John 9:1-41, Ephesians 5:8-14
When I started working on this sermon I ran across this reflection from Dr. Rachael Keefe on her blog “Write Out of Left Field.” (https://rachaelkeefe.wordpress.com/) She’s writing in part about our gospel reading from John, and she says, “As for myself, I have been the recipient of social judgments. I’ve heard the whispers and the not so quiet voices naming me as undesirable because I’ve been divorced twice. Because I’m a woman who is an ordained minister. Because I am bisexual. Because I have a history that includes treatment for an eating disorder and depression. I’ve been ignored and dismissed because of who I am and where I’ve come from. It’s painful and it’s ugly. As a result, I so identify with the marginalized folks of scripture – the Samaritan woman (who is not in our scripture reading today) and the man born blind, especially.”
That might strike home for you. Maybe you’ve been excluded sometimes because of the kinds of things that Keefe mentions. It happens a lot when we’re younger. As a fat kid, I definitely knew what it felt like to be excluded, to be out of the circle sometimes.
Perhaps you or I have excluded somebody at some time because of those kinds of issues. Perhaps it hasn’t been those issues but other issues that have led us to leave others on the outside of our circles. Whatever the issue is, it doesn’t feel good to the person on the outside, and it affects them down the road.
There are a lot of things that strike me in the story of the man born blind, but one of them is how many times he is pushed outside the circle, how many times he is pushed into the darkness by the people around him. Not physical darkness, of course, but emotional darkness, spiritual darkness. It is amazing how many times in this passage that people draw a circle that excludes the man born blind for one reason or another.
First the disciples draw the circle of exclusion. “Who sinned that this guy is blind?” His condition has to be the result of sin. Not sin in the generic, original sin sense – in that sense anything bad is a result of sin. No, they mean a specific sin committed by a specific person. He’s blind not just because of the same reason we all have faults and frailties; he’s blind because of something that may have been in his control.
Next it’s his neighbors. “Is that the blind guy? Nah, couldn’t be.” And when the blind man, or I should say the formerly blind man, insists that it is too, him, the neighbors don’t buy it. They leave him on the outside once again.
Then it’s the Pharisees putting him on the outside. It says that the Jews decided that it wasn’t the same guy, even though he insisted he was. They didn’t believe he was the man born blind that everyone knew. They’d walked by him a hundred times, maybe a thousand, so you would think they would have recognized him, but they either didn’t recognize him or they didn’t believe their own eyes. (I think there is a good sermon waiting to be preached on that fact.) So the Pharisees call the man’s parents, and they say “Yes, it’s our son” and “No, we have no idea how this happened.”
So the Pharisees call the man back again, and they go through the whole thing again, and you know what? They still don’t believe him. The man pushes back, but the Pharisees keep him out. The word the scripture uses is “reviled” as they said, “We are Moses’ disciples, but you are his disciple.”
The man who has been healed is persistent, and he is not willing to be silenced, until finally the Pharisees just give up arguing and drive him out physically. Now the man is not just on the outside looking in emotionally or spiritually, he’s literally, physically being excluded.
The man meets Jesus again, and believing that it is Jesus who healed him he worships Jesus, and Jesus accepts his worship. Jesus lets him into the circle. And in a final twist, some of the Pharisees overhear all of this and Jesus excludes them because of their sin and their unwillingness to believe.
I find that dynamic of inclusion and exclusion running through this reading fascinating, and I know I haven’t done it justice with this little summary. It’s worth a lot more thought and reflection.
Back on February 17, conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece in New York magazine. (http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/02/andrew-sullivan-the-white-house-mole.html) I’ve read Sullivan for a long time, and I don’t always agree with him but I always find him interesting and thought-provoking. This piece resonated with me because as I read Facebook and comment threads on newspaper articles I see a lot of people who are angry at their opponents. I see a lot of liberal or progressive folks referring to Pres. Trump’s supporters as racists or morons. I see a lot of conservative folks referring to their ideological foes as libtards. I saw a lot of gloating over Pres. Trump’s victory, and I have seen a lot of gloating over the failure of the Republicans to pass healthcare reform this past week.
Here’s what Sullivan wrote in a portion of a column after Pres. Trump’s aide Stephen Miller had made the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows earlier in the week. For those of you who may not know him, Stephen Miller is a senior advisor to Pres. Trump. He is very conservative, but grew up in the very liberal Santa Monica, CA and went to Duke University, where he was among a minority of conservative students.
Sullivan writes, “I feel like I know Stephen Miller, the youthful Montgomery Burns who lectured the lügenpresse last Sunday morning in his charm-free Stakhanovite baritone. I feel like I know him because I used to be a little like him. He’s a classic type: a rather dour right-of-center kid whose conservatism was radicalized by lefties in the educational system. No, I’m not blaming liberals for Miller’s grim fanaticism. I am noting merely that right-of-center students are often mocked, isolated, and anathematized on campus, and their response is often, sadly, a doubling down on whatever it is that progressives hate. Before too long, they start adopting brattish and obnoxious positions — just to tick off their SJW peers and teachers. After a while, you’re not so much arguing for conservatism as against leftism, and eventually the issues fade and only the hate remains.
Think of it in some way as reactionary camp. Think Ingraham and Coulter and Yiannopoulos. They are reactionaries in the classic sense: Their performance-art politics are almost entirely a reaction to the suffocating leftism that they had to endure as they rose through the American education system. As a young, lonely conservative in college, I now wince at recalling, I threw a champagne party to welcome Reagan’s cruise missiles to Britain. Of course I knew better — and could have made a decent argument for deterrence instead of behaving like a brattish (well, I won’t use the word Sullivan does.) But I didn’t. I wanted to annoy and disrupt the smugness around me. If you never mature, this pose can soon become your actual personality — especially when you realize that it can also be extremely lucrative in the conservative-media industrial complex. I think of Ann Coulter, whom I met recently, backstage at Bill Maher’s show. What struck me was her sincerity, searing intelligence, and grasp of the facts. In another universe, she could have become a reasoned defender of a sane conservatism. Instead she ended up writing “In Trump We Trust.” In exactly the same way, Miller really is a product of Santa Monica and Duke — their living, breathing, raving antibody.”
You don’t have to know Stephen Miller or Ann Coulter or any of the other folks Sullivan mentions to know what that part of the column is about. It’s about people who are excluded, people who are put down, people who are mocked or demonized or treated badly for their political views and the reaction that kind of treatment can lead to. There are liberal political equivalents of those folks. It’s the same dynamic that you see in the radicalization of some very small group of Muslims who have lived in the United States for years, even decades. They feel demonized, mocked, excluded, attacked, and they react by fighting back. That’s why General McMaster, the National Security Advisor, tells people not to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.”
People have probably excluded us from their circles at one time or another in our lives. We may or may not have been acutely aware of it at the time. We may have forgotten it by now, or the pain may still linger and be real. We have probably excluded others in our circles in the same way. Sometimes the exclusion is intentional and sometimes we’re not aware of it at all. How have we been wounded or scarred? How have we hurt and wounded and scarred others?
There is a little poem by Edwin Markham that has been repeated so often it is a cliché to some, but it is still good. ““He drew a circle that shut me out- Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him In!”
As we work through Lent and approach Easter, it’s a good time to think of what kind of circles we are drawing. Are we drawing circles that include others, or circles that leave others out? Are we even aware of the circles we are drawing? Are we trying to include others but missing the mark somehow?
Now in all of this I’ve talked a lot about circles, but I haven’t talked much about light. In our gospel story there are two obvious movements from darkness to light. The first is literal, as the blind man begins the story in the darkness of blindness and ends it able to see and live in the light. The second is spiritual, as the blind man begins the story in spiritual darkness, and ends the story walking in the light spiritually as well as physically, proclaiming and worshipping Jesus.
We are all at different points along that spectrum at different times. There are times when we are in darkness, lost in our sin, not feeling God’s presence, not open to or aware of God’s light. There are other times when God’s presence and joy is so real that we feel we are surrounded by light.
There is, however, a specific way in which circles of light play a role in our scripture readings. That’s in our reading from Ephesians. It’s a short passage, so let me read it again. Ephesians 5:8-14. “For 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. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
I was struck by the phrase, “everything that becomes visible is light.” One of the commentaries I read said that people of Paul’s time believed that ordinary objects gave off their own light. Maybe not a lot of light, but at least a little. I couldn’t confirm whether that’s true or not. But we do know that some objects give off light. Candles. Light bulbs.
You can’t see the light from the candles up here real well, but if you were to walk up to the communion table and look down on them you would see that they radiate their light out in a circle. When you get home if you light a candle in the dark you’ll see that. The light forms a circle around the flame, unless there’s wind or something.
The same thing is true for light bulbs, at least traditional light bulbs with a filament in the middle. When they are lit up, the light goes all around in a circle. That’s why we use light shades, to direct the light to places where it may be more helpful.
As a Christian, you give off light. Not just the radiant glow of motherhood, like Faith (an expectant mother in our congregation) but light. Spiritual light. God’s light radiates out from you in a circle, just like from a candle or a light bulb. When we think about including people, it involves getting close enough to them that they can be in our light. It involves being aware enough of them that we can place ourselves, live our lives, in a way that puts them in our circle of light, as opposed to leaving them outside the circle. It’s almost like Markham’s poem, except that we don’t just draw a circle to take others in. We live a life that takes others in. We live a life that radiates light, the light of Jesus Christ. We shine that light on the lost and the lonely. We turn that light on ourselves sometimes, and examine the dark places within us and bring light there to help cleanse us of our sin. Christ, living through us, becomes the light of the world.
This week and throughout Lent, think about the circles that you draw. Think about the light that you give off. Invite others into the circle of your light, and move closer to God so that the light shines more brightly through you. Amen.