Sunday, March 8, 2020

Sermon: "Sensing the Sacred: Do You Not Perceive It?", Numbers 21:4-9/John 3:1-17 (March 8, 2020)

(This is the third sermon in our Lenten series, "Sensing the Sacred". 
The others can be found here and here.)

Out of all of the senses that we’ll be talking about during Lent, sight is the one that we tend to rely on the most. It’s on the front lines of our perception. A very unscientific poll that I found online indicated that, if they had to choose one sense to lose, only 4% of respondents would be willing to give up their sight—the lowest percentage of all the possible responses.[1] Conventional knowledge says that “seeing is believing,” and while it may not be the ONLY path to belief, it certainly helps. This proverb even has a 21st century iteration—“Pics [pictures] or it didn’t happen.” Different words, same sentiment: if it can’t be observed with the eyes, then it’s irrelevant. 

But as much as we rely on our sight, it’s not as foolproof a tool as we might think. The process of intaking visual data doesn’t exist in a mental vacuum, so even firsthand observations are innately subjective. Every time we see something, the information that we perceive with our eyes is immediately interpreted and translated inside our heads, without us even realizing it. It’s as if each of us is wearing our own unique pair of glasses that we can’t take off, each with different colored lenses and levels of tinting. Some of our lenses are scratched or dirty. It’s impossible for us to see anything except through these glasses, so we never see anything objectively as it is. 

There are many aspects of ourselves that contribute to the color and tint of our individual lenses. For example, our existing knowledge of the world shapes how we might process a new sight. Our past personal experiences might inform our understanding. Our assumptions and biases color our perception, often without us even realizing it. We call all of these factors together in concert with our sight our “perspective”. And perspective has more to do with how we perceive the world around us than sight alone ever could. 

While we may fancy ourselves objective observers of our environment, the reality is that our interpretation of what we see is completely dependent on our perspective…and generally speaking, we have far more loyalty to our individual perspective than to the facts of what our eyes tell us. If something we observe doesn’t fit into the narrative that we expect it to, we either MAKE it fit through impressive mental gymnastics or we reject it, evidence be darned! Even though our experience of sight is innately flawed, we cling to it desperately (or at least our perception of it) as if it were the only thing that mattered. It seems that in practice, it’s not seeing that’s believing—perceiving is believing. 

This presents a bit of a problem. How is our blind devotion to our perspective affecting what we see and, consequently, believe? This is the situation that poor Nicodemus found himself in. He was a knowledgeable and well-read man who, it seems, had observed Jesus’ “miraculous signs” with his own eyes. As a pharisee, he would have known the prophesies and the nature of God better than most. Seeing really SHOULD have been believing for him. And yet, his perspective as a pharisee, whose power was threatened by Jesus’ message and whose lived experience presumably was more legalistic than miraculous, kept him from understanding what he was seeing right in front of him. “We speak about what we…have seen,” Jesus reminds him, and Nicodemus had seen miracles with his own eyes, and yet neither first- nor second-hand observations (or even both together!) were enough to convince him. He didn’t even seem to realize how his perspective was holding him back. He thought he was seeing clearly, but for all intents and purposes, he was blind to what Jesus was doing. 

To be fair, Nicodemus wasn’t alone in his metaphorical blindness. In Jesus’ rant towards the end of the reading, he primarily uses the plural form of “you”. It’s not just Nicodemus; humanity has seen “the human one” with their own eyes, and yet they still don’t get it. And if those who’ve seen for themselves don’t understand, how can there be any chance at all for those of us who don’t have the benefit of first-hand observation? Based on this reading of scripture, the whole situation sounds hopeless. 

But wait a second. God doesn’t do “hopeless”. If our perspective can keep us from seeing the truth when it’s right in front of us, isn’t it possible that we may be missing something even now? That even though our eyes see and read this familiar scripture without difficulty, the tinted lenses of our perspectives may be keeping us from perceiving the real message? 

We’ve all heard John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish, but will have eternal life.” Most of us interpret this as meaning something like, “God loved us so much that he made a deal: Everyone who claims Jesus as the messiah and gives the right answers to questions of religion receives a ticket to heaven.” But organized religion influences our perspective, too. Our 21st century American Christian lenses tell us that “belief” is practicing faith in the “right” way, and that’s what earns us eternal life. But what if that’s not what scripture means when it talks about believing in Jesus? The Greek word for “to believe” (“pisteuo”) also means “to trust” or “to place confidence in”. So what if when Jesus talks about belief here, he’s talking about people who place their confidence in him and his way of seeing the world…who trust him enough to try to see things from his perspective? 

Look at the verses immediately before this one. In almost a throw-away line, Jesus refers to our first reading from the book of Numbers. He implies that the story of Moses and the bronze snake somehow relates to his point in John 3:16. In that story, though, “belief” (as we usually understand it) wasn’t what saved the Israelites. They admitted their sin and repented, they believed in God, yet it wasn’t enough. Their healing, according to God, would come not through their faith, but through their sense of sight. God ordered Moses to take that which had once represented pain and death—a serpent—and lift it up instead as a symbol of healing. The Israelites were literally cured by seeing the snake in a new way. For them, life came not from believing the “right” things, but from seeing differently. Being able to see from the new perspective that God offered. 

Through Moses, God changed the way the Israelites saw serpents. It had been a creature of death; now it was a creature of healing. Through Jesus, God changed the way humanity saw the cross. It had represented the violence of an oppressive empire; now it represents life and salvation. Both the serpent and the Human One were lifted up for the people to see so that they could shift their perspective. Both provided new lenses to help humanity understand what God wanted them to see. Reading John 3:16 through this lens renders a slightly different interpretation than we may be used to: “God loved the world; therefore, he gave his only son so that everyone might see what he sees and have eternal life.” Understood this way, belief isn’t a test or condition of eternal life. This verse is really just an “if/then” statement: if you can see what God is doing through Jesus, then you’ll be able to see the way to eternal life. So I guess believing really is seeing, and seeing is believing. Just not in the way that we think. 

What we perceive is not always the same as what we see, but God is in the business of changing perspectives. We can’t take off our own perspective-lenses, but God has given us yet another gift through holy community to help us see with divine eyes. All of us are limited by our own perspective, but each in different ways. If we’re willing to listen and learn from one another, we can begin to see the bigger picture; we can begin to see from God’s perspective. The trick is to recognize the limits of our own sight, and see through collective eyes instead of just our own. 

We need to listen when people of color tell us about the injustices that they endure. We need to listen when women tell us about the invisible glass ceiling that they encounter every day. We need to listen when our LGBT siblings speak of the discrimination they face. We need to listen and believe. Because I may not see these things…but they do, and God does. Only when we listen to each other can we begin to see the situations around us clearly. Only then can we begin to see the world from God’s perspective. And that’s the only way to bring about God’s Kingdom. 

So when we look around and see the world that we’re living in, we should be asking ourselves what our lenses are telling us. Instead of seeing things the way you normally do, try to imagine the way things would look through holy lenses: what is God trying to do here? What is God asking of us? What matters? What’s really important? You won’t be able to figure it out all by yourself, so ask around. Discern together. It’s okay; we’re Presbyterian, it’s kind of our thing. When we’re able to understand other perspectives, we begin to see the way God sees. The needs of our neighbors look less like a personal inconvenience and more like a personal imperative. The injustices in our systems transform from a fact of life to an intolerable hindrance to God’s Kingdom. The fears and frustrations of our brothers and sisters change from a “them problem” to an “us problem”. God asks us to look to Christ so that we might discover a new perspective. A holy perspective. This Lent, we have a chance to practice. Let us pray that when we look at the cross this time, we might truly see. Amen. 

*During the coming week, I invite you to consider somewhere you've seen God that you didn't expect. Let me know in the comments!*


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