numbers one by one
as they slid sinuous and ropey over the desert.
And now suddenly serpents were everywhere.
They were behind rocks,
under the sleeping mats,
dropping from the overhand of a gangly tree in the bare landscape.
Snakes multiplied and they were biting.
And the people were dying from the bite.
Just for an instant the complainers took their eyes off the place they had come from
and regretted their backward looking.
In this crisis,
just for a few moments
they turned to the man awestruck by this people’s uncomprehending,
fixation with anything but God,
Just for a desparate moment they turned to Moses,
those people afraid and dying and said;
what if we stopped complaining,
what if we took life on the chin,
because surely God has sent these snakes to punish us and we are afraid again.
And Moses had yet another word with God on their behalf.
the story goes,
Make a snake and put it on a pole:
whoever is bitten and looks at it will live.
So Moses made a snake of echoing, firey, copper
and put it on top of a pole.
And one bitten by a snake who then looked at the burnished serpent lived.
One by one the cross, complaining, backward looking people turned toward the thing they feared and looked at it.
And they were healed.
Recalling this ancient story,
somewhat midrashed this morning,
John writes, “and just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Don’t be distracted now by turning to any fear of an excluding kind of gospel generated by those “whoever believes in him” words,
Don’t worry that particular phrase like the nub on a sweater
and miss all the rest.
They have a context, those words,
that has more to do with what follows them.
And that’s for another day.
No, this morning imagine that John is saying something always uncomfortable and astounding to his community
and to ours.
We must look at the thing we fear,
the thing we would rather be distracted from,
the thing that is ahead of us rather than behind us,
the thing we would like to be inured from,
the thing we numb ourselves to avoid.
In so many congregations I’ve been in numbness was the greatest barrier to abundant, compassionate, hospitable life. We could not look gently on where we had been, we could not unfist our backward sight, we could not name ourselves and turn to face the joys and terrors of the future.
That is tragic.
In countless ways we protect ourselves,
with habits and addictions large or small;
to work, to food, to alcohol, to control,
to perfection, to self-importance or self-reliance.
There are countless ways we use a practiced mediocrity of sight to shield us from deep waters of sorrow and joy.
But numbness will not save our lives.
It will not heal us.
In the amazing novel, The Book Thief, Max Vandenburg, a young Jewish man, in Nazi Germany, hidden in the basement of the Hubermann’s lives a constrained and almost hopeless existence.
How could he not be numb?
Max tells us
“at least once a day, Hans Hubermann would descend the basement steps and share a conversation.
Rosa would occasionally bring a spare crust of bread.
It was when Liesel came down however, that Max found himself most interested in life again.
Initially, he tried to resist,
but it was harder every day that the girl appeared.” (250)
It was so much easier to be numb but Liesel came bring weather reports of the sky Max couldn’t see and sometimes wanted to forget entirely.
Leisel came with tales of “the sun that had broken through like God sitting down after he’d eaten too much for his dinner.”
Max wanted to resist
but in Leisel’s vivid weather reports his heart kept waking up;
he was brought back to the knowledge of his reality,
he was also brought back to life.
Leisel came and his heart was filled with the pins and needles of a limb that had gone to sleep.
No longer numb.
We must look, at the pattern God, in Jesus, has shown in his living,
the pattern that emerges through all our experience,
the bite of life,
which is all our deaths and losses,
our despairs and disappointments,
our humiliations and embarrassments,
our disbelief and our fear of abandonment,
all those things that may at the end of our life
or in its middle or young years,
gather like serpents in the desert and wound us.
The Holy One pulls our human experience,
all of it,
through God’s very self,
pulls it catching and fraying like yarn,
God pulls the strands of our life
like wool on a hook,
through the loop of Christ’s lifting up on a tree.
Loop after loop we are pulled through
and when the finished pattern lies before us it is life.
To see the saving,
healing pattern we must look at it all it’s parts,
the shining and the shadowed,
the ones we want to carry in glad procession
and the one we want to avert our eyes from,
the things we love and the things we fear,
both in ourselves and in the story.
We must look at the thing we fear in order to be healed.
We must look at the story of God, not as we would write it,
but knowing that in God’s pattern lifted up means not only gloriously exalted but also, bound to a mass produced pole and lifted dizzyingly from the ground into death.
We must not make this Lenten Journey,
or the journey of our lives, looking backward or averting our eyes. We must turn and face what we most fear.
The thing that confuses or confounds us, we must look at,
not just with a passing glance but with Lenten,
We must rest our sight on it; gaze on it.
And as we gaze we will be healed.
The eyes have it.
Tilden Edwards offers these words that speak of seeing and gazing and the distinction between them.
“Seeing, he said, was reaching out with your sight and taking hold of what you see,
making it yours, . . . .
Gazing, . . . was opening your mind, your soul . . .
allowing the icon [the thing gazed upon] to come into you and take hold of your sight,
transforming your understanding of the world with its mystery.
Look for a moment at the picture of Jesus and Nicodemus.
Look at their eyes.
Jesus’ gaze is straight on, his fingers inviting.
And Nicodemus, is his head tilted, in longing to return that look. Is he smiling?
Are his eyes closed in the way of a child,
a child waiting for surprise,
open to joy uninhibited by any adult habit of self-protectiveness. Is Nicodemus that hopeful of what he will see when his eyes open he must pause before risking it?
Or has he already looked and now has his head lowered holding in with his eyelids,
all that has entered him through his gaze into Jesus’ eyes.
All that healing, the images of water and Spirit,
warm behind his lowered lids,
colours red and green and firey orange, purple and steady blue.
Is he holding the moment of his gaze behind his closed lids,
timid of any sight or motion that might disrupt the birthing in him?
We can be born again, when we are old or young or middle-aged. We can enter into the loop of Jesus life and death,
which is our life and death.
We can be born again from the beginning,
from our originating love, from what the text says is “above”
we can be no longer numb.
We can feel the strong contractions of God’s womb of compassion,
re-birthing us through the mysterious sign of the cross.
The eyes it was thought were windows of the soul.
And we imagine the eyes of our face
but the truest eyes surely are those of our heart.
We gaze on the thing most fearful,
gaze till it enters us transformed by our innate belovedness, healing us.
Of the bite of life,
This is not for you or for me alone.
We are then the Leisel’s bringing with hearts alive,
the weather report of God who sits down at the welcome table so all the world can be healed.
Thanks be to God.