Year A - Lent 4 - John 9:1-41
March 22, 2020
Welcome to the not so normal new normal of life lived in the time of COVID-19. I have found it interesting the different ways in which people see this whole thing, and it is obvious that we don't always see things the same way.
COVID-19. How do we see God in all this? How do we see others? How do we see ourselves living faithfully as disciples of Jesus Christ in this time? Are we looking at all of this through the lens of faith? Are we turned in upon ourselves, looking out for number one? Have we lost sight of our neighbor in need?
It is easier than you think to lose our vision.
I must have been about 14 at that moment when I made my first jump off a ramp on a stingray bicycle. My friends, Bean and Becker, were getting set to test their new ramp and must have seen an opportunity coming as I approached. Of course, I eagerly agreed to their offer to fly through the air. So, they gave their best expert advice and I positioned myself and the trusty stingray bike on the sidewalk some 40 yards from the ramp. I began my approach. Bean and Becker, the experts, shouted again and again that I was going much slower than required. I sped up considerably. The shouting changed to frantic calls that I was going far faster than needed. I hit the ramp and soared. The bike soared above me out of reach. I landed on my shoulder and neck and then the bike on top of me. My friends rushed to the crash site, looked down on me, blocking out the sun. What do you think they saw? Well, it was nothing to do with my broken body.
Bean: Wow. That was so cool. Let me run home and get mom's camera and you can do it again.
Becker: You really got some air on that one. But we were looking for distance, not height.
Bean: Try going a little slower this time.
Becker: We told you to slow down.
My good friends failed to see that my collarbone had snapped in two places, turned in such a way as to bulge out, pressing against my trendy Hang Ten t-shirt. As my head cleared, I ordered Bean to run get his mother and Becker to go tell my mother. In short order I was taken to the hospital and had surgery to repair my shattered collarbone. Over the next several weeks I would, with each visit from Bean and Becker, call out the two of them for their epic failure to see and respond appropriately while peering down at me at the crash site.
What do we see in these times as we look around us? Perhaps our Gospel reading for today will give us fresh vision.
I will call him Joe as the text does not name him. Joe was born physically blind, which meant he faced tremendous challenges in life. Lots of people saw him and his blindness in less than flattering terms. I think they saw all sorts of things in Joe but failed to truly see him. Despite his physical blindness he seems to have had pretty sharp spiritual vision. Then Jesus saw him and everything changed.
Why was Joe born blind? The explanation seems to be that either he sinned or his parents sinned. The only question seems to be who did the sinning. Sin must therefore be the explanation to all human suffering.
Okay, I can identify sin, wrong-doing, or bad choices in life for some occurrences of suffering. Excessive drinking leading to liver cirrhosis. Gambling that is out of control leading to bankruptcy. That kind of cause and effect is easy to do. But sweeping generalizations about connections between sin and suffering are dangerous and idiotic.
When we make sweeping generalizations about sin and suffering that says a great deal about our shaky theological way of looking at things: (1) We believe that God responds to our sin mostly by inflicting suffering; (2) We believe that God also causes suffering in order to demonstrate proof of God's divinity; (3) We believe that victims of suffering are sinful; and (4) We believe that we who are well - by whatever definition - are not sinful.
Jesus, who sinned, this man or his parents? Thank goodness Jesus had perfect spiritual vision. No one was to blame. Not Joe or his parents or even God for that matter. Quit looking to blame. Instead, try looking at Joe as a beloved child of God. Try looking for what God can do ... is doing through Jesus Christ.
Joe was born blind and God, in the person of Jesus, did something about it. Jesus saw him as a beloved child of God in need. Jesus saw him in his need and did something about it. Jesus miraculously gave the man the gift of physical vision ... and in doing so, magnified his spiritual vision.
Notice how Joe reacted to the healing work of Jesus. He boldly told the story of his healing, giving credit to Jesus, even when he came under fire for doing so. He not only identified Jesus as the man who healed him but, also came, in the end to identify him as Lord and worship him. Maybe we should call Joe, not the man born blind but, rather the man who saw everything.
COVID-19. The life changes we are in the midst of are difficult and disruptive and dangerous. Can we shift our focus and look at this through faith? Bad things can happen to good people. God does not desire human suffering. Looking at all this and trying to blame the victims or blame God is pointless and wrong. Looking for God and what God is doing in the midst of all this is where our focus needs to be ... on those who are suffering in body, mind, or spirit and how we can help.
Look at all of this through the eyes of faith. God sees us as God's beloved children. God sees our suffering. God goes beyond merely seeing us to bring healing and wholeness, comfort and peace, hope and strength, life and salvation. And God is at work on our behalf, not because of our goodness but, rather on the basis of God's gracious love.
You see it, with your eyes of faith. God is at work through doctors, nurses, lab techs, and everyone associated with the healthcare industry. God is at work through those who stock shelves, provide cleaning services, cook food, keep law and order, etc. God is at work through all kinds of people as people see their neighbor in need and bring God's healing love to bear. God is at work wherever there is brokenness in body, mind or spirit.
You see our calling in these times, with your eyes of faith. Because of what God has done, is doing, and promises yet to do, we therefore, in faith, see our neighbor in need through the eyes of Jesus and respond to our neighbor in need by joining Jesus in the restoration of the world. Using the gifts, skills, and abilities God has given us, we respond by seeing and acting in love. Through prayer. By serving. By connecting in new and creative ways. God grant us wisdom, courage and compassion to join in this work.
Year A - Lent 5
John 11:1-45, Ezekiel 37:1-14 & Psalm 130
March 29, 2020
The psalmist cries out, "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord."
Crying out to God is what we people of faith most often do in times of personal, family, and even national tragedy.
In the time of Ezekiel, the chosen people of God had been defeated, removed from their homeland, and forced to live in exile in a foreign land. They had about as much chance of returning home as they did putting flesh on a skeleton and calling it to life. Their pleas for help are numerous and cover decades.
Hundreds of years later, Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, and close friend of Jesus died after an illness. Jesus had been summoned to help but, tarried a bit, and Lazarus died, was placed in a tomb, and had been there for days by the time Jesus finally showed. He arrived to find a multitude of mourners and two sisters overcome by grief. They cried out, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."
Now we find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. As of the time of writing of this sermon we have 550,00 documented cases with 25,000 deaths worldwide. In our country we have 82,000 cases and 1,200 deaths. I saw on the news last night that we now have a documented case of COVID-19 here in Shelby County, Ohio.
This is a time of personal, family and national tragedy. It will touch us all. To some degree it has already touched us all. People are getting extremely sick and some of them are dying. Seniors and people with underlying health conditions are especially at risk if they contract the virus. All of us face, no matter the age category or level of good health, are at risk.
Contracting the virus or dying from the virus is not the only element of tragedy we face. Many of us are living under a Stay-at-Home order. Even for the most introverted and hermit-like among us this is unsettling at the least. For those who need social, face-to-face interaction this is devastating. I worry greatly about those who, before this, struggled with loneliness, depression, and isolation.
Then there is the economic fallout. Thousands and thousands of people have already been furloughed or laid-off or let go. Some families have lost the entirety of their income stream. I worry about them, too. Very much. And who knows when this thing will end.
"Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication!" "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask for." I am asking, "God save us."
We pray. We cry out. We plead. And we also ask questions: "God, did you cause this to happen or let it happen? God, are you hearing us? God, why haven't you acted already? God, are you in control?" And that's the tip of the iceberg. Which means that I clearly do not have the time here to answer every question we might have for the Almighty.
Long ago I graduated from Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary where I had Dr. Tony Everrett for pastoral care classes, the classes where the theological rubber hits the road. We received binders for his class, big yellow binders with the seminary logo and his pastoral care mantra printed in big blue letters: WIGIAT. Where is God in all of this? In the midst of personal, family, or national tragedy this is my focus. A lot of questions can keep for later but, this one can't, won't. Where is God in all of this?
The people of God are in decades-old exile. Despair runs deep. The chance of return is extremely remote. Where is God in all this? God raises up a new superpower on the block. The oppressors of God's people are overthrown. Will this be the time? God is in control. A spirit-filled wind blows. There is a breath of life. A valley of dry bones take on new flesh, rise, and live. The people return home.
Lazarus is dead. Martha and Mary are bound by grief. Jesus weeps. Jesus also went to the tomb, took control, prayed to his Father and ours, gave orders, and raised Lazarus from the dead. "Lazarus, come out!" And when Lazarus emerged from the tomb full of life, Jesus commanded those present, "Unbind him, and let him go."
Where is God in all of this? In the midst of this tragedy. It is not always as obvious as it is with these miraculous texts but, God is present and God is at work. In a valley of dry bones God is at work. At the tomb of a beloved brother and friend God is at work. All around the world, in those places of disease and despair, God is at work. God is always at work in those places where there is pain and suffering ... and even death, bringing God's healing love to bear, bringing hope, bringing life where life was not.
I admit freely that I want the Lazarus scale miracle, the dry bones scale miracle. I want God to work it. I want to see it. And, God forgive me, I want it now. God clearly has a track record of super big miracles; it can happen. But I refuse to sit on my bottom, do nothing, and wait for God to take care of everything.
I believe, that when Jesus shows up at the cemetery, takes control, and defeats death, he is also commissioning us to go to the places of pain and suffering, and in our own way, using our own gifts, as God calls us, join in the job of working miracles. They may be tiny compared to dry bones given life and the dead being raised but, all our miracles together, as the people God would go a miraculously long way to the healing and restoring of the world. Sending a card. Making a phone call. Reaching out in some way. Asking those who are most vulnerable: "How can I help? What do you need?" None of us, individually, is going to save the world but, we might just save the day for one person. And for that one person, that one day when you performed a mini-miracle, might be the day that turned it all around.
WIGIAT? Jesus proclaims to us who live in the midst of world-wide pandemic: "You are unbound. You are set free. Believe in me and trust me ... even when belief and trust seem impossible. Come with me and live in hope. Come with me and help me unbind others and set them free. Do not doubt, but believe, for I am the resurrection and the life."