“I See You”

“He has sent me to proclaim sight to the blind.”–Luke 4:18

My friend Susan lived with her family on the African continent for a number of years.  She fondly remembers the way people in Botswana customarily greeted each other in the midst of daily life: “I see you!,” they would say, taking care to make eye contact with one another. Seeing each other is an essential way that we practice being human with one another.  To say, “I see you!,” in any number of expressions, is to affirm that another person is fully visible to us, someone to be acknowledged, someone worthy of our respect.

We who are graced are visible to God; we are infused with divine imagination, recognized, accompanied, affirmed.  The call of Jeremiah (1:4-10) is stirring in this regard: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”  The language bears kinship with the second of Isaiah’s Servant Songs:  “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.”   These texts bespeak visibility and knowledge that is original. We are created by the God who sees; such sight is woven into our being. God says “I see you!” to us again and again, each utterance an opportunity to remember who we are and how we have come.  Deep recognition grows as the fruit of ongoing relationship: “O, Lord, you have searched me and known me, you know when I sit down and rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.  Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely (Psalm 139:2,4).”  

When Jesus inaugurates his Galilean ministry, he identifies the gift of sight as critical to God’s new order. “He has sent me to proclaim sight to the blind,”  Jesus declares in the midst of his scripture “reading.”  He began moments earlier, claiming the familiar text of Isaiah 61:1-2  as his own.  But what his people are actually receiving  is new to their ears.  “Good news to the poor .  . . release to the captives . . . letting the oppressed go free ( Isaiah 58:6)”  are directly linked to the ability to see another person’s humanity clearly.   When Jesus announces the year of Jubilee,   profound liberation from the bonds of indebtedness, he completely omits “and the day of vengeance of our God (Isaiah 61:2b).”  All eyes are “fixed on him.” It is only the formal book that closes as Jesus begins to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your ears.”  Perhaps what they have heard is the text “written on his heart (Jeremiah 31:34)!”

In Nazareth, the hometown congregation has already received news of Jesus’ exploits in Capernaum and neighboring towns, and there is a sense of anticipation that his reported  dunamis  will be shared generously in their familiar environment. Nevertheless, as he rises to speak he remains “Jesus Josephson” to his lifelong neighbors. The text he animates is the John 3:16 of its time; heads nod on cue, at least until his proclamation of  “sight to the blind ones.”   This fresh reading begins to stir the inner geography of the assembled, and Jesus’ declaration of  present fulfillment (“in your ears”) destabilizes the established order further.   They “marvel at his words of grace,” but their witness is accompanied by a ripple running through previously settled waters. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?,” they ask.  In the parallel version in Mark’s gospel, the crowd is obviously riled, asking, “Where did this man get all of this?,” and referring to him as “Mary’s son,” an indication that his “illegitimate” birth status is not merely a thing of the past.  They shout, “We see you!,” but the substance is a less than gracious, “We’ll tell you who you are!”

In claiming the divine anointing, Jesus is no way denying his  history and heritage but rather embracing all of it.  Divine and human origin.  Scandal and fulfillment.  Placing this story at the outset of his ministry, Luke offers it as both frame and lens to interpret what is yet being revealed. A radical break in life-as-usual has emerged.  Jesus is that break.  His identity will not be limited to that which has been assigned to him.  Neither will the identities of those who see and hear him this day.

Jesus ‘ presence is the expression of God’s loving embrace.  It is out of this love that he shares a less welcomed view:  “Undoubtedly you will quote to me the proverb, ‘Charity begins at home.”  Do here the the things we have heard that you have done elsewhere.”  But a prophet is never accepted in his hometown–there are truths that familiarity and custom will not accept.  Jesus delves deeply not just into the scriptures but into the spiritual memory and consciousness of the people.  He lifts up two revered figures, Elijah and Elisha.  He recognizes things that are buried in the dominant tellings of their stories.  Rather than speaking of Elijah’s brutal  triumph over the priests of Baal, or Elisha’s miracles among the homeys, Jesus references God sending Elijah to the widow at Zarephath during a great famine in Israel, and Elisha’s cleansing of Naaman the Syrian’s leprosy.  In making them visible, Jesus makes visible the God whose love and deliverance fully claims the “other.”  His commentary casts the traditional reading in  a shocking new light, and Jesus’ insistence that this power is being revealed from their own story enrages his neighbors whose perspective  has been much narrower. Jesus’ living word interrupts their “fixedness of  eyesight.”  An all-loving God; a salvation that delivers enemies, a broader, inclusive community, a freed Jesus–and a radically redefined life for each of them!  No wonder they are upset.  Perhaps we can venture to stand with them a while.

This story is filled with God’s emancipating power.  In the koine Greek, “release to the captives” is aphesin,  the  common noun for “forgiveness.”  “Freedom for those having been crushed” utilizes the same noun. The people are to be sent in freedom, a vivid Exodus image.  The sending (apostelei) of those evangelized with the good news of God’s saving love intimates an apostolic identity for those who have been delivered!  The Year of the Lord’s favor is the Jubilee, where all debts are forgiven.  This is fittingly proclaimed on the Sabbath, but not in any “customary” sense.  Liberation is for everyone, and the implications are economic, psychological, physical, theological.

Those who have been chafing under Roman domination have seen themselves with a particular role in the story.  They are unprepared for the peculiar blessing that “sight to the blind” is bringing to them.  Jesus’ freedom of sight, proclaimed and incarnate, heralds God’s delivering power that surpasses all present understanding.  The visage in their mirror will no longer be perceived dimly.  This is good news, but is experienced brusquely.   “I see you” is a message of healing ( not just of sight) and transformation.   The visibility and knowledge of God that is original will be restored in us as we are being seen and loved together into a common future. This promised fulfillment  of our God-given humanity provokes considerable struggle.

I have been reading James Cone’s excellent book The Cross and the Lynching Tree.  He describes a dialogue that took place  in the wake of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, an atrocity that took the lives of four little girls attending Sunday School. The bombing was a murderous response to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Project C, a direct action campaign confronting segregation.  A lasting photographic image of the event was of a substantially intact stained glass window in the church sanctuary that was missing the face of Jesus, which had been removed in the blast. Renown  playwright and novelist James Baldwin was invited to participate in a New York radio broadcast to discuss “the meaning of the Birmingham tragedy.”  The narrator asked Baldwin, “Does the missing face of Christ on the stained glass window , which survived the bombing . . . suggest to you a meaning of the Birmingham tragedy?”  Baldwin initially responded with biting irony: “The absence of the face is something of an achievement, since we have been victimized for so long by an  alabaster Christ.”  Baldwin then added that it “sums up what we’ve been living through.  If Christ has no face, then perhaps it is time that we, who in one way or another, invented and are responsible for our deities, give him a new face . . . and make . . . the whole hope of   Christian love a reality. And as far as I can tell, it has never been a reality in the 2000 years since his assassination.”  Baldwin’s  prophetic witness was searingly honest, painful, and it seems to me, appropriate.  The Jesus confronting racial injustice through the American Civil Rights Movement was the same Jesus who stands before the Nazareth faith community in Luke 4.  Can we see him, even today?

Who are the unseen?  Victims of drone strikes.  The incarcerated.  The poor (who were dismissed from dominant public discourse in our recent election season).   People who make our clothing, shoes, phones.  It could also be the person three pews over who is suffering and with whom we have never had a significant conversation.  Or a guest who is left to fend for themselves. Our own spirit contorted by a shouldload of burden.   Seeing is an alternative way of life that joins the separated.

It is possible, even necessary, to have the gift be both unsettling and blessedly welcome. Here, at the outset of Lent,  many folks are resolving to “give up something for Lent.”  I want to suggest: Let’s resolve to give up our propensity to tell other people who they are (i.e., insisting on the roles we have assigned to them or assumed in our preferred narratives).  I know this would seem a gargantuan task, and one that threatens to dismantle our worlds as we have known them. So it is most promising! The key to translation lies not so much in the resolution to “give up” the familiar but in the inspired practices that will dislocate our present assumptions. Metaphorically, to welcome the Jesus of the movement who displaces the stained-glass Jesus.    Jesus has already interrupted “business as usual” in his visual gifts to us and to those we have not seen clearly.  Forgiveness has broken the cycle.   It will continue in our simple disciplines of sight;  the many available ways of practicing “I see you” with others.

Last night at Ash Wednesday worship I gave articulation to a discipline I seek to practice:that of affirming each person I meet in a particular place or time.  I am by no means a master.  As an example,  I walked through our sanctuary taking time to tell one person after another what I appreciated about their humanity and my experience of it. There was little that was uniform.  Different personalities and life stories; my own experiences with individuals varied.  I shared that when I discover something to appreciate in another person, I manage to locate something good within myself.  When my encounter is with  someone I have not previously met,  it becomes a privilege and a gift to to realize something particular about them.

In the culture of a church, we can practice such discipline corporately  by taking time at the outset of all meetings and gatherings to bless each person,  with words of appreciation, an opportunity to listen to something they wish us to know, or by pairing off in a brief but exciting time of learning one new thing about each other.  What we have learned about our partner (and perhaps been surprised by!) can then be shared  with the rest of the group. This can particularly meaningful when learning something new about a person with whom we have had a strained relationship.

In our congregation’s fellowship hour, elders and deacons have taken up the discipline of  immediately seeking out and speaking to guests and people with whom they have not had  significant prior contact.  To engage this seriously disrupts our unrecognized cliquishness (our “fixedness”) and reveals an  emerging new world in real time. All of it is “making room in our inn” for the one who comes!  The gift of sight is also having a transforming impact on our ministry among homeless sisters and brothers and on our understandings of communal economics.  And it is at the heart of our Bible study!  I will reflect more on those revelations in other posts.

In the meantime, this post is quite long and I congratulate anyone who has continued this far.  May seeing be believing for you (and vice-versa)!  The community in Nazareth becomes a mob that seeks to pitch Jesus into the abyss as an alternative to optical healing. “Yet passing through the midst of them he went.”  Like the passage through the Red Sea, God’s love will make a way out of no way; not only for Jesus but for us.  The story continues to open up. Jesus will yet enter that abyss voluntarily, and we will see him once again.