What We See
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 22, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 4: 14-30
If last week's story was my favorite story, this one may contain one my favorite of Jesus' quotations: "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town." I think I like it because it so memorable, and maybe because it is so true. It is true because there seems to be a difference between the truth, and what we see. My students and I have been studying eastern literature for the last few weeks, and the other day I gave them five short Chinese wisdom anecdotes to read, and told them that they needed to choose one of them to respond to in a paragraph of composition. I teach 43 Juniors, and all but 2 of them, without my prompting them, chose to write on the same one, this one entitled "The Missing Axe." I'll share it with you because I think it helps put into perspective the truth of what Jesus says in response to his friends and family in Nazareth, who cannot see him for what he is and has become. . .
A man whose axe was missing suspected his neighbor’s son. The boy walked like a thief, looked like a thief, and spoke like a thief. But the man found his axe while he was digging in the valley, and the next time he saw his neighbor’s son, the boy walked, looked, and spoke like any other child.
The big thing that this anecdote says about human nature is that we cannot trust what we see. Most of us think that what we think is based on what our senses tell us is real, that what we see, what we hear, what we smell, what we taste, and what we feel, somehow come together and tell us what is true. This story flips all of that on its head because it shows that what we see is also dependent on what we think. The man in the story sees his neighbor's son as a thief because he suspected him of being one. His vision was impaired by his bias. It was not until he found out the truth, by finding the axe, that his vision of reality was restored. If that is the case, what we think is based on what we see, and what we see is based on what we think. This creates a circular self fulfilling bias that can continue to go unchallenged, forever, leading us further into a false sense of truth.
In the context of the story of Jesus' friends and family in Nazareth, they see Jesus as a child, their neighbor, the carpenter's son. They are unable to see the truth about Jesus that is standing right before them. They have heard of some of his exploits, and they have heard him speak, but they just cannot believe that he is anything more than what they have always known him to be. They cannot see the change in Jesus.
Why is this important for us today, especially since we do recognize Jesus? I mean recognizing Jesus, not as Joseph, the carpenter's, son, but as Lord, is why we are all here this morning. This story, I think, is included not to show us about Jesus, per say, but instead to show us something very true about ourselves. The truth is we that have trouble seeing change in other people, and secondly that other people have trouble seeing change in us, especially positive change. We see the truth of this all around us. . . Maybe it's because I was looking for it this week, but I have seen evidence of this inability to see change on display repeatedly all week. It is possible that the truth of looking for something and finding it may just prove that there is some truth to that Chinese, "Missing Axe" Anecdote. . ., but I was listening to the radio, sports radio, and Jim Rome was asking his audience whether they believe that Michael Vick is not the man he used to be. Michael Vick has served his time, and claims to have changed, but do we see him as such? Most people called in and could not see that he had possibly changed, questioning the possibility of him finding Christ and repenting of that former life of dog fighting. Also in the news this week was Newt Gingrich, and the question of whether his poor personal decisions made 15 years ago are pertinent to his character today. Perhaps that the results of yesterday's election shows that people do believe in change. . . At least when it fits our politics. It seems that campaign seasons, and election years bring out the best of our biases, our perceived truths, what we see, is determined by our politics rather than any semblance of what is truth.
No matter how much we talk about the power of conversion and the possibilities of redemption, the cynic in all of us seems to come out and we doubt. We doubt that other people can have life changing epiphanies, life changing conversions, real repentance. When someone claims to be born again, we are turned off, thinking what is this person's agenda or what are they escaping from. We sometimes can see the changes in our own lives, but cannot for some reason see it in others. Who knows about Michael Vick and/or Newt, maybe they have changed, maybe they haven't, who is to say, but what we are surrounded by regular people, do we acknowledge the changes in them?
If we look at today's prayer of preparation: these lines come from a poem called the power of love. . . This is the full poem. . .
It can alter things:
The stormy scowl can become
Suddenly a smile.
The knuckly bunched fist
May open like a flower,
Tender a caress.
Benarth its bright warmth
Black ice of suspicion melts;
Danger is dazzled.
A plain a dull face
Astounds with its radiance
And sudden beauty.
Ordinary things -
Teacups, spoons and sugar-lumps -
The locked door opens;
Inside are leaves and moonlight;
You are welcomed in.
Its delicate strength
Can lift the heaviest heart
And snap hostile steel.
It gives eloquence
To the dumb tongue, makes plain speech
Blaze like poetry.
It all sounds good, but do we believe it to be the case? Do we believe it, and do we witness to that kind of power in the world? I wrote another poem about the power of the cross it closes with the lines. . .
May we remember the cross,
For the cross of hate,
The height of cruel,
The pinnacle of evil,
The high water mark of sin,
Is not enough,
These are just words unless we can see beyond what our minds tell us is the truth. Do we believe that love has that kind of power, or not? You may be thinking that I'll now tell you to believe in love and then you will see love. . . I believe that is true, but that doesn't make love in itself true. Me telling you to put on your love colored glasses would just creates a new bias. . . The key to getting to the actual truth of the situation involves challenging it.
I asked my students, "How can the man in the anecdote fix his problem about the truth? It was funny most of them missed my point, they said that he should have acted on his original thought, and gotten the axe from the kid. I had to rephrase, look guys, "The truth is that the boy was not a thief, was never a thief, had nothing to do with the missing axe. . . The man's problem is that he saw the poor innocent boy as a thief, got it? Now, how can he then solve his problem and understand truth?" Silence. . . Teenagers never would suggest this. . . but the answer is, admitting the idea that what you think or what you see may just possibly be wrong. Until you challenge your perception, truth cannot be found. The circular bias simply will continue until the question is asked. . . am I wrong? This is when lights when on in the room. . . They all then said, so we are supposed to be "open minded." I said NO. Again silence. . .
Here is the problem that I see with being as is understood, "open minded," and that is that you just may be right, then what? When you challenge, and question what you believe you just may be right. . .questioning and challenging doesn't always mean that you are wrong. . . If you come to the truth, then what good is being open minded? It is for this reason that instead of telling you to just look for the power of love, so that you will then begin to see it everywhere, I tell you to question because I have questioned it, and I continue to challenge, and I still believe that the power of love is true. So instead of just instilling in you some new bias, I say question, and am confident that the truth, the truth that love is powerful enough to change people, will come to the surface.
Let's return to our Bible story. Jesus comes home to his friends and neighbors. They do not see him as Lord, they see him as just a kid from the neighborhood, lost in their circle of bias. If some of them could have just for a moment questioned their understanding of who the kid Jesus was, they could have seen the Son of God. . . It takes humility. . . Maybe I'm wrong. . . Instead they, "got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30" May we not do the same to the rest of God's children. . . caught up in what we have seen, instead of what the truth is. . . that we are all children of God in whom all things are possible.
There is a flipside of this, too. Look at ourselves. How does the world see us? As Christians, as Presbyterians, as members of the Gordonsville Presbyterian Church? I'll look at these quickly close to home then head outward. After our Christmas Concert, DeAnna Coralee and I went to the Inwood Restaurant for dinner. Having finished, Coralee and DeAnna had headed out to the car while I waited to pay. I couldn't help from overhearing the people a couple of tables away saying, "the problem with the Christian Church (the Disciples of Christ Church that was a few doors down from us) and the Presbyterian Church is they never get any momentum because they always have a minister who lives outside of town. I wasn't blown away by their idea of why, but instead that they put us in the same category as the Christian Church, whose building is now closed. Can people see the difference between their closed down building and ours? Will people ever notice us?
What about Presbyterians in general? Does the world see us as the frozen chosen? Unfeeling, unmoved, and untouched by the spirit? That is not what I see, but that does seem to represent the outside opinion?
And finally Christianity in general. . . A friend of mine posted a picture on facebook this week that had a cross, a star of David, and an Islamic half moon. Below those symbols it said, "Morality is doing right regardless of what you are told. Religion is doing what you are told regardless of what is right." Is that the way some people see Christianity? Obviously so. . .
How do we confront these incorrect opinions of us? I can tell you that I went and talked to those people in the restaurant and I commented on my friend's picture, but neither of those are really effective. Everyone was polite, but their opinions were not changed. Me telling my friend that she was wrong didn't prove it to her. Telling won't work, it wouldn't have worked with the innocent boy in the story, and it wouldn't have worked for Jesus. Somehow instead we have to "show them the axe." Staying around and confronting misconceptions through argument gets you nowhere. . . in this story, Jesus "passed through the midst of them and went on his way." He took his mission to the cross, what greater proof of love? Jesus showed them the axe, which forces them to question their bias or completely ignore what is true. . . How can we show the world the axe? By loving and believing in love. . . Being a witness to the truth about the power of love, and being, ourselves, an undeniable proof of that amazing power. . . so that puts us back to the beginning. . . we have to believe in love enough to love. Again, challenge it, the truth will stand up. Then we must remember that if the truth can enter our own circle of bias, and stand up against our challenges, then we must believe that it can and will enter into others, too. Having been shown the axe, it is impossible to ignore. May it be so. . .