Lent 4A; John 9
We spend a lot of time in the Gospel of John during Lent of Year A. If you remember from last week I pointed out that, among other things, John uses images of light and dark and he gives us some really long stories. We get both of those today: a really long story that is filled with images of light and dark.
In today's passage the light is Jesus himself. “As long as I am in the world,” he says, “I am the light of the world.” But light is also present in the act of opening the eyes of the blind man. The opposite of light is dark, so in this story the darkness has to do with blindness as well as not recognizing Jesus. And as so often happens in John, this interplay between light and dark has much more depth to it than just opening the eyes of a blind man.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. What has come into being through him was life, and the life was the light of all people. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and people lived darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
Early on in John we are given these images of light and dark. Early on we are presented with this image that to be in the light is to see the world as God sees it: worthy of redemption and saving. And early on we are told that those who choose not to see the light of God, who choose not to see how God is looking to save the world, are those who choose to do evil deeds. This is the darkness we face: that which is opposed to God. We have a choice to do evil deeds or to open our eyes to the light and drive out the darkness. But choosing the light, as the blind man discovered, also comes with consequences.
As I said earlier, if, when we read or hear this passage, we only see or hear a miracle story of a blind man being healed, we are missing the deeper meaning of this story which applies to us today. Because in the gospel of John, it's very rarely just about the story being presented – there are layers upon layers upon layers of meaning.
The man in the story was born blind. He knew of no other way of being. He navigated his environment to the best of his ability, maybe never asking why things were the way they were. Then, when his eyes were opened, both he and the system in which he lived, were threatened. First, he and his family were threatened with expulsion because God was working through this man in a new way. They were being forced by the religious leaders to choose between following the light or denying the light and allowing the system to maintain control.
Second, the system was threatened when the light of God exposed a corrupt system designed to hold onto its power over and above everything else. Allowing this man to continue in the established faith community might mean losing power and control. This system also went after his parents, threatening them with expulsion as well. The parents, for whatever reason, did not feel they could risk losing their spiritual home. In the end, the power of the system won and it expelled the man.
We are the same way. We are born into a particular system and we know of no other way of being. We navigate the environment around us to the best of our ability, maybe never questioning why things are the way they are. Like the man in today's gospel passage, we are, to some extent, born blind. And then, when confronted with something new, with something that opens our eyes, both we and the system are threatened.
A parallel example from today is that in too many churches and denominations an entrenched patriarchal system controls the community. It not only prevents certain people from using the gifts God has given them, but it has perpetrated and protected a system of serial abuse. I see stories all the time about women and children who were abused in churches and then blamed for allowing the abuse to happen, or for actually causing it.
When they choose to stand up and tell their stories of being abused, they are both threatened by the system as well as threaten the system itself. The system threatens them with being ostracized and forced out of the church. It may also threaten their families. These threats protect abusers so they never have to make a public apology, are never held accountable, and are allowed to continue to serve the church, often abusing others. Powerful systems that are threatened will react swiftly and strongly in order to protect their power and control.
When people's eyes are opened to an abusive situation and they are no longer blind, they are driven out of their faith community just as the blind man in today's story was driven from the synagogue.
But by standing up and telling their stories, corrupt systems are themselves threatened by the light of the truth. The system is threatened with collapse as the pillars of evil cannot support the light of truth. The system is threatened with extinction as people come to realize the evil done in the name of that system and refuse to participate in it. The leaders of the system are threatened with loss of income or criminal charges as the truth brings into the light its evil deeds.
Evil institutions appear in other parts of our lives as well. I'm leading a group of people through the Sacred Ground program. This was developed by the Episcopal church to open our eyes to the evils of systemic racism in this country and its deep roots that still pervades our society. One of our sources is a book called, Waking Up White by Debby Irving. It's a good book with short chapters that opens your eyes to any number of racial inequalities and racist systems that you might never have known about.
In one chapter the author talks about inattentional blindness – the phenomena of seeing only what we want to see, or seeing only what we expect to see. This blindness allows some of us to comfortably live in a system that doesn't necessarily harm us, but leaves us happily ignorant of the suffering of others. Sometimes this is unintentional because we just live in the environment without examining it – we are blind and we don't know what we don't know. Other times it's blatantly willful – just talk to the people of Texas, Florida, Tennessee, and others states that are attempting to remove all references to slavery, Jim Crow, and other “inconvenient truths” from school curricula.
There's a lot in this book that catches your attention and will make you come up short. But there are two things in particular that relate to the gospel story today. First, for racism and racist systems to continue, all that is needed is for good people to do nothing. Second, she reminds us that nobody alive today created the racist mess we live in, but everyone alive today can work to undo it.
In today's gospel story, the good parents of the blind man stood silently by when the religious system began to attack them and their son about his healing. That system could continue because good people did nothing.
Second, nobody alive during the time of Jesus created the temple/religious system experienced by the man and his parents. But everyone alive in Jesus' day could have opened their eyes to the abuses it perpetrated and sustained, and those people could have chosen to work to undo it.
Our eyes have been opened from the blindness of racism. Our eyes have been opened to systems of systemic racism that persist today. The light of Christ, the light of equality, the light of a God sent to save not condemn, has come into the world. It doesn't take much effort to witness the acts of those who love the evil system and deeds of racism. And when our open eyes lead us to call out those evil acts, we will be as reviled as the man in today's gospel; because, like him, we are a threat to the system.
It's not only abuse and racism that we are now seeing. Our eyes are being opened to how we see the environment, unequal pay scales, the treatment of those less fortunate, the belittling of women, and the list goes on. In almost all cases, when eyes are opened to injustices and inequalities, the dominant majority will work to silence and marginalize those who see the light.
It happened to the man in today's story. It happened to his parents who were also threatened with eviction from the synagogue. It happened to people who fought for an end to slavery. It happened to those who fought for women to have the right to vote. It happened to people who fought for the end of apartheid. It's happening to people today speaking up for the rights of lgbtq+ people. It happens to people in all times and in all places who speak up about systems of inequality and injustice.
If we are not careful, we will be like the Pharisees who asked, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus' response – “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains” – indicates that the Pharisees knew that what they were doing was wrong, but they continued to do it anyway. That is why their sin remained. In the same way, if we choose to uphold systems of oppression and hate after being shown by a loving God of what is acceptable in his eyes, then we ourselves remain blind and sinful.
Today's story reminds us that blindness is not only a physical condition, but is also a condition that keeps us from loving out neighbors as ourselves. May we acknowledge our own blind spots and work to eliminate the darkness and blindness of the world that keeps people trapped in sin.