St Bride's: Sermons

Blindness and Sight

Luke 7:36-8:3

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36 And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee's house, and sat down to meat.

37 And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment,

38 And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

39 Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.

40 And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on.

41 There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty.

42 And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?

43 Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged.

44 And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head.

45 Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet.

46 My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.

47 Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.

48 And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.

49 And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also?

50 And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.

And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and shewing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him,

And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils,

And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.

Some years ago I was invited to the retirement party of a very eminent Oxford academic, whom I shall call Professor X, which was held in the gardens of one of the ancient Oxford colleges.  I was well acquainted with the works of this particular scholar, who was a legend in his field, but I had not previously met him.

It was a beautiful summer's afternoon, and the garden party was full of the great and the good, downing their champagne and canapes.  When I noticed to my consternation, that a dishevelled old tramp had somehow managed to wander in off the street, and, bold as brass, was helping himself to the food and alcohol.  I made a mental note to give this potentially difficult pastoral situation a wide berth (after all, I was a guest there, and I was rather relieved that it was not my problem to sort out); at which point an acquaintance of mine appeared at my elbow and said to me: 'Hello Alison - come over and let me introduce you to Professor X'.  And it was with mounting surprise, horror, and eventually shame that I found myself being guided directly over to - yes, you have guessed it - the dishevelled old tramp, in whose honour it turned out we were all gathered there.  It was Professor X himself.  (Which probably tells you all you need to know about Oxford academics!)

A second story: at the church in Birmingham where I served back in the 1990s, it was not uncommon for street homeless people, many of them with severe drug and alcohol problems, to turn up at the end of our main Sunday service, usually asking for money.  One day, at the end of the service, I spotted a decidedly dodgy looking young man loitering around at the back of the building, wearing a hoodie and a baseball cap on back to front, who was clearly up to no good, and who would need to be watched carefully.  To my astonishment and, again, to my abiding shame, I then observed him, with the utmost courtesy and respect, go and greet one of our regular congregation members who was a wheelchair user, and wheel her back to the local nursing home, where she was a resident and where he, it turned out, was employed as a care assistant.

There is an old saying that 'we do not see things as they are - we see things as we are.'   And it can sometimes be a shock to find ourselves confronted by our own misguided assumptions and prejudices - which is what happened to me in both of those two incidents.  So often we can assume that we know the truth about a particular person or a situation, when the reality is that we know nothing of the sort.  Because we all carry with us an immense amount of emotional and intellectual baggage - which influences the way in which we see the world, and which can put all kinds of barriers in the way of our relationships with people - thereby also impeding our relationship with God.

And of course, the more inward-looking we are, and the more preoccupied we are with our own issues and concerns, the more baggage there is likely to be, and the harder it will be for us to recognise the truth about people and situations, and indeed, about ourselves.  And wherever the truth goes unseen or unacknowledged, then prejudices go unchallenged, and sin and evil have a habit of taking root.  To use a singularly insightful phrase that you will doubtless have heard me quote before: 'Your enemy is the person whose story you do not yet know.'

Which is why the truth of God, when it confronts us, can impact upon us like a bucket of icy water, exposing our false assumptions and our prejudices with startling clarity, and opening our eyes to see the world and everything in it in a completely different light.  The Gospels have a lot to say about the movement from blindness to sight - both physical and metaphorical.  Because those who can see, can see the truth.  

And, interestingly enough, it is that theme - the revealing of truth - which links all three of our biblical readings this morning.  In the first, the prophet Nathan tells King David a parable.  Now the point about parables (which is why Jesus used them so often, and to such powerful effect), is that they are stories that draw the listeners in and provoke a reaction in them - before the hearers suddenly realise with horror that the story has in fact been about them all along.  Parables are stories that expose truths, which is why they have the power to shock.  And that is exactly what the prophet Nathan does in our story from 2 Samuel. King David is outraged when he hears the parable that Nathan tells him about the rich man who takes away the one lamb belonging to his poor neighbour: 'That man deserves to die!', David says indignantly - before Nathan reveals that 'You are the man', thereby exposing David's guilt for causing the death of Uriah so that he can take Uriah's wife for himself.  

And what of our second story?  St Paul was by his own ready admission, the most savage persecutor of Christians, until the dramatic encounter with the Risen Lord on the Damascus Road which overturned his life.  In our reading from Galatians, he describes how he 'now builds up' the very things that he 'once tore down'. He had been shocked him into re-thinking everything he had thought he knew about the nature of God, and how God works, and what it means to be part of the people of God.  And in Paul's case, according to the book of Acts, he too became literally blind, before he was enabled to see - and the sight that he regained was both physical and spiritual.

And finally, our Gospel reading. Simon the Pharisee, in whose home Jesus is dining, sees a woman of notorious ill-repute bathing the feet of Jesus with her tears and anointing them with perfume, and he thinks to himself, 'if this man were a prophet, he would have known what kind of a woman is touching him - that she is a sinner.'  Ironically, in doing so, Simon the Pharisee merely exposes the extent of his own blindness.  Because, untrammelled by any of the Pharisee's baggage about cleanliness and sinfulness, and defilement, and moral judgment, Jesus can see the woman for who she truly is.  And what he sees is a lost, and fallen, and repentant, and distraught child of God, who is weeping at his feet because, probably for the first time in her entire life, she has encountered - love.  A love that is there for her.  Love personified in the man Jesus, who is unburdened by any of the conventional baggage of his culture and background.  And in the presence of such boundless love and grace and acceptance that is there for her, little wonder that all she can do is praise him, and honour him, and weep.

The famous words of the former slave trader, John Newton, describing his own transformation from blindness to sight, have echoed throughout the whole of Christian history:

Amazing Grace (how sweet the sound) that saved a wretch like me!  I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

But I want to close with the final verse of another hymn - one that we have sung here this morning, this time written by the much loved priest and poet George Herbert.  His words remind us that the only possible response to the astonishing love and grace of God - as the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus knew better than most - is that of heartfelt and lasting and exuberant praise:

Seven whole days, not one in seven, I will praise thee;
in my heart, though not in heaven, I can raise thee.
Small it is, in this poor sort to enrol thee:
e'en eternity's too short to extol thee.

And thanks be to God for that.   Amen

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