Sermon March 22, 2020

Receiving

Preached at First Congregational Church, Loveland UCC, www.lovelanducc.org

Scripture Readings

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. God makes me to lie down in green pastures. God leads me beside still waters. God restores my soul. God leads me in paths of righteousness for God’s name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. My cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.

John 9:1-12

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”

Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 

After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.

 The man’s neighbors and those who used to see him when he was a beggar said, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”

Some said, “It is,” and others said, “No, it’s someone who looks like him.” But the man said, “Yes, it’s me!” So they asked him, “How are you now able to see?” He answered, “The man they call Jesus made mud, smeared it on my eyes, and said, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and then I could see.” They asked, “Where is this man?” He replied, “I don’t know.”

Receiving

Will you pray with me? Holy God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen. 

Beloved of God, it is good to be together. 

In beginning, it’s important to name up front how damaging our first scripture from John can be and indeed has been. How easy it can be to read this scripture as telling us that people with disabilities are somehow flawed and in need of healing or fixing — two things that are simply not true. It’s good that we have moved away from an understanding of disability or illness — or indeed the rampant spread of the coronavirus — as punishment for sin. And yet how easy it still is for us to see the nameless blind man as a prop — someone born blind “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed through him.” As if he is simply a pawn in a great chess game to prove God’s mercy and might.

This doesn’t seem like the Jesus I know — the Jesus who is committed to relationship. The Jesus who throws social norms out the window to share food, water, a touch or blessing and conversation with the people he meets. The Jesus who breaks sabbath rules to feed and to heal. This doesn’t sound like the God I know — who calls each of us by name and in whose image we are each fearfully and wonderfully made. People who are blind, deaf or otherwise differently abled reveal to us more of God — they learn to hear and to feel and to experience the world differently than those of us who are hearing and sighted. 

So what is going on in this story? “Lyndall Bywater, a Christian who writes and teaches about prayer and is herself blind [invites us to reflect on] the historical context of Jesus’ healing miracles. [Bywater reminds us that Jesus is] operating in a time when being disabled meant being poor, unemployed and excluded from mainstream society.” (1) Indeed, “many disabled people were banned from worshipping at the temple as, under religious law at the time, they were deemed ‘unclean’.” (2)

So part of what Jesus is doing is reconciling community. In partnership with the blind man, Jesus is healing the brokenness of community, for it is not the blind man that is broken but the society that relegates him to its margins. 

And reconciling community is messy– saliva and mud? Really, Jesus? Healing the wounds of society is messy, because it is hard for us to change. A sense of loss, uncertainty and fear almost always accompany societal shifts. The formerly blind man’s community question his identity and interrogate him as to what happened. Eventually his community’s resistance to change is so strong that they reject him once more, casting him out of their company, relegating him again to the margins. His community rejects the healing that he and Jesus have offered. 

Yes. Reconciling community is messy. It’s dangerous. It upends the way things have been. It reveals injustice and inequity and our own deepest biases. 

And it’s disorienting. The formerly blind man’s wider community seems not to recognize him. It is easier for them to believe that he is someone different than it is to believe that he is no longer blind. And can you imagine the disorientation for the man himself? Learning how to use a sense that he was born without: sight. Imagine his brain trying to make sense of light and shadow, color, shape, depth, visual perspective — all for the first time. I imagine he has moments when it is easier to close his eyes, to not see, to rely on what he knows —  sound, smell, touch — than to navigate the world with this new sense. 

I daresay we, like the formerly blind man, have been thrust into a new way of being in the world. It is messy and disorienting, this new way of being that we have stepped into to protect one another and to slow the spread of an invisible disease. This new way of being without touching anyone except those who share our homes. Without travel. Without our regular modes of entertainment: restaurants, movie theaters, the gym or library, coffee shops. For some of us it is a way of being without work, without school, without a paycheck, without any kind of certainty as to how long this will last or what the new normal will look like when all is said and done. 

And so, thank goodness, that into the disorientation of this scripture from John, into the unanswerable questions of a formerly blind man’s neighbors, into the disorientation of coronavirus precautions, physical distancing and self-quarantine; into our own unanswerable questions, we can speak the words of the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd

I shall not want

God makes me lie down in green pastures.

God leads me beside still waters.

God restores my soul.

God leads me in paths of righteousness

For God’s name’s sake.

Yea thou 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.

Thou preparest a table before me

In the presence of mine enemies.

Thou anointest my head with oil.

My cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

All the days of my life 

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

There’s a reason we often hear this Psalm at funerals — because it does not shy away from shadows. It does not shy away from the reality of death and suffering, danger and enemies. It speaks into the reality of fear, loss and pain because those are part of life. We know from experience that God does not prevent us from facing danger or loss. No. 

Instead, God goes with us. 

God invites us both to a table of danger — a table where we sit with our enemies, a table where we face our own vulnerability — AND God leads us beside still waters. God leads us in paths of righteousness. God restores our souls. 

Will we follow? 

In addition to the very real need for us to take seriously the implications and dangers of the spreading coronavirus;

In addition to the very real need for us to care for one another by connecting AND keeping our distance

In addition to all of this, will we allow ourselves to rest? 

Will we allow ourselves to simply BE instead of doing doing doing or simply escaping?

It’s not an easy thing to rest, to surrender, to let go, to be present. If it were easy, we wouldn’t need Jesus or Gandhi or Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Jr or Dorothy Day to teach us about faith. It’s not an easy thing to rest, to surrender, to let go , to be present. Sometimes it may even seem dangerous.

Because our reality is disorienting. 

Because there are very real things for us to grieve: from spring break trips, volleyball games and prom to the reality of our own vulnerability and mortality, the loss of work or savings, the absence of daily or weekly connections and activities that we relied on for our sense of identity and purpose. We grieve the loss of life as we have known it — even if this loss is temporary — even as others grieve the deaths of people they love.

There are very real things for us to fear: the impact of closed schools on education, financial fears, health fears, fears for those we love who are elderly or have asthma or are healthcare providers, fears about what the new normal will be when all is said and done: The Lord is my shepherd, 

I shall not want.

Yea, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death

I will fear no evil,

For thou art with me.

God does not keep us from danger. God does not prevent suffering. But God DOES walk with us. God DOES invite us to receive beauty and rest, reconciliation and renewal.God holds our grief and our fear. Even when we sit at table with our enemies, God anoints our head with oil — God names us beloved. God chooses us again and again. Even in the shadows of fear, our cup overflows. 

And so how will you follow this week? 

How will you open your heart to grief and worry and then turn those things over to God, the maker of heaven and earth?

Will you allow God to lead you beside still waters? Will you receive the restoration that God offers? 

Friends, the abundance of God’s grace beckons us especially in uncertainty. May we have the courage to follow. To trust. To listen and to allow love to fill us and overflow. May it be so. Amen. 

References

(1)  Rose, Damon. “Stop Trying to Heal Me.” https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-48054113 03/21/2020.

(2) Ibid.

© 2020 Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson, all rights reserved. Please contact thandiwe@lovelanducc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.


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