To say that we find ourselves in unusual times is an understatement. In many, many ways, the norms of our world have been turned upside down. When we have spent time and energy figuring out how to welcome friends and new comers to St. Timothy’s and our sanctuary every Sunday, we are now observing social distancing and tell folks to not gather in groups of more than 10 and to join us online. This morning, I am here in an empty church and instead of preaching to all your smiling and eager faces, I stare into the little black dot that is a camera on the back of an iPad. Thank you to all of you joining us on Facebook this morning, if you missed the live broadcast, you might be watching as a recording.
If Facebook and livestreaming aren’t enough, we have the gospel story of the healing of a man blind from birth and in our Old Testament the anointing of David as King by Samuel. Together these readings along with the Epistles are about vision and light.
There is a trap set for us people of faith in this time of the Coronavirus. Its unavoidable, cause all we have to do is go to the grocery store to find naked shelves. We only need to look at the news, or around town, or in our own lives, to ask the disciples’ question: “Who sinned” and thus caused this to happen? It’s a powerful and poignant question. John’s gospel is full of wonderful theology and there is a powerful metaphor of spiritual blindness, in this story. For now, however I want to focus on this question: How can an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God allow totally undeserved suffering to exist in the world? A world that God has created and loves?
Jesus saw a man blind from birth and his disciples asked him, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind? The old and ancient belief was that a malady of such as this blindness was from and of God. Things that happen have to have a reason or an explanation- they have to make sense if we are going to wrap our minds around such a thing.
But I have to tell you, I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around this virus. I understand the science of it all- the way it is transmitted and that we should thoroughly wash our hands; I understand the need for social distancing, for modifying store hours, switching over to takeout and even moving our worship to a new platform. But for all these measures to place such burdens: financial, social, and even on our own relationship with the Church and the sacraments, possibly even God, it feels at times that we have been struck with a darkness and we cannot see the way ahead.
There are all kinds of things that can be said about this story of The Man Who Was Born Blind: things about sin, about blindness both literal and metaphorical, about miracles, about how societies divide themselves, the barriers we erect for those not just like us and so on. He is an outcast. He is forced by societal norms to live on the margins of society and to beg for his living..
Yet, the most fundamental purpose of the story as it works in John’s gospel is to illuminate. It is to shed light on the essence of who Jesus is.
Jesus says of the man born blind that through this man, the works of God can be made real or manifest. Does that mean that God MADE the man blind in order to demonstrate or illustrate a point? I certainly don’t believe that. What I do believe is that the place to look for God in this tragedy, or in any tragedy, is not at the front-end. Not at the point of causing it to happen.
Other Christian brothers and sisters will disagree with me by but I cannot conceive of a God sitting in heaven, passing out cancer cells, birth defects, earthquakes, strokes, car wrecks, Coronaviruses and blindness like some hideous dealer at a high-stakes cosmic game of poker.
Instead, the place to find God is the same place where we find Jesus, who is after all God in human form- the Incarnation, as John also put it, the Word made flesh who dwells among us. Where is God- Where is Jesus? In the middle of the mess, in the very worst parts of it, working there to bring forth something new—not something that fixes the mess, but something that redeems and transforms it.
That is where God is found- the God who is active and real among us– the God who has wounds on his hands and feet and side- the God who knows suffering. The God who knows social distancing and isolation in his passion and death and therefore is the God who SHARES our suffering and pain and who takes it into himself in the vastness of his compassion and love.
God didn’t poke out the man’s eyes before he was born, so he would be written down in a book of other stories or become a handy sermon illustration for Jesus. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says: “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.”
My point is this: that even in the midst of undeserved, inexplicable pain and suffering, God can be found. Found in real and in transforming ways.
This real and transforming God’s workings are mysterious, and often chooses the most unlikely persons to be messengers, prophets, and servants of God’s will. Samuel anoints the next king at God’s behest for reasons known only to God and does so defying all norms and expectations. The cultural norm would have been to choose from among the older sons, instead the youngest son David is chosen.
Jesus says: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” Notice that Jesus says “We.” We must work the works of God. Paul says in Ephesians that “in the Lord,[we] are light. Live as children of light for the fruit of the light is all that is good and right and true.” Tragedy, pain, and suffering are calls and opportunities to ministry and to service. This may or may not be a call to fix whatever the problem is – often, as in the case of this Coronavirus we simply cannot do that – but it is always a call to reach out and to care. It is always a call to discover, to bring, and to share the presence of God in the heart of the tragedy. We are still the Church after all. And the Church is no stranger to tragedy as the Body of Christ in this world it finds itself in the middle of this present time.
But terrible things don’t happen so that we can have an opportunity to minister and serve. God doesn’t work that way, either. But we are called to ministry and service. This was Jesus’ response to the reality of tragedy and suffering—and ministry and service is our call as well.
What is our response? What can we do as a congregation that now must stay in our homes and away from the Church and tune in to worship on our tablets and phones and computer screens? Well for one, we will do what we do best. We will pray for one another and for the world. We will still worship together and offer to God our praise and the longings of our heart. We will listen and feast on God’s holy Word and allow God to continue to nourish our souls on the sacrament of God’s very story of his dream for us and his kingdom.
But we will also live as children of the light. We are a people of hope and of resurrection; whose Christian story knows of hardship and knows that this pandemic will come to an end and that we will be together again worshiping in this space.
We are children of light who knows in our heart of hearts that the Church, the Body of Christ, is not a building or but the people of God joined in prayer and service.
We are children of light who will check in our neighbors, pool and share our resources, feed the hungry in body and spirit; and together we will find this as an opportunity to see NEW light and NEW ways that God is at work in our church and in the world.
We are Children of the Light, healed of the darkness that blinds us to the glory of God. We will wash the mud from our eyes and behold the love that God has for us; a love so deep, so broad, so high that in the midst of this pandemic, amidst the sick and the grief stricken, the businessman and the worker; God is present in it. And through this difficult time, God will ultimately transform it, helping us to say, “Lord, I believe” and answer God’s call to love and serve. AMEN.
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.