The Very Rev. Gary Hall
Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished on March 8, just over three weeks ago. The disappearance of a daily routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing is many things at once: it is a human tragedy, of course. It is also a mystery. And, I’m sorry to say, the ongoing coverage has also turned it into something of a farce. If you watch cable news, particularly CNN, you will have seen probably three solid weeks of wall-to-wall speculation about the fate of the plane. At one point, a CNN anchor asked if the cause might have been a black hole, the Bermuda Triangle, or the plot of the TV show Lost. And one day last week, the breaking news headline simply read, “No New Developments.” What’s sadder, of course, is that even without any real information to go on, this spectacle of speculation about flight 370 has doubled CNN’s ratings. I don’t know why, but we all seem to enjoy watching well-dressed people talk endlessly about nothing at all. Perhaps we’re in training now for 2016 election coverage.
We have three readings this morning, all of them centered on the idea of true perception and the lack of it. Searching for a new king, Samuel naturally looks to the bigger, older brothers rather than the young David. The Letter to the Ephesians reminds us, “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Eph. 5:8). In the seemingly endless Gospel reading for today (John 9:1–41) Jesus heals a man blind from birth, and this miracle provokes a storm of moral and spiritual misperceiving ignorance in the minds and hearts of the Pharisees.
We’re now at the fourth Sunday in Lent, a season dedicated in part at least to getting us all to focus our vision in the right direction. As one of the traditional Lenten antiphons for Morning and Evening Prayer puts it, in this season we ask that God “Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways” (Psalm 119:37, BCP). I wouldn’t find the mindless speculation of CNN’s disappearing flight coverage so annoying if it didn’t remind me of my own foolish spiritual tendencies. I spend most of my waking hours thinking about, attending to, the wrong things. When something important happens, I’m often looking in the opposite direction.
In Shakespeare’s play Othello, one of the Venetian characters refers to the Turkish enemy’s military strategy this way: “’tis a pageant,/To keep us in false gaze” (First Senator, Othello, 1.3). If you’re like me, you spend a lot of your time in what Shakespeare called “false gaze,” or in what our antiphon calls “watching what is worthless.” Much of what passes for news in our culture is a similar “pageant,/To keep us in false gaze.” How do we stop “watching what is worthless”? How do we step out of the practice of “false gaze”? These are the questions our scripture readings pose us on this fourth Sunday in Lent, and I believe they are the spiritual questions that all of us, in some form or another, confront continually in our daily lives.
Today’s Gospel reading (Don’t worry—I’m not going to reread the whole thing!) ends with this interchange between Jesus and the Pharisees:
Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (John 9: 39-41)
The very length of this morning’s Gospel makes it hard to take in all at once, but essentially it’s John’s ironic account of Jesus giving sight to a blind man and that action becoming the occasion of the Pharisees becoming morally and spiritually sightless themselves. The blind man knows his limitations. The Pharisees are blissfully unaware of their own. For John, Jesus is “the light of the world,” and the tragic part of his story centers on the increasing inability of the religious and secular authorities to perceive the truth he represents. The Pharisees and the Romans think they see quite clearly. But, like Samuel in the David story, they judge with human criteria; they do not see as God sees. They are trapped in their own self-congratulatory narrative. They are not open to what God is doing now in the world around them.
The verse I quoted earlier from the Lenten antiphon actually asks God for two things: to “turn my eyes from watching what is worthless,” and to “give me life in [God’s] ways.” In John’s Gospel, as in the account of Samuel looking for David, we have seen what it means for human beings to watch what is worthless. What might it look like for us to have life in God’s ways?
I once attended a retreat where the leader announced, as the theme of his addresses, the following proposition: “We become what we attend to.” He wasn’t talking precisely about false gaze, but what he said seems connected to what we’re thinking about together this morning. “We become what we attend to.” If we attend solely to the junk and glitter and glitz of twenty-first-century developed world culture, then that’s what we turn into. As Pope Francis says in The Joy of the Gospel, “technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy.” The gadgets that claim our attention keep us addicted and slightly depressed. If we shift our attention to Jesus, we become both joyous and free. That is because if we keep our eyes on Jesus, we might just over time become like him.
We live in a world where, as in a game of three-card monte, our attention is continually misdirected. And look at the result: a planet full of stressed-out, burned-out, alienated people looking in vain for what, if we could stop for a minute, we’d see we already have. That’s what we become when we attend to what is worthless. What would we become if we attended to what is worth everything, which, for us Christians, means: what would we become if we kept our eyes focused on Jesus?
When Christian people are baptized, one of the promises we make is that we will “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” This is essentially a promise to go to church—to hear the Bible stories read, to participate in the Eucharist on some kind of regular basis. We’ve made this a part of our agreement with each other principally because if we are to become godlier we will need each other to get there. That is what going to church is about: it’s about hearing the story of Jesus and then coming together around his table in a way that gently but forcefully reminds us of what really matters. “We become what we attend to.” The goal of the Christian life is to become like Jesus. For us, Jesus represents the authentic good life that the things we falsely gaze at promise but never deliver. Jesus is just and loving and compassionate. He cares about the poor. He is a healer. His table fellowship gathers everyone—even the outcast and the disreputable—into a community of wholeness and blessing and love. Jesus lives an abundant life in the midst of scarcity. He knows who he is, what he needs, and how to live creatively with other people in God’s world. What we want to be, when we’re honest with ourselves, is like him—joyously alive in the life God offers and intends for us all. And the best way to be like Jesus is to direct our attention toward him—as he is revealed in the Word (our scriptures) and in the sacrament (the bread and wine of communion). Looking at and listening to Jesus are lifelong endeavors. Over time, they make us into our authentic selves, the people God made us to be.
I am not sure how long CNN will continue to cover the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 story. I do know that you and I will always find it difficult to turn our eyes away from the shallow and pointless, and that we will always need the help of God and each other to center our focus on the true and valuable blessings of life. The way we do that is to keep our eyes on the one who came into the world that we all might see. For God’s ongoing gift to us of Jesus, for Jesus’ image of what it means to be human on God’s terms, and for grace to so point our gaze in his direction that we become the one we attend to, let us proceed in this meal together to pray and give thanks. Amen.