Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 22, 2020
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
These feel like dark days, and they are certainly marked by fear, suffering, and loss. But dark times shed light on who we really are. As I mentioned last week, there are many ways to respond to a crisis. Most years when we hear this Gospel, and the disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” we shake our heads and judge them poorly. But this year, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us can identify with the disciples, because we have sought to understand the current crisis in part by finding someone to blame.
To an extent, that’s fine. Indeed, Christian responsibility includes exposing “the unfruitful works of darkness.” And certainly, there are many people in power who have earned blame, or worse, by failing to take prompt and appropriate action. Some have compounded the problem with lies and unrealistic assessments of the crisis. But pointing fingers only gets us so far.
I’m reminded of a comic where an oddly-dressed man and his assistant approach a king in his throne room. The man says, “You employ many magicians, majesty, but do you have… a delusionist?” The king asks, “What’s that?” They answer, “It’s the most efficient magic! Say you lost a leg. A healer might make the limb re-grow. But that would take ages! In seconds, a delusionist could make you think, ‘Nah— I’m better off without it.’ That leg was holding you back! Incompetent as a governor? General? Lover? Delusion can find somebody else to blame! Overrun by giant spiders? Aw come on— they’re not that big!” The king says, “Get out of my sight. Never return.” As they leave the castle, the delusionist says to his assistant, “I thought that went well!”*
The root of the problem that is turning our world upside down and inside out, or rather, outside in — that is, the existence of the Covid-19 virus — is nobody’s fault. And that’s driving some people crazy. Something deep within us needs to be able to blame someone. Some people are so desperate to levy blame that they have concocted elaborate and conspiracy theories. But those theories are wildly implausible because nobody is benefitting from this crisis. Except people who own videoconferencing companies and delivery services. Call me naïve, but I don’t think they conspired to create this thing… or maybe they’ve gotten to me, too!
Seriously though, Jesus’s response to the disciples’ question is a brilliant deconstruction of humanity’s thirst for blame, especially if you follow one translator’s suggestion. D. Mark Davis suggests, “Imagine that the one who inserted the period after ‘in him’ was mistaken and that this verse and part of the next are actually one sentence. To wit: ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that the works of God may be made apparent in him, it is necessary for us to work the works of the one having sent me while it is day. Night comes when nobody is able to work.’ Then the subject shifts from the man’s blindness… to Jesus’ need to work while there is light — or, before the blindness of night rests on everyone and there is no more opportunity to work.”** That way, we avoid the problematic idea that we should blame God for making the man blind, and instead focus on the opportunity which his case presents to do good and to glorify God.
But is that really what we want? We have a hard time accepting concrete troubles, yet we love the 23rd Psalm. When we think of that psalm, we readily accept that there is a “valley of the shadow of death,” that there are evils to be feared, that we might be “in the presence of those who trouble us.” I think we cherish that psalm in part because the trouble it describes is so abstract, in part because God is portrayed as helping us directly, and in part because the psalm is so familiar. When trouble becomes concrete, then do we ask, Why are we in this valley, Why do we face these evils, Why are those people troubling me? And we ask not only because the trouble has become a personal affliction, but also because we don’t see God stepping in to miraculously solve the problem, and we don’t know how it’s going to end, and we suspect that we might have to step up, get to work, and make sacrifices to meet the need before us.
Blaming someone else would be so much easier, but instead, so many people have responded with such generosity and grace that even though the crisis is far from over, I already want to praise and thank God. In our own parish, staff and parishioners have volunteered to help reach out to our congregation, and are offering conversation, prayer, help with errands, whatever we can. Mark is creating musical communications and contributed musical segments to this video, and of course Festina is here to elevate our worship too. Just today Elizabeth de Veer, our Parish Administrator, offered to e-mail pictures of children’s art from her daughter’s Brownie troop to any parishioner who wants them. Most of our parishioners are continuing their financial support, and one so far has offered to also make a special gift to my discretionary fund. To all of you I say, thank you, and keep up the good and holy work.
These may be dark days indeed, but the light of God’s love is shining brightly in our community and beyond it into the rest of the world. So it always is with the Church, when we follow St. Paul’s wise counsel to “Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” Christ has already overcome death, so surely and without fear, we can join him in bringing light to the world. Christ dwells within us, and his power is such that the darkest places can be exposed, and become visible, and become light.