Correcting Our Spectral Overlap

This sermon was written for St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington for the Seventh Sunday in Easter. The gospel text was John 17:6-19.

There are glasses available now that correct color blindness. People with green-red color deficiency– the most common form of colorblindness– experience the world in relatively muted tones because of what is called spectral overlap. For these people, the light spectrum that gives us green and the light spectrum that gives us red overlap, and as a result green and red overlap — have you ever blended red and green watercolors? It turns into a kind of dull, dusty gray-brown. For color blind people, to varying extents…that’s their world.

So the problem here, for the person with color deficiency, is not with the eye — the eye and optic neuron is essentially healthy, the systems function normally. The problem is the way the light is received.

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So these glasses — these entirely normal-looking sunglasses — the lenses essentially put a space between the spectrums, they pull apart the overlapping spectrums, helping the eye to see that green and red are distinct colors. And by sorting out red and green as distinct colors, that dusty grayness is removed; reds are more red, greens are more green, blues are more blue — the entire color spectrum opens up once these two spectrums are seen as distinct. All by putting on a pair of glasses.

A close friend of mine, a woman who was like a mother to me, had a gift of turning a gray world into a colorful world. She was able to pull apart the aspects of a given situation that were the result of the world’s powers being at work–a result of hateful beliefs and attitudes, the ways systems privilege certain people, the ways despair and depression take hold, creepingly. She had the insight to be able to sort out those powers of the world’s system in my life from what God was doing in my life.

Through our conversations, it is as though she gifted me with color-correcting glasses. When the world feels too gray, I hear her voice and I can adopt her frames to sort out the world’s narratives and God’s narrative, both at play in my life.

I imagine the disciples felt as I feel when I heard that this friend was dying, when Jesus started speaking openly, bluntly, about his impending death. I imagine their fear of having to navigate the world’s ways and see God’s action in the midst of their situations. Their disorientation, like we’re losing a navigational point that told us who we are. I imagine them wondering: Who will name the world’s powers for what they are? Who will help us see God’s movements? Does the death of Jesus mean that the world’s powers will win out in the end? And under all of this, tied to all of these questions, is the Big Question: how can the world continue on without his love to hold it all together?

It is into this situation, this fear, that Jesus prays. “Father, the world’s systems and powers, the dominant culture of the world has hated my followers because they do not fit in the ways of the world, just as I do not fit in the ways of the world.” He reminds us that he has given us God’s care and protection as he pursue God’s truth.

He continues, “Sanctify them in your truth.” Sanctify means “to separate for purposes of God,” separate the purposes of God from the powers of the world, of the dominant culture. Our sight has the tendency to conflate the two spectrums, the world’s ways and God’s ways, Jesus reminds us that we are to be sanctified, to be able to see the two ways at work, as separate things. Jesus reminds us that he has given us new eyes to see. He reminds us that he has been the space that separates the spectrum of the world’s ways and the spectrum of God’s ways, he has pulled apart the world’s images of success/the world’s systems and ways —- from God’s movements and workings. Jesus prays that we remain able to see them, that we be sanctified.

And he continues: “Sanctify them … as you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

Jesus sends us, as he was sent. He sends us in the same manner and for the same purposes that he was sent. Our work in the world must look to Christ as the model. We read, earlier in this same gospel, about God’s sending Jesus in the oft-quoted John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” And the next verse continues the thought: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved.”

Jesus was sent into the world because of love, for the purpose of loving. In this prayer, Jesus sends his followers as he was sent — because of love, for the purpose of love. Love alone is the church’s reason for being in the world. When Jesus dies and the disciples feel so uprooted that they wonder, how can the world continue to exist without his love?, the answer is: we put on Jesus’s sight to correct our sight toward love. We adopt the way of seeing the world’s ways and God’s ways compassionately in a way that leads us to love.

He sends us as he was sent — not to condemn the world, but to lovingly interact with it, in order that the world’s ways might be saved.

A thai poet wrote that “paradise is not another world. Paradise is the ruins of this world gazed upon compassionately.” St Teresa of Avila wrote that “Christ has no body now on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the world; yours are the hands with which God is to bless people now.” Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks out to the ruins of this world and sees it as paradise.

I saw a video of a man putting on these glasses for the first time. It’s his birthday; the glasses are his birthday gift, wrapped in bright red tissue paper. His wife has put out a container holding variety of colorful flowers in the front yard; she’s narrating from behind the camera. Their kids are in bright winter coats. Other than that, it’s really quite a bleak day. The sky is entirely overcast; they live in an apartment park filled with gray-brown townhomes. There is no grass; they’re stand on light gray sidewalk between dark gray pavement and their own gray-brown home.

The man, head-to-toe black denim, hair slicked back — he’s remarkably nonchalant, like he doesn’t want to appear uncool for a minute. Or maybe like he doesn’t want to hope too much. He unwraps the gift, pushing the tissue paper into the hands of his school-age daughter. Opens the box. Coolly, skeptically, he examines the seemingly ordinary shades.

When he finally puts them on, the moment that follows is …. Well, the kids are kind of oblivious that anything significant is happening. They’re playing with the tissue paper, running around.

But their father, the man in the glasses — the moment he puts them on, he stops talking. He stops smiling. He doesn’t know which direction to look. His wife says to him: look at your kids eyes. He glances down at his daughter in front of him, stares for just a second, and turns away, needs to go sit down.

And a minute later, composed, he gets up, smooths out his hair, paces, and then he comes to the flowers his wife set out, and this man just crumples in the parking lot. His new sight fills him with such love for the world — the same world that he had nonchalantly moved through before, but now rightly perceived — he’s filled with such love that he is overwhelmed and seems to become, at least for a few moments, an entirely different man. His tough exterior is undone as he weeps at the beauty of a gray day in a gray parking lot surrounded by gray homes.

The world hasn’t changed, but his perception of it has been corrected; the spectrums with which he sees have been pulled apart, and he can see the world as it is, and he is changed.

Jesus sends us into the world — not to condemn it, but to lovingly interact with it in order to save it. He sends us to see it with eyes so new and grateful that the color of another’s eyes brings tears to our own, that the brightness of a flower against gray sky brings us to our knees.

(For those interested, here is more information on the glasses, how they work; and the video of the man’s first time with the glasses.)

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