March 22, 2020, We Shall Fear No Evil, John 9:1-41 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

To listen to this sermon, click here:  Z0000183

John 9:1-41

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Psalm 23

Dominus regit me

1 The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.

3 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

 

I decided to read the Psalm here after the Gospel lesson, which is a little out of the ordinary, but I did that for a reason. I almost always preach on the Gospel reading (and the reading today is one of my very favorite chapters in John). But today, I want to talk about the Psalm. Here we are, smack in the middle of the solemn season of Lent, and smack in the middle of a pandemic, and not only that, but all too close to the epicenter of the pandemic, so that businesses and restaurants and even churches are closing their doors, and social-distancing is the new verb of the day, and the popular new craft idea that people are sharing online is how to sew your own face mask, and our Governor is issuing a stay-at-home order for all New Yorkers, enforceable by law. Here we are, smack in the middle of all of that, and the Lectionary, under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, has graciously and wisely and providentially given us as our Psalm for the day what are certainly some of the most comforting words in all of Scripture. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.” “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” These are words for our times. These are words to strengthen our feeble knees and cheer our anxious minds and hearts. This is the word of our Lord to us today.

For those of us who worship at St. Philip’s, I always think it’s almost impossible to read the 23rd Psalm without thinking of our beautiful Good Shepherd window that we see every week as we come to the altar. Like the Psalm, the image is so comforting, of the Shepherd tenderly carrying the little lamb in his arms, of the sheep walking so close by his sides, their faces raised, their eyes on the one who cares for them. The words of the Psalm and the message of that image remind that we are in the company of the one who watches over us and provides for us at all times and in all situations. And there has rarely been a time when we have needed that reminder more: for today, but even more so, for the days to come, which will very likely grow darker still. No matter what is, no matter what may come, we walk in the company of the Good Shepherd, who is watching over us.

It is fortunate for us that King David spent his youth tending his father’s sheep, because it is out of his experience that he was able to paint this wonderful picture for us. As David led his flock to pastures where they could find fresh green grass to eat, and along streams of water where they could be refreshed, God guides his own flock, he guides us, along paths where we are nourished and refreshed. He cares for our most down-to-earth, basic needs; food and water and a safe home. But maybe even more important, he cares for the needs of our hearts and minds. Even on the darkest day, as we follow the Shepherd, we find words or memories, we receive a call from a friend or a piece of music on the radio, moments that lift our spirits when we need it the most.

And you may have noticed that very often, those gifts of refreshment come through our fellow sheep, because that’s the way the Good Shepherd works. He cheers our hearts and mends our hurts through the gifts of our brothers and sisters. A lot of people have shared an interesting experience with me, and I think this happens with all of us at one time or another. They notice that a certain person comes to mind; maybe they have a dream about that person, or they just find themselves thinking about this person. And because of those thoughts and feelings, they feel led to reach out to the person, a visit or a phone call or a meal or a card. And very often it happens that that visit or phone call, that soup or that card was exactly what that person needed at that time. By the grace of God, if we are listening to that still, small voice of his Spirit within us, we become the hands and the voice and the heart of the Good Shepherd for each other, feeding his lambs, caring for his sheep walking alongside one another, carrying one another when that is necessary. It’s no accident that God likens us to sheep, because like people, sheep are creatures who live and thrive in close community, dependent not only on their shepherd, but also on one another, needing the warmth and safety of the flock.

It is also a comforting thing about this familiar Psalm that it doesn’t paint a false, rosy picture of a perfect, problem-free life. Because anyone who has been in this world for more than about five minutes could tell you that life is not all green pastures and still waters. Not one of us, from the tiniest infant to the most senior of senior citizens, is exempt from having to travel through the valley of the shadow of death. For every one of us, our road to God, our road with God, lies through some dark and dangerous terrain. It is simply a part of existing in this world that is broken by sin, overshadowed by our mortality and our separation from one another. The perennial question is “why”? Why do little children get cancer? Why do some people live in poverty? Why are there wars? And, maybe uppermost in our minds these days, why this global pandemic, seemingly coming out of nowhere and threatening the lives and stability of every person and nation on the planet?

The human impulse in such times is to cast around for a scapegoat. Somebody must be to blame. That’s exactly what the disciples did in our reading from John. “Master, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” they asked Jesus. It is a terrible thing to be born into a world without any light, and all the more in those days when the only future for a blind child was to sit on the roadside and beg for charity from strangers you can’t even see. Surely, the disciples thought, someone must have done something really bad to cause such evil and suffering. And we’re not any more sophisticated today. There is plenty of finger-pointing going around in the face of this new virus. It’s a Chinese plot. Or it comes from the decadent, overbearing West. Or it is God’s punishment on the LGBTQ community. There are hardly enough scapegoats to go around, but people seize on their particular favorites. “Who sinned, that this pandemic is sweeping the globe?”

But listen to what Jesus said to them in reply. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” And, of course, what he means by that is not that they were sinless, but that the man’s blindness was not a punishment from a vengeful God for some bad thing they had done. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus answered his disciples. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” We have to stop and give Jesus’s answer a little thought here, because we might think Jesus is saying that God caused suffering in this man just so he could use him to show off his mighty powers. But that’s not what Jesus means at all. What he means is that God was choosing to meet this man in his suffering and not only to heal him, not only to end his suffering, but even more, to transform his suffering into a sign of his love and power, a sign to anyone and everyone who is suffering in this world from blindness, whether physical blindness or spiritual blindness. The blind man who once sat in darkness on the roadside, begging for scraps, became a beacon of light and hope to the world.

Personal suffering, poverty, disease, war, times of great fear and anxiety on a global scale – these are things that happen in a world that is broken and corrupted by sin. But God did not come into the world in condemnation; the sufferings of mankind are not God’s lightning bolts of wrath on our enemies. But the sufferings of mankind are an opportunity for the love and grace and power of God to be manifested in the world. Every time we see acts of kindness and selflessness and courage in the face of fear and sickness, God’s love and grace and power shine out into the darkness. Because everything good, all love, and all courage, and all grace, all those things come from him. They are marks of the Creator’s image imprinted on his creatures. We see the face of the Good Shepherd in one another.

The Psalmist rejoices that the Shepherd shows his care for his sheep in the very presence of the enemy. Again, what is so comforting about this Psalm is that it doesn’t pretend everything is safe and smooth and easy. Of all people, David was aware that we face real enemies. But what we must never do is to think the enemy is our fellow sheep. The enemy is not our political leaders; the enemy is not our sick neighbor; the enemy is not China; the enemy is certainly not gay people. Paul tells us who the enemy is in his letter to the Ephesians. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The enemy is fear. The enemy is division. The enemy is hoarding. The enemy is isolation. The enemy is certainly disease and death. But in the midst of all those enemies, God spreads a banquet for us to share, a feast of hope, a feast of kindness, a feast of love, an abundant feast of mercy and goodness. Surely, David writes, surely God’s goodness and mercy will follow every day of our lives: dark days and joyful days, days of isolation and days of community, days of sickness and days of health. And we will dwell in the house of our God, today and tomorrow and forever.

The Lord bless you and keep you.

The Lord make his face to shine upon you.

The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you his peace.

And the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son and Spirit,

be among us all this day, and remain with us forever and ever.

Amen.

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