Why? It’s a very human question to ask, and one that children learn really early. It seems like a lot of us are asking “why?” these days. Why did this pandemic start? Why don’t we know how to fight it better? Why would something like this happen at all? The disciples in our reading, along with others, want to know “why,” too. Why is this man blind? Surely someone is to blame for it. Back then, it was common to think that physical illnesses were the result of sin. As I say in the sermon, we don’t quite think that way anymore, but we still do like to have explanations for things. But, as he often does, Jesus takes our questions and turns them on their heads. It’s not about why, it’s about what happens next.
What happens next? How can St. Paul’s be a resource to you during this unexpected and unpredictable time? I invite you to follow us on either YouTube or Facebook for worship videos, here on the blog for my sermons, and to be in prayer for one another. If you need assistance in any way–shopping, financial, errands–please, please let us know. We have resources and people who have volunteered their assistance.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This Sunday is supposed to be the fourth week in our sermon series on Love Languages, specifically the language of physical touch. And while I could have written a sermon on that, especially about what physical touch means in these times when we are distancing ourselves from one another, this reading of Jesus healing the man born blind was pulling me in another direction.
I thought about trying to combine the two: somehow smashing together a sermon on this passage in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and love languages, but I realized that would do justice to neither. So, while I planned to talk about love languages, I also planned to preach this sermon in person to a room full of people, and not over YouTube. Plans change. I’m going to put a reflection on the love language of physical touch on my blog at some point this week, and instead preach the sermon that I think we more need to hear. And the one that I certainly more need to give.
This story of Jesus and the man born blind is all about seeing. And physical sight is just a small part of it. This is about how we see, who and what we see. I’ve heard this pandemic described in some ways as being apocalyptic. We see pictures of Times Square empty, famous landmarks deserted, and it can feel like we are living in a movie.
And I think this truly is apocalyptic, not in the world is ending kind of way, but in the truest sense of the word. Apocalypse means revealing. The word literally means “pulling away the veil.” The apocalypses in the Bible, in the books of Daniel and Revelation aren’t predictions about the future so much as they are stories that reveal the present circumstances in a new way. That help people see what is really going on.
This pandemic has pulled back the veil on our lives and is bringing some things into clear focus. We are fragile. We are not in control. We are all interconnected and interdependent. My everyday choices have life and death consequences for others. Unselfish love is risky, and inconvenient, but at the same time essential. We are not in control—did I say that one already? These things are true all the time. But we are so much more aware of them right now. Our eyes have been opened to realities that have been with us all the time.
In an ironic twist in our gospel, it is the man born blind who is truly able to see what is really going on, even before his physical sight is restored. The others in the story do not see him, except for Jesus. They see his condition. Even after he is physically healed, he is still referred to as “the man who had been blind.” The disciples, his neighbors, even his parents couldn’t see who he was, couldn’t understand him without the condition of physical blindness.
The disciples start off the reading with this really horrible question: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” We don’t necessarily talk about physical illness being caused by sin today, but in many ways, we still seek explanations for things. A seminary professor who had both legs amputated in his teens because of bone cancer remembers someone asking his mother if she regretted not feeding him healthier, more organic foods. As if she was at fault for his illness. We like to have cause and effect. We like people to get what they deserve. After all, if blindness or cancer or illness aren’t punishments for sin, aren’t results of actions we have or haven’t taken, then what does that mean about how the world works? Anyone can get sick, anyone can suffer from a disability, with no discernible reason at all. That’s terrifying.
Talk of sin and morality has certainly been happening with this pandemic, too. We judge those who aren’t doing exactly what we’re doing in response. We wonder whose fault it was in the first place. We point the finger. Some people have even suggested that God caused all this to happen, either as a punishment or as a test. Not only do I believe that is absolutely wrong and hurtful, according to Jesus in today’s reading, it’s missing the point entirely.
Neither this man nor his parents sinned, Jesus says. He’s just blind. It’s no one’s fault. But watch what happens now. Watch and see how the glory of God is going to be revealed even in someone overlooked, judged, and cast out by others. Even in terrible circumstances.
Religious historian Rodney Stark studied early Christian history and made the claim that Christian’s behavior during the Plague of Galen in the years 165-180 dramatically strengthened the vitality of the church’s witness. The Christian’s seeming irrational determination not to abandon their diseased family members and neighbors made them appear uncommonly virtuous in the midst of the crisis.
Now, I’m not advocating in any way that we expose ourselves or our community to a greater threat of illness. But, times of risk and isolation call Christians to active advocacy, compassion, and allegiance to our neighbors. The question isn’t what caused this situation, Jesus says, it’s not about judging and blaming and finger-pointing. The question is what are we going to do with this situation?
Will we be flexible in the ways we extend love across distances, or will we hunker down in fear and suspicion? Will we dare to be the church in new ways, even as we practice quarantines—or will we forget that are one body, incomplete without each other? Will we have eyes to see God in our neighbors, regardless of whether they are sick or healthy, insured or uninsured, protected or vulnerable? Will we be brave enough to look our own vulnerability in the eye, and trust that God is with us even in the valley of the shadow of death? Or will we yield to cynicism, panic, and despair?
The glory of God is made manifest in the most unlikely places and unlikely times. God didn’t cause this pandemic. But God is surely present in our response. Jesus opened the eyes of the man born blind, but his neighbors remained unable to see what God was doing. They were trapped by fear, by preconceived judgments, by their own vulnerability.
Come, Lord Jesus, we pray, and open our eyes. Open our eyes to your presence in our world. Open our eyes to see you in the faces of our neighbors. Open our eyes to your glory being made manifest in our midst. Open our eyes to your call love and serve, in new and different ways than ever before. Open our eyes that we may see. Amen.