Believing is Seeing
Sermon preached by Sarah Byrne-Martelli on Sunday, January 14, 2018 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA
On the Gospel Reading of Luke 18:35-43
Today, a blind man, who has lived his life by the side of the road, asks our Lord for healing. Like the blind man, we all suffer with some form of blindness – if not perhaps with our physical eyes, then blindness within our hearts and minds. We focus on the wrong places and this leads us into suffering and despair. Perhaps we gaze ahead with extreme farsightedness, focused on what's in front of us: our calendars, our careers, our plans for next month, next year. Perhaps we stare at others too much: noticing what they have, what they do for a living, how they look and act; we develop envy, scorn, we judge and desire. Or we focus only on personal needs, while oblivious to the real needs of those around us.
When our eyes are closed, we miss what is right in front of us. When we look elsewhere, with envy or greed or mindless distraction, we miss what is right in front of us. We stare into space, we are scattered, we suffer and blindly fall into sin. Is this how God calls us to live?
Blindness of any type can be crippling, and this was true for the man who sat begging on the side of the road. He calls out to Jesus two times: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus orders the man be brought to him. And then – I always thought this was interesting – though He is the Christ, the son of living God, and it was probably pretty obvious what type of healing the man needed, Jesus doesn't just go ahead and heal him. Instead, Jesus says to the man, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Picture Christ walking up to you and saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” What would you say? Would you know where you need healing? Would you stammer? Would you be rendered silent, scrambling for a response?
What's funny is when you present it like this – Christ walking up to us and saying "What do you want me to do for you?" it seems kind of odd, like it might never really happen. We might have this idea that we will meet God only after death. We become complacent, forgetting that a life of prayerful repentance is ongoing. I see this in my work as a chaplain caring for people at the end of life. Ignoring our relationship with God, and our need for healing, is very tempting, and very normal. We are so caught up in everything else…it’s like we’re living with blinders on. When we find ourselves in a crisis, suddenly in need of God, we can’t find the words of prayer. There is despair, regret, panic. We are so busy doing other things that we have no insight. We are rendered silent, with our spiritual eyes closed.
A wise mentor once relayed to me that it's a good idea, when offering prayers for a sick or dying person, to do so with your eyes open. I laughed and said to her, “Oh, no problem, I'm Orthodox Christian! We always pray with our eyes open!” Of course! But do we, really? Yes, we pray in the presence of icons, with their vibrant and colorful images. We see Christ and his parables, His miracles, His birth in a humble cave, His transfiguration. We see His crucifixion, His resurrection from the dead, His trampling down death by death. Colors, lights, shadows, lovingly written into the icons, every brush stroke writing a prayer of praise to God. The reds, blues, golds, greens: all of this, infused with God.
Do those colors fade when we exit the sanctuary? These colorful icons are windows into Christ’s kingdom, images of God in our world. Do we see the icons around us? Do we see the heavens declaring the glory of God? God's glorious image imprinted in the very people before us? Perhaps it’s easier to look away…even to keep our eyes closed.
We rely on God to open our eyes, to help us see the icons around us. Even more, we need God’s help to see ourselves as His living icons. And we are offered this help every day of our lives. Christ always asks us this question, “What do you want me to do for you?” and He always wills that we answer Him with honesty. It is an ongoing dialogue, a conversation. Walking up to receive Holy Communion, we encounter the Christ who knows us and calls us by name. Participating in the Sacrament of Confession is a chance to name the places where we need healing. Even though God knows our hearts, and knows our needs, there is something in the asking, in giving voice, that is imperative in our relationship with God. We name it, even if it seems obvious.
The blind man names his request. He trusts that God is able to heal him. When his sight is granted, the first person he sees is…Christ! And when we pray for restored spiritual sight, we, too, may see Christ before us, in everyone! The blind man becomes a witness to God’s power. In his gratitude and perseverance, he himself becomes an icon of praise, with Christ imprinted on him. And that gratitude is contagious! Those around him rejoice. The reds, blues, golds, greens of God’s icons come to life in the people surrounding the healed man.
Asking for our sight to be healed, to see depth and colors and light, means living through joy and sorrow in the light of Christ. It means seeing everything in God’s illuminating love: the real situation of our own sin, our own habits, our own judgments and failings. We do this by calling out to God, sometimes more than once, as the blind man did. It requires patience, perseverance.
And now that he is well, what defines the blind man? Not his burden. He can’t call himself the "blind man by the side of the road" any more. Now he is a man with perfect vision, seeing Christ. The possibility of new life is here – right now – and what will he do with it? Does he stay in the safe, familiar – if dark – spot by the side of the road? Does he hold his breath, skeptical, thinking it’s too good to be true? Does he, like the nine lepers, receive his healing and leave without thanking God? No! His belief gives him courage, joy, and gratitude.
Giving thanks to God and looking out with new eyes, instead of stumbling forward for worldly gain, we see the race that God has set before us. Looking at others with healed eyes, we see Christ in them. Looking at ourselves with healed eyes, we see ourselves as God does – as His children, worthy of love and compassion and healing.
In chaplaincy, we witness this healing – whether physical or spiritual – and it is a testament to our belief that with God, all things are possible. I have seen a critically ill young man sit up in bed, responding to hymns sung by his bedside. He had not spoken for weeks, but suddenly, he was singing. I have seen forgiveness flow among family members who were crippled by anger and pride. I have seen small moments of wholeness, flickers of joy in the midst of suffering. Even in the midst of ongoing pain, even in grief, we can offer acts of love to bring the image of Christ to those around us. As the eyesight of my 90-year old Hospice patient Rita failed in the last weeks of her life, her faith yet continued to grow. The darkness in her eyes increased, but the light in her soul helped her ask her daughter for forgiveness. The light in her heart guided her to be brave, to set her mind on God, and to shine with the peace that surpasses understanding. She believed that she would see God. She beheld the icon of God in her daughter, as she humbly sought healing in their relationship. In her faith, she beheld God ever more perfectly as she departed this life. We, too, believe that we will see God. We have heard the term "seeing is believing." With Christ, believing is seeing.