Today’s Gospel reading is once again from the Gospel of John, and Jesus is back in Jerusalem. He is walking through the city where his presence has stirred up controversy. People have heard of the miracles he has been performing. Some say he is a prophet, perhaps even the Messiah. Others think he has a demon. It seems everyone knows who he is, except for this blind man. At this time, most Jews assume that disability is caused by sin. This man was born blind, so either his parents did something wrong, or he did. Either way, he’s unclean, and he’s trouble.
But Jesus doesn’t see it that way. He’s been telling people that as the Messiah, he is the Light of the world. So, he decides to prove it by bringing light into this man’s life. Jesus takes some mud, places it in the man’s eye sockets, and after a wash in a nearby pool, the man comes back with working eyes.
This kind of miracle would seem to be good proof that there’s a messiah in town, but the next part of the story shows it isn’t that simple. The religious officials are incensed. They clearly feel there are rules and regulations about this kind of thing, and this man’s restored sight does not fit. First, they question the evidence – this can’t really be a man who was born blind. Next , they denounce Jesus – he’s no Messiah, and if he were, he would know it is unlawful to cure on a Sabbath. Then, when the blind man asks why they are getting so upset about such a holy, compassionate act, the officials turn on the blind man and denounce him as a sinner who has no business telling them about holy matters. He is dismissed by the officials and even his parents.
The curing of this man’s blindness has served as a flashlight into the shadows of the religious order of the day. The religious officials have a system that they are so committed to upholding that they cannot accept this new evidence of a holy act. They feel they know how the world works, and any evidence that doesn’t fit into that system will be denounced and rejected. The system is more importance than the facts.
Have you ever been in that situation? Where something new appears and it is so different from what you expect that you just can’t process it? For parents, and grandparents, this kind of cognitive dissonance can be a problem when a child announces that they are trans. For parents, this can be the shock of a lifetime.
They have spent this child’s entire life helping them learn the ways of society, and that includes how to be a boy or a girl. It starts early. Usually, our first question when a baby is born is whether it is a boy or a girl. We do this because our entire society is defined by gender, and we want our kids to fit in. And that takes a lot of training. Kids need to learn how to dress, how to behave. Toys and clothes are bought for Christmas and birthdays that often have some kind of gender identity tied to them. Trucks for boys, dolls for girls. Parents are the ones who look at their children and see themselves reflected. We are reminded of our own childhoods, remember when we were boys and girls. We encourage our kids to do some of the same things we did as children, and those activities come with gender expectations, too. We want what’s best for our kids, and helping them learn the ways of their gender is part of that.
And it’s not just parents. Grandparents and friends are part of this system, as are teachers and other role models. Studies have found that parents unconsciously speak differently to boys and girls, using more words about emotions with little girls than with little boys. So, when a child comes out saying that they do not feel comfortable in their assigned role, that can be quite a shock. Parents are faced with the possibility that they don’t really know their child very well, and that they have been wrong about them. That hurts. But so does the realization that perhaps they have been forcing an unwanted gender identity on their child, for their entire life.
A gender identity that has been causing their child pain, every single day. That is a terrible realization, and often generates a lot of resentment on both sides. The child may see their parents as the enemy, and the parents may feel angry, guilty, sad and betrayed, often all at once.
How parents deal with this is critical, and it often does not go well. Like the religious authorities in today’s reading, some parents may simply reject the child’s identity. You’re wrong. This is a phase. Denial is easier than acceptance. Parents can also react with anger, blaming the child for humiliating the parents. Don’t you dare dress like that in public, what will people think? No child of mine is going out like that. When a child comes out, a light is shone into a household’s assumptions about sexuality and gender. All sorts of unspoken understandings come out into the open, often in loud arguments. Misunderstandings abound.
Our entire society has been built on the assumption that there are only two genders, and that they align with the sex we are born with. Sex is destiny. But the truth is that gender was never that simple. There have always been people who felt they had a different gender than the genitalia they were born with. This appears to be a human universal. We encourage girls to be compliant, whereas we tolerate and even encourage boys to be more assertive, to “act like a man.” Even as adults, women in meetings will often couch their statements in gentler ways than men do. Our entire society expects gender to define how we act in the world. How we dress, how we act, even how we ask questions.
Here’s a map that shows cultures all over the world which recognize gender diversity that goes beyond simply equating male and female to birth sex. In some cultures there are as many as five genders.  In the West, we arranged our society according to the biological strengths of each sex in a farming economy. Up until a few centuries ago, men dealt with the animals, and pulled the plow. That took a lot of strength. High infant mortality rates meant that women in centuries past spent most of their adult years being pregnant.
There were always people who did not feel comfortable in those roles, but they kept silent, or they fled to the cities where people could make money without being tied to reproduction or physical labour. Most major cities have always had a queer quarter or underground society. There is nothing new about drag or queer culture.
But recently, our society has changed. Our society made a conscious choice to embrace labour saving technology to improve our lives. We have invented machines that can do the washing, the digging, and the mining. Farmers no longer have to pull plows or “man handle” oxen. Instead, there are machines for that – tractors, combine machines, harvesting machines. Most people in Canada live in cities, and over half of the working population spends most of the day typing on a computer. That’s why we could work from home during the lockdown. Those jobs do not require much physical strength. If you can type and hold a phone, you’re set. Those jobs don’t require gender, either. This, combined with better birth control, has made strict gender roles pretty much irrelevant at work in a lot of modern society. And our kids have grown up in this new age.
In today’s scripture story, Jesus cures the blind man in a curious way. He doesn’t just wave his hand or pronounce the words “you are healed.” Instead, he takes some mud and pushes it into the man’s eye sockets. This is no accident. Jesus is recalling the story of the creation in Genesis. God scooped up some mud and fashioned the first human being. By using mud, Jesus is completing the creation of this man, giving him the eyes that were lacking when he was born. Jesus tells the disciples he is doing this to make a point. He wants all of us to see how systems can become so entrenched that when something new comes along, they would rather reject it than change the system.
For people who come out, to themselves, and then others, they feel like their creation is being completed. They are finally starting to feel whole, like their real selves. And going public is an important part of that. To be able to live as they were always meant to live, dressing the way they want, loving who they want. Their being is finally coming into its own, as it was always meant to be.
Our society is still struggling with this. In the United States, after a period of understanding, a backlash is in full swing.
States like Florida have passed laws so teachers in schools cannot even admit that homosexuality and trans is a possibility. School libraries are being closed until every book that makes mention of LGBTQ and Trans identity can be removed. 24 other states have bills that are being considered that will shut down education and libraries from being able to talk about trans and queer identities in schools.
In Ontario, after some controversy, the school curriculum does allow discussion of gender identity in grade eight, including transgender identities.  Our society has come a long way in recent years, but there are still people who would like to keep the system the way it was, and to actively deny and denounce people who don’t fit into the boy-girl dichotomy.
Many of the people behind these movements are Christians. But I think they have missed the message Jesus is preaching. Jesus calls for systems to change so that they can allow absolutely everyone to flourish. Not just the majority. Over the past three weeks, we have seen Jesus tell a religious leader that to be fully alive, you need to be born again, you need to learn to think and live in a radically different way. Last week Jesus made an apostle out of a woman who was considered sinful by her town due to her sexual history with six men. This week, Jesus makes an apostle out of a disabled man. Jesus wants every kind of person to be free. Every kind of sexuality, every kind of ability and disability, every kind of person, powerful or oppressed. Every system that denies the humanity of all has to be rethought, reshaped, re-created. Our creation as a society is still incomplete as long as we think in terms of us and them. We are all God’s children, and God calls us to be reborn, to change our ways so every kind of person is included. Not as special interest groups or minorities, but as fellow people, made by the same God, people who have all been called into the Light.
 https://time.com/3581587/mothers-emotion-words-girls-boys-surrey-studymothers-encourage-emotions-more-in-daughters-over-sons-study-says/  https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/the-way-we-talk-to-girls-is-different-from-the-way-we-talk-to-boys-20170123-gtwwm4.html  This is called “uptalk”: https://www.inhersight.com/blog/culture-and-professionalism/uptalk  https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/content/two-spirits_map-html/  55% in the US: https://www.bls.gov/news.release/ciuaw.nr0.htm; Majority of jobs are now what used to be called “white collar” jobs: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/employment-white-collar.  37% of the Canadian workforce worked from home during the May 2020 lockdown. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/36-28-0001/2022008/article/00001-eng.htm  The so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida: https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/florida-don-t-say-gay-bill-desantis-1.6400087; 24 other states have similar bills under consideration, 14 since January: https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/which-states-are-considering-dont-say-gay-bills-and-where-they-stand/2023/02  In Florida: https://popular.info/p/florida-book-bans-are-not-a-hoax; These challenges are happening all over the US, prompting the American Library Association to provide confidential assistance to libraries and librarians all over the country to keep the books on the shelves: https://www.ala.org/advocacy/statement-regarding-censorship  https://globalnews.ca/news/5792416/ontario-new-sex-ed-curriculum/