Rev. Sarah Buteux
March 22, 2020
Lent 4, Year A
Psalm 23 John 9:1-7
“Christ is present to us, insofar as we are present to each other.”
“Rabbi,” asked the disciples, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
It may have been Andrew or Philip who asked. John just says it was “the disciples.” But I bet it was Nathaniel. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth,” Nathaniel. Yeah. He always struck me as a bit judgy.
“Who sinned” asked Nathaniel, “…that this man was born blind?
“Who sinned,” and caused this ostensibly bad thing to happen?
I don’t know if it’s a good question, but it’s certainly an understandable one. Because if we could just figure out whose fault it is when bad things happen, we would at least know who to blame. We would at least know what not to do.
If we could just figure out who messed up and how, that this man was born blind, that airplane went down, or – gee I don’t know – that a single person contracted a new virus that is so contagious it has spread to over 300,000 people around the globe, shut down our schools and closed our borders and not just barred us from work and restaurants and theaters and travel and college and sports, but from breaking bread with each other, visiting each other, hugging, shaking hands, or even drawing near to one another….
If we could just figure out who sinned… Who ate the wrong thing? Touched the wrong person? Looked the other way? Didn’t follow protocol? Then maybe, just maybe, we could get control of this uncontrollable situation. Or at least keep it from happening to us and the ones we love.
I’m starting to think that maybe Nathaniel is on to something here.
“Who sinned, Rabbi?” Because the more I think about it, the more I’d really like to know…
But Jesus doesn’t play that game, because Jesus knows more than anyone that those aren’t the rules.
Life isn’t rigged.
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus.
And it’s good to know. It’s good to know that the root of suffering isn’t necessarily found in something you or anyone else did. It isn’t always somebodies’ fault.
Sometimes bad things happen whether people deserve them or not. Sometimes good things happen too. But good or bad, we all suffer and we need each other most when we do. Which is, I think, one of the central truths of this story.
Jesus tells his disciples that the man, “was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” And then he goes on to show us precisely what he means by that, precisely how that revelation takes place in our world.
“We must work the works of him who sent me…” says Jesus…and then he gets to work. He spits in the dirt and makes a little mudpie. He spreads the paste over the man’s eyes and sends him to wash it all off in the pool of Siloam.
Jesus doesn’t just stand there and make the blind man an object of pity or the object of a lesson. He doesn’t debate with his disciples about the nature of God or evil or suffering.
He simply sees the need of the person in front of him as an opportunity to reveal the work of God in the world, not by theorizing about what God has done or might yet do, but by acting in the moment as God would act if God had hands and feet and a body in this world.
Jesus acts, but it’s clear he does not want to act alone. He’s merely showing us the way. Remember, before he did anything, he said, “We must work…” “We,” not “I.” “We must work the works of him who sent me…” Jesus calls on us all to incarnate God’s love, to care the way God cares, to be God’s hands in the world, the hands that help and hold and heal.
Our actions on behalf of one another are what reveal the work of God in the world. As Jesus’ disciples, that is what we’re supposed to do…at least that’s what we were supposed to do up until now…before this whole social distancing thing started.
Now the idea of wiping your spit on someone’s face, which admittedly I wouldn’t have been crazy about before Corona, is simply not going to work. In fact, it’s probably illegal. So don’t do that.
But that doesn’t change the fact that God’s love and power is revealed in what we do – right? -in how we breathe – Oh actually, wait – you can’t breathe on each other either – um – God’s love and power is revealed in how we instill -from a minimum distance of six feet – hope and healing into challenging, imperfect, broken, situations.
And friends, are we ever in the midst of a challenging, imperfect, and broken situation.
Which is one reason I’m thankful that the lectionary paired Psalm 23 with this reading from John. Because Psalm 23 is no ordinary Psalm. It’s the Psalm for situations like this. It’s not the Psalm you read when you want to know everything is going to be ok. No. Psalm 23 is the one you pull out when you know it’s not.
It’s the psalm we read when death is at the door, when there is no turning back, when you realize the only way out of the valley is through.
To paraphrase one commentator, Psalm 23 is not an encouraging slap on the back from the friend who can’t quite meet your eyes. It’s the tears of the friend who gives your hand a good hard squeeze before they settle down beside you for the long night ahead.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil
for Thou art with me,
Thy rod and Thy staff
– they comfort me..
The 23rd Psalm 23 takes our suffering seriously. It doesn’t make light of it. It acknowledges the hard truth that God doesn’t spare us from the valley, show up at the last second and reveal a detour to lead us around the troubles of this life, open a window after shutting a door, if you will.
The power of the 23rd Psalm lies in its promise that when we go down into the deep God will always go with us and remain beside us until we make it to the other side.
In his meditation on this psalm, Isaac Villegas recalls sitting with a parishioner in the hospital who had just suffered a severe stroke. The man spoke with deep gratitude about all the church members who had come in to visit, sing, and pray with him.
“All those church people,” he mumbled to me, “made it easier to believe in God. When they are with me,” he said, “I know God is with me.” It reminds Villegas of the Herbert McCabe quote: “Christ is present to us, insofar as we are present to each other.” And then he says something fascinating. He says:
When I pray the words of Psalm 23, the “you” I address them to is God. But I (can’t help but) hope others will overhear—that they will hear in the “you” an invitation to be with me, to be church for me, to become God’s presence in my life. “I fear no evil; for you are with me.” This is a prayer for companionship,” he says, “for us to be drawn together, for our presence to be signs of God’s presence and our love an incarnation of God’s love.”
Friends, we are each others keepers. We are the ones who guard the door, tend the sick, visit the lonely, feed the hungry. Up until now we have all known what it is – and how important it is – to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. We know that Christ has no body now but ours. We show up to touch the lives of one another precisely because Christ can’t touch us anymore.
What do we do now, if we can’t touch each other either.
I don’t know. Not entirely. I think we’re all still trying to figure that out.
But I do know this. The very last line of Psalm 23: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…” is more than an affirmation that no matter what, everything is gong to be ok in the end. With all due respect to King James and his cohort, the word “follow,” is really better understood as “pursue.”
“Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.”
Friends, what I know for sure is that we need to pursue one another now with all the goodness and mercy we can muster. We can’t passively love one another through this, hope to run into each other at coffee hour or the store before we check in.
We need to pick up the phone and call, get out our stationary and write, adapt to new technologies we’re not so comfortable with.
We will need to dig deep and be more generous than is prudent with those we barely know, and more patient and forgiving than we ever thought possible with the people we know the most.
And we’re also going to need to admit when we need help too, because we all will. We need to admit that we are lonely even if we’re never alone, confess it when our nerves are wearing thin, reach out for support when our cupboards are bare, when we’re scared and hurting and longing in ways we didn’t know we’d ever be.
We need to pursue one another because we were not created to get through this life alone. We need God, the God who is revealed to us in the kindness and care of one another. Friends, we have work to do. Thankfully, if we can keep being creative, it’s work we can do from home.
So, let me leave you with this…It’s something Emily Scott, a pastor I deeply love and admire, shared on her facebook page this past week. She wrote:
A few weeks after Trump’s election, my friend Jacob Slichter said something that made me feel calm for the very first time. He said, imagine that it’s five years from now, and we got through this. What did we do, and how did we do it?
This morning I thought of the same question, wondering what it would feel like to look back on this time and know that, while it was so hard, and things happened that never should have, we did the best we could.
Remember when we held impromptu online dance parties?
Remember when we played music on our porches every night at 6pm?
Remember how we stayed home to protect our friends and neighbors and even strangers, even though it was really hard and isolating?
Remember how we loved each other by staying six feet apart?
Remember when our first grade class had a zoom call and all the kids were giggling?
Remember how we started virtual tip jars for wait staff, and bought gift certificates to restaurants to help keep them afloat?
Remember how we made hard choices, even in the absence of leadership from our President? Remember how we fought to get ahead of the curve, every leader in every community?
Remember how we struggled financially, but leaned on each other for support?
Remember how we had to give up plans and dreams and trade them in for different kinds of plans and dreams?
Remember how we grew vegetables in small plots of land?
Remember how we crowdfunded groceries and rent?
Remember how we set up hand washing stations for those who are unhoused?
Remember how we organized online, forming new communities of people working together to make it through?
Remember how we figured out how to keep being spiritual communities, even when we couldn’t gather in person?
Remember how we had our kids at home forever, and almost didn’t make it, but figured out how to be a family in a new way?
Remember how we checked in on each other?
Remember how we made every next-best choice?
Remember how we made it though together, because dear ones, together is the only way we’re going to make it through. God be with you. Amen.