Sermons

Go and Wash; Rev. Dee Ledger, March 22, 2020

Oh, Sisters and brothers, what a week it has been!  Many of you, indeed most of you, are adjusting to new routines, after having had to give up way more than you bargained for in Lent.  And today, we hear about washing – Jesus instructs a man blind from birth to go wash in a pool that just happens to be named “Sent,” a word that points to “purpose.”  And then there is the part when Jesus says, “Night is coming when no one can work.”

Aside from the instruction to wash, which we have heard repeatedly from our health officials and others in this fight against time and Covid-19, our story today resonates in more ways than one.

For many of us, night has already arrived.  Some of us are sick or concerned about being sick while we are the sole caregivers for others.   Several among us are worried about not being able to work, about losing employment during this global pandemic or losing the little bit of financial security that we have set aside for a rainy day, never mind for a deluge.  Some of us had to let go reluctantly to wedding plans and family gatherings, birthday parties, and social engagements.  Many are struggling with keeping children on some kind of home-schooling routine while working from home.  Many of our elders are fearful of having to venture out for doctor appointments and groceries; our younger folks are afraid of being vectors or carriers of disease.  Parents fear for children and children for grandparents.  Many elders and others are struggling with the very real effects of isolation and more stringent social policies where they live.  And many are squinting just to see hope rising among the hardship of social distancing and political blindness.  You are not alone in feeling that the night is deep and scary right now.

But what does John’s gospel have to say to us who are anxious and afraid?  It is a valid question; we are challenged to find reason to hope in seemingly hopeless times—for ourselves and for others who may have little faith that we can emerge from this public health crisis intact as a people.

There is a lot of blame happening, initially, in this scripture story.  Did you happen to notice?  The people want to blame the man’s blindness on the parents, on their sin.  They want answers to why this is happening, as if that would give a better sense of control.  The Pharisees and leaders blame Jesus for being a sinner who is incapable of healing anybody or anything.  But blame isn’t often constructive; it is often destructive.  And we hear blame in the current situation – blaming the Chinese, blaming foreigners,  blaming our leaders, blaming those who still refuse to listen and heed the warnings coming from Italy, China, Germany and other places, blaming sinners, and looking for a scapegoat so that we can feel better or make sense of the chaos that this virus has wrought.

But a much worse virus would be to turn against each other and to sow division on any level when we need each other the most.  Jesus shifts the focus away from our tendency to ask “who did this” to how the man – and all of us—may reveal God’s power and promise.

No matter our physical ability or disability, no matter our weakness or vulnerability, no matter how old or young, frail or strong, Jesus says that God can be seen at work in us and yes, in this crisis.   I know it is hard to believe when you are stuck at home, feeling isolated from friends, family, and your neighbors, when you take pills for chronic pain or depression,  when you can’t walk or bend or move your body or even think  as you desire, but God is still at work in you.  You are still needed, valuable in God’s eyes, and filled with God’s glory.  Even in this pandemic.  Even if you get sick.  And yes, even if you die.  God’s power and love can be revealed in you.  The weakest among us can still be strong in God, necessary and needed.  Just as the man’s blindness does not diminish him, this virus will not diminish who you are and can be in God’s sight. For that matter, neither will death.

Even today, some people will say that this Covid-19 has come because of our sin and because of our freedom of thought and belief.  God doesn’t work that way.  True, we are all sinners, yes.  And yes, there are many, many things that we can and should do better to help our planet, our neighbors, and ourselves.  Perhaps  this pandemic will help people to see how we can work together to heal our ailing earth and to curb our rapacious appetites for more and more at the expense of the poor and vulnerable, not to mention the planet itself.  But the God in which I believe doesn’t send a virus or a plague just to prove a point. It’s not as if we’ve had a “free pass” until now, until God gets angry enough now in 2019-2020 to smite all of us with holy anger.  That being said, we are part of a world that is inextricably linked to each other, to the animal world, to viruses, to creation and to natural forces and mysteries that we are still discovering.  If anything, this pandemic reveals just how close we are and how much we must work to collaborate for the kind of world in which we wish to live.

Washington, D.C. has known epidemics before.  From the Influenza Archive, a project of the University of Michigan, we know that on September 26, 1918, Washington, D.C.’s Health Officer Dr. W. C. Fowler warned the public to be cautious about influenza, but as reports grew of deaths, he became concerned and  recommended that all citizens stay off streetcars if possible.  He asked all organizations to postpone all unnecessary meetings.  Like our some of our public leaders, he initially and falsely believed that “Washington, with its high degree of wholesomeness” would be immune to serious outbreak.[1]  Yet, he and others would change their opinion in the following days.

By early October, the school board had decided to close all public schools in Washington, D.C. sending approximately 50,000 students home for the duration of the epidemic. Louis Brownlow, District Commissioner, ordered the cancellation of all public gatherings (including public funerals) and the closure of churches, theaters, and movie houses effective October 3.[2]  Businesses and shops were restricted in operating hours to relieve streetcar congestion.  Health official Fowler became ill with something resembling the disease and issued  a one-page circular on the disease’s prevention and treatment, to be sent to every household in the city.

Another public official, Brownlow, ordered churches and Sunday schools closed and barred children from city playgrounds. He also “ordered physicians to report all influenza cases and to isolate all patients as stringently as possible; the fine for failing to do either was a whopping $50.”  Public libraries were closed. George Washington University closed, and Georgetown University suspended regular classes.”[3]

In many ways, what we are experiencing in these surreal days may feel unique to us,  the hardships personal, and more than burdensome in our lives.  But history shows us that we are not immune to disease with its sudden appearance and its deep reminders of our mortality.  Indeed, such was the case even in Jesus’ day.   As the psalm says, our years are like a dream swept away;  they are “like grass that is renewed in the morning;” in the morning they flourish and are renewed, but in the evening, they fade and wither. (Psalm 90:5-6)

In Jesus’ day, a little bit of mud and water went a long way to healing a man’s sight.  So, let’s look at this in a different way, shall we?  What mud and dirt, what dis-ease and turmoil, do we need to wash away today, in order to reveal a blessing tomorrow?  What bit of mud and dirt in our lives can we transform by way of attention, prayer, and action, so that we can see our world, our neighbor, and ourselves in the light of Christ?   What blame do we need to let go of, and what eternal truths will strengthen us?

May we go and wash; may we encourage others by our loving example to do likewise so that we may see what we can’t see right now.

Amen.

 

 

[1] The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia. J. Alex Navarro, PhD, Alexandra Stern, PhD, Howard Markel, MD, PhD, Editors-in-Chief,  A project of University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine and Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library

http://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-washingtondc.html

 

[2] The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia. J. Alex Navarro, PhD, Alexandra Stern, PhD, Howard Markel, MD, PhD, Editors-in-Chief,  A project of University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine and Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library

http://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-washingtondc.html

[3] ibid, http://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-washingtondc.html