9 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We[a] must work the works of him who sent me[b] while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus[c] to be the Messiah[d] would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”[e] 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir?[f] Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord,[g] I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
Traditionally, the fourth Sunday in Lent has been termed Gaudete Sunday, Joy Sunday. It is meant to be a respite from the heavy solemnity of this season, with all of its reflections on our mortality, sin and the depths of God’s love in Jesus to overcome all of that.
But there is no joy in Mudville, Farmville or any other “villes” these days. The coronavirus has pretty much taken whatever joy we could have found in Lent and has really given it a violent shake.
Rather than joy, our days are full of social distancing, washing our hands – often – for at least 20 seconds, staying at home, and wondering where this bug will hit next, and when will our lives get back to some sense of normalcy. Some of us have taken great relief that it has not hit Farmville hard yet, but we know that it has a history of coming in quick and hard. But for others of us, it is thought that this is just another bug and people are making too much of it because the media blows it up. Everyone is just overreacting, they say.
I hope they are right. I hope all this is is just one great big case of overreacting. Even though I am a former media person myself I hope it is all just a hoax produced by the media. I hope no one gets sick, no lives are lost, no one carelessly passes on a fatal bug to those they love. I hope no one winds up in the hospital or worse is denied medical care because they wound up on the wrong side of a lottery to determine who gets care and who doesn’t, who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t, who gets a hospital bed and who doesn’t, because there is not enough space of equipment.
I hope I am overreacting. I hope that a year from now we can all have a big laugh and shake our heads at how foolish we were.
But something deep within tells me that won’t happen; that this is for real; that this bug is every bit as nasty as the experts say it is; and that the precautions we take today will help to slow it so that our medical research people can have the time to develop new strategies for keeping as many people alive as possible. Part of that voice deep within comes from being married to a health care provider who has shared with me how dangerous this bug is and how important it is to follow through on the precautions; not just for myself, but for those I might unwittingly contaminate; or for not wanting to spread the virus so as to flood our health care systems to the point where that system and those who caringly and lovingly work there will be overcome with too many needs. I have been saying for the last few weeks that Lent is a great teacher that this journey of life in the context of faith is not about us. I think the coronavirus in its own way is teaching us the same thing.
To do our part in fighting off this bug we – as well as every other faith community around the world – have had to make several tough decisions around here. Our elders struggled mightily with calling off worship for the next few weeks. But since most of our members are older, and the most vulnerable to this virus’ devastation, we felt this was the most responsible and faithful thing to do. We felt that to disregard the opinions of those health officials who have studied the effects of this bug would be neglecting Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves, to make that love a living and visible demonstration of the love we feel for the God who made us all.
It‘s been especially difficult to do that in this season, and I mean that for more than the postponement of the start of baseball season or the cancelling of the NCAA basketball tournament. It is Lent, the days leading up to Easter. The very real possibility of our having to call off our Easter service, the high point of our liturgical year, is real. But as several of my colleagues have noted, this might be a blessing for us in that it calls us to remember that first Easter, when there was a small, intimate group at the empty tomb. No processionals, no Easter lilies, no fancy clothes marked that first Easter. It might give us a chance to harken back to when it all began, and how the power of that day can still transform us.
But I am getting ahead of myself. For this morning we have this long and wonderfully crafted story of the man born blind, and the resistance he received from his healing. Talk about transformation! And yet that transformation has all kinds of skeptics, just like those who think this virus is no big deal, that they will never catch it, or they won’t give it to anyone. Like we can really tell a germ what to do.
It starts off, and has within it, an extended discussion of who sins, and how do we know it. At least, that’s the question for those who are not in on what is really going on. Who sinned, the disciples want to know, this man or his parents? Who is to blame for his being born blind? We always want to know that. Who is to blame for this tragedy? Who is to blame for this action, or this inaction? Who is to blame for this virus? All kinds of people blamed the people of China. Certainly no country is perfect, but to blame an entire nation of innocent people who have had to suffer immensely is showing that we are following the mindless legions of bigotry rather than being standard bearers of love and compassion.
That theme goes throughout the whole story, but on the lips of those religious leaders who should have known better. But this healing occurred on a Sabbath, so the one who did it must be sinful. Someone must be to blame, even when things go miraculously well. Keep in mind that for John’s community this story is a fresh telling of what was happening in their own lives. Many of John’s friends and family had been tossed out of their synagogues for believing in Jesus as the Messiah, so this story of parents who are afraid of authorities, and a man being tossed out of his religious community, was fresh for them. It is also why John’s gospel needs to be read with care; it is not an excuse to bash our Jewish friends. It was written in a particular time for a particular community.
And yet there is that theme that does touch us: Who is to blame? And who are the people born blind in our time? And who really has eyes to see, anyway? Are we not seeing those who are most in need? Who are the ones who are most vulnerable? Who are the ones we do not see? One of my most respected reflectors of Bible passages and our culture is Jill Duffield, editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, and she noted:
“As we church people seek to be faithful in these tumultuous times, the questions we must ask ourselves are: Who is the most vulnerable? Who is the most easily disregarded in our community? Is it international students remaining on mostly empty university campuses? Homeless children in school districts now closed? People working in the gig economy without paid leave, health insurance, and now much needed income? Health care professionals who are exhausted and stretched (and I might add, inadequately equipped for such a crisis)? Those who clean the spaces we want to know are safe (like those who clean the aisles in Walmart between 11 p.m., and six in the morning)? Workers dependent on the travel industry? The list is long and differs from one community to the next (okay Farmville, who are the most vulnerable in our community?). What is consistent no matter where we are is the reality that this illness is indiscriminate. We are inextricably connected to, and dependent upon, each other…
“Can disciples of Jesus stop looking for ways to blame people for their painful circumstances and instead look for ways to reveal the work of God in their lives, in our communities, in our world? If ever there was a time to come together as the church and unabashedly show others the healing love of Jesus, this is it. As we prayerfully discern how to do ministry virtually and remotely, let’s remember those for whom isolation and social distance has been the norm, not the exception. Let us see them and ask God to reveal to us how we can extend the love of Jesus Christ.”
Another of my spiritual mentors, Richard Rohr, commented this past week that maybe the big thing about all of this is to pay attention to the question: What is God trying to say? Maybe God is trying to say: get over yourselves – individuals or churches who insist on doing their own thing, or on staying open when that is not helpful. Keep your brothers and sisters at home and out of harm’s way. Maybe God is saying take better care of earth. If you hadn’t burned down acres of rain forest maybe these bugs would have some other place to go than your lungs. Maybe God is saying pay attention to those around you; see – really see – those you may not normally see. Even when we are social distancing, we can still see others, as we go out to get groceries, on our way to the doctors or the drug stores, or on the television as we share the suffering of the world as we all go through this time of keeping space but sharing love.
One of the ways we are doing this in Farmville is through a new organization called Farmville Cares. It is a collection of church leaders and nonprofit groups who are seeking ways to help the marginalized – the elderly, the poor, the homeless, impoverished children, the elderly – to navigate these turbulent waters in which we have found ourselves. It is still in its earliest stages, “flying the plane while putting it together,” as one of those leaders put it. But it is a sign that even though we are sequestered at home, even though we practice social distancing, we can still see the people born blind, the people who have lost their way, those who need a reminder that they are not alone.
In the midst of social distancing and being apart, there was a beautiful video making its way around Facebook last week. It was of a choral piece written by Pepper Choplin, author of “Angels Are Making Their Rounds,” an Advent/Christmas piece that we sing around here, usually during our Lessons and Carols Service. It’s called “We Are Not Alone,” and in the video a choir at a Mennonite church starts off singing in their sanctuary apart and at a distance. But they move and come together as they sing, “We are not alone. God is with us.”
I think that’s a song for our time. Even in our isolation, we are not alone. God is with us. And God is giving us eyes to see those who need us to be the love of Jesus Christ for them. Paying less attention to who is to blame and more to what God is saying to us may we see, and reach out. Amen.