032220 Lent 4 An Invitation to Break Free
I had a friend in South Africa who visited me in the early 90s when I lived in Mexico, and South Africa was in the process of undoing 50 years of Apartheid. The separation of the races, and the inferiority of people of color, were established by law. I remember one day sitting on the steps outside our house, laughing and drinking beer. Nico told me about a new saying that was going around South Africa at the time: It’s a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack. It was indeed strange. South Africans had been living under the system of apartheid for nearly half a century – and much =longer if one takes into account the informal apartheid that had gone on for many years before 1948. They were living in a new world that hadn’t established new laws yet. People didn’t know what was expected of them. The law changed quickly; but their hearts didn’t change as fast. And they were confused about how to behave.
Today as we face the new world of Coronavirus, people the world over could say the same thing. It’s a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack. But instead of making a statement, we are asking questions. How am I supposed to spend my time when I can’t go to work? How do we entertain ourselves when there are no sports events, theatre or movies to attend? How do I stay in shape when I can’t go to the gym? How will I pay my rent if I get laid off from my job? How will my children get educated when I’m not a teacher?
Governments are also asking questions they perhaps should have asked before the crisis. What do we do with homeless people, now that they are at greater risk, and put the general population at risk if they use up all the hospital beds? Should we allow undocumented immigrants to be tested, since they will also infect others? And the question on everyone’s mind: how long is this going to last?
The season of Lent is a period of preparation for the new world of resurrection. The Letter to the Ephesians says that everything exposed by the light becomes visible. That’s what happens with resurrection: everything is seen in a new light. Lent is a time of exploring the darkness, so we are not caught off guard when the light of resurrection bursts into the world. Lent does that by inviting us to focus on life’s essentials by practicing prayer and fasting.
What does Lent invite us to explore this year as it coincides with the quarantine for Coronavirus? Many new reasons to pray and many new forms of fasting, have been thrust upon us this year. We pray for answers to our questions. We pray for those who are already sick with the virus. We pray that our friends, our families and ourselves won’t get sick. We pray that our leaders will guide us wisely to reduce the deaths.
We also fast – from work, from entertainment, from exercise, from parties, and even from church. Even the way we are worshipping together today on the internet is a new way to pray and a new form of fasting. Most of us haven’t had to do that before. This is indeed a strange, strange world for us. But it is not strange for everyone. Prisoners have lots of experience relating to the outside world in a kind of quarantine. They know what this is like. They even have to talk to their visitors by phone through a glass. I once performed a wedding in a jail where the groom was behind glass and spoke on a phone to the bride and me. Soldiers, people with contagious diseases, prisoners and others have had to fast from physical contact. Perhaps they can be our teachers during this time of quarantine.
That is what the blind man was doing for the religious leaders. He became their teacher, even though they weren’t willing to receive the teaching. They thought they were the teachers – the spiritually sighted. The blind man who was healed had clearer spiritual vision than the religious leaders. They also thought they were free. So do we. But when certain freedoms are taken away, the shallow roots of those freedoms, and the lack of true freedom, are revealed. That may be one of the lessons we need to learn during this crisis.
Many things we thought we already knew are called into question in this strange new world. That’s what was going on in the story of the blind man in today’s Gospel. Jesus’ disciples asked a question from the old world: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? They had no doubt that his blindness was the result of sin; it was just a matter of whose sin. No one is thinking about healing or caring for the man. They simply want Jesus’ answer to a theoretical question about the relationship between blindness and sin.
Jesus’ answer questioned that theological assumption: “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 the One who sent me while it is day.” Jesus shifted the ground immediately. He spoke from a new world that sounded strange to the ears of the disciples and the religious leaders: “It’s not about who sinned; it’s about what we are going to do about it” – not just what Jesus is going to do. “We must work the works of the one who sent me.” What is that work? Jesus shows that God doesn’t relate to us only around our sin. Love, light and healing are more central for God.
The theoretical question only matters when it leads to right practice. Don’t worry about why the man is blind; allow his blindness to be an opportunity to practice God’s healing work. Even though in 2020 very few people believe blindness is caused by a specific sin, many do think that God is punishing them or someone else when something bad happens. It’s not even questioned; it’s assumed. There have certainly been many examples of this since the rise of the Coronavirus. Preachers and politicians have blamed it on the Chinese, on gays, on leftwing socialists, on Democrats and on the pro-choice movement, among others. Young adults have blamed it on baby boomers who wouldn’t take the warnings seriously. Boomers themselves expressed frustration at the Gen A crowds who kept partying on spring break. Many people feel better once they find someone to blame for the malady. Covid-19 may be remembered as the disease that divided us. The problem with that kind of thinking isn’t only that it intensifies discrimination; it also distracts us from what really matters: caring for those in need.
There is another path. We can acknowledge the limitations we discover during this period. We can allow those we have seen as the limited ones be our teachers, opening our eyes to the path through this crisis. It is a strange world, Master Jack. And in that world we might be surprised by the ones who become our guides. We are called to exercise the spiritual vision shown by the blind man, and to renounce the assumed wisdom of the leaders of the old world, which is fading away. May you find the Christ in the least expected people and places during these days, so that in the new world of resurrection, we might have greater capacity to love.