Willful Seeing

Sermon for Sunday, June 12, 2016 || Proper 6C || Luke 7:36–8:3

willfulseeingThis is a sermon about seeing. I want you to remember that because for the first little bit, it will sound like it’s about other things. But this sermon is about seeing.

Today’s Gospel lesson tells the story of a Pharisee named Simon who invited Jesus to a dinner party at his house. Perhaps Simon had a custom of bringing all visiting rabbis into his house for a meal. Perhaps he had a soft spot for provincial teachers who, like Jesus, had ventured out their backwater villages to spread their words to the wider world. I can only assume a Pharisee like Simon brought such people into his home to stoke his own ego, to show them that they were hopelessly outmatched by his wealth and knowledge.

If that’s the case, then he bit off more than he could chew with Jesus. I’m sure he had heard the stories about Jesus. But I’m equally sure Simon dismissed such ludicrously incredible stories as the mundane and petty hopes of the gullible. Forecasting a huge catch of fish, making a leper’s skin clean, raising a widow’s son from the dead: such stories grow in the telling, the product of idle chatter stoked by sensationalism. Such, I think, was Simon the Pharisee’s mindset when Jesus came to dinner. These local teachers were all the same, so why would this one be any different?

Of course, Simon sees only what he wants to see, only what his own experience and ego have taught him to see. When the woman comes to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears, Simon confirms for himself his low viewpoint of Jesus. “If he’s going to let this sinner near him, there’s no way he’s a prophet!” And speaking of the woman, Simon doesn’t see her at all. He sees only a disruptive scene messing up his dinner party. He sees only a sinner.

So after the parable about the debtors, it makes perfect sense for Jesus to ask such a seemingly simple question as the one he asks. Jesus looks at the woman who has anointed his feet, but speaks to Simon. “Do you see this woman?”

It seems like such an innocuous little question. The easy answer is, “Yes! She’s ruining my social gathering. She’s staining the honor of my house with her very presence! Of course I see her!”

But this is one of those questions from Jesus that, depending on your disposition, can either plant a seed for future growth or fester like an infected wound. “Do you see this woman?” If Simon looked into his own depths to where the truth lay dormant, he might have answered like this: “No. I did not see her. I looked her way, but only saw ‘it.’ I saw the spectacle: the weeping, the kissing, the impropriety of it all. I did not see her. I saw her sin. I saw only her sin wrapped up around her like a costume.”

Simon sees only what he wants to see, only what he is trained to see. How often in our day to day lives do we look at other people and see only what we want to see? The cashier at the supermarket is nothing but a pair of hands scanning groceries. The attractive woman walking through downtown Mystic is nothing but a collection of pleasing body parts. The person without a home or job who begs near the Crystal Mall is nothing but grubby fingers holding a cardboard sign. I’m sure we could easily come up with a hundred more examples of this…this willful blindness.

Such willful blindness is a cause of our modern day isolation. We stay safely ensconced in our own little bubbles and rarely venture even a step outside the norm. I speak for myself when I say this is one of my greatest character flaws, and it fits right in as a symptom of our isolating societal sickness. Perhaps you all know your neighbors, especially if you’ve lived next to the same folks for a long time. But I don’t know any of mine. And I really should. I’ve been in Mystic nearly two and a half years, and I take walks with my kids all the time. But I always have my headphones in, which speaks a very loud message: “Do not approach.”

But in the last few months, I’ve made one connection that shows it is possible for me to break out of this willful and isolating blindness. And it’s all thanks to God’s whimsical sense of humor. On Ash Wednesday, I went to Café 511 to get a bagel on my way over to StoneRidge. Now, I had been to Café 511 a half a dozen times before because their bagels are incredible – and soy free! But the woman behind the counter was just a faceless food vendor. I never really saw her before that day.

But Nicole, the proprietor, saw me. Being Ash Wednesday, I had the sign of the cross smeared in black across my forehead. She said that she was working a twelve-hour day and was sad she couldn’t get to church for her ashes. That’s when I felt the tug of the Holy Spirit: “I’ve got the ashes in the car. Want them here?” Now this is an example of God’s whimsical sense of humor because I’ve always felt uncomfortable about administering ashes without the church service part, which is actually a pretty common practice these days. But it felt right in that particular moment.

Nicole lit up at the offer, and I gave her the ashes right there in the café. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I now go to Café 511 about once a week. It has become our favorite restaurant in town, both because of the great food and the friendliness of the owners. Nicole welcomed my kids by name last Tuesday morning. And I’ve gotten to know her and her husband Dan a little bit via snatches of conversation while waiting for food.

I know this story seems rather ordinary – two people actually seeing one another and learning each other’s names – but that’s just the problem. Our kneejerk willful blindness, our isolating societal sickness makes this kind of encounter extraordinary.

We can start to recover from this societal sickness by seeing. Not just looking, but seeing. In the Gospel story, Jesus asks Simon the Pharisee, “Do you see this woman?” But it’s a rhetorical question, with “No” being the silent and condemning answer. Simon looks, but does not see. Jesus sees her. He sees the person underneath the layers of sin, which is also Simon sees. Jesus could tell you what her name is and what color her eyes are. Jesus could you tell what she hopes and dreams and fears and who she loves and who loves her. Jesus sees her, and in seeing her forgives her, and in forgiving her loves her, and in loving her sends her on her way in peace.

The cure for our willful blindness is willful seeing; that is, acknowledging the personhood of everyone we normally reduce to robotic task completers or to collections of body parts or to vaguely human-shaped pieces of the scenery.

I started this yesterday morning. I took the kids for a walk, and I picked the headphones, looked at them, and said, “Nope.” During the forty minute walk, I said “Good morning” to fifteen people. Twelve of them said it back to me. That’s amazing! I started yesterday morning, and we can start this morning when we offer each other the peace of the Lord. Find someone in this church whom you don’t know. They might be clear on the other side of the room, but it doesn’t matter: go over to them and shake their hands. Look them in the eye and offer them the peace of God. After the service, strike up a conversation.

The only way to cure our isolating societal sickness is to turn our willful blindness into willful seeing. Jesus says to Simon: “Do you see this woman?” Jesus says to us: “Do you see each other?” If not, raise your head, focus your eyes, focus your heart, and see.

2 thoughts on “Willful Seeing

  1. Amen & Amen!! Members of St. James in New London have been offering “Ashes-To-Go” on Ash Wednesday for several years, right in downtown New London by the Whale’s Tail! People on their way to work (walking or driving) – stop & request the ashes. It has become quite a popular thing!

  2. I too have recently left the headphones behind when I am out walking. It is amazing to get responses, sometimes pleasantly surprised and sometimes not at all welcome. A smile from an elderly man I cross along the path in the local public gardens may be the only friendly contact he will have that day. An attempt at a “good morning” or “it is a beautiful day” may be met with a scowl. I choose to imagine that sometime during the ensuing hours that person will recall a stranger cared enough to greet them. Being present, even on solitary walks, conveys (as the song says) “I love you.”

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