Fourth Sunday in Lent

Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent, Sunday, March 22 2020, 9:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Ephesians 5.8-14; John 9.1-41

“Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

We like to think that we are more sophisticated than the disciples, and to some degree we are, we have some medical understandings that were not available to them. But nevertheless, as we navigate this strange and frightening new reality, there are so many ways that we want to turn it into a narrative about fault, about blame, about personal failing. Most obviously, there is the dreadful wave of anti-Chinese racism, ranging from hateful muttered comments to physical attacks on people of Asian descent. And there are certainly people, and even churches, who are explicitly framing this as punishment for one kind of sin or another.

It is another inflection of the panic-buying and hoarding that is making it hard for essential services to get the supplies they need to operate – the idea that you, yourself, are an innocent who deserves all the hand sanitizer, all the bread, all the safety, while those other people somehow brought this fate on themselves, are not worth consideration, must deal with the consequences.

More subtly, because it is not without truth, there is a temptation to focus entirely on the failings of people in power, and we cannot deny there have been real and spectacular failings, and awful cruelties, on that level, although also some around the world who have stepped up, been calm and informed and determined. We need to identify and call out the failures, we need to demand better, absolutely we do. And advocacy for appropriate responses to this crisis, especially as it affects the most vulnerable, is a real part of our calling. But we cannot settle into resentment as a way of life.

And there is the complicated way in which the absolutely necessary, and even sacred, action of social distancing can make us see others as a threat, as carriers, as the embodiment of this viral sin. It is genuinely hard to maintain the essential, life-saving physical distance without being infected by fear, without starting to imagine other people as the problem. There is a very serious spiritual practice here, to keep that physical distance and continue to understand it, to know it in our being, as an act of love, as the means by which we protect the precious and vulnerable people around us. We must learn to love at a six foot distance, or from isolation, to find ways to communicate across that gap, to make it a space of care and not a space of fear.

And in that practice, we can begin to move towards the reframing which Jesus gives us — “rather, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

The conventional reading of this story would have it that God’s works are revealed in the miraculous healing carried out by Jesus. But that moment, though full of interesting detail, is only a tiny part of this quite long narrative. Certainly, the healing of the man’s condition is meaningful; in a time when disability automatically meant social exclusion, when the only possible livelihood for this man was begging by the side of the road, he is given a chance to live a fuller life. But by far the greater emphasis falls on how he uses this life, sighted or not. He is a participant in his own healing – he must go to the pool and wash, of his own choice and by himself. And the pool, John stresses, is named Sent. In part, perhaps, because the man is sent to the pool; but much more, I think, because when he comes away from the pool, he becomes one who is sent into the world, to tell his own story, to claim his own place.

Indeed, this man, suddenly offered the chance of full social integration by the restoration of his sight, ultimately turns it down, freely and deliberately. He is driven not only back to the margin but out of his community, because he will not lie or prevaricate or be polite or safe. The society which had sent him to beg at the side of the road is not, finally, a society whose vicious games he will choose to play. He is an interesting, and I believe deliberate, contrast to the man healed at the pool of Bethesda, who uses his new ability to walk in order to run straight to the authorities and try to turn Jesus in. This man will not take his healing as an opportunity to move onto the side of the winners and collaborate with social wrong. He will persist in being who he is, and saying what he knows to be true. But he stands on the margins now not alone, but with the one who came to be with us there, God in flesh, Emmanuel.

This miracle is messy, it’s all spit and mud, it is very different from Jesus’s usual pattern of healing with a simple word or touch. For this healing, he gets down, literally, into the dirt, his hands in the messiness of human life. He reaches into our mistakes and our exclusions and our cruelties, and like the creating God of Genesis, he draws out of this mud the shape of humanity. Breakable, flawed, weak and dependent, creatures of need and dust, creatures of glory. In these times when we cannot touch each other, cannot be face to face, the Word made flesh places his hands upon our faces, calls us out, sends us to discover our own truth.

And we must do this now in strange, frightening, lonely circumstances. We must make choices when there are no perfect choices to make. We must prepare ourselves for lives which will not be the same as they have been. This crisis will last not for weeks but for months, and we cannot be sure what the world will look like when it ends.

But even now, even in this season of constraint, we must begin to try to build that new world. We must be the ones who are sent, even when we cannot physically leave our rooms, to speak of compassion and justice. To remind the people who are currently making policy that they must not leave the most marginal and vulnerable behind, to remind them that people who cannot “shelter at home” because they have no homes are walking these streets unable even to find a place to sit down, hungry, in pain, on the knife-edge of desperation, and decisions must be made in a way which will keep these people safe as well. Remind them, remind everyone, that the health of each one of us depends on the health of all.

Remember, too, when you or someone else goes out to buy essential goods, that the people working in retail now are, effectively, risking their lives for all our sakes, and that they are often paid less than survival wages and treated as among the least valuable workers. Tip them generously if you can, and lobby for them to be recognized and paid as they deserve.

On a small personal scale, every day, be kind to each other. Care gently for the people in your home, if there are other people in your home. Keep promises, spoken or implicit, in whatever way you can. Buy groceries for your neighbour. Leave flowers for someone working to sustain this sorry world. Phone people, write to them, cherish them. For whether it is this virus or something else, we are all only temporarily here together. Honour our fragile, dependent lives. And on a larger scale, work in every way you can for a society which is built on those same principles.

There is grief, and there is loss. This is the desert, and a long desert journey, and we cannot deny that, or pretend otherwise. We have all lost so many things dear to us, and do not know when, or even whether, they may return. Nothing will be the same. And on this Sunday called rejoice, it is hard to construct something upon which to rejoice. But over the next few weeks, we will move from the pool called Sent to the heart of our story, and be told once again that we are brought into the life of the one who wept at Gethsemane, who lost everything that could possibly be lost – and came again into a world forever changed. We may not be able to see the shape of the whole story in our lives. But there is song, and there is beauty, and there is faith. And in this faith we must walk, ash on our foreheads and mud on our eyes, that the works of God may be made known in us.