One of ways that I love to spend my free time is in a massive multiplayer online role-playing game in which I can create the cutest little characters, explore and build new worlds, complete quests, and get to know people from all sorts of extraordinary (and ordinary) places.
While on leave over the last week, I’ve been levelling (think growing-up) a brand new character in a tricky class that I have never played before. One of her most powerful skills is called “time warp” which creates a pretty pink circle in which all of my friends move more quickly and all of our enemies slow right down.
The COVID-19 crisis has been like a massive time warp to me – in which, for some of us, life has slowed right down and, for others, sped up to a pretty unbearable pace; yet, SOMEHOW, we are all supposed to be travelling together towards the kin-dom of God with care, compassion, hope, and understanding.
I am mindful as I write this morning of those suddenly connected with a Christian community or learning opportunities within the broader Church because technology is being used in a way that eliminates travel, reduces cost, safeguards health, and eases the anxiety of walking into a room full of strangers for the first time.
I am mindful of those who feel lost without their grounding songs and familiar rituals, who – because of age or socioeconomic status or just plain personal preference – have been doing it tough on their own without the regular Sabbath space for spiritual nurture and “family” connection.
I am mindful of friends and colleagues, lay preachers, and church councils who have worn themselves thin trying to keep up with messages of hope and comfort, significant pastoral care concerns, the pain of weddings and funerals that look nothing like what was imagined, and on-the-job training in recording and editing and live-streaming in the midst of an anguished concern for human life and wellbeing and deep wonderings about the unfolding future of Christ’s Church.
I am mindful of those for whom the solitude has been a gift – and of those for whom it has been a burden. Of those pushing to return as fast as possible to what was normal – and of those calling for caution and care. Of those for whom this time is threat – and those who see it as an opportunity.
Above all, I am mindful that the kin-dom talk which characterises the season of Ordinary Time takes place far outside of our fragmented hours and days or the time warp experience of COVID-19 that may bring us together or pull us further apart: in the eternal and unfolding mystery of the ONE who WAS and IS and IS TO COME.
Perhaps, at the start of this week, the invitation comes to be less mindful of a life too fast or too slow, and more mindful of the encircling love of God and the company of the saints and to find our rhythm and our rest there.
Amongst all the necessary COVID-9 restrictions, what I am really missing in my spiritual life is gathering around the table to partake in Holy Communion with my fellow worshippers. I am not alone in feeling this special sense of loss, which is not quenched by my taking part in online worship with the 5pm Pilgrim community.
In response to many requests, the Assembly of the Uniting Church Standing Committee has conversed, prayed, and decided that Uniting Church congregations may choose to include Holy Communion in their online services during the period of restrictions. The Wagga Wagga Church Council and our ministers Janice and Yvonne are currently discerning whether to offer this sacrament as part of our online services.
To provide hope and comfort for these uncertain times of separation, Rev Amelia Koh-Butler has written the beautiful Liturgy of Empty Hands. The empty plate reminds us that Christ is the bread of life and satisfies our hungry hearts, and the empty cup reminds us that Christ is the cup of hope who revives our thirst. In our empty hands we faithfully celebrate the empty tomb and in hope we look to new life and new meanings.
When I took this photo of the birdbath and the leaves I thought of this image of empty hands. The bath is half empty because the magpies have drunk, plunged in with joy and flown off to shake their feathers dry. The autumn leaves are falling into it as the days pass.
From their past experience, the birds trust that I will refill the bath with clean water so it is ready for the next time they want a drink or a wash, whether in times of drought, or of plenty.
So it is for us – in faith we trust that our Creator, Redeemer and Spirit will continue to nourish us and inspire us to care for our hurting world.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Welcome friends, fellow pilgrims on the way to God’s promised end in this time of disaster, disease and dis-ease when many of us feel truly anxious and alone in the wilderness ….
Yet, as we gather in new ways and in new times and in new spaces like this one, we remember that it was through the ascension of Christ and his return to the Father, that we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells within each one of us and is with us even now, ensuring a deep and spiritual connection with all the heroes of the faith who have gone before us and with the whole host of heaven. So, in faith, let us pray:
Gracious, gathering God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, from the beginning, connected, and through the connection, creative, and in all creation, communing
with Your children who You fashioned in Your image, wove together with Your own hands, named “beloved,” and called according to Your good purpose and plan, how wonderful, how truly delightful it isto enter this day into the sweet harmony of Your salvation song:
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
As we gather together in this moment with all our sisters and brothers across time and space, may the togetherness of our spirits be a source of blessing and a sigh of our deep yearning for the day when You will gather all things up in heaven and on earth into Your perfect peace -forever and ever. Amen.
Our Good News comes today from John 9 and I read from The Passion Translation.
Afterward, as Jesus walked down the street, he noticed a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Teacher, whose sin caused this guy’s blindness, his own, or the sin of his parents?”
Jesus answered, “Neither. It happened to him so that you could watch him experience God’s miracle. While I am with you, it is daytime and we must do the works of God who sent me while the light shines. For there is coming a dark night when no one will be able to work. As long as I am with you my life is the light that pierces the world’s darkness.”
Then Jesus spat on the ground and made some clay with his saliva. Then he anointed the blind man’s eyes with the clay. And he said to the blind man, “Now go and wash the clay from your eyes in the ritual pool of Siloam.” So he went and washed his face and as he came back, he could see for the first time in his life!
This caused quite a stir among the people of the neighbourhood, for they noticed the blind beggar was now seeing! They began to say to one another, “Isn’t this the blind man who once sat and begged?” Some said, “No, it can’t be him!” Others said, “But it looks just like him—it has to be him!” All the while the man kept insisting, “I’m the man who was blind!”
Finally, they asked him, “What has happened to you?”
He replied, “I met the man named Jesus! He rubbed clay on my eyes and said, ‘Go to the pool named Siloam and wash.’ So I went and while I was washing the clay from my eyes I began to see for the very first time ever!”
So the people of the neighbourhood inquired, “Where is this man?”
“I have no idea.” the man replied.
So the people marched him over to the Pharisees to speak with them.
They were concerned because the miracle Jesus performed by making clay with his saliva and anointing the man’s eyes happened on a Sabbath day, a day that no one was allowed to “work.”
Then the Pharisees asked the man, “How did you have your sight restored?”
He replied, “A man anointed my eyes with clay, then I washed, and now I can see for the first time in my life!”
Then an argument broke out among the Pharisees over the healing of the blind man on the Sabbath. Some said, “This man who performed this healing is clearly not from God! He doesn’t even observe the Sabbath!” Others said, “If Jesus is just an ordinary sinner, how could he perform a miracle like that?”
This prompted them to turn on the man healed of blindness, putting him on the spot in front of them all, demanding an answer. They asked, “Who do you say he is—this man who opened your blind eyes?”
“He’s a prophet of God!” the man replied.
Still refusing to believe that the man had been healed and was truly blind from birth, the Jewish leaders called for the man’s parents to be brought to them.
So they asked his parents, “Is this your son?”
“Yes,” they answered.
“Was he really born blind?”
“Yes, he was,” they replied.
So they pressed his parents to answer, “Then how is it that he’s now seeing?”
“We have no idea,” they answered. “We don’t know what happened to our son. Ask him, he’s a mature adult. He can speak for himself.” (Now the parents were obviously intimidated by the Jewish religious leaders, for they had already announced to the people that if anyone publicly confessed Jesus as the Messiah, they would be excommunicated. That’s why they told them, “Ask him, he’s a mature adult. He can speak for himself.”)
So once again they summoned the man who was healed of blindness and said to him, “Swear to God to tell us the truth! We know the man who healed you is a sinful man! Do you agree?”
The healed man replied, “I have no idea what kind of man he is. All I know is that I was blind and now I can see for the first time in my life!”
“But what did he do to you?” they asked. “How did he heal you?”
The man responded, “I told you once and you didn’t listen to me. Why do you make me repeat it? Are you wanting to be his followers too?”
This angered the Jewish leaders. They heaped insults on him, “We can tell you are one of his followers—now we know it! We are true followers of Moses, for we know that God spoke to Moses directly. But as for this one, we don’t know where he’s coming from!”
“Well, what a surprise this is!” the man said. “You don’t even know where he comes from, but he healed my eyes and now I can see! We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but only to godly people who do his will. Yet who has ever heard of a man born blind that was healed and given back his eyesight? I tell you, if this man isn’t from God, he wouldn’t be able to heal me like he has!”
Some of the Jewish leaders were enraged and said, “Just who do you think you are to lecture us! You were born a blind, filthy sinner!” So they threw the man out in the street.
When Jesus learned they had thrown him out, he went to find him and said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?”
The man whose blind eyes were healed answered, “Who is he, Master? Tell me so that I can place all my faith in him.”
Jesus replied, “You’re looking right at him. He’s speaking with you. It’s me, the one in front of you now.”
Then the man threw himself at his feet and worshiped Jesus and said, “Lord, I believe in you!”
And Jesus said, “I have come to judge those who think they see and make them blind. And for those who are blind, I have come to make them see.”
Some of the Pharisees were standing nearby and overheard these words.
They interrupted Jesus and said, “You mean to tell us that we are blind?”
Jesus told them, “If you would acknowledge your blindness, then your sin would be removed. But now that you claim to see, your sin remains with you!”
*** It’s an interesting way to start a story, isn’t it?
The disciples see a man afflicted from birth by blindness and their immediate assumption is that somewhere along the line someone in his family must have done something terrible to deserve this punishment.
Their question reveals as much about their culture as it does about their picture of God, their notion of justice, and the attitudes that they have towards others that have been ingrained since birth by teachers and parents and rabbis and priests. It is a wonder, actually, that they did not spit on the ground and curse at him as they passed him by.
Yet, Jesus does not just walk on without seeing both the need of this man and the opportunity to open the eyes of his disciples to shine a light wherever it is dark.
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the physical limitation of the man born blind is far more easily remedied than the disbelief of his neighbours, the rigid and enraged hearts of the religious leaders, and the fearfulness of the man’s family of being thrown out in the street – excommunicated from their faith community if they celebrate that something miraculous has happened to their son and publicly confess Jesus as the Messiah.
By the end of the story, we only hear account of one man – the blind man – seeing with new eyes Jesus, the Son of God, as the source of his healing and salvation and declaring, “Lord, I believe in you!”
I wonder what the disciples believed in this moment; how watching the interaction between Jesus and this so-called cursed creature and then Jesus and their Jewish leaders may have challenged what they thought they knew about the world and people’s place in it.
On Thursday morning, I felt that I had woken up in a new world as we, in the Uniting Church in Australia, have been urged – like churches in other denominations throughout the world – to cease meeting in person for the common good of all on our planet, but particularly the most vulnerable in our midst.
COVID-19 follows so closely after the devastating bushfires and a period of prolonged drought and other natural disasters that we must surely say, “This is the dark night when no one is able to work.”
Yet, as spit on the ground could be used to open the eyes of those who desire to see, this time in our life as God’s Church, challenges all who believe in the Son of God, to become signs of His presence with us and lights that pierce the world’s darkness.
As we are challenged by this dark time to forgo many of our religious traditions and rituals, to think about what we know of the world and people’s place within it, and to embody the healing and transforming power and presence of Jesus, let us be particularly mindful of those who feel forgotten as the public eye has shifted so quickly from the horrors of this summer and a long, dry season to this global pandemic.
Let us be mindful of vulnerable communities throughout the world whose little access to adequate healthcare or good nutrition or sufficient space to self-isolate or maintain social distance places them at great risk.
Let us be mindful of the elderly in our midst, and, especially, those on their own who already feel isolated, and who cherish the company offered in physical gatherings and in the peace passed by human touch.
Let us be mindful of those whose names we have forgotten, who have been on the margins of our Christian communities or ceased to worship a long while ago due to difficult family circumstance and ill health, and may slip through the cracks in our care
Let us be mindful of all who have already been struggling day in and day out with cancer, and depression, domestic violence, and addiction, broken relationships, and financial concerns.
Let us be mindful of those whose employment makes them vulnerable to infection and those whose employment and income are currently at risk.
Let us be mindful of individuals and families who can neither celebrate wonderful moments nor grieve great losses as they would normally do.
As I end with an encircling prayer, I invite you to write down some of the names of people and places that come to mind as we consider those who are especially impacted and to lay them out on a piece of cloth or a scarf which you will fold over them each time you hear the word “encircler” – just as Christ covered the man’s eyes with spit and mud his act of healing.
Let us pray (adapted from the Carmina Gadelica III):
My Christ! My Christ! My shield, my encircler, Each day, each night, each light, each dark: My Christ! My Christ! My shield, my encircler, Each day, each night, each light, each dark.
Be near us, uphold us, our treasure, our triumph, in our lying, in our standing, in our watching, in our sleeping.
Jesus, Son of Man! Our helper, our encircler, Jesus, Son of God! Our strength everlasting: Jesus, Son of Man! Our helper, our encircler, Jesus, Son of God! Our strength everlasting. Amen.
To my fellow pilgrims on the way to the promised end
As I write the letter for this fourth week of Lent, I have just secured a precious treasure from the Aldi next door: a single packet containing 4 rolls of two-ply toilet paper. The conversations as I stood in the long queues were mainly centred around how mad the world has gone, concerns for elderly parents, and recommendations on where people might find other rarities like hand sanitiser and antibacterial baby wipes.
In this anxious time, we face not only significant concerns about our health and the capacity of our health care system to handle this rapidly changing situation, but also considerable interruptions to our daily life as we are called to care for another by maintaining our distance and self-isolating in the case of overseas travel or any sign of illness.
At church, we cannot pass the Peace as we are accustomed or share in a common cup or offer a hand on the shoulder or a warm embrace – even though these signs of Christian fellowship are sometimes the only experience of community and connection that we might encounter in a week.
Yet, as Jesus heals the man born blind by counterintuitively covering his eyes with a mixture of mud and spit in John 9, perhaps we can find new eyes with which to see how we can expand our circle of care beyond one sacred hour in the week or the physical limitations of our church buildings.
Yosef Kanefsky, a Rabbi in Los Angeles, offers some provocative thoughts on how we might protect each other by mutual distancing yet still offer meaningful and much-needed connection: “Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.”