Is the Lord Among Us, or Not?

FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Prayer of the Day: Bend your ear to our prayers, Lord Christ, and come among us. By your gracious life and death for us, bring light into the darkness of our hearts, and anoint us with your Spirit, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Though we are now three weeks into Lent, I am still stuck on last Sunday’s lesson from Exodus. The Israelites were exasperated with Moses, a man who led them out of Egypt with promises of a fertile land flowing with milk and honey, but now has them bogged down in a waterless wilderness. “Is the Lord among us or not?” they ask. Exodus 17:7. A lot of us are asking that question these days, but an affirmative response doesn’t take us anywhere near far enough. There is no shortage of preachers these days telling us that God is indeed among us-but not in a redemptive way. The Rev. Steven Andrew named March “Repent of LGBT Sin Month,” asserting that the coronavirus pandemic is God’s outpouring of wrath upon us for tolerating LGBTQ persons. “The Bible teaches homosexuals lose their souls and God destroys LGBT societies,”[1] he said in a recent press release. However, “Obeying God protects the USA from diseases, such as the Coronavirus.” New York Daily News, March 7, 2020.

Rev. Andrew and his ilk are not alone in their assessment of human tragedies. Jesus’ disciples appear to have had much the same view. “Who sinned,” they asked Jesus, “this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” John 9:2. The assumption here is that somebody must have sinned in order for such a terrible thing as blindness to befall a person. But Jesus puts them straight in no uncertain terms: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” John 9:3. The stark truth is that blindness, like pandemics, just happen. Tornados are as likely to wreck churches as porn shops. Drunk drivers kill children in school zone crosswalks guided by crossing guards and walk away without a scratch. Viruses don’t discriminate between the righteous and the wicked.

Whether we find it comforting or not, God didn’t create a still life universe. God created a universe with moving parts and an element of randomness. Though we often identify the serpent in the Garden of Eden with the devil, that isn’t the way the Bible tells the story. In fact, the serpent was one of God’s good creatures. It was “subtle” or “crafty,” but these qualities are not evil in and of themselves. As St. Augustine reminds us, character qualities become evil only as they are misdirected from their divinely created ends toward self-serving ways. That is always a possibility where randomness exists. Yet an element of randomness is necessary if creation is to grow in beauty, goodness and into a truthful reflection of its Maker such that “God may be all in all.” I Corinthians 15:28.

Jesus goes on to say that the man was “born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Then he goes on to restore the blind man’s sight, thereby demonstrating that God’s mightiest works consist in acts of mercy and compassion. This is not to say that God deliberately blinds people so that God can get good PR from restoring their sight. Rather, Jesus would have his disciples know that, instead of speculating about the cause of any particular instance of suffering, they should recognize in it an opportunity to exercise compassion and thereby demonstrate to the world that “God is among us,” not as an avenging punisher of wrongs, but as a God who is “merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

As of this time, I am under a self imposed quarantine along with much of the rest of the country. I have no reason to believe that I have been infected with coronavirus, but in the absence of testing there is not way for me to be certain. Being retired, there is no compelling reason for me to be out and about in places where I am bound to come into close contact with others. So, it appears that the kindest thing I can do for my neighbors at this point is to steer clear of them! Moreover, though I am a relatively healthy sixty-four year old with no complicating health concerns, I live with a spouse who is immune compromised. For that reason, I am exercising what is probably a larger degree of caution than most others in my position. Fortunately, I am blessed to be living in a part of the country that is sparsely populated this time of year. There are many outdoor places I can go without exposing myself or anyone else to infection. The above shot is taken on the tide flats of South Lieutenant Island where I am harvesting oysters and practicing extreme “social distancing.” Yesterday I spent the first Sunday morning I can remember away from my worshiping community. But I have received numerous calls from family members, concern and prayers from my church and messages from a supportive network of neighbors who are always looking out for one another. It is clear to me that “God is among us” in a merciful, compassionate and redemptive way.

Here is a poem by Robert Frost speaking to human isolation in a way illustrating the deeper truth that “Men work together…whether they work together or apart.”

The Tuft of Flowers

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
 
Source: The Poetry of Robert Frost, (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.) p. 22. Robert Frost (1874-1963) was born in San Francisco, but moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts at the age of ten with his mother following his father’ death. He held various jobs throughout his college years. He was a worker at a Massachusetts mill, a cobbler, an editor of a small town newspaper, a schoolteacher and a farmer. By 1915, Frost’s literary acclaim was firmly established. On his seventy-fifth birthday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in his honor. The State of Vermont named a mountain after him and he was given the unprecedented honor of being asked to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Through the lens of rural life in New England, Frost’s poetry ponders the metaphysical depths. His poems paint lyrical portraits of natural beauty, though ever haunted by shadow and decay. You can learn more about Robert Frost and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Those who follow me with regularity know that I have pointed out time and time again that the Bible does not say anything remotely like that.

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