I don’t know about you, but I am ready for some light. You know the kind I mean: that shimmery spring sunlight that makes the burgeoning cherry blossoms and rhododendrons and trilliums glow, absent the relentless shadow of rainclouds. And then there’s the problem of mud. Even though Nathan preached last week that “giving up the need to be right looks something like wading through the mud,” and Jesus himself demonstrated in today’s Gospel that mud can be healing, I’m grateful for dryer ground about now.
It’s been an extraordinary Portland winter, no? So it is good and right for us to be longing for the brightness of spring. The word Lent itself comes from an Old English word meaning “lengthening of days,” so even in a liturgical season when we commit ourselves to wrestling with the darker side of human nature, we’re still supposed to hear an echo of gathering light. And today is the fourth Sunday in Lent, sometimes called Laetere Sunday, which comes from the Latin verb for rejoicing. It’s a kind of mid-Lent lightening of whatever disciplines we’ve undertaken, a time to look up from our necessary introspection and give thanks for things bright and beautiful.
We creatures formed of stardust are made to long for light. The author of the letter to the Ephesians assumes that we want to live as children of the light, spiritually speaking. But if there’s a common thread in the lessons given to us today, it’s that the illumination we are looking for may not show up in the people and places we expect it. We have to be curious and courageous to find the light of Christ, which—if the Bible teaches us anything—is most likely to show up in the unexpected. So, for example, the prophet Samuel hears the Lord tell him that he “does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” And he is empowered—indeed compelled—to anoint David, the overlooked youngest son of Jesse, to be king over Israel.
Or consider Jesus’ healing of the man who was blind from birth. Peer into the chaotic scene with the eyes of your heart: see disciples busy trying to figure out who was at fault for the disability, Pharisees trying to make a charge stick to Jesus, and even the healed man’s parents ready to throw him under the bus rather than acknowledge that something extraordinary had just happened through their son’s encounter with Jesus. When someone’s best response to healing is to dismiss the healer with a phrase like “as for this man, we do not know where he comes from” then there’s a deeper problem in the system than someone’s bad eyesight. One man’s healing—from the apparently wrong source—had served to expose the spiritual blindness of the whole community. Sometimes God’s mighty works are revealed in that unsettling kind of way, and the unexpected outcome can be darned uncomfortable for those who are secure in their roles as lawyers or parents or even disciples.
And yet we are called to live as children of the light, brave to face and expose the darkness wherever we find it, even within ourselves. But if it were easy to do that, we wouldn’t have the author of Ephesians telling us to try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. The Greek verb here is dokimazo, and it suggests an active process of discernment or discovery. The burden is on us to look more deeply, beyond the people and ideas that confirm our existing biases. Maybe the black and white categories we are using aren’t serving me anymore. Maybe we have to practice seeing the world in the full spectrum of shade and color that God sees it.
My friends Asa and Chenda are pastors in Washington DC, and parents of four daughters under 8 years of age. Which seems like it would be challenge enough for anyone, but they also face the struggle of raising black girls to value themselves in a culture where women are still rewarded for being the fairest of them all. So this week, when their beautiful ebony-skinned eldest daughter brought home a picture she’d drawn in two panels in which she depicted herself as “bad me/dark” and “good me/light,” the parents were understandably upset.
When I saw the picture, which they had posted online, I wanted to weep. And of course the mother’s heart was broken too. But Chenda did something more than grieve; she went and talked to her daughter, which is how she discovered that the drawing was not intended to be about black skin. “We spoke with the seven year old,” Chenda wrote, “and she explained that the drawing was a theological depiction based on a Sunday School lesson. She told us she loves her skin and wondered why we would think she doesn’t. “That’s a conversation for another day,” the mother observed. Because, regrettably, it is indeed a conversation black parents in our country have to have with their children.
But that wasn’t her final word on the subject that day. Pastor Chenda went on to reflect that “while the child’s drawing was not exactly what I originally thought, its jarring depiction speaks to the pervasiveness of white supremacy in our theology. The interpretive lens of equating “dark/black” with things that are “bad” and “light/white” with things that are “good” continues to influence our reading of scripture.” In a sermon titled, “Embracing the Light and the Darkness in the Age of Black Lives Matter,” Hebrew scholar, Wil Gafney wrote “…light and dark are not in conflict but in balance. We are afraid of the dark but God is not. Darkness is a creative space to God. Out of darkness God created everything that is, including light….The darkness and light co-exist….it is not the dark that hurts us. It is our own limitations.” Or, we also might say, it is our blindness that hurts us; blindness, perhaps to that which exists on the spectrum between the black and white in our own thinking.
I wonder what might happen to us if we, like a beleaguered but loving mother, took the time to listen to the voices of the ones who are young and dark skinned. Or if we, like Samuel, went out of our way to recognize the leadership potential of those who are overlooked. I suspect that sometimes our suspicions and existing biases would be confirmed, but many times they would not be. And in all cases, I am pretty confident that we’d end up with our categories—ones like young and old, black and white, republican and democrat, undocumented and legal—blurred. Because that’s what happens when we let relationship and mutual learning triumph over assumptions about each other’s motives.
As we do that—enter into that grey zone of authentic relationship with the unexpected and the other—we’ll almost certainly find ourselves in conflict, just as the community around Jesus was. But that’s OK, because if there’s anything this Lenten journey is designed to teach is, it is not to fear the clash of values. Because God’s miracles of sight and light have not been, and will never be, overcome by the fight.
The reading we just heard from the letter to the Ephesians closes with an intriguing bit of poetry—Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you—which was likely an early Christian baptismal hymn. That brings to mind the several students in our Catechesis class who will be baptized this Easter at the Saturday evening Vigil, and of the words of one of our members who recalled her own baptism her in this way. “You won’t be quite the same person after you lift your head from that golden bowl of water and are anointed as Christ’s own forever.” Indeed, in the harrowing and healing light of Christ none of us can ever stay the same. Because we follow the God who was willing sacrifice everything—including the safety of comfortable categories and superficial agreement—in order to make us capable of seeing things in their sacred wholeness. And that’s as beautiful a sight as can be seen.