So That God’s Works Might Be Revealed in Us
My friends, we are walking gingerly through some strange times now. And it’s happening fast — our understanding changes every day, with new closures, new safety measures, and new counts of those suffering from COVID19. Our lives have changed quickly. How many of us could have predicted on Shrove Tuesday — the day before we began our Lenten season — that we would be saying Morning Prayer together by Facebook Live today?
While we began investigating plans to stream worship about a month ago, it was only a backup plan — to be sure we had thought through the possibilities of quarantine or self-isolation. And it was only last week, on Friday afternoon, that we decided in response to Governor Raimondo’s press conference that we would cancel in-person worship and meet virtually as we are today. The images we see on TV and the internet can be really frightening, and when we see the numbers of those affected by the virus rising, and count the cases inside Rhode Island, it’s easy to feel even more anxious.
As we feel more anxious, other responses can flow from that. We worry about food scarcity — or hand sanitizer, Lysol, or toilet paper scarcity — and respond by hoarding supplies. We can be critical of how some leaders are handling the crisis, and watch some blame each other for the pandemic’s origin, or its quick spread. We can blame others for traveling, or for not traveling — or taking the crisis too seriously, or not seriously enough.
Who caused this global pandemic?
Whose fault made it spread?
Where did it originate?
Who should be blamed for this crisis? These are anxious times.
Lessons from Jesus’ Time
Our lesson from the gospel of John gives us great insight into these anxious questions. During Jesus’ time also, politics were tense. And as anxious as many of us feel now — about the economy, about our jobs, about the food supply, about our bills, about our access to medical care and our ability to pay for it — just think how it might be for the man born blind in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time. I’ve walked for hours at a time in the narrow, winding streets of Jerusalem’s Old City — through the Armenian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Christian Quarter. Up on the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock is — and down to the Pool of Siloam, near the ancient City of David.
The streets are twisted and cobblestoned — with sudden ascents and sharp curves — and don’t follow any grid pattern I’ve ever been able to figure out. There are steps at odd intervals — with little stone wedges— about a cart’s wheel apart. This is so you could push a cart (or these days, even drive a miniature truck) up and down the steepest ascents in the Old City, winding from the left side of the narrow street to the right, tacking back and forth across the foot traffic. These little stone wedges are really handy for transporting baked goods or pottery — or piles of sandals in every size — from one end of the city to the other.
Unless you’re distracted and not looking down. Even more so if you’re blind — even if you’ve been blind from birth, and grew up in Jerusalem, and know the streets really, really well. Then these little stone wedges are so many random stumbling blocks that can send you headlong onto the cobblestones.
So remember our lesson from the gospel of John today. Jesus is walking along and sees a man who was blind from birth. Now, John’s gospel doesn’t say this, but it’s likely that this conversation took place up on the Temple Mount — outside the Temple — at the highest point in Jerusalem.
That’s where Jesus and his disciples were likely to gather — teaching and preaching — and in John’s gospel, they had been up on the Temple Mount just before our passage today. The Temple is also where a man born blind would go to pray — for help, or food, or sight. OR — and this is important — the Temple is where a man born blind would go to make a sin offering, because in ancient cultures, physical disabilities — even blindness — were believed to be caused by sin. That’s where people thought disability or illness came from. It must be someone’s fault, and a place to lay blame.
When Jesus sees the man born blind, his disciples asked him,
Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?
Jesus answered, Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. Then Jesus spat on the ground and made mud with his saliva. He spread the mud on the man’s eyes — a poultice of spit and covenant land.
Then Jesus said to him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam. John’s gospel helpfully adds the explanation here that Siloam means sent. That little explanation is really important. It’s important because it cues us that something big is going on here. The word sent tells us that WHERE Jesus told the man to go is important. We need this clue because the big reveal — the punchline here — is short, and without this clue, we might miss what has really happened. Here are the only words we get: Then he went and washed and came back able to see. Ten words in English — 7 in the original Greek. That makes it sound so easy!
But the man born blind had just walked — with mud in his eyes — from the highest point in the city down to the Pool of Siloam, in the ancient City of David, which was outside the walled City of Jerusalem, even in Jesus’ time — through the twisted, cobblestoned streets, down the steep ascents, with steps at irregular intervals, most of them with stone wedges for carts to be wheeled up and down, transporting goods to the shops, or tripping anyone who isn’t looking down. (OR anyone who is blind from birth and walking through the city with his eyes smeared with mud). Even today — even with good vision — it’s one of the longest and trickiest walks in the Old City. So living and walking as Jesus told him to do enables the man born blind to do an amazing new thing: He went and washed and came back able to see.
Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?
Jesus answered, Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.
Who caused this global pandemic? Whose fault made it spread?
Where did it originate?
Who should be blamed?
I certainly don’t know, and I don’t think it matters, other than as a way to better understand how to help those who are ill, develop a vaccine, and prevent the virus’s spread. But I do know God’s works have been revealed in the world’s response to the pandemic. We’re learning new ways to be together. Some of us are Zooming, some of us are Hanging Out on Google. Some of us are FaceTiming as easily as we used to make a telephone call. And as we’ve learned more about how we can stay well and virus-free, we’re figuring out how to be together by being apart.
Lots of things have changed for us just in this past week. And the news can be frightening. We can certainly stay busy counting all the things we can’t do now, or that aren’t safe for us, but I don’t think we’ll be very happy doing that. But when, through our imagination and creativity, we find new ways of being together, God’s works are revealed in us.
Out on the streets, on the news, and all over the internet, people are doing are doing amazingly kind and good things every day. Who has seen Christmas lights going up in windows and yards, to bring light and cheer and fun to others? Yo-Yo Ma, celebrated cellist, has posted videos of himself on his Facebook page, playing the cello in his office, using the hashtag #SongsofComfort. Mary Chapin Carpenter is posting a series of “Songs from Home,” playing her guitar in a homemade video from her kitchen, with her golden retriever Angus walking in and out of the frame. Facebook is covered with online services of eucharist, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Compline — from the professional equipment and AV staff of the National Cathedral to a single priest with an iPhone and a selfie stick, offering prayers from home with a toddler clinging to her leg.
What we’re going through now is really tough. And scary. And it’s only going to get harder as we’re in isolation longer to try to slow the spread of this virus. And we can keep ourselves occupied by blaming others, or worrying about things we can’t control.
God Shows Up When We Respond to Adversity
But God shows up when we respond to adversity with innovation, and with life-giving choices of patience and generosity. God’s work is revealed in us when we push through our fear and connect with each other — when we Zoom, FaceTime, or Hang Out, or make a call on a good old fashioned landline. However coronavirus is transmitted, we know that we can’t catch it by WiFi, cellular data, or even through a curlicue phone cord.
God shows up when we check in with each other to be sure that we have groceries, prescriptions, help in the yard, or just a friend to talk to. All of this is loving, nurturing, mothering activity, done by mothers, regardless of their actual age, gender or biological role. And happy Mothering Sunday to all who love and serve that way.
Who sinned that we are in self-isolation today and for at least the near future? No one sinned, Jesus tells us. DO something about it.
When we use our imagination and creativity — and put aside our anxiety and our fear — we can sing from our balconies to each other across the social distance like our quarantined neighbors in Italy.
When love and innovation find ways to be together by staying apart, God’s work is revealed in us. Amen