In the last hundred years a myth has arisen. That myth tells us that there is only one way to read the Bible. Yet as far back as the 2nd century, the Greek scholar and Christian theologian Origen claimed that scriptures should be read in three different allegorical ways.
I mention that this morning, because today’s lengthy gospel passage can be read on several different levels and I am considering two – the surface or literal level and the metaphorical level. On the surface this is a narrative about a blind man whom Jesus healed and the problems this created for him. On the metaphorical level, this is a passage about light and darkness; about one who could not see coming to see and those who could see refusing to do so.
Light and dark is a major theme of John’s gospel, put in place in the prologue, where he says of Christ, “the light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it.” (John 1: 5) Of course it’s not just John who uses this analogy – we heard it in the reading from Ephesians as well, “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.”
It’s a metaphor which speaks to us. We understand that we are called to live lives deeply rooted in God’s Spirit – lives which bring light. In our physical selves we are totally dependent upon the light form the sun because it is the process of photosynthesis whereby plants take the energy of the sun and convert it to food, that underpins everything we eat. Without light we would not have food. Without food we would perish. In 1816, the sun never shone because of the atmospheric dust from two volcanic eruptions. The result was widespread food shortages and famine in Europe and North America.
So light keeps us alive. It also, of course, helps us to see. As we grow in our relationship with God we see things in a different way. We see the world and everyone in it as beloved of God; we see that all things are coming together in Christ. Our values change as we become centered in Christ and follow the paths of Jesus, and our lives increasingly are aligned with that which is good, right and true.
Becoming children of light is a metaphor which is so deep within us that it hardly needs any explanation. But there is a problem with it. It sets up a binary relationship between dark and light. If we are children of light then we cannot also have darkness because the light banishes the dark; the dawn comes and the night ends. Yet most of us are a mixture. We are in the process of becoming children of light. The dawn has come in our hearts but we still have places where we are judgmental and proud; places in us that are stubborn and refuse to follow the Spirit’s guidance. If there is only darkness and light and no twilight, then we may condemn ourselves for failing to live in the light when actually by God’s grace we have been fully transported into the light, but we are still learning to manifest that in our lives.
There’s another problem with using this metaphor in our society. That is the issue of skin color. I have light skin, my neighbor has dark skin. Does that make me good and her bad? Of course it doesn’t, but at the subtle level of deep-seated attitude, the fact that I am light and she is dark connects to our ideas of spiritual light and dark and can contribute to cultural beliefs that somehow black people are lesser people, that they smell different, that they think differently, that they are in some way or perhaps, in every way, inferior.
Recently, a bartender in San Luis Obispo finished work in the early hours of the morning. He is an athlete and decided to run home to get some exercise. He had not run far when he was stopped by police who arrested him. They refused to believe that he was just running home. He had to prove to them that his apartment was indeed his apartment before they let him go. Why? Because he was black.
For Lent this year I invited you to join me in a conversation about racism, based on Jim Wallis’s book, “America’s Original Sin.” Very few people chose to engage with this difficult subject and so I am postponing that discussion and we will approach it again in a few months in a different way. It is vitally important for us to think together about the effect racism has on our society and how we can work to dismantle it. It is important because we are all implicated in this cultural issue. I expect that many of us think, “I’m not racist” and so we think we don’t need to pay attention, but if you look around the room today you’ll see how little ethnic diversity we have here. 95% of this congregation are white, Caucasian compared with 85% in Los Osos as a whole.
Which brings me to the second way of looking at the gospel reading. This is the third conversation we have heard about this Lent. In each one, Jesus crosses some kind of boundary. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night because he was one of the Pharisees who were opposing Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had a deep and respectful conversation with one of the enemy. Then Jesus met a Samaritan woman and again had a deep and respectful conversation. He met someone who had two strikes against her – a woman and a Samaritan, and he changed her life. Today he touches someone who has a major physical disability which has left him needing to beg his whole life long.
And this gets everyone into trouble. Jesus made mud on the Sabbath which was against the rules. According to the Pharisees he was clearly a sinner and therefore could not have healed the blind man. Jesus made a bridge not a wall and in the process made it obvious that sometimes the light of God brings difficulty in human relationships.
We live in a time when we will need to take our stand as children of the light. This may not be popular. We are also called as followers of Jesus to reach out to those who are different, especially those whom the power base of society chooses to ignore. This may get us into trouble. Jesus made mud and healed on the Sabbath. This was effectively civil disobedience against the religious law. It may be that we will be called to take positions of civil disobedience in order to stand up for those with little power or in order to protect our planet. The people at Standing Rock earlier this year gave us an inspiring role model.
These are difficult times. And it is easier to choose not to see. It is easier, safer and less confusing to ignore the growth of racism and its effects. It is easier not to see how many people are becoming homeless. It is easier not to reach out to those who are different and those who are vulnerable. But we have been given sight. We have been given opportunities that are denied to others. And we are the followers of Jesus.
Some of the Pharisees near him… 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.”