Lost in the Wilderness (3 of 4): Restored Vision of a New Comm-unity
John 9: 1-41 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ March 22, 2020
What does your vision allow you to see these days? If you are like most, you have been glued to the television watching the COVID 19 pandemic unfold. These are very fearful times and our country, indeed…our world…is on high alert as the virus threatens to spread at alarming rates and reports of new deaths and infections are heard each day. COVID 19 was first identified back in December in Wuhan, China and most laypeople, like myself, had no idea how real a threat this would become. It first began with almost a humorous tone as people began avoiding the Corona brand of beer, lest they pick up the new ‘Coronavirus’ they were hearing of. Next, troubling and divisive racist comments began as Asian people were connected with the virus. But it has become all too real for Canadians and people across the world as we move into high levels of alert. Last week, we were advised not to gather in groups of 250 or more and this week gatherings less than 50 are advised as we collectively work together to ‘flatten the curve’ and slow the rapid spread of this dangerous virus. Churches are now meeting electronically, as we are here, and gatherings of every sort have been cancelled until it becomes wise to reconvene. Hoarding and panic buying of supplies is occurring. People are afraid for their health; afraid to leave their homes; afraid over the loss of income; afraid over what this will all mean.
What I would like to offer to us this morning is the wisdom in holding balance in our approach during these challenging times. I believe that we have been well-educated on the importance of social distancing, of cleanliness and the wisdom of not gathering in large groups. The balance I think that our faith offers at a time such as this is in answering that timeless faith question: ‘where is God right now?’ The story before us offers such wisdom as we meet the blind beggar in John’s 9th chapter. This man, not even given the dignity of a name, is a social outcast because of his impaired vision; the community would walk by him day in and day out as he held out his hat asking for spare change. They knew him, but they had learned not to see him, for he was an outcast who was reduced to begging to eeking out a meagre existence. The man cannot see the community which excludes him; and they have grown blind to him as well. And, Jesus heals…he restores the blind man’s vision. In the story, he spits on the ground to make a muddy paste, spreads it upon the man’s eyes, and then sends him to the pool off Siloam to wash and to see.
And what we, the generations of Christians who receive the legacy of this story discover is the revelation of some of the nature of God. The story begins with the typical debate of who is at fault, who caused the problem, or as the text puts it “Rabbi, who sinned this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Does this seem to echo to the state of our world today? As we fear our health, as we fear being around others, as we fear job loss and our financial future, as we fear having enough food and supplies for the coming days, there is a growing separation and blame which, we learn, must…stop. Jesus will not assign blame for this man’s impaired vision; however, he will explain that the purpose of the healing he will perform will be that God’s works might be revealed. God’s goodness, God’s power, God’s healing love will be revealed in the restoration of the blind man’s vision.
And what do they come to see? They come to see that profound gap that had developed in their community. They come to realize that they had excluded this man. There was not unity, there was division. If we were to read through all forty-one verses of this drama, we would hear it unfold as the neighbours, then the Pharisees (the religious officials), the broader community, even the Jewish community wonder who this man with the vision truly is. They all, each one of them, are blind to what is happening ~ the separations the blindness has caused. There is a call for them to come together in unity. To come in unity.
In what one might describe as a modern-day prophetic book, author Robert D Putnam 20 years ago was warning of the rapid movement of our culture away from unity. Putnam sounded the alarm bells of the rapid decline of community and highlighted our desperate need for human connection ~ for unity. He talks about the erosion of “social capital” which is being shown through our declining participation in neighbourhood events and organizations. We do not participate in parent groups, in sporting gatherings, in churches as we once did. Noting high levels of divorce and the scattering of extended families, Putnam even fears the breakdown of the basic social institution…the breakdown of the family. Putnam’s insightful book entitled: “Bowling alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” lifts up his concerns, as a passionate bowler, of the decline of this form of communal activity. All levels of community are in jeopardy: the author’s beloved sport of bowling, the various ways we engage in community, even the family. He argued, 20 years ago, that we must stop the trend, we must unite in community, we must unite with our family, we must welcome the stranger and welcome the neighbor if we are ever to find the depths of joy which we all so dearly need.
In these days of COVID 19 with the need for social distancing, for social isolation and a growing fear of the other who may be infected, community stands in jeopardy like never before. Now, I am not suggesting that we go out and hug our neighbours and strangers we meet on the street just yet. What I am suggesting is that this might be a time when realize how truly isolated and detached we have become. I think this time will gift us with a vision of the need for the renewing of connections like never before. How will this look? Well…during COVID 19, it will be unique, yet community still can be found. I think we will rediscover that these devices we have come to utilize exclusively for social media, for games and texting emoticons, are also capable of one other thing…calling others. While we might need to maintain a social distance, we can be as close as a voice in another’s hear by picking up the phone and making a call. Calling family…calling friends…catching up with long lost acquaintances. This is the time, like never before for us to come in unity and connect. Here at Northwood, we have brought back a ‘telephone tree’ ~ a wonderful tool from the past as we are concerned with the loss of connection and contact among our people. To call one another and say ‘how are you?’ ~ ‘you matter…even though you are alone and isolated…you matter’ ~ ‘how is your faith? How is your life? How are you holding up?’ This unprecedented time in history holds the potential to re-connect in ways long overdue. This is a time to see our need for community, to nourish it, and to build it.
In the text, Jesus continues to explain the time of challenge that lies ahead. He says: “night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” This is truly a time to let Jesus’ light shine into the world as we come in unity and create community with one another. We have heard of the fear-based actions as scarcity overcomes: hoarding needed supplies; people behaving as we never imagined. This is truly a time to let the Christ light shine through who we all are. We worship the one who sacrificed, the one who served, the one who washed the feet of his friends. This becomes our time to ensure that Jesus’ light is shining in the world and live his way. People can be better and shine the Christ light; I know of people offering to get items for those in social isolation…people are calling…people are smiling at the other…we can be more loving, we can be more compassionate, we can be more Christ-like…ESPECIALLY now.
I feel very disconnected as I offer this reflection in an empty sanctuary. I would so love to be with you all in worship because one of the most beautiful things we do is communing ~ gathering and uniting and then passing of the profound mystery of the peace of Christ. We go around to our family, to those near us in church, even those we don’t know and shake hands, and hug, and say “may the peace of Christ be with you”. You remember that don’t you? Of course, we can’t do that right now. But there are still ways for us to commune as the church, to be in community…even from a social distance.
I was recently taught the sign language for passing the peace. Peace goes like this. (gesture movement). And the sharing of it goes like this (gesture movement). No touching or hugging is required! May we share the peace of Christ, especially in these unprecedented times. May we find ways to build and restore community and ensure that the Christ light shines brightly. Friends, if we do this, the light of Christ will be with us now and always. May the peace of Christ be with you.