Saturday, April 05, 2014

Seeing and being the light of the world (Rick O'Brien, Christ Church, Las Vegas. March 30, 2014. Lent 4.)

Once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  He doesn’t say now you are in light, or now you are near light.  No, Paul tells us that we ARE light.  How can that be?  We know that we are sinners, and cannot help ourselves.  Apart from the grace of God we have no ability to resist sin, so how can we be light?  The answer, of course, comes from Jesus.  In John’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 

John’s gospel is full of compelling imagery, and none more potent than the idea of light.  John 1 – In him was life, and the life was the light of the world.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  John 3 – But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.  John 8 – I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.  And today’s reading from John 9 – As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

Light features prominently in the gospels and Jesus is always equated with light.  This is a fundamental truth for humanity.  Since the beginning of time we have found the light to be good and the dark to be bad.  We have an instinctive fear of the dark, and more specifically, of what may be lurking in the dark that we cannot see.  Bad things can hide in the dark, and trouble is even more daunting for us when we cannot see it coming.

But God is the ultimate light.  In him is light and warmth and protection from all of the evils that may lurk in the dark.  The psalmist tells us in the old familiar 23rd psalm, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.  Notice the imagery?  Death lurks in the shadow, not in the light.  But God is more powerful than darkness, more powerful than death.  And God will protect us, even from the dark places where death waits for us.

By now you are probably asking yourself, wait a minute.  Didn’t we start by asking why Paul tells us that we ARE light?  But you just told us that Jesus is the light of the world.  So how can we be light if Jesus is light?  There are two ways to look at that.  The first is that Jesus tells us “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  Since Jesus ascension, he has no body on earth but ours.  WE are his body on earth and therefore, we are light, just as Jesus was light.  The second is that God created us in his own image and it makes sense then that as children of God, we would be light just as Jesus is light. 

There is another image of light in today’s gospel, though this one is a bit harder to discern.  We hear today the story of the blind man who is given sight by Jesus.  John is explicit in telling us that this man had been blind since birth, so he had never seen light but instead lived in a world of eternal darkness.  As such, he had no way to work and earn a living, so he was forced to beg for charity from passersby.  He must have been a familiar site to everyone as he sat at the gate of the temple every day. 

The disciples ask Jesus about the man and he uses him tells them that the man was born blind so that God’s works may be revealed in him.  And he puts mud on his eyes, tells him to wash in the pool of Siloam, and he is healed.  What’s with the spit and the mud and the pool?  Here is something I have learned about the Bible.  When they provide a translation of the word for you, it is there because it has significance.  So the answer to this question is in the translation of the name Siloam.  It means sent.  It could be that this man had been sent by God to show the world a miracle of healing.  It could mean that Jesus sent the man to the pool to be healed.  But I think it means that the man is then sent to testify to others of the healing power of Jesus of Nazareth, and to shake the foundations of the Jews reliance upon their laws.

The man left blind and came back to the temple able to see.  The crowd is amazed and brings him before the Pharisees who question him at length.  This miracle is of course hard to believe and they are confused.  Some immediately condemn Jesus for working on the Sabbath in defiance of their laws.  Others are not so hasty and wonder how any sinner could perform so wondrous a feat?  Even among the Pharisees there was a group of moderates.  Unfortunately, like in congress, they were in the minority, and were ultimately shouted down.

For rather than accept the evidence presented to them that this blind man had been healed, the Pharisees couldn’t get past the fact that they feared Jesus and had labeled him a sinner.  As such, there was no way he could have accomplished such a feat, so it must therefore have been a trick.  They had closed their minds to any possibility other than their own.  Instead they kept pestering the man with the same questions over and over again until he finally answers them “I have told you already and you would not listen.  Why do you want to hear it again?”  These are brave words coming from a humble beggar to the most powerful Jews in the temple.  But remember that he had been healed by Jesus; that Jesus had given him the gift of light.  Listen to what I just said.  Jesus had given him the gift, not of sight, but of light.  By opening his eyes for the first time, Jesus had indeed given him sight, but what he truly gave him was light.  Indeed, he beheld the glory of Jesus and was forever changed by the experience.  Having become light, he was sent by Jesus and was unafraid to stand before the Pharisees and tell them that it was THEM who did not see.

Is there a message here for the church?  I think there is.  When presented with miraculous proof of God’s healing power on earth, the Pharisees couldn’t handle it.  It didn’t accord with their view of how God works, and so they rejected it out of hand.  Rather than focus on the fact that a blind man had been healed, they chose instead to condemn Jesus for having healed him on the Sabbath.  They were so afraid of change, so afraid that their closely held view of the world may not be perfect, that they couldn’t see the coming of God when he was standing right in front of them. 

How often do we do the same thing?  Are we open to the appearance of God, or have we already decided that God will only appear in ways and forms that we expect?  Paul tells us that we are light, but we know that Jesus is the light of the world.  Do we then look for the face of Jesus in everyone we meet, or have we already decided that we know how Jesus will appear?  Do we expect that he will look like us, or are we open to the idea that Jesus may come to us as a Hispanic woman, or a black child, or a gay man?

The Episcopal Church is often compared to a three legged stool, meaning that we hold ourselves up by three guiding principles of scripture, tradition, and reason.  But if that is true, that means that each of these legs must be give equal weight or the stool will collapse.  Scripture is of course the primary, but do we put too much emphasis on tradition and not enough on reason?  That seems to be what the Pharisees did.  They refused to consider that the blind man had been healed because it was outside of their mosaic tradition and law.  Do we still make the same mistake 2,000 years later?  Or are we willing to place equal emphasis on reason?  Will we be slaves to tradition, or are we willing to at least consider the possibility that God is calling us to do things a different way?

When we asked for feedback from the parish about their fondest wish for Christ Church, the overwhelming answer was that we want to grow.  For many years, not just our church but the Episcopal Church in the United States has been shrinking instead of growing.  We know we want to grow, but we are not sure how to go about it.  My brothers and sisters, if we are to grow, we must be open to change.  Einstein is often quoted as saying “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.” If we are to grow, we must break out of the habit of doing the same thing again and again and merely hoping that things will be different.  We must open our minds to new ways of being the church; we must honor our traditions, but allow reason to help us change with the times. 

Will we be like the Pharisees who could not envision any way but the status quo?  Or will we be open to seeing God in the face of everyone and be open to change?  Will we recognize that we are light, and let that light shine so others may hear the good news of Jesus Christ, in this time and this place?