A homily for Lent 4, on Sunday 22 March 2020:
Morning Prayer, lived-streamed by
the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock – John  9:1-41.Partially Detached Retinas

What a strange and unnerving time this is!  How strange it is to be live-streaming Morning Prayer as the only way we currently have to keep the prayers and to keep connected as Christ’s Body.  Amidst the trials of this time, in which everyone and everything we know is affected by the covid-19 virus, the old children’s Sunday School demonstration comes appropriately to mind.  It is one I have used with our own kids from time to time, at the “Word for the Children”.  You know how it goes: “Here is the church; here is the steeple.  Open the door, and see all the people.”

The clear lesson from this has always been that the people are the church, not the building, not even what we do.  With the enforcement due to the virus, this children’s lesson is one we again need to recall and take to heart.  For extraordinary public health reasons, we are not allowed to gather for worship in our building.  As a result, we do not have the reinforcing benefit of seeing one another at prayer or hearing our voices sing.  Moreover, we can’t even see one another’s faces.  For the foreseeable future, we will not hear the wonderful shuffling of feet, as we walk down the aisle to find our pews or to come to the altar rail.  The mewing of young children and even the occasional outburst of our kids as they head out for Sunday School are all eliminated, due to our required separation.  Consequently, contact with one another, from sharing the Peace to continuing the “feast” at “Coffee Hour”, is drastically reduced to “remote” facsimiles – like this live-streaming.

But the fact remains, that missing all these familiar subsidies in our common life and as helpful as these supports are, we, “the people” (to borrow a phrase) are the church.  We are Christ’s Body in the world, at this time and in this place.  The fact is that the church was made for these times; and (especially since we can’t go to church), we are called now to new ways of being the church.

So, what does being the church look like?  In this time of disruption, how will we be the church in new ways?  This question is not a new one for St. Philip’s.  For over a decade our church has had to face changes in the way we embody “church”.  Now, in this dis-eased time, perhaps a deeper sense of urgency will spur us into some real and transforming action.  Will we see what we have not wanted to see?  I think today’s gospel lesson speaks directly to this issue.

The gospel from John [9:1-41] relates the dramatic story of the “man born blind”.  The unusual length of this lesson seems to convey the importance of what it portrays.  With dramatic flair, this gospel unfolds itself in a series of revealing episodes that play back and forth, as if to say: “Meanwhile, back at the ranch”.  In particular, what I find interesting is that, while the climax of this story clearly is the restoration of the man’s sight, yet, unlike the accounts of other gospel “miracle” stories, where the healing is the pinnacle, in this story the healing of the man’s blindness functions more as catalyst for all that follows.

Yes, all of Jesus’ “miracles” reveal what life with God is like, at the same time as they also demonstrate that in Jesus the promised God-life is now active and spreading among us.  But in the case of the man born blind, the healing is surrounded by other issues: Issues that point to the challenge of following Jesus (that is, being the church) and of what it takes to see and live Christ’s new life.

The most vivid example of this challenge nestles in the question with which the reading begins: “Who sinned … that this man was born blind?”  Even in our seemingly sophisticated culture, this question and its derivatives still have a tendency to linger in our consciousness.   Questions from “what did Bill Belichick do or not do to cause Tom Brady to leave New England”, to “is God behind this virus”, we have a deep need to know who or what to blame, when our lives are rocked.  Blaming is the inherent human reaction whenever we are faced with life’s uncontrollability, not to mention life’s profound complexity and mystery.

“Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” If we listen carefully and manage to detach ourselves from the emotional intensity of the question, we can see that there is more than curiosity behind this inquiry.  There is fear.

The truth is that I find that the motivation behind our propensity to blame is almost inevitably fear and also the need most of us have to turn a blind eye to what is actually at stake.

In this gospel lesson, Jesus responds to the provocative (albeit misleading) question, but what appears to be his answer doesn’t satisfy what our blaming expects.  What Jesus says is that no one is to blame, not the man, not his parents, not God.  Rather, Jesus says, the man’s blindness gives us an opportunity to see – to see what life on God’s terms is truly like, which is a life that is available to us now.

And here is what Jesus does. With the unnervingly intimate action of making mud from his spit, Jesus applies this poultice to the man’s eyes, sends him to wash in the Pool of Siloam (the healing pool in Jerusalem), and voila!  The man’s blindness is overcome.  Now as significant and challenging as this aspect of the gospel story is, it is not the end or even its ultimate point – not by a long shot.

What does it mean to be the church?  What does it mean to be Christ’s Body in the world in new, life-giving ways, especially when the old ways are fading away?  What does it take to see all this?  Do we even want to see?

The experience of the man born blind gives fair warning to these questions.  Bearing the new life of sight, the man returns home only to have people question his identity and then his veracity, when he says that this seeing man before them and the blind man they knew are one in the same man.  When he speaks of Jesus as the cause of this new sight, the religious authorities denounce this possibility and eventually throw him out of the faith community.  Even the man’s parents squeamishly dodge how all this happened, until Jesus comes back into view.

Hearing that the man had been excommunicated both from the synagogue and the social community, Jesus found him to see how he was doing.  In asking the man the pointed biblical question of whether he believed in the “Son of Man”, the newly sighted replied: “Who is he that I may believe?” – the word “belief” actually meaning to “give one’s heart away”.  Jesus, so matter of factly, answers: “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  Now what?

Turning to leave, Jesus announces over his shoulder to anyone daring to pay attention: “I came into this world for judgment so that whose who do not see may see …” [John 9:37]

And that pronouncement about granting sight to those who do not see applies to all of us.  I say this because it seems that all of us have partially detached retinas.  Wherever we look, there is a blind spot, especially when it comes to seeing God in our midst..  And this stems from our recalcitrance, which is rooted in our fear – fear of the new life, of leaving what we know, even if what we know holds us in blindness.

One of my favorite hymns, one I remember my Swedish mother singing to my Irish grandparents when they would visit us, is “Be Thou My Vision.”  My friend and parish colleague, Karen Banta, plays this tune so well, and she knows it makes me cry.  The opening stanza goes:
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
all else be naught to me, save that Thou art –
Thou my best thought, by day or by night;
waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

I speak in embarrassing truth for myself but also for you and others: We are addicted to our fear.  Our fear prevents us from seeing God what God sees.  Our blindness prevents us from seeing the God-life in our midst and that we are not on our own.  To see that we are loved, valued as God’s own (that is, to see the way God sees  — such vision scares us because to see with God’s eyes inevitably changes us.  It removes our blind, self-insulating excuses: The ones we have relied upon to keep us from moving beyond the old patterns, routines, and familiarities.  As incarcerating as blindness’s darkness is, we at least know it well and take some perverse comfort from it regularity.

But in Jesus, we gain the vision of God’s eyes and begin – gradually, haltingly — to see what God sees, which is life unbound by fear.  Specifically, we begin to see the truth that we are loved by God-in-Christ – no matter what; that we have been given what we need yet cannot provide for ourselves.

With this clear-sighted vision and in this deep time of uncertainty and fearfulness, I ask all of us to remember to keep our eyes on the prize of God’s love and life for us, to discern between what is eternal and what is passing away, and in the midst of this frightening trial to keep the faith and be the church.

It is very clearly a time when seeing Christ’s Body in the world is needed most.  And so, I leave you with the last phrase of this Irish hymn, as proclamation and prayer:
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, still be my vision, O Ruler of all.  Amen.