One night last week my wife Kathy and I were talking about the idea of the “red herring”. If you read a lot of mysteries, as we do, you will know that a “red herring” is a character who is so heavily emphasized as to throw the reader’s suspicion onto them rather than on the real guilty party. In common parlance, a “red herring” is a diversion intended to distract one’s attention from the real issue. As Kathy told me, the term derives from the English hunting practice of drawing a real red herring across a trail so as to confuse the hounds.
Now I don’t know about you, but my life is full of red herrings, and they’re not just the kind you read about in mystery stories. Much of our attention, most of the time, is pointed in the wrong direction. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s season this year features a new production of Othello, and one persistent theme in that tragedy involves what one character early on in the play calls “false gaze”—a term, like “red herring” he uses to describe a military strategy employed by the enemy as a way of misdirecting our attention. He says of this plan, “'tis a pageant,/To keep us in false gaze.” [First Senator, Othello, 1.3] And by “false gaze” he means a “red herring”, focusing our attention on the wrong thing. As a play, Othello is full of characters who are misdirected by “false gaze”. They make all kinds of mistakes in judgment because they are looking at the wrong thing. They’re deluded into equating blackness with evil and whiteness with good. No one in the play seems to notice that what Coleridge called Iago’s “motiveless malignity” parades around masquerading as empathetic diligence. And the most famous “false gaze” of all in the play involves Othello’s willingness to be persuaded of Desdemona’s faithlessness simply because of a handkerchief placed in the wrong hands. By looking at the handkerchief and not at the woman Othello professes to love, he allows his “false gaze” to persuade him that what is false is true.
Now these are not simple literary or cultural issues. The problem of the “red herring” or “false gaze” is a spiritual question is well. We are, together, in the season of Lent, a time of preparation for Easter. And Lent is, I believe, a time where we try to let things go and take things on as a way of redirecting our attention. One of the traditional Lenten antiphons for Morning and Evening Prayer comes from Psalm 119:
Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; * give me life in your ways.-- Psalm 119.37 BCP
If you’re like me, you spend a lot of your time in what Shakespeare called “false gaze”, or in what Psalm 119 calls “watching what is worthless.” My life at times feels like a mystery story in which I continually pursue red herrings. How do we, all of us, who are bombarded by thousands of messages and images each day, focus our attention on the real issue and not the red herring? How do we step out of the practice of “false gaze”? How do we stop “watching what is worthless”? That is the question posed to us on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, and I believe it is the spiritual question that all of us, in some form or another, confront each moment in our daily lives.
But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." –1 Samuel 16
The first story we heard this morning is the story of the prophet Samuel’s search for a new king for Israel. In this famous account, Samuel looks at Jesse’s seemingly more “kingly” sons first and discovers that none of them is the one God has chosen to lead the nation. Then finally the smallest one is called in from tending the sheep, and he turns out to be David, the right one. God cautions Samuel that he does not see as mortals see. “They look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
God does not see as mortals see. That is both a comforting and a frightening assertion. Samuel, using normal human judgment, would have chosen the tallest or strongest or fiercest looking character to lead Israel. But God intended for Samuel to choose the youngest and smallest to be the leader of the nation. Samuel went looking for someone who fit a predetermined stereotype. God expanded his vision by showing him something else. For “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."
The first thing we need to consider, then, is this question of how we see compared with how God sees. We look on outward appearance. God looks on the heart. How does that work in the give and take of our real lives?
The first place for me to start is to acknowledge that I do not see as God sees. I will be the first person to admit that, like Samuel or Othello, I am continually prone to watching what is worthless. It seems to be a sad truth about us human beings, but we are easily distracted. Life, as Freud says, is lived under conditions of stress, and the stresses and tensions of modern life—from earning a living to negotiating our love relationships to raising our children to simply living in a modern urban environment—these stresses and tensions tend to be uppermost in our minds most of the time. When I am living life under the conditions of stress, I tend to think that the immediate problems I face (money, security, getting around) are the most real issues before me. The level of stress and tension in modern life is enormous, and one of the most corrosive things about this stress is that it leads us towards Shakespeare’s term, “false gaze”. I once went to a conference where the speaker began by saying, “As you sit here, there are voice mail messages piling up in your voice mail and e-mail messages piling up in your inbox, and you can do nothing about them.” This conference occurred, alas, before the invention of the BlackBerry, so now I suppose it’s possible to attend to the trivial even while sitting here in church, if you’re discreet about it. But his point was this: the level of preoccupation which most of us experience most of the time thanks to both stress and technology is becoming an emotional and psychological and spiritual problem of enormous dimensions. Harvard College discovered that its undergraduates spend something like a total of 40 minutes per day eating all three meals. They are simply too busy with other things to sit down and actually attend to a what they’re eating. The stresses of life and the ubiquity of messages claiming our attention combine to make us, at worst obsessed and at best, preoccupied with what the Psalm calls “watching what is worthless.”
But this is not only a contemporary phenomenon. Samuel fell into it when visiting Jesse’s household in search of a king. The singer of Psalm 119 saw that tendency in himself when he asked for deliverance from watching what is worthless. Stress and tension are one part of the answer, but there is another—and that has to do with the way we are made. If you think back to the Bible’s story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, you’ll remember that they were given everything they needed for abundant living but were misled by the serpent into wanting something more than they actually had. In eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve became the poster children for the red herring or the false gaze. They thought not about what they had but about what they lacked. Instead of being thankful they became aggrieved. And in their aggrieved state they made some really bad decisions. What this story tells us, as if we didn’t already know it, is that we tend to take the blessings and important things in life for granted, and we tend to obsess about the luxuries. Adam and Eve had the world, each other, and abundant resources at their command. In turning their false gaze toward the red herring of the forbidden fruit—how’s that for a mixed metaphor?--they obsessed about the one imagined thing they lacked. I don’t know if you see yourself in them, but I sure do. There’s always that one thing I don’t have that if I got it I think would make me truly happy. Then I get that and there’s one more thing I seem really to need. It’s an endless procession. So yes, the world tricks me into false gaze, but there’s something in me that is ready to drop what I’m doing and follow red herrings on a moment’s notice. And that something is the kind of spiritual blindness that Jesus comes to address in this morning’s Gospel.
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
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 blind themselves. For John, Jesus is “the light of the world”, and the tragic part of his story centers around the increasing blindness of the religious and secular authorities to the truth of what he represents. The Pharisees and the Romans think they see quite clearly. But, like Samuel in the first story, they do not see as God sees. They are trapped in their own smug self-interest. They are not open to what God is doing in the present moment.
The verse I quoted earlier from Psalm 119 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 Eden story, 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 red herrings and the 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 21st century first-world culture, then that’s what we turn into. If we keep our eyes on Jesus, we might just become like him. We live in a world which, like a game of three-card monte, continually misdirects our attention. And look at the result: stressed-out, burned-out, alienated people looking in vain for what, if they could stop for a minute, they’d see they 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 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 for a lot of reasons—principally, I suppose, because we need each other. But one big truth embedded in that promise is the understanding that as easily misdirected red-herring following false gazers, we need some way of focusing our attention on what really matters. And that is what 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 matters. “We become what we attend to.” The goal of the Christian life is to become like Jesus. And we want to become like Jesus not because there’s something wrong with us as we are but because, for us, Jesus represents the real good life that the red herrings promise but never deliver. Jesus is just and loving and compassionate. 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 that. And the only way we can be like that is to turn our eyes away from the false gaze and the red herrings and focus them, instead, on Jesus.
You and I live our lives in a sea of red herrings which constantly demand our false gaze. In our quest to turn our eyes from watching what is worthless, our desire to have life in God’s ways, we are offered this morning a simple, life-changing Lenten gift. In gathering around this table and hearing the Gospel stories, we are coming to keep our eyes on Jesus. And when we do that, we are becoming like him in ways we might not yet even imagine or guess or understand. For the gift of Jesus, 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.