Sermon delivered July 26, 2009
Does anyone know Kevin Heinz and Jill Peterson? If you don’t, you probably will soon. They are the now famous couple from Saint Paul, Minnesota who danced with their wedding party down the aisle of Christ Lutheran Church on June 20th. A video of the procession was posted on YouTube and became so popular that NBC flew them all to New York to re-enact the dance on the Today Show yesterday morning. Many people are of the opinion that this is one of best wedding celebrations ever, while others think it is a mockery of God, the church and the sacrament of marriage. How is that two people can witness the same event or conversation and yet draw very different, even opposite, meanings from it?
Maybe today’s gospel reading (7th Sunday of Matthew 9:27-35) can help us understand. The crowds of witnesses were amazed after the healing of the mute demoniac (v.32-33). However, the Pharisees, who also witnessed it, said “By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons” (v.34). In other words, one group sees the coming Messiah and the other group sees the Devil. Why the difference?
We only need look earlier in today’s passage to begin to understand that faith accounts for the difference in spiritual perception. It says that two blind men followed Jesus, “Crying loudly, ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David!’” (v.27). In other words, by saying “Son of David,” the men who could not see with their physical eyes, saw with their spiritual eyes Jesus as the “Christ”, the Messiah, the Son of God. Then, emphasizing the role of faith, Jesus responds to the two men saying, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” (v.28). They answer, “Yes, Lord” and then Jesus emphatically underlining the point says, “According to your faith let it be done to you” (v.29) and their eyes were opened. This is the first healing of the blind in the New Testament.
Is this much different than our own experience of being healed or witnessing a dramatic healing and believing that God was involved or thinking it was just the medicine, the physician, and/or the genetic make-up that caused the person to be cured?
In another, more well-known passage about the man blind from birth, Jesus speaks more directly to the point, “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind” (John.9:39). This, like many of Jesus’ sayings, has layered meaning. He is speaking about both the physically blind and the spiritually blind. He ties spiritual blindness to sin when he says to the Pharisees, “If you were blind you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore, your sin remains” (v.41). This He said because they witnessed the miraculous healing of the man born blind from birth yet refused to believe that Jesus is the Christ. The relationship between sin and spiritual blindness is articulated again by John the Evangelist in his first universal epistle, “11But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1John 2:11).
Interestingly, physical blindness is sometimes given as a punishment for lack of faith. Remember Saul the greater persecutor of Christians who encounters Christ on the road to Damascus. He is struck blind until he converted to faith in Christ. Then he was baptized with the name Paul (Acts 9). Later, Paul himself strikes blind Elymas the sorcerer and false prophet (Acts 13:6-12). And what about St. Paraskevi, whom we commemorate today July 26th? Like many second century Christians she was tortured because of her faith. While placed in a cauldron of boiling oil and pitch, she threw some of the hot liquid into the face of the Emperor Antonius Pius blinding him. He then asks for her help, she heals him and he sets her free.
For us, while we may not be physically blind, our spiritual blindness can be a temporary self-inflicted punishment for our sin and/or our lack of trust in God. I have been re-reading the Book of Exodus and most recently the section where Moses seeks to convince Pharaoh to release the Jewish people from bondage and slavery in Egypt. It’s amazing, even from one plague after another, how stubbornly Pharaoh refuses to see and believe in the God of Israel. How often do we hold onto our tired mythical beliefs and worn-out philosophies about life because they are more familiar than a new faith in Jesus Christ?
During the Divine Liturgy before the Gospel reading, the priest prays: “Shine within our hearts, loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge and open the eyes of our minds (kai tous tis dianoias imon dianoixon ophthalmous) that we may comprehend the message of Your Gospel.” How interesting that the word for “intellect, mind” has the same root as “to open and opening.” I would assert that it is because our mind and intellect is the doorway into our soul. This helps us understand Jesus’ teaching elsewhere in Matthew, “22The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. 23But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Mt.6:23-24). So, just like the physical eye is one of the gateways to the intellect, the mind is the spiritual gateway to the soul and the two perceptions are interrelated.
Let us guard our intellect by exercising discernment and restraint in what we see, taste and hear. Let us guard our heart and soul by exercising discernment and restraint in what we continually think and believe. The way of Orthodoxy can teach us because it professes and lives this ascesis. Thus, a dance of celebration can find its proper place and a place of God’s solemn, peaceful presence can remain so. Amen!
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.