Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sanctified Seeing (Jer 25:8-17, Rom 10:1-13, John 9)

[The following is the text of a homily I preached earlier this afternoon in a School of Divinity chapel service at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina]

John 9 is all about seeing and the inability to see. That’s a Captain Obvious kind of observation, but the author of the Fourth Gospel makes sure we don’t miss the point. The text hits us upside the head with it. In those 41 verses there are 38 references to sight and the lack thereof—10 to the eyes, and an evenly matched 14 mentions of blindness and 14 uses of language for seeing and sight. Our Gospel lesson is saturated with blindness and seeing not just because it’s the story of Jesus’ healing of a man born blind. As you no doubt already know well from Dr. McConnell’s classes, whenever the Gospels tell a story about Jesus performing a miracle, it’s not just a story about Jesus performing a miracle. Jesus is teaching us something through what he does, and the Gospel writers try to help us learn what Jesus wants to teach us. John 9 is the story of how Jesus gives sight to a particular blind man, but it’s also the story of how Jesus makes us able to see. For apart from Jesus’ gift of sanctified seeing, we’re just as blind as the Pharisees who said, “we see”—which, by the way, is our clue in the text that we’re not doing unwarranted allegorizing to read this as a text about us. If we read it this way, we’re grasping something central to the whole Gospel of John: we learn from John’s prologue that this Gospel is all about seeing the glory of the one who is the light of all people, the true light which enlightens everyone. Jesus enlightened the man born blind; have we been so enlightened? Do we see with sanctified sight?

Kheresa and I recently got to witness the wonder of opthalmological intervention when we took our eight-year-old son Timothy to be fitted with his first pair of eyeglasses. As soon as he put them on, Timothy started offering excited commentary on what he could now see with clarity: the “Exit” sign at the eye clinic; road signs and billboards; food labels at the grocery store. And I share this with Kheresa’s permission: “Wow, Mom! I can really see your wrinkles now!” (He would have noticed mine if he’d looked at me right then.)

What do we see when Jesus helps us see? We see what Jesus sees; we see who Jesus sees. Jesus is always noticing those whom others ignore. In connection with verse 1 of our text, one of my favorite theological commentators on Scripture, Frederick Dale Bruner, observes: “One gets the distinct impression from the Gospels that it is people most hurting in any setting whom Jesus most quickly notices.” In this setting Jesus sees a blind beggar, just as in other settings he sees Gentiles and women and children and the poor and the hungry and the sick, and all sorts of outcasts. Jesus sees the marginalized and the oppressed, and Jesus seeks their liberation. Someone else who saw the marginalized and the oppressed and sought their liberation was Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, whose martyrdom thirty-five years ago today the church commemorates. We commemorate the saints because we need the lived Christian lives of people like Archbishop Romero to help us learn how to live out the biblical story. When we read Jesus urging us, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” mercy isn’t merely an abstract virtue for us. We have an inkling how we might perform the biblical virtue of mercy because we’ve seen it embodied concretely by the saints, some of whom have shown mercy directly to us. And so when we read about Jesus seeing the blind beggar and other marginalized and oppressed persons and seeking their liberation, we can imagine what it might look like to do that because others in the church have done it before us. Oscar Romero helps us envision the sanctified seeing Jesus helps us have.

Romero didn’t always see the marginalized and oppressed as the particular focus of Jesus’ seeing. In the early 1970s Romero was an auxiliary bishop, and one of his duties was editing the diocesan newspaper. He was deeply suspicious of the liberation theology that motivated the social justice activism of Jesuit priests in El Salvador. He used his newspaper editorials to denounce what he saw then as the dangerously subversive activities of politicized priests. When Romero became bishop of the rural diocese of Santiago de Maria, he was still blind. He was blind to the Salvadoran government’s violent repression. He was blind to the government’s support of the interests of the few rich—the “1 percent”—and its oppression of the poor majority in El Salvador. At that point Romero publicly supported the policies of the government and denied its complicity in the torture and “disappearing” and murder of its citizens. But his eyes soon began to be opened. On June 21, 1975, National Guardsmen shot and hacked to death six men who lived in a small village in Romero’s diocese. They were lay catechists in the church, working to evangelize and disciple their fellow campesinos, the “peasant farmers.” In the wake of this atrocity Romero started to see, but his eyes weren’t yet fully open. Like the blind man at Bethsaida Jesus heals in Mark 8, Jesus has to work on Romero some more. It happens in stages, not all at once. On July 30 of that year, the military opened fire on protestors against the regime’s occupation of their university. Forty unarmed students were killed. Romero began bit by bit to confront more and more directly what he’d previously defended. At the same time, he began to study seriously the documents issued by the Conference of Latin American Bishops at Medellin in 1968. He studied the social teaching of the Second Vatican Council that undergirded the teaching of the bishops at Medellin. He read Pope Paul VI’s encyclical On Evangelization in the Modern World. He discovered that the bishops of the Catholic Church, and even the pope himself, affirmed the very social teachings Romero had earlier opposed as subversive. (This is, by the way, a good argument for the importance of continuing theological education beyond seminary!) Rightly understood, orthodox incarnational theology is actually pretty subversive stuff—subversive of the powers that be in the present order of things.

When Romero became archbishop of San Salvador in February 1977, the aristocracy and government and the “religious right” of El Salvador saw him as the “conservative” candidate for the office, the one who would maintain the status quo ecclesially and politically. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Jesus had already been opening Romero’s eyes to see how things really were. Only three weeks after his installation as Archbishop, Romero’s friend Father Rutilio Grande was murdered by the military along with a 72-year-old man and a 16-year-old boy. Romero’s boldly prophetic response shocked the powers that be. It led to the military taking a stance against the progressive elements of the Church, Romero among them, that was nothing less than a policy of persecution. In the midst of it Romero’s homilies and other public communications made clear his new guiding convictions: God is on the side of the oppressed poor; the mission of the church is to join God on the side of the oppressed poor; Christ is incarnate in the suffering poor; Christ is being crucified in the persecution of the church of the suffering poor. Romero’s sight was now sanctified—Jesus had helped him see what Jesus sees and who Jesus sees.

When Jesus helps us see, he helps us see the new reality wrought by our baptism. The community for which John’s Gospel was written had already been practicing baptism for a good half-century by the time they read and heard this story from the Fourth Gospel. They likely would’ve connected the blind man’s washing in the pool of Siloam with baptism; they likely would’ve connected the name Siloam itself, which means “sent,” with the commission given in baptism to every follower of Christ, God’s “sent one.” The early church in its first few centuries customarily called baptism an “enlightenment.” Baptism immerses us into Christ and into the community of his body, and like the man who came up out of the pool of Siloam, we come up out of the waters of baptism seeing. We’re helped to see a new reality that negates the false realities propped up by the powers that be. We see the true reality in which “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Oscar Romero saw that new reality. He put it into practice by ending the custom of performing private baptisms for the children of the European-descended aristocracy, by which they segregated themselves from the families of the indigenous population. The 1989 film Romero starring Raul Julia dramatized the resulting conflict in one of its scenes. A woman from an aristocratic, government-connected family comes to Archbishop Romero and tells him, “It’s time to baptize my baby.” “It would be my privilege,” says Romero. “I would like to pick a date,” the woman says. Romero replies, “There are baptisms every Sunday, the choice is yours.” “I think the first Sunday in December would be fine,” she says. “That’s a good week,” says Romero, “not so crowded.” The woman stiffens and says, “I would like a private baptism.” Romero knows what’s coming and says apologetically, “We have so many to baptize now…we don’t have private ones anymore.” “Will you…you will make an exception, Monsignor?” “I am sorry,” he says. The woman snarls: “You expect me to baptize my baby with a bunch of Indians? You have deserted us!” She leaves, still very much blind.

When Jesus helps us see, he helps us see God’s salvation in a much more all-encompassing way. Influenced by American evangelicalism, when we hear today’s Epistle lesson we tend to associate certain things with the language of “being saved” that runs throughout the passage from Romans. But when Jesus helps us see, he helps us see that salvation is about so much more than “praying to receive Christ” and going to heaven at life’s end. Paul meant much more by that language. The man who came up out of the pool of Siloam seeing was embarking on a life that involved so much more than that, though we don’t know the rest of his story. Oscar Romero came to see that salvation meant so much more than his own ecclesiastical traditioning had inclined him to see. Jesus helped him see that the salvation of the soul for eternal life in heaven isn’t really salvation if it doesn’t also have to do with the embodied, the social, the political, the transformation of the present order of things into the reign of God. If we don’t see that as having to do with salvation, we’ve got some blind spots we need Jesus to work on.

When Jesus helps us see, he helps us see things we wish we didn’t see about the present order of things. By the second time the Pharisees interrogate the man who’d been blind, he’s beginning to see that they don’t really know what they claim to know and don’t really see what they say they see. He gives voice to that insight, and he finds himself expelled from the synagogue. In our Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah sees things he wishes he didn’t see about the empires of the world—about the fate of Judah and the fate of Babylon. In a lecture on “Prophecy and Art” at our sister school Logsdon Seminary at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, Hebrew Bible scholar Ellen Davis showed an image of a woodcut titled “The Prophet” by German expressionist artist Emil Nolde. She called attention to it to illustrate what she called “the prophetic discipline of bearing pain,” echoing what Abraham Heschel called “the pain of insight.” Nolde’s woodcut is a portrait of Jeremiah, depressed Jeremiah, with eyes sunken but wide-open in an expression of sheer terror at what he sees. It helps us imagine Jeremiah’s experience of what Davis called elsewhere in her lecture “the hell of the prophetic imagination.” Oscar Romero too took on “the prophetic discipline of bearing pain”; he too experienced “the pain of insight,” “the hell of the prophetic imagination.” He saw what the Salvadoran government was really doing to the Salvadoran people. He saw the complicity of the United States with the repression through providing financial and military assistance to the regime, which in the midst of the Cold War we blindly supported as a supposed deterrent to the spread of communism. He saw the systemic evil that blinded people to what was really happening. He saw the church’s failure to take a stand on the side of those God favored. Like Jeremiah, like the man Jesus helped to see not only physically but spiritually, so Oscar Romero bore the pain of prophetic insight—and so may we, when Jesus helps us see what he sees about the present order of things.

And thus when Jesus helps us see, he helps us see that being his disciple means carrying his cross. The formerly blind man in our text experiences a foreshadowing of Good Friday when he’s expelled from the synagogue. Following from Good Friday, the church’s martyrs like Oscar Romero and Rutilio Grande and the other Salvadoran martyrs have seen that being a disciple means taking up one’s own cross, suffering and even dying for the sake of others like Jesus did for us. Romero especially began to see that he should take up his cross in his preaching. As Archbishop his weekly Sunday homilies were broadcast by radio throughout El Salvador. He prepared to preach literally on his knees, praying before an open lectionary and open newspapers from the previous week. He would mention the names of the most recent victims of the government’s repression in each homiliy—Romero said, “to incarnate in the people the Word of God.” In one sermon he declared, “Above all I denounce the absolutization of wealth. This is the great evil of El Salvador: wealth—private property as an untouchable absolute.” His homily on March 23, 1980 included this section:

I should like to make a special appeal to the men of the army….Brothers! We are the same people! You are slaying your campesino brothers and sisters! When a human being orders you to kill, the law of God must prevail: “You shall not kill!” No soldier is obliged to obey an order in violation of the law of God….It is time you recovered your conscience, and obeyed your conscience instead of orders to commit sin. The Church is the defender of God’s rights, God’s law, human dignity, and the worth of persons. It cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We ask the government to consider seriously the fact that reforms are of no use when they are steeped in all this blood. In the name of God, then, and in the name of this suffering people, those whose screams and cries mount to heaven and daily grow louder, I beg you, I entreat you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”

The next day, Romero preached again, at a Monday evening Mass at a small hospital chapel. He finished his sermon and walked to the altar to celebrate the Eucharist. There he was fatally shot by an assassin from a death squad whose leaders were trained at the “School of the Americas” at Fort Benning, Georgia.

It wasn’t easy for Romero in particular to take up his cross in that way. Did you know that Oscar Romero suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder? I wasn’t aware of that until last month, when I spoke at Creighton University. There I had a conversation with a member of the theology faculty who mentioned a colleague’s research on Romero’s struggle with OCPD and what that meant for his spiritual development. Now OCPD isn’t precisely the same thing as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, OCD. There are others here who are paid to be able to explain the differences to you better than I can. As I understand it, a person with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder would among other things find it extremely difficult to take risks, especially to risk doing something that others might perceive as unconventional or wrong or—God forbid—a mistake. For Romero to risk what he did to challenge the status quo took an extraordinary leap of faith, of trusting in the rightness of what Jesus helped him see in the midst of so many others’ blindness. But that’s not so different from what most of us have to do to follow through on what Jesus helps us see. As Damian Zynda wrote in her book about Romero’s struggles with OCPD, “What Romero struggled with was not unlike the personality struggles [other] people live with….‘Romero was only a garden-variety neurotic, like most of us.’” Like the ordinary and earthy means Jesus used to give sight to the blind man—a little dirt, a little spit, and some water—Romero’s mundane struggles with the challenges and limitations of his personality became a means by which he experienced the presence and power of God and came gradually to see what Jesus helped him see. Jesus wants to do that with us. Will we let him?

Let us pray: “Almighty God, you called your servant Oscar Romero to be a voice for the voiceless poor, and to give his life as a seed of freedom and a sign of hope: Grant that, inspired by his sacrifice and the example of the martyrs of El Salvador, we may without fear or favor witness to your Word who abides, your Word who is Life, even Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be praise and glory now and for ever. Amen.”

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