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Virtual Hugs (Lent 4)

This has been another crazy week. The new reality of life in a time of COVID-19 is sinking in. Words like social distancing and self-isolation have taken on new meaning. We have seen the number of cases in Ontario jump from 103 when I spoke to you last Sunday to more than 350 today. That number will continue to increase, and we don’t know for how long. The news from around the world is frightening. And yet, we are also seeing that containment and social distancing in some countries have indeed flattened the curve. That gives us hope and the determination that each one of us must do what we can to ensure that flattening happens here.

We need to stay home as much as possible. That means that isolation is something that all of us have experienced this past week, to a greater or lesser extent. For me, for now, it’s not too bad. My daughter came home this week, so there are three of us at home, I’ve got internet, and we can still go outside for walks and get groceries if we need to. For others though, isolation is more severe. Loneliness, economic stress, fear and anxiety are common reactions. Our prayers go out to those who are sick, or who have loved ones with COVID-19. We’re learning what isolation is like, and we’re about to experience a whole lot more.

Last week’s gospel, the life-giving encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, began with social distancing. The woman came to the well at noon, all alone.

This week’s gospel, another life-giving encounter between Jesus and the man blind from birth begins with isolation. Not physical isolation, not the sort of social distancing that you and I are practicing, but an even more devastating isolation, insidious and involuntary. Imagine for a moment that you are blind. Close your eyes if it helps. And then, imagine hearing people walking along, coming near you, talking about you, not to you, asking “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Forget the theological implications of this question. Think about the human implications. Devastating. How isolating it must have been to be on the receiving end of that question. To be blamed for one’s own blindness. To be talked about as an object of theological curiousity. To be disdained and marginalized.

Humans are quick to find fault. When something doesn’t go the way we want, we want to know who’s to blame. We pass judgement without even thinking about it, without even thinking about how it marginalizes and isolates people. We do it in society, we do it in the church, we do it in our day-to-day lives, with terrible consequences.

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus puts an end to the blame game: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”

Then he makes a sharp pivot from finding fault to focusing on God:

“But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of the One who sent me while it is day.”

Jesus puts the focus on what God might do in this situation, and the need to work the works of God. Instead of asking “who’s to blame?” Jesus asks “what is God going to do?” And then he does it. He works God’s works. And what are God’s works: reaching out; healing; building relationship.

In the imagery of the gospel of John, this is a movement from darkness to light. The text begins in darkness. A man who can’t see. The disciples asking who is to blame. Judgement and isolation. There is darkness in the world.

Then light comes into the darkness. Jesus, the light of the world, moves from finding fault to finding God. We must work God’s works. Jesus reaches out to the man. Jesus heals his blindness. Jesus brings him into relationship. The man can see. There is light.

But darkness is persistent. Our human habit of blaming and finding fault is persistent. As soon as Jesus leaves the scene of today’s gospel, the recriminations and fault finding begin again. People want to know what happened. How it happened. Who’s to blame. They start to find fault. “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.”

A great healing that should be cause for celebration turns into an inquisition. Was this man really blind? Call his parents! The man who now sees is interrogated, reviled, and rejected. “You were born entirely in sins, and you are trying to teach us?” They drive him out. The darkness returns, to his world and to theirs, and to ours. How many people have we driven out over the years with our judgement and fault-finding?

But the light is also persistent. It will not be overcome. Once more Jesus enters the scene to work God’s works. Once more Jesus reaches out to the one who has been discarded. Once more, Jesus brings healing. Once more, Jesus ends isolation by building relationship. Once more, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

What would happen if we were to make the pivot from finding fault to working God’s works in our lives? To whom can we reach out? Where can we bring healing? How can we build relationships that are freeing and life-giving?

Sometimes in difficult times we ask the question, where is God in all this? We’ve heard the promise that God will be with us, we heard it again this morning as we said Psalm 23:

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.”

When things get dark, it is easy to lose sight of God’s presence with us. It can be hard to see what God is doing. It is too easy to point fingers and find fault. The man born blind in today’s gospel knows all of this only too well.

But then he encounters Jesus, the light of the world. Jesus makes the pivot from finding fault to working God’s works. Jesus reaches out, brings healing and builds relationship, because that’s what it means to work God’s works. And by doing this Jesus, the light of the world, makes God present and active in our world and in our lives and in this man’s life in particular.

And then Jesus says to us, “you are the light of the world”

Friends, it is time to work God’s works. Because you are the light of the world. You are the bearers of the promise that God is with us. We are in a time of gathering darkness, and we need your light.

Reach out to those who are isolated. People who live alone. Pick up the phone, send email, check-in on neighbours, especially those who are marginalized, sick or vulnerable. Walk your block, and especially in this time of social distancing, smile and make eye contact. Reach beyond your usual circle.

Bring healing. Show compassion. Care for your neighbours. Help with errands, get groceries, make sure people have their medications. Do it safely. Ask how you can help. Find a way to give virtual hugs. Lend an ear to those who need someone to talk to. Send an e-transfer to someone who needs it. Support shelters and food banks.

Build relationships. Connect and deepen. Spend time in prayer, deepening your relationship with God. Pray for others. Make a long list of people to pray for. And then call them. Talk about stuff that matters, be willing to go to places of pain, yours and theirs. Be kind and gentle with each other. Don’t forget to laugh.

You know this stuff, I know that you do. The church was brought into being for times such as these. You are the light of the world, so let your light shine, and work the works of the One who called us to follow him.


Homily Yr A Lent 4, March 22 2020, St. Albans Church

Readings: 1 Sam 16.1-13; Ps 23; John 9.1-41

Image by are you gonna eat that, creative commons


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