Rev. Heather Blais
In today’s gospel lesson, we encounter a community struggling with their own fear and anxiety as they face the unimaginable.
While out walking, Jesus observed a blind man. What question was burning on the disciples’ hearts, you ask? They wanted to know whether God caused the man to be blind because of his own sinfulness, or whether it was a consequence of his parents' sinfulness.
This question is rooted in fear. It assumes:
If we follow God and do everything just right, we will be okay.
If we choose ourselves over God and neighbor, there will be dire consequences.
Maybe even, eternal consequences.
This fear is the driving force behind the words and actions of nearly everyone in this story: from the disciples, to the religious leaders, the former blind man’s neighbors and parents.
However, Jesus does not get sucked into the whirlpool of fear, and instead reframes the question for the disciples. In The Message translation, Jesus said,
“You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”
Jesus then spat on the ground, mixing saliva with dirt to make a thick mud. Jesus then scoops the mud into his hands and approaches the blind man. Spreading the mud over the blind man’s eyes, Jesus instructs him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam.
Then the unimaginable happened. The man who was once blind could now see.
His neighbors and religious leaders met this news with shock, fear, and anxiety. They were indignant that someone would break the laws surrounding the Sabbath, even to heal (because, come on, why couldn’t it wait a day?)
Yet what we know from witnessing the interrogation of the former blind man in today’s gospel, is that he regains much more than just his physical sight. The former blind man has encountered the Son of God, and it has awoken a much wider, a much more hopeful sense of God’s love and purpose in the world.
This story is not about who has sinned, and who is righteous. Nor is it about who has broken the law, and who has kept it. It is not even about who is to blame. This story is about Jesus calling us to wake up.
We are so attached to the fear, anxiety, scarcity and anger that is familiar. Our culture begs us to embrace this way of being. Yet when we choose to follow Jesus, we are choosing to be light in the world. We are choosing to be part of Jesus’ movement; to be a beacon of hope and love in an uncertain world. It is a calling that will lead to our transformation again, and again, and again. The kind of transformation that will turn our lives upside down and right back up. Just as it did for the blind man.
Much like the folks we encounter in today’s gospel lesson, we too are a community struggling with our own fear and anxiety as we face the unimaginable. None of us has ever lived through a global pandemic before. When we stare at it in the face, it is completely overwhelming. We are grappling with our grief, somersaulting from denial to anger, to bargaining, to depression, to acceptance; and often beginning the cycle all over again the next day.
We are beginning to grieve the missed birthday parties, book groups, Sunday brunches, art shows, concerts, anniversary celebrations, and weddings. Our hearts ache when we let ourselves fully feel the physical absence of our best friends, children, grandchildren, siblings, neighbors, and fellow church goers. This is particularly acute if you live alone.
We are now throwing our boundaries out the window as we juggle any variety of hats all at once: an employee who works from home, parent, teacher, caregiver, housekeeper, and more. Some are unsure if they still have a job, or whether there is enough money to pay the bills. The most marginalized members of our wider community find the resources they count on are closing left and right.
We are also grieving the traditions of our communal worship, the anticipation of journeying through holy week together, and the overwhelming joy of the empty tomb at Easter. We are postponing funerals, and we are facing the reality that there will be loss of life in our wider community as a result of COVID-19.
It is devastating. And it is crucial that we acknowledge and feel each of these feelings fully.
There is so much we do not know about what the days ahead will look like.
Let me tell you what we do know.
Today, we are all the blind man. Jesus has spat in the dirt, made mud, and holds us as he spreads the mud over the eyes of our hearts. Together, as the Church, we wash in the pool of Siloam, and the eyes of our hearts are opened. Church, we will continue to energetically embrace Jesus’ call to be the beacon of light, hope, and love of God in this world. We will keep being the Church virtually, for as long as it takes. We are in this together. Dear ones, we have long known that we are better together.
May the God which passeth all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, this day, and every day. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
I was having a lovely time thinking and reading, considering and praying about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman. It is an incredibly rich story – Jesus’ longest recorded dialogue in the gospels, and much more. I had SO much I had to say about it. And then there was Covid 19. The Samaritan Woman needs to wait.
As I am sure you know, Heather, Ann, the wardens, Nurse Kathryn and I have spent considerable time this week working to figure out how to direct and support the parish in the midst of an outbreak that has now been declared a global pandemic and a national emergency.
They didn’t teach us how to do this in seminary.
We have been so very appreciative of the way the immediate community - including the parish leaders already named, as well as the staff, the Altar Guild, the Mission leaders and others - have calmly set themselves to figuring how to adapt their ministries to circumstances we had never thought about. Don’t you find it to be true that hard times often bring out the best in us?
And we’ve been grateful, as well, for the leadership and reassurance of Bishop Doug and his staff, who are guiding us through these turbulent waters.
In the midst of logistics and practicalities and composing emails this week, I have had several moments in which I’ve been struck by the faith implications of the present situation, and so I’d like to share some thoughts about what it means to be people of faith in the midst of crisis.
And then I’d also like to do just a bit of tying these thoughts in to the one of the lessons we’ve heard from scripture this morning.
There’s just no question that this Corona Virus is a very scary business. The transmission and mortality rates are awful. Probably all of us have loved ones in the high risk groups for whom infection can carry grave consequences, if we’re not in those groups ourselves.
I think it’s the unknowns – not knowing how bad it will get or how long it will last, or what the real impacts will be – that is the worst and most immobilizing part of this.
It’s very easy to succumb to feelings of desperation and panic. How many of you out there ran to the store to stock up on toilet paper this week? Raise your hands – no one else can see you.
Do you remember the story we just listened to about Moses and the Israelites? They were in the same boat, and they acted about the same way.
Having traveled through the Sinai wilderness after their dramatic escape from Egypt, they, too, found themselves frightened, facing a dangerous and unknown future. They were without food or water. They, too, succumbed to their fears. Without a Stop and Shop at which to purchase reassurance for themselves, they instead turned on Moses, blaming his faulty leadership for their problems:
“Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
(Heather and I can count our blessings that these are not OUR parishioners.)
And here’s where we need to pay attention. Moses offered up his problems to God, and solutions unfolded. I think it’s important to notice several things about the way things played out.
So what does it mean to be people of faith in a time of health crisis?
Just as did the people of Israel, we already know the answers, and we have the tools.
But in the meantime we listen to our leaders, to the scientists and medical personnel, we must pay attention, and we must follow directions.
Right now those authorities are advocating “social distancing”. This doesn’t just help you and me to avoid catching the virus, but it slows the transmission, so that as it does spread – as it apparently will - it will not overwhelm our health care system.
Even amidst all of these caring and creative efforts, please take care of yourselves first – it’s no help if you wear yourself out attending to the needs of others and then need someone else to take care of you. Don’t be afraid to ask for the help YOU need.
And please, keep praying – for those who are ill, and for those who are afraid, for the medical folks taking care of the sick, and for the leaders making strategic decisions for our communities.
This is a scary place, but none of us are alone. We know what we need to do; we have the tools; we will get through it together. With God’s help.
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Understandably, Nicodemus was more confused than ever. He asks: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4).
Maybe Nicodemus’ questions are literal, but given he is a high-ranking Pharisee, I would hope it is safe to assume this guy is pretty smart. I think the question he is really asking lay underneath: Why in the world would we want to be born anew?
The culture that Jesus and Nicodemus are immersed in is one that places a high value on the wisdom that comes with age. Why would anyone want to give up a lifetime of wisdom to begin anew? To give up the earned respect and perceived power from a lifetime of living, would be to risk that maybe we had actually gotten some things about the kingdom of God wrong.
How often do we wish we could tell our younger selves something important we have learned later in life? Or how often do we actually acknowledge that we got something wrong? I imagine we all know at least a few highly functioning adults who will go to incredible lengths to avoid admitting they might actually have been wrong about something. Why in the world would anyone want to be born anew if they had to sacrifice the power, the respect, the wisdom of a long life?
Since the “you” Jesus uses in today’s gospel is plural, we know his answers to Nicodemus are not just directed at him. They are directed at anyone curious about the kingdom of God, both then, and now. Jesus is telling us that if we want to see the kingdom of God, if we want to even begin to grasp some aspect of heavenly things, we have to start over. And not just once. Rather we meet our faith anew every morning. Again and again, our whole life long.
It is a little bit like our vision. Many of us at one point had 20/20 vision, but instead of our eyesight improving with age, with the accumulated experience of sight, we often see less well, and things become blurry. We need glasses to make things clear and crisp again. Following and understanding God does not get easier with time and age, unless we are willing to be born anew. Then we will see our faith through new eyes every single day. In other words, Jesus is asking us to go to the optometrist and spring for a pair of glasses.
Because crazy things will happen with the correct prescription; with a faith that is new every morning. We will look outside and we will begin to see how God is inviting us to steer the brokenness of creation back towards God’s desire for creation.
It’s when we notice that, maybe we were actually wrong to deny climate change.
Maybe, we were wrong to treat brown and black people as less than white people.
Maybe, we were wrong about assuming a woman’s place is in the home.
Maybe, we were wrong to believe gender and sexual orientation are a checkbox, instead of a spectrum.
Maybe, we were wrong to believe the only way God could save the world was to murder his only Son.
Maybe, we have been wrong about a lot of things.
What are we not even clued into that we are wrong about today?
If we do not look to God anew with fresh eyes we may miss God altogether.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). The Son of God is trying to get our attention, trying to help us wake up. How fresh and new are the eyes of our faith? Is it time for some new glasses?May God open the eyes of our hearts, this day and everyday. Amen.
The Common Lectionary has brought together for us an interesting group of readings for us today, starting with our Old Testament lesson from Genesis that takes us back to “the fall,” the Bible’s first temptation story, starring Adam and Eve and the Serpent.
God didn’t create a “perfect” world in the Garden of Eden, but rather a “good” one. Six times in Genesis we hear, “It was good.” But Eden is no Caribbean vacation in paradise. God places Adam in the garden “to till it and keep it.” From the beginning, humans are made for a regular rhythm of doing work with periods of Sabbath rest. God says they may eat from any tree, but he places the tree of knowledge off limits.
Enter the serpent: He’s a clever and talkative animal who provides what we’d call today some “alternative facts.” The serpent is not alone with Eve, as often pictured; Adam is quietly standing right there, probably hearing every word. After the serpent and Eve talk, she takes and eats the fruit, and she gives the fruit to “her husband, who was with her.” Adam and Eve both yielded to temptation, and God kicked them both out of the Garden. And the serpent? He was condemned to crawl on his belly and eat dust all the days of its life.
Just an aside here that’s always bothered me: First, possibly because they shed their skin, serpents and snakes have historically been symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. Somewhat like the phoenix from the ashes, yet the serpent here seems to be the bad guy; he gets a bum rap. Also, the serpent is cursed to crawl on its belly and eat dust all the days of ts life – yet nowhere in the Bible does it mention exactly how the serpent moved around before the curse – Did it walk upright on its tale or what? But neither phoenix nor snake is our focus for today.
So our first heroes in the Bible (Adam and Eve) failed, if you will, in the original temptation story. This Genesis tale is what we might call a theological metaphor describing what it means to belong to a humanity in a broken relationship with God and with the rest of the world. When we get to today’s Gospel of Christ, it doesn’t really depend on a literal “first couple” and original sin, or on the claim that there was no death in the world before humans and their “original sin.” The billions of years of life’s evolution would pretty well argue against this.
Our second lesson today, Psalm 32, is a Psalm of penitence, but it is also the song of a ransomed soulrejoicing in the wonders of the grace of God. We don’t know exactly what occasion in David’s life prompted this song, although we do know it was after David’s giving in to temptation after seeing Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop. In the psalm, sin is dealt with; sorrow is comforted; ignorance is instructed.
In the Psalm, David gives a word of caution to sinners that the way of sin will certainly end in sorrow. At the same time, it’s a word of comfort to saints. Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; Shout for joy, all who are true of heart!
Our reading from Romans takes Paul back to Eden. He holds onto the paradox that we cannot escape sin since we are connected to Adam and Eve, stuck under sin’s tyranny, with the reign of sin’s ally, death, over us. But even if one agrees with that idea (and I personally agree with Paul on not a lot), Adam’s act of disobedience has been overcome by the more powerful obedience of Jesus with his faithful death on the cross.
Finally, for the Gospel lesson here in Matthew, it’s no accident that Jesus winds up in the wilderness after his baptism. As the saying goes, “Not all who wander are lost.” Jesus is not lost, and he is not being punished for something he has done. He’s been led by the Holy Spirit for a purpose: to be tempted or tested by the devil (the original Greek here means either tempted or tested). His scriptural debate with the Devil functions as an assessment (or a proof) of his readiness as God’s beloved Son for the mission that’s being entrusted to him. As shown in Matthew’s Gospel by the genealogy and birth narratives, Jesus has both the credentials and the authority for this mission. Now, through this wilderness test, Jesus stands squarely in the long history of the people of God even as his encounter with the devil points him ahead to a future still unfolding.
Throughout scripture, the wilderness represents a place of preparation, a place of waiting for God’s next move, a place of learning to trust in God’s mercy. For 40 days and nights Jesus remains in the wilderness, without food, getting ready for what comes next.
The Bible seems full of the number 40, as well as both physical and metaphoric wildernesses:
What happens here in the wilderness doesn’t stay in the wilderness (No Las Vegas mentality here of thngs staying) – rather, it plays again in Jesus’ life and ministry. The answers are different on different occasions, but the choices are very much the same:
The wilderness temptations are not a one-time ordeal to get through, but they’re tests of preparation for the choices Jesus makes in his earthly ministry. Here in Matthew, we have an opportunity to see how the wilderness experience is replayed in Jesus’ encounters
Our story suggests that if Christ had followed any one of these temptations, he’d have been a sinner another fallen human like us, unable to redeem anyone, and the mission would have been ruined by the devil. But he was sent into the world to redeem us, and to do that, he had to conquer Satan.
I look at this Wilderness tale as a sort of vision quest, where the temptations are strong. Jesus is tempted with riches and power, and the only requirement is that he make these temporal purposes his God – that is worship “the tempter” instead of God.
Shortly after his Wilderness experience, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains that we ought to focus our worship on God: He says, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”
Rather than take advantage of his unique awareness, Jesus sets about a ministry devoted to awakening that same awareness in all people.
“And it was good.” Amen.
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