March 22, 2020
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Psalm 23; John 9:1-41
Every morning this week, since our gym has been closed, Oby and I have been getting some exercise by going for long walks with our dog, Ruthie, which, I have to say, has been really good for my mental health. I’ve been experiencing the same anxiety and fear and sense of foreboding as many of you. But each morning, I’ve gotten to see the world through Ruthie’s eyes—and as far as she is concerned, life has never been better. For one thing, Oby and I, like most of you, are now spending a lot more time at home, and these days she’s getting a lot more of our attention. But what’s even better for Ruthie is all the squirrels and bunnies that have begun to appear now that the snow has mostly melted and it’s getting a little warmer outside. Ruthie’s world is better than ever, and I’m grateful that, in the midst of all of this, she continues to experience such joy and shares some of that with me. And I hope each one of you is finding ways to experience the goodness of God even such chaotic and frightening times.
On our morning walk last Monday, just as it was starting to become clear what an enormous crisis we’re facing with this pandemic and I was feeling especially low, we saw that one of our neighbors a few blocks north of us had written a message in sidewalk chalk. I don’t even remember what it said; it was something unremarkable like, “Hang in there!” or “We’ll get through this!” But as soon as I read it, I felt a lump in my throat and I nearly burst into tears. You’ve probably had moments like that this week, too, where the tiniest act of love conveys overwhelming grace.
I’ve been reflecting on that moment this week, especially as I’ve heard about so many simple gestures of kindness offered on behalf of people who are feeling scared or anxious. It strikes me that in this moment of crisis, none of the petty nonsense that occupied so much of my time and energy just a couple weeks ago seems to matter at all anymore, and all that really does matter is how we show up for one another with compassion and care.
The long Gospel lesson we just read tells the story of a man who has been blind since birth and is in a situation of need. Actually, the first thing we should say is that it isn’t the man’s blindness that is his problem. Lutheran bishop Craig Satterlee lives with blindness himself and in a reflection he posted this week, he says that we are mistaken when we believe that all people who live with blindness spend their whole lives waiting to be cured or made “normal.” The problem for the man in this story is not the fact of his blindness; it’s how other people treat him because he is blind. First of all, the people in the story assume (as most people would have in that pre-scientific world) that the man’s blindness is a result of sin—either his own sins or the sins of his parents. Either way, the man is marked as unclean and labeled an outcast. And he’s lived as such since birth.
So Jesus and his disciples encounter this man born blind—this outcast—and they all want to know from Jesus, who was it that sinned and caused this man to be blind? Is his blindness the result of his sins or his parents’? Isn’t that so typical, that when we see something is wrong we want to find someone to blame. We just need to be able to point fingers and say, this is your fault.
Jesus dismisses the question because he knows that the argument about who sinned is just petty nonsense. This is a man in need. He’s living in a perpetual state of crisis, cast out and shunned by everyone around him. This dumb argument about who is to blame is irrelevant. All that matters is that someone is hurting and needs to experience healing. And that’s what Jesus offers.
But the pettiness doesn’t end after Jesus heals the man and restores his sight. The man is brought before the Pharisees, who were among the leaders in the religious establishment of the time. They know how things are supposed to work and they don’t like anything that challenges their power and authority. They don’t like it when something happens that doesn’t fit their narrative. So they do everything they can to poke holes in his story and make Jesus into someone they can punish and silence. First they discover that Jesus carried out this healing on the Sabbath, which they say is obviously a violation of the commandments. Like, come on, Jesus—you know the rules. You can’t just go around helping people on the Sabbath. Let’s pause for a moment just to remember that a man who had been hurting has been healed, and the response of the religious authorities is, “Yeah but, Jesus, that was against the rules.” It’s nonsense.
They keep questioning the man about his encounter with Jesus. “Who was it that healed you? How did he do it?” Imagine how upset they are that Jesus had the audacity to heal this poor man. They keep pressing the man, and finally he says, “Look. This is what I know: I used to be blind. Now I can see. What more do you need to know?”
It has been so incredibly heartwarming and beautiful to hear about all the ways people have pulled together the past couple weeks to offer care and support for one another. And contrasted with all of those encouraging displays of humanity, it has been discouraging to hear petty arguments about who is to blame, petty attempts to label this coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and get us pointing fingers, so we can have a “them” to hold responsible for all this. At a time when people are hurting and in crisis, this small-minded business of scapegoating and fearmongering all seems so pointless. My focus this week has been on tuning out the pettiness and tuning into my neighbor, trying to figure out how I can be part of God’s work of healing, because in a time of crisis, that is all that matters.
The Washington Post ran a great story this week talking about how neighbors in one D.C. neighborhood have pulled together to care for one another. Several people have offered to deliver groceries to neighbors who are older, at-risk, or under quarantine. Teens have volunteered to babysit or help with homeschooling younger children. Bilingual residents are ready to assist people who need help but face a language barrier, a gerontologist is willing to have Skype conversations with older residents who might be feeling lonely, a local bar has become a food pantry, and the best part of all—the part that really goes straight to my heart—is that someone has created a spreadsheet to organize it all. The neighborhood of about 400 homes has been divided into 15 territories, with each one assigned to a volunteer whose job is to check on each household and find out who needs help.
Already many of you have reached out to us asking how you can help folks in the Gloria Dei community, and at this point, we’re not quite sure. In the days ahead we will be building out some systems to check on one another and offer help where it is needed, and we will be in touch through our weekly e-news, our website, and our Facebook page to let you know how you can be of service. If you are someone who needs help yourself, or if you’re feeling lonely or anxious and need to talk, please be in touch with us. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the church office at 651-699-1378 to reach the pastor on call. We are available for you even as we are forced to be physically apart.
God will see us through this crisis, and the way we will experience God’s mercy and healing is in the ways we attend to one another and reach out with love and compassion.
Dear friends, we love you and miss you. God bless you with courage, strength, and hope this day and in the days ahead.
Petula Dvorak, “Neighborhood groups across the Washington area are forming militias of caring and help,” in The Washington Post, published March 16, 2020, accessed March 21, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/neighborhood-groups-across-the-washington-area-are-forming-militias-of-caring-and-help/2020/03/16/dfc970be-6788-11ea-b313-df458622c2cc_story.html.
Craig A. Satterlee, “Take One 3 15 20,” on YouTube.com, published March 15, 2020, accessed March 21, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZySIiI9YbY.