Homily for Year B: Proper 5
II Corinthians 4:13-18
St Thomas', Salem
June, of course, is the traditional month for weddings. Since becoming a bishop, I’ve kind of gotten out of the wedding business, but in 22 years of parish ministry, I certainly did my share. And I have to say, from the very first to the very last, I always got a little misty-eyed at that moment when the bride and groom first catch sight of one another across the length of a church aisle. There’s nothing quite comparable to the glow on the faces in that instant.
There’s also nothing quite comparable to the adjustment two people have to make to actually living with one another! “How can you stand it so hot in here?!”—on goes the air conditioner. “Hot?! It’s freezing in here!”—off goes the air conditioner. “This is a lousy show; I don’t want to watch it.” —click goes the TV remote. “What do you mean? This is a great show; it never miss it!” — click goes the TV remote. I feel hot, therefore it must be hot. I like this show, therefore it must be a great show. It is completely natural for us to project our own perceptions back on to the world of our experience. Our automatic assumption is that things are exactly as they seem to be, that the reality we perceive is the reality that’s actually, objectively, there.
We ought not to be too critical, then, of the relatives of Jesus—his mother and his brothers, as St Mark tells the story—who were deeply concerned about the consequences of his suddenly escalating popularity. He was doing some rather bizarre things—casting out demons, healing the sick—and was attracting a growing and increasingly unruly following. His family was concerned for his safety, and, it appears, also for his sanity. In their words, he was “beside himself.” The scribes from Jerusalem were a little harsher in their judgement: “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”
It’s easy for us, with our 20/20 hindsight, to take offense at such a statement, as Jesus did at the time. But they were only doing what comes naturally, the same thing you and I would probably have done. They projected their own perceptions on to the world of their experience. Jesus seems crazy to me; therefore he must be crazy. It looks to me like Jesus is demon-possessed; therefore he must be demon-possessed. Jesus’ relatives, and the scribes from Jerusalem, were really being very modern. They were buying into the modern assumption that sensory observation is the only basis for saying something is real. If something can be experienced with one of the five senses, then it is in the realm of scientific fact, not to be questioned by any reasonable person. Anything that lies outside sense perception is a matter of opinion or speculation. You can believe it if you want to, but it’s not something you can reasonably hold anyone else accountable to.
Now, these assumptions are so much a part of the way you and I were educated and raised, taken so much for granted by our everyday world, that we scarcely know how to think any other way. But it is a short-sighted way of thinking, and the gospel of Christ calls us to break free from the tyranny of our own short-sighted perceptions. For unless we can do so, we are headed for a painful crash—a painful crash into the wall of ultimate reality, that which is really real.
There was once a restaurant that was renowned for its clam chowder. It was always packed with customers from all around the area, and beyond. It was so profitable, and its value had increased so much, that the owner decided to sell out and take life easy. The new owner saw how popular and how profitable the clam chowder was, and figured he could make even more profit if he lowered his production costs. (It’s the kind of sophisticated management strategy you learn when you go for your MBA.) So he started to add just a tiny bit of water to the chowder recipe. For about a month, he thought himself quite clever. The number of customers remained the same, but his cost per bowl of chowder was less, so he made obscene amounts of money. But then his short-sighted perception crashed into the wall of ultimate reality. The word got out that something about the chowder wasn't quite the same, and the surge of customers dwindled to a trickle. The restaurant began to lose money, and closed.
Adam and Eve were equally short-sighted when they gave in to the temptations of the serpent. They projected their own sensory perception on to the world: that fruit looks good, and smells good, and tastes good. It must therefore be good. This was a short-sighted conclusion, and we’re familiar with the story of their painful crash into the wall of ultimate reality, a crash that you and I and every other human being today live with the consequences of.
When I was fourteen, and in a playful mood one afternoon, I found myself in possession of my younger sister’s eyeglasses, and, just in the spirit of fooling around, put them on. Talk about an “Aha!” moment! I could see things I didn’t think I was supposed to be able to see, and I realized in an instant how much of the world I was missing. Needless to say, within a week, I had my own glasses. I needed, in effect, new eyes.
The gift and the virtue of faith is like a new pair of eyes. Faith enables us to expand our limited perception of reality to include the really real, God’s reality. With the eyes of faith, we can see what St Paul sees, as was read for us this morning:
Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not on what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen in temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
With the eyes of faith, we can see what our five senses can never tell us, that God is active and present in our experience and on our behalf. Jesus’ relatives saw his healing miracles and thought he was insane. The scribes saw him exorcise demons and thought he was himself demon-possessed. Jesus, in that situation, called on his followers to use their eyes of faith to see in those very same events evidence of God’s saving activity. In his cryptic parable, the “strong man” is Satan, and the one who enters the strong man’s house and ties him up and plunders his property is Jesus, in his very activity of healing the sick.
Educated North Americans and Europeans are perhaps less capable than anyone of seeing Jesus’ point. We are among the most spiritually near-sighted people in the world. Of the all the cultures that have come and gone throughout history, all over the world, ours is the only one that even questions the existence of a spiritual realm, a reality beyond the senses. Of all people, we are most in need of the eyes of faith. Faith is both a gift and a virtue. It is something we receive, but it is also something we can develop. I’ve known of those whose spiritual vision is so acute that, at the point in the Eucharist when we talk about being surrounded by angels and archangels, they actually see angels hovering over the altar! I am not among those who have had such an experience, but just hearing about it increases my faith and warms my heart and captivates my imagination.
The gift and the virtue of faith, leaving behind our short sighted slavery to sense perception, empowers us to live and act with courage and integrity and fidelity, even—and especially—when what we do or say seems foolish by the limited perception of those around us. To the scribes from Jerusalem, and to Jesus’s own blood relatives, it no doubt seemed the height of folly for him to say that those who do the will of God are really his mother and his brothers and his sisters. To those outside the community of the church (and probably to a good number of those within it, it probably seems foolish to say that the bond of baptismal water is stronger and more abiding than the bond of blood kinship, that other baptized Christians are our real brothers and sisters. It takes spiritual glasses, the eyes of faith, to realize these truths. But what an “Aha!” moment it is when we put on those glasses. What an experience of joy and expanded perception awaits us when we exercise the gift and cultivate the virtue of faith.