Sunday, March 22, 2020

March 22, 2020 - Lent 4A

In the name of God Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
            Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” And do we ever need some light right now. One piece of advice for preachers is to not open a sermon by digging a hole so deep that you can’t get out of it by the end of the sermon. Well, I didn’t dig the hole that we’re in, but it’s certainly a deep one. And to be clear, I’m not going to pretend that I can fix this, but I am hoping to point to the Light of the world that has come to us in Jesus.

            What makes the coronavirus pandemic so difficult is that it’s not only a health crisis. Yes, we want to stay healthy, we don’t want to overload our healthcare system, we don’t want to spread this virus any further. And that’s a big enough challenge. But there’s more. This is also a pandemic of fear, and justifiable fear. To be clear, acting out of fear in selfish ways is not a good thing. But this is a scary situation. There’s never been a pandemic in the age of technology where every morning we can wake up and know how many new cases there are. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for technology and science, but you’ve heard the phrase “paralysis by analysis?” Well, we’re there and the fear is overwhelming for a lot of us. Life at times seems normal and at times seems unimaginable, it sometimes feels like we’re overreacting and underreacting at the same time.
            There’s also a pandemic of grief and disappointment over the fact that we can’t worship in person for at least another two months, that we can’t hang out with friends in a coffee shop or restaurant, that proms are being canceled, that graduating seniors had their high school or college careers end abruptly with no chance for traditions they were looking forward to. It hurts, I know. In the clergy vesting room, I’ve got a graduation gown that I bought to wear at Sewanee in May that will go unworn. Vacations have been canceled, babies are going unvisited by grandparents, weddings are being postponed, jobs and income are being lost, and sadly, some businesses will end up closing.
            We’re also left grieving the undeniable fact that we all have limits. We know there is no plan to make things return to normal tomorrow. We are realizing that we are not in control. We have come face to face with our vulnerability. A few weeks ago, we gathered on Ash Wednesday, we were reminded that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But if we’re honest with ourselves, for most of us, that was an abstract idea. But now we realize that our vulnerability means that death could come much sooner than we had imagined. Yes, we are good about saying that we trust our lives to God, but now we’re thinking more and more about how we trust our deaths to God as well.
            We’re also dealing with a pandemic of loneliness. Even before the coronavirus came along, many Americans reported feeling disconnected and lonely. Social distancing and essentially being mostly quarantined doesn’t help with that. There’s boredom and uncertainty and it’s taking a toll on us all. And though we are alone more often, I want you to know that you aren’t alone in Christ. I’m thinking of you all daily and can be available for phone calls and video chats if you just need to talk or want someone to pray with.
            I want to share with you some words from St. Paul. They aren’t in the readings for today, but we need to hear them today. From chapter 8 of Romans, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us… What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?... It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
     ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
      we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, [nor Coronavirus, nor economic downturn, nor social distancing,] nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
My brothers and sisters, Christ died for you, Christ was risen for you, and Christ will come again for us all. There is a lot to grieve, so be gentle with yourselves. Know that no one knows what we’re doing, none of us have lived through anything like this. Though this virus is reminding us of our limits, our faith reminds us that God is limitless in his capacity to save, to redeem, and to love. Grace and mercy abound because Jesus is the Light of the world.
            As we heard back in the beginning of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” In his encounter with this man who had been blind since birth, we’re starting to get a better sense of what it means to say that Jesus is this Light of the world.
            The world began in darkness. Genesis tells us that “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” These two passages, John 1 and Genesis 1 reassure us that God works with the raw materials of darkness, uncertainty, and chaos to bring light and life to all. God knows how to handle the chaos we’re experiencing. This darkness is embodied in the man who could not see – for him, it was all dark. Sometimes it seems to be the same for us – that because of sin, death, doubt, and fear we can’t see our way out of the darkness.
            Jesus’ disciples ask him a common question, “Who sinned that this man was born blind?” Notice that Jesus is having none that question. The grammar of our translation betrays what’s going on here. Ancient Greek manuscripts didn’t contain verses or punctuation, so sometimes, when we add those in, we can change the meaning of a text. Some scholars suggest that Jesus’ answer is best read as, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned (period). He was born blind (period). But so that God’s works might be revealed in him (comma), we must work the works of him who sent me.” What this makes clear is that the Incarnation of Jesus into the world is about showing the glory and power of God to save us. The man was born blind because that’s how it happened, not because God was punishing anyone.
            Notice that Jesus doesn’t talk about sins, repentance, or forgiveness before healing the man. He puts some mud on his eyes and tells him to then go wash it off. And he’s healed. The great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth wrote, “The people who Jesus heals are not sinners, but sufferers. Jesus doesn’t start with their past and then interpret their tragic present in light of it, rather from their present he creates a new future for them.” You see, the thing is that Jesus isn’t concerned about worthiness, because none of us are worthy, rather he’s concerned about neediness, because all of us are needy. Remember this during the coronavirus. This virus is not God’s revenge because of anything. Yes, there’s a chance the virus started in another species and came to infect humans because of what we’ve done to the environment and natural habitats. But that’s the cause and effect of human sin, not divine punishment. Just as God did not cause this man to be born blind, nor did God cause the coronavirus. And just as God’s glory shined through this man’s life, so too will God’s grace and glory break forth again and again in our world.
            What this story in John is doing is to help us open our eyes so that we’re able to see that the light is shining. In John’s telling of the Gospel, there are no miracles, but there are signs. And this miraculous healing is a sign that points us towards the living, loving, and liberating God. The Pharisees in this story weren’t ready to see the light, and so they didn’t. This is why Jesus says that those who think they can see might, actually, be blind. They got stuck on the “how” of the healing. But “how” is the wrong place to focus; instead, it’s the “why” that Jesus points us towards. The why of this healing is that God loves us, that God wants us to know that through Jesus, all will be redeemed.
When it comes to recounting what happened to him, the healed man has a very simple response, “I don’t how he did it, why he did it on the Sabbath, or whether or not he’s a sinner, all I know is that I was blind, but now I see.” Sometimes that’s the best posture for faith, especially when things are difficult. I heard the story of a group of choir members who were at a party and the topic of faith came up. What made the conversation unique was a few choir members were atheists, but were a paid singers in the choir. While there was a lot of back-and-forth about questions of faith, eventually someone asked Fred about what he thought and he said, “Well, all I know is that Jesus was killed, and then three days later he was alive again, and I’ve got to deal with what that means for my life.” Everyone was silenced by his humble and sincere faith.
My friends, in these days ahead not many of us will have answers or be able to answer the question of how we fix the financial market, how we stop the virus from spreading, or how we keep our sanity amidst all of these changes. And even if we get some answers, we might not like them. But what I can tell you is that God’s love abides. I can tell you that Jesus is the Light of the world, and even after the darkest of days, the sun will rise. I can tell you that, in the words of CS Lewis, “I believe in Christ as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” In the midst of the darkness of this pandemic, there’s a lot of light in the tireless work of those in the medical field, in the compassion of school staffs still caring for their students from afar, in the generosity of the public to support small businesses and non-profits, in the tenderness with which we are caring for one another from a distance. My prayer for us all is that our hearts be warmed as the Light of the world shines into them, that our affections burn with love for those in need, and that our lives might be mirrors which reflect the grace of God in our world. Jesus Christ is the Light of the World, and so all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

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