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Sermon/Reflection - Christopher Derstine Friesen, March 22, 2020

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

Good morning friends. It’s good to join with you in worship this morning, even through this digital connection. This way of gathering is one more example of just how fast our world is changing. Assumptions that we held last week are no longer true right now. Things we took for granted: meeting friends for dinner, getting our children ready for school, heading to the office or the shop for work, and for some of us, simply having a job at all; are no longer a given.

Our world is being transformed by a virus. An unseen menace is upending our assumptions of what is normal; what is expected; what a day should look like.

I love reading this story from the gospel of John. It’s humorous. It’s a whodunit mystery. There are misunderstandings and character transformations. The action shifts quickly through multiple characters. And as the story unfolds, it peels back layers of understanding.

At its core, it is a story of Jesus healing a blind man and giving him freedom to participate fully in his society. No longer inhibited by his disability and social stigma, the man can now live a more holistic life. He can work to earn himself a living; he can visit the Temple to worship; he can walk the streets of the city without assistance and without the stares of those who would judge him.

It is also a critique of religious fundamentalism and transformation of religious values. Jesus has opened our eyes to seeing a new way for religious and social inclusion. This takes place in the story through a series of unsettling acts. In the story it appears that Jesus disrupts the lives of an entire community. He approached a man without invitation, created mud with his own spit and smeared it on the man’s face, and told the man to go wash himself; all the while ignoring Sabbath restrictions. We see Jesus as very human and, at the same time, a part of the divine.

As a text for Lent, this story stands as an extension of the creation story that pastor John spoke on a few weeks ago. Jesus heals the man with the same earth, the same “adamah” that God used to make Adam. Jesus stands with God as the creator/re-creator of humanity; re-affirming our tie to the created world and Jesus’ identity with God.

But one other theme I am struck by in light of the coronavirus, is just how much each of the story’s character’s assumptions were reoriented. The disciples assumed that a sinful act was at the root of disability. The neighbors assumed that restoration of sight could not take place. The Pharisees assumed that God could not work outside of their prescribed religious rules. The man’s parents assumed that the religious authorities had power over eternal life. And in each of those situations, they were forced to see themselves and the world in a new way.

For many of the characters, we never find out how their lives changed after their assumptions were upended. Did they eventually follow the way of Jesus? How did their relationships with their families change? Did they end up returning to their previous assumptions; dig in; deny? Did they grow - their inner lives, their careers, their love of God and their community? Did they transform their way of seeing; of being?

In the wake of the new reality these past few weeks, I am struggling to understand what to make of our congregation’s Lenten theme of loosening and letting go. I wonder how deep that really goes or should go? What basic assumptions do I need to continue to let go of? What am I afraid of? What behaviors are helpful? What are harmful? What should I give to my family, my friends, my congregation? What does it look like to trust in God, to love? What boundaries should I set? What boundaries should I break down?

I began preparing a very different sermon a few weeks ago. I was excited to explore the various ways of seeing and knowing that this story deals with. But as the coronavirus became a pandemic, I found myself drawn into the story to the experience of the man who was born blind. He is forced to react to a series of unfolding outside forces. He did not choose to be born without sight. Jesus encounters and heals him without invitation. He becomes a celebrity - ushered around and questioned against his will. And in the midst of all of these outside forces, he must constantly make choices of how he is to act, what he is to say. In the story his own understanding of himself and Jesus evolves as he is given time to reflect. In the midst of his changing experiences he is forced to build a new identity.

And the more I reflected on this story, I also felt increasingly unsettled. It was hard for me to see Jesus as comforting and reassuring. He was disrupting - reorienting - shaking things up. I felt a real tension knowing that what we see of Jesus in this story is a movement toward radical healing and inclusiveness; yet yearning for words of comfort. I was left longing for God’s presence for restoration and healing. I wanted to hear the comforting words that God has promised presence; that the structures of upheaval will be quieted; that a peaceful wholeness is possible. And so I turned this week to the readings from the season of Advent, including the one that was read this morning from Isaiah. I have found the promises of God in the Old Testament prophets to be reassuring.

I think that I will now forever be changed in my experiences of Advent and Lent. I am reminded that in our celebrations of Advent and anticipation for Christmas we are practicing patience and waiting for God to act in a world that is broken. In our Lenten reflections we question who Jesus, the product of Christmas, really is. What has God given us? Who is this person, what is this way, what have we found when God has answered our call for Immanuel - God with us?

And so I find a sort of comfort in holding in balance the anticipation of Advent with the revelations of Lent. Both give us strength for our daily journey.

And my daily journey these days has its share of unsettling experiences. My family is in Kansas and I find myself thinking of them often. My mother is nearing 70 and works in the service industry, where she encounters hundreds of people each day. My brother’s job was temporarily suspended. My sister has a newborn baby entering an unknown and dangerous world.

I am fidgety and unfocused. I check the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer constantly for updates. I take too little time to stop, walk, breathe. I vacillate between dread and a cavalier sense that everyone is overreacting. I work extra hours; compensating over-performance for self-care.

Like the man in John’s gospel, we are living a narrative where we are the subjects of an ever-evolving story that we did not place ourselves in. And I wonder, am I seeing correctly?

I am drawn to Jean Janzen’s poem printed in today’s bulletin.

Sometimes hope

The mountainsides blazed

for weeks, ashes falling

on our heads as we stood

in the hazy air.

And then our son came home

with his blackened gear

and slept for days.

He had fought fire with fire

to do the impossible.

Now we see it, the giant

black slash with stumps

in grotesque postures,

acres and acres where nothing

moves or sings, where

nothing waits.

But sometimes hope

is a black ghost

in a fantastic twist,

an old dream that flickers

in the wind.

Not the worried twining

of selfish prayers, but

a reach for something

extravagant, something holy,

like fire itself,

which in its madness

devours the forest for the sky,

and then dreams a new greening,

shoots everywhere breaking

through the crust of ash.

In these new days I have discovered the following:

I find that phone calls have new life. To hear the voice of a friend. To listen closely. To share memories of past adventures and hear what is inspiring them.

I have found solace in cooking. The act of creating with my hands; the physicality of touching and preparing food. The experience of the scents and flavors are heightened.

I have danced more. Letting my body move to the music. It is a way of letting go and focusing. There is so much beauty in the music of this world.

Remember that life continues on its path. We are still in the season of Lent. Easter is still coming. We will experience and celebrate Easter much differently this year, but we will celebrate it nonetheless. And it is impossible not to notice that Spring has roared into our city in bold fashion. Trees are flush with pink and white blooms.

And so say to each of you:

  • It is ok to be scared; to feel unprepared; to not know. It is natural to feel unsettled. Our lives are a delicate balance between our gut feelings, our reasoning, and our practice of faith. All must be held together.

  • We have each other, and that is a wonderful thing. I have seen our community reaching out in love digitally when we can not be face to face and it is a beautiful sight. We are all learning to let go of our assumptions; we are all experiencing the pain and the joy of this upheaval.

  • Take time to be - with yourself ; with your family; with your shelter-in-place cohort

  • Remember that God is with us; the holy terror of the person of Jesus is the spirit of loving upheaval that continues to draw us closer together and closer to God. Our Advent longing and our Lenten awakening are held in tension by God’s ever-present love.

  • Remember the most vulnerable in our communities. Do what you can to care for those who are physically and economically crushed by the coronavirus.

  • Practice a hobby - focus your extra energy into creating and soaking in the things that you love

  • As much as it is safe, go outside and experience the beauty of Spring.

  • Know that silence is good; quiet is not to be feared; we are separated but not alone

  • Remember that sometimes hope is the loosening and letting go; sometimes hope is the reorientation - the letting go of assumptions. Sometimes hope is the tension between Advent and Lent. Sometimes hope is the recreation; sometimes the healing. Sometimes hope is something uncharted.


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