What Colour is the Sea?
Fourth Sunday in Lent, 26th of March, 2017
Colleen Clayton, Klingner Scholar and Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
1 Samuel 16.1-13; John 9.1-41
In the epic poem, 'The Odyssey,' written sometime in the 8th century BCE, the Greek poet Homer famously describes the 'wine-dark sea.' It is a phrase that conjures images of dark, brooding waves with Greek warships tossing to and fro. However it seems that this description may not simply reflect Homer's poetic imagination.
In 'The Odyssey' Homer mentions black nearly 200 times and white about 100. He mentions red less than 15 times, and yellow and green less than 10. Blue, the colour of the sea is not mentioned at all.
This seems very odd. When we think of Greece, the brilliant blue of the Aegean is one of the strongest images to come to mind. Did Homer perhaps suffer from some kind of colour blindness? Well, no, because it turns out that this same phenomenon is true in other ancient writings as well. Ancient languages first had words for black and white or dark and light. The next colour named was red, the colour of blood. After red came yellow and green with blue last in every language and culture except the ancient Egyptians. They were the first ancient civilisation to have a word for the colour blue and it seems that the word may have developed as they learnt how to use lapis lazuli to produce pigments of that colour.
The sea, for Homer was 'wine dark' because he had to use the language available to him to describe what he saw. Studies suggest that without a word for something, people simply don't notice it so for Homer, with no word for blue, that's not how he saw the sea. This seems extraordinary but scientists believe that language shapes what we see; it affects how we perceive the world around us and can actually blind us to something as ubiquitous as the colour of the sea. As we create words to describe things, we are better able to see them. Our language sharpens our focus and enables us to make distinctions and comparisons in what previously was a homogenous background.
This exploration of how we humans see the world features strongly in today's lectionary readings. Both the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel are full of the language of seeing and looking; the perception of things that are internal and external; the way that God sees and the way that humans see; spiritual and physical blindness and sight.
The reading from 1 Samuel tells the story of the anointing of David. He was out in the fields looking after the sheep when Samuel came looking for the one God had chosen to be the next king of Israel. Even Samuel, the great and wise prophet was sure that God would choose from one of the first seven sons brought to him, all apparently big, strapping lads. But God tells Samuel, 'the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart'; and so Samuel asks Jesse if there is anyone else to be considered. David is brought in and he is the one chosen by God. David is anointed and, importantly, we are told, the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him from that day forward.
It seems that as he was anointed, David received a revelation, a glimpse of the way in which God saw him, not simply as a shepherd boy but as the one to lead God's people. God's vision of David was not based on his outward appearance, nor was it based on that particular moment in time. God looks from the point of view of eternity seeing the unique possibilities of each one of us; knowing the fullness of who we are and who we will become, the good, the bad and the ugly and God loves us anyway.
Having an eternal perspective is going to be important for David because there is a big gap of time between his anointing and his enthronement as king of Judah roughly fifteen years later and then as king of the whole of Israel another seven years after that. They were busy, tumultuous years but it's still a long time to wait.
So, as the spirit of the Lord comes upon him, David can see himself through the eyes of God, from the perspective of eternity and the vision transforms him. From that time on, David is given new words of possibility for something he had not seen before; a new way of seeing that gives his life focus and sharpens his eyes, to search for the way forward that will allow him to live into the fullness of God's vision. David waits with purpose for his life to unfold.
But in the reading from John's Gospel we meet a man who has lived his whole life in darkness. There is no sense of purposeful waiting for him. Instead he lives on the margins of society, begging for food and with no hope of leading a fulfilling or meaningful life until suddenly, without him doing anything, without seeking or asking, probably without hope, Jesus shines colour and life into his world of darkness.
This is a long story in which the healing of the man born blind takes only two verses to tell. Immediately prior to the healing, Jesus has told his disciples that he is the Light of the World. Then, Jesus uses his saliva to make mud, smears it on the man's eyes, sends him to wash it off and the man receives the gift of sight. The Light of the World has brought literal light and vision to a man whose whole life has been lived in darkness.
The rest of the story is devoted to the Pharisees' wrestling with who Jesus is and how and by whose power he has been able to heal the man. They interrogate those involved, not able to see the light themselves, but only the shadows it casts.
The man born blind knows the limitations that blindness has placed on his life. He is in no doubt about the life-giving gift of sight, even if he does not fully understand where it comes from. As the Pharisees question the man, he explores and clarifies what has happened to him, finding the words to go with his new vision, even as we see the Pharisees floundering around in their wilful blindness.
The man begins by saying that he was healed by the 'man called Jesus' later he describes Jesus as a 'prophet' and at the very end of the story, in conversation with Jesus himself he is able to recognise in Jesus, the Son of Man, the Messiah saying, 'Lord, I believe'. His seeing is clarified and solidified in words of faith and immediately followed by worship.
We are here today to worship, each one of us seen and loved by God. But as in the time of David, many people today are left outside, marginalised and not brought in for consideration when choices are being made. Many do not know that their lives are seen, that they too are part of God's vision. Perhaps the role of the church is to remember that the Lord looks on the heart and to ask, as Samuel did, is there anyone else to consider? Who do we need to bring in from outside? What do we miss out on when we exclude and pass over those who do not meet our human expectations?
Like the man born blind, there are times when each of us is in darkness. Sometimes that darkness is illumined by an encounter with the Light of the World; a word that opens up a new way of seeing, an experience of transcendent beauty, the kindness of a stranger, the knowledge of God's loving presence at a time of great need, hope offered in despair.
And if questioned by the Pharisees in our lives would we find ourselves searching for the words that will express how we have been given new sight? This process of exploring where God is in our lives is theological reflection. It is the attempt to put into words the revelation we have had in order to keep it and allow it to continue to shape us. Sometimes this process is like a slow dawning of light, at other times it streaks across our consciousness like a flash of lightning.
Jesus, the Light of the World shines in our lives. What unfamiliar colours does he want to reveal to us? What words do we use to shape our sight and remove our inability to see? And Jesus the light is also Jesus the word, God's creative, life-giving Word made flesh. The word he speaks is 'love'. It is a word that the darkness cannot overcome.
The Lord be with you.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.