Sermon for Western Heights Uniting Church
22 March 2020
Jesus is reported to have said, ‘do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today’ (Matthew 6:34) – but then Jesus did not live through a pandemic. Things have been changing so fast that it has been almost impossible to keep up. Last week we simply agreed not to shake hands at church. On Wednesday the Church Council decided that we wouldn’t have morning tea after church, and that we would offer small, family-only, funerals now and larger Services of Thanksgiving when the crisis is over. On Thursday Karen and I decided not to have the fabulous inter-generational service we’d planned for this morning because it was going to explore senses other than sight, and now is not the time to be using taste and touch in worship. When I had thought I had finished writing this sermon on Friday we weren’t sure what was happening next, but we were planning to stay open. So I had to do some rewriting on Saturday, after the decision had been made to stop gathering for worship. Given the pace of all this, it’s extremely hard not to worry about tomorrow, no matter what Jesus might have told his disciples.
I wish very much that I could say, ‘Everything’s going to be all right’. It’s what I’ve been saying to my mother every evening over the past few weeks as we’ve watched the news. But I can’t say that with any integrity. I have no idea whether or not things will be okay. Congregational ministers learn pretty quickly, as medical professionals and police officers and especially funeral directors do, too, how precarious and fragile life is. The old funeral service used to say that ‘in the midst of life we are in death’ and that is always true. We all hope that death will come for us when we are old and tired and full of years, but often it doesn’t. Most funerals I have conducted have been celebrations of long lives, fully lived, but I have also conducted a funeral for a stillborn baby; and for a teenager; and for people in their twenties and thirties and forties. What this pandemic is reminding all of us is what those of us who work with death already know – we live life with no guarantees.
Well, almost no guarantees. We are here, in church, gathered together to worship God because there is something of which we can be sure. The Apostle Paul wrote it to the church in Rome before his own journey to that city where he would be executed: ‘If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s’. I do not know what is going to happen next. I do not know how much longer we will be able to gather together to worship. But I do know that whatever we experience, God will experience with us. I am absolutely certain that whatever happens we will not be left alone.
So, having said all that, today we hear another fabulous story from the gospel according to John, a tale of light and sight and blindness, in which faith is born and faith is lost. It also includes a reminder for us as we face COVID19, because the story begins with a question about God’s justice. Jews, and we Christians who follow them, believe that God created everything, that there is no other, Evil, power running around. But if everything is made by a good God, why do bad things happen? How can any baby be born blind? Why are we facing a pandemic? One, false, explanation that has sometimes been offered is that such tragedies are the result of our sin. So the disciples ask Jesus, when they see a man born blind: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus says that it was neither, and immediately begins healing. The man was born blind, his creation from the dust of the earth was incomplete, so Jesus completes it, spitting on the ground and making mud with the dust and the saliva, and sending the man to wash the mud off. Then, for most of the story, Jesus disappears while the once blind man must face the repercussions of his healing.
Naively, we might believe that the healing of someone once blind would be a cause of great joy. Sadly, it’s not. We might think that it would lead to praise of God. Instead it leads to schism. At first, some of the man’s neighbours don’t even believe that this sighted person is the same man. Later his parents come close to disowning him, trying to avoid being involved in a controversy that might get them put out of the synagogue. Finally, the religious authorities get involved, and we all know that that’s not going to end well.
Over the course of the story, the faith of the man born blind gradually increases, as he has to work out for himself what has happened in the course of various interrogations. To his neighbours he describes his healer as ‘the man called Jesus’. Then, when the religious leaders talk to him for the first time, they ask ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened,’ and to this the man born blind answers ‘He is a prophet.’ Then there’s the second interrogation, in which the religious leaders try to lead the witness and have him declare that the one who healed him is a sinner. Their attempt backfires, the man points out the wonder of his healing and declares: ‘If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ From describing his healer as the man called Jesus; to describing him as a prophet; to now describing him as someone who comes from God, the man’s faith has grown as it has been questioned and challenged. Finally, when the man born blind meets Jesus again, he is willing to believe in him as the Son of Man: ‘He said, ‘Lord,* I believe.’ And he worshipped him.’
But sadly, at the same time, as the faith of the man born blind is increasing, the faith of others is destroyed. When they first discuss this miraculous healing, the religious leaders are divided; some arguing that Jesus could not be from God because he healed on the Sabbath, others asking how a sinner could heal. They attempt to solve this division by arguing that the man was never blind to begin with, calling on his parents for evidence. Finally, unable to make sense of this healing in the context of their own religious world view, the religious leaders turn on the man: ‘They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sin, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.’
The man born blind offers us a model for faith not just in the way that his faith grows and develops, but in its limits, in the fact that the man is willing to admit that his knowledge is not complete. Three times the man born blind admits that he does not know. First his neighbours ask him where Jesus is and he answers, ‘I do not know’. Then the religious leaders ask him to give glory to God by admitting that Jesus is a sinner, and the man born blind answers, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner.’ Finally, Jesus asks him whether he believe in the Son of Man, and the man answers, ‘And who is he, sir?* Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ The man’s ability to admit that there are things that he does not know is a sign of his faith, in contrast to the religious leaders who believe that they have God neatly packaged.
This is as much a story about Jesus’ absence as it is about anything else. Jesus is present, healing the man, at the very beginning. But then he disappears during the conversations and debates that make up most of the story, only reappearing at the very end after the man has been driven out. For most of the story the man is in the same position that the Johannine community was in and that the Church is in now. Jesus was here, but is no longer physically present. And he has left behind confusion and uncertainty.
The man has been healed, blessed by God, and as a result his neighbours ignore him, his parents reject him and he is no longer welcome to the synagogue. Contrary to some popular theology, being blessed by God does not always make everything better, make life easier. There are still questions to which we, like the blind man, can only answer ‘I don’t know’. There are still tragedies that might lead us, like the disciples, to ask ‘Rabbi, who sinned?,’ needing to be reminded that people’s tragedies cannot be explained away by their sin. Like the man born blind we are called to be honest about our experience of God, including our ignorance and our doubts, even if others reject our experience or reject us. Ultimately we can have faith that one day, like the man born blind, Jesus will find us and that, with our blindness cured, we will be able to see him face to face.
Finally, to end where I began, with COVID19: even when we cannot gather together, we will still be a community. Even when we cannot attend a Sunday morning service, we will still be able to worship God. Whatever happens, we will continue to be the people of God, loving God and one another through this crisis. Amen.