Sunday, April 22, 2007

Then I Saw...

SJF • Easter 3C • Tobias Haller BSG
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…
Then I saw… then I looked... then I heard. That is the blessed refrain that runs through today’s second reading. Then I saw... then I looked... then I heard. Such is the language that confronts us in the passage from the Revelation to Saint John. Needless to say, revelation is only half of the story: and today’s passage emphasizes the other half — perception. As the title of the Bible’s last book suggests, revelation is always revelation to. God’s word is meant to bear fruit, and no matter how important the revelation or the one who gives it, it will not bear fruit unless there is also someone willing to see, to look, and to hear. As Jesus would put it, the Word of God, as seed cast abroad, needs suitable soil if it is to take root, grow, and bear fruit. To make himself known — in broken bread or in any other way — requires that there must be someone able and willing to know. Revelation is always revelation to.

How often don’t we perceive what is addressed to us, what is right in front of us, and thus remain fruitless and barren in response? How often is something unknown because we refuse to know it? And why is that? Why is it that we seem unable to see what, as my grandmother used to say, “if it was a snake it would have bit you”? Why are we so often unable to hear the warning sirens that alert us to danger? This is bad enough when all you’re looking for is the stapler or the ironing board; or all you are trying to hear is the voice on the other end of a bad cell phone connection. But when it is life everlasting, the chance for salvation, how much more important, how much more vital that we see and hear, take, touch and embrace what is offered so freely by our Lord and God.

Today’s other readings from Scripture, offer a response to the attentive John of Revelation. They give us examples of people who couldn’t, for different reasons, perceive what was right there, in front of or all around them. Thankfully, the people we hear about this morning went through an experience that opened their eyes, and then, then, they saw. Something happened to them, something — or someone — reached out and acted on their lives to allow them to see what had escaped their vision up till then. Then… then they saw.

When we look at them and hear their stories, we can see reflections of ourselves, and learn how to keep our eyes open and fixed on the one who was and is, and is to come, Jesus, our Lord and savior. For it is he who opens the eyes of those who do not see because they think they see. It is he who opens the eyes of those who do not see because they don’t know how to look.

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First, there’s our old friend Saint Paul, or, as he was known before his conversion, Saul. What kept him from seeing the grace of God? Well, Saul’s problem was that he thought he knew it all — you couldn’t tell him anything.

One of the great mysteries of perception is that we see what we expect to see — not what is actually there. If your head is so full of preconceptions that there isn’t any room anymore, you won’t be able to perceive anything new, even when it’s right before your eyes.

And this isn’t just about ideas, but appears to be programmed into our brains, regarding even physical perception. I just saw an interesting news-brief in Scientific American Mind, in which they show how people’s brains are so used to seeing bananas as yellow, and strawberries as red, that when asked to adjust a color image of these fruits on a computer to be a neutral shade of gray, people will add more blue to the bananas and more green to the strawberries than is necessary to make them gray — the human brain wants to see bananas as yellow and strawberries are red so strongly that if there isn’t at least a hint of the opposite color, the brain will still insist on seeing a perfectly gray image of the fruits as slightly yellow or red. Our heads are full of such perceptions, such “settings” almost like the volume setting on your TV. And if you’ve ever walked into a room in which someone who is hard of hearing is watching TV, you know that your and their idea of “loud” is very different!

Saul the Pharisee’s brain was “set” if anybody’s was. He had studied at the feet of the greatest Rabbi of his day, Rabbi Gamaliel the Great, a Rabbi whose teachings are an important part of the Talmud even down to this day. Saul was a bright boy, an A-plus student, probably “teacher’s pet.” He was a true believer, fervent in prayer, surpassing all his classmates.

So when this new religion came along, this new faith called “the Way” he just said, “No way!” And with the fervor of a zealot he sought to smash the new faith, to crush it into the ground through whatever means necessary, including murder.

Yes, Saul thought he knew it all. And you might say, in Star Trek style, that his brain was set on kill, not stun! It took the grace of God stunning him — knocking him to the ground and even blinding him for a bit to finally open his eyes to see how seriously he had missed the point. His knowledge of Israel’s past, instead of leading him to see God’s new thing happening even in his day, had figuratively blinded him to the fulfillment of the promise that past foretold, the realization of all for which God’s careful guidance had prepared. He knew the story backwards and forwards, but he entirely missed the point; he knew the prophecies by heart, but failed to see them when they started to come true around him.

But thank God, then, he saw. After being figuratively blinded by his knowledge, God literally blinded him for a time, so that when Ananias laid his hands on him and baptized him, his eyes were opened with a new, fresh vision. Without him, the church as we know it would never have come to be, for it was to be Saul, renamed as Paul, who would bring the good news to the Gentiles.

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Then there’s Peter. Peter’s problem wasn’t that he knew too much, but that he seems only to have known one thing. Even though he was a witness to the Resurrection, he still didn’t seem to see the significance of that miraculous event. He’d been through the upper room experience, when Jesus had appeared. He’d was there when the Risen Lord, brought doubting Thomas to his knees.

He knew the Risen Lord. But what did he do as follow up? Did he start a great mission to evangelize the world, to spread the gospel of the Risen Christ? No. He went fishing.

Fishing was something he knew about. Unlike Saul, he wasn’t a rabbi, a learned man. He was a fisherman. That much he was sure of. He couldn’t quite grasp what all this resurrection was about. But fish, and fishing, he knew. Even though Jesus had said he’d fish for people, he was going to stick with fish.

The trouble is, now the fish weren’t cooperating. I can’t help but see the smile on Jesus’ lips when he called out over the water
to Peter and his friends, “Children, you have no fish,
have you?” And as he had said some years before, when he first met Peter (as Luke’s Gospel tells us), he said once more, “Try again.” And as it happened before, the nets were suddenly full of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved called out, “It is the Lord!” And Peter, dear, impetuous Peter, realizing his nakedness. quickly pulled on his clothes and jumped in the sea, swimming ashore to be with the Lord he now saw with newly opened eyes.

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How often are we like Paul and Peter? How often do we miss the abundant grace around us either because we know too much about too many things, or know too little by knowing only about one thing? How often do we rely on our accumulated expertise, resisting new and creative visions, new ways of working and thinking? How often do we fail to risk something untried, falling back on the same old same-old we know so well?

Sometimes it takes God’s grace to knock us into our senses, to blind us with the blazing accusation of how wrong we’ve been. Sometimes it takes the power of God to convert us and give us a new birth in order that we may open our eyes to see just how mistaken we have been. Paul thought he knew, and then, then he saw.

Other times it takes God’s gentle challenge to our tried-and-
true lives, our habitual and dreary return to familiar patterns, however unproductive, instead of risking the adventure God would set before us. Then God will call out to us, as we labor fruitlessly at the same old task, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” He said that once to Peter and Thomas, Nathanael and the sons of Zebedee one day by the shore of the sea, and then they saw.

May we be ready to receive that challenge, to hear that voice, to open our eyes to the startling reality of God’s presence where we thought it couldn’t be, or where we didn’t know it was, so that, one day we may join that other blessed seer, Saint John the Divine, to whom God revealed the secrets of heaven, and the glory of the world to come. May we, with all the saints and angels gathered round the throne, be able at last to say, Then I looked, then I heard, then I saw...+


2 comments:

Grandmère Mimi said...

Tobias, indeed, may we all "see".

And Jesus barbecued fish for them. I've always like that small detail.

I've wondered that Paul, knowledgeable as he was in the Jewish faith, was, nevertheless, called by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles. You'd think he could have used his learning better to convert Jews.

But God's ways are not our ways, are they? And thanks be to God that he was sent to the Gentiles.

Weiwen Ng said...

I like this one. My only criticism: the bananas and strawberries analogy wasn't immediately obvious to me. I did get the gist of what your were talking about, since I have a bachelor's in psych. however, I would have chosen another metaphor.