Texts: Psalm 66; John 14: 15-21
Willard Duncan Vandiver, known as a contentious and irascible Member of Congress from Missouri, while a member of the old House Committee on Naval Affairs, after hearing a whole bunch of speeches, looked out at the audience at a fancy dress dinner in Philadelphia and said, "I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me." Although he probably did not originate the saying, “Show me,” he is largely credited with popularizing it. Show me, show me, show me, is often used to force the hands of those who would try to convince us with mere words. Often the meaning of this phrase is taken to mean that we must demonstrate beyond our words with something else – usually our actions. We want to see, we want real proof. But often truths lie beyond what we can see, what we can have others “show” us. Often truths – and I consciously use the plural form of the word – lie in the area of what we cannot see, what we cannot really “know.”
This idea extends into the area of feelings. To wit, think of the old proverb, “What the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve.” This old saying can be traced to a quote from St. Bernard Gui, a fourteenth century Dominican who made his reputation as a member of what was then called the Holy Office of the Inquisition – yes, that Inquisition. In a sermon, he said, “It is commonly said that what one does not see does not harm the heart.” This phrase is common in many cultures, but is it a truth – that what we cannot see does not harm us? The question also becomes, what is seeing?
Seeing is more than what is visible to the naked eye – that's an interesting phrase, isn't it? “Naked eye” was first used in 1664 referring to seeing something that was unaided by a microscope, which was invented in its more or less modern form almost simultaneously by Robert Hooke and Anton van Leeuwenhoek. We don't see tiny microbes in a dish of water unless we use a microscope. Over the past decade the science of hyperspectral imaging has developed ways to helping us to see images even beyond that of the microscope. And, there are, of course, the incredible images from stroboscopic photography developed by MIT professor Harold Egerton to measure motion and to extend our perception of time. But, in spite of his photographic methods, there are phenomena that occur that cannot be seen at all. For instance, radio waves. Those kinds of phenomena can only be measured. We see or hear their results, such as sound from a radio. As with radio waves, there are many kinds of phenomena that can only be measured by their effects.
If we look at this morning's Gospel reading, we are told that the world cannot see the spirit of truth but that those who follow the way laid out by Jesus of Nazareth will “know” that truth for it will dwell within them. The writer here is not talking about intellectual knowledge regarding a set of facts, but a different way of knowing, for this is knowing something that is not seen in the usual sense of the word. This kind of “knowledge,” as it were – the English word doesn't serve us well here – means a deep apprehension, a deep realization or experience of not a fact but of a presence.
This way of knowing, of realizing, is a bit like seeing. Often what we cannot see , that is, see in the ordinary sense of the word, is a deep truth, a realization of something that is essential to our existence but also something that can only be measured by its effects. Rather than the heart not being able to grieve what it cannot see, I would argue that the heart more deeply grieves the loss of what cannot be seen. Take love and its loss in the breakdown of a marriage. We see, that is, we witness the effects of the loss of love in more than a thousand ways; but the loss of love itself is a different matter.
It almost goes without saying that there are so many truths that the eye cannot see but that the soul can experience. When we look at a great piece of art, for instance, we see not only the actual piece but something more; the art touches our soul beyond its mere visual image and reaches out to us in a way that allows us to experience a different plane of reality. That plane of reality is the experience of the soul. Similarly, when we are in a garden – it is a tossup between a gallery and a garden for me – we find ourselves touched by the very essence of the divine that goes beyond mere visual perception. This is what I think was intended in this morning's reading.
The question for us becomes how we open ourselves to a world beyond mere visual perception. That is the heart of being in touch with what the eye cannot see. How do we address the many levels of perception open to us as spiritual human beings? Last week I heard an interesting quote from an American Buddhist writer concerning the importance of non-attachment to physical items; she said that to attain true spiritual vision, we needed to let go of a material possession important to us. As I listened I realized that this was another way of expressing what Jesus had said to the rich young man: sell what you have and give to the poor. And he became very sad because, as the writer of Luke's Gospel tells us, “for he had many possessions.” That's how the old King James version translates it, and it is more telling than the modern version, “for he was very rich.” Not many of us are “very rich” but we do have “many possessions.” I know I struggle with this verse as well as the reading from John this morning because I wonder how I can see beyond my own visual perception of things.
Opening ourselves beyond our visual perceptions, beyond what the eye can see, is essential to our spiritual development and, I daresay, to our real-in-the-world development as Christians. Now, I am not saying we should all go out and sell everything we have. Though, to be honest, Jesus does say that in the Gospel not once, but several times. What I am saying is that we need to learn how we can share what is important to ourselves and to others in ways that affect change in this society.
This coming Wednesday, the Township will hold a hearing on the possible development of the Avaya property on Middletown-Lincroft Road into 342 affordable housing units. Opponents stress the impact on the school system, the sewer system, their so-called property values – heaven, we can never attack sacred property values – and a host of other reasons why this property should not be used for affordable housing. We're not talking about a slum, low cost housing, some form of housing such as exists in Elizabeth or Newark. We're talking about a combination of single family homes and condominium units. Traffic is no excuse because the traffic was terrible when this research facility was open. This proposal will increase Middletown's tax base. What are we really afraid of? This is sharing with those who may not meet Middletown's high economic standards. What the eye cannot see here are the real reasons of opposition, which, unfortunately, will keep Middletown among the towns that are not open to our own public servants: teachers and police, social workers and public works personnel. Our town employees are not servants like maids that can be dispensed of in our thinking as they get back on the train to Red Bank.
Developing spiritual vision goes beyond what the eye can see. It involves careful thought and prayer; it involves critical thinking and opening ourselves to a host of possibilities that exist in our souls to connect to the important issues in our lives. Each of us needs to go beyond what the eye can see to develop that spiritual vision; then shall the Spirit of Truth dwell within us as well as the love of Christ.
Let us pray: Gracious giver of all good gifts, help us to develop true spiritual vision so that we may see what we are offered through our new lives in you. In the name of him who shared his vision of your life, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.