"coronavirus." Image by Alachua County via Flickr; licensed under CC0.
Charismatic and controversial throughout his ministry, the Jesus we meet in the Gospels has a way of rewiring people’s assumptions about how things are. What made him a polarizing figure was this: those assumptions support the norms we rely on to make it through life and to make sense of things as we go.
We’re at our worst when we imitate Jesus’ pattern in order to elevate Christianity by diminishing or misrepresenting other belief systems. (Just consider how Christian teachers have wielded the Gospel of John’s grossly problematic depictions of “the Jews.”)
We’re at our best when we imitate the pattern to eradicate injustices, extend love, and express compassion. Then we put ourselves on the side of healing -- promoting human flourishing and healthy societies.
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Who sinned, Jesus? This question is at the heart of the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Was the man of John 9 born blind because of his own sin or his parents’? Whom can we blame? How can we explain this misfortune?
Stupid question. Built on faulty premises.
Jesus doesn’t want to talk about why. What’s important to know is that “the works of God” are about to become manifest to all. And not only publicly manifest. In the case of the man himself, they will be experienced.1
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You’re in uncharted territory this week, Working Preachers. You’re composing sermons while writing contingency plans for your congregation and checking health departments’ websites. Will you hold worship services in person or find alternate, probably digital ways to bring people into repentance, forgiveness, praise, solidarity, lament, generosity, and encounters with the word of God? Will you be able to visit shut-ins, open your doors to the hungry and homeless, pay your janitorial workers, provide space for addicts who need their group meetings today more than ever, and give your own family the attention they need?
The logistical demands are intense. Some of your lay leaders are panicking too much. Others think they know more than the public-health experts. Your seminary didn’t offer courses about this kind of crisis management. The last thing you want to do is to err in your judgment and end up making all of this harder, lonelier, riskier, and deadlier for people who don’t deserve any of this.
Be sure to take a breath and remember that the works of God can indeed become manifest in the midst of all this suffering, fear, and inability to know what next week will bring.
I can’t tell you exactly what that will be like for you from this point forward, since it depends on the particular conditions where you are. But I do know that you’re going to have to preach this week and every week afterward. It may be in a pulpit, in front of a webcam, in anxious planning meetings, and in countless emails. That preaching will provide you an opportunity to remind everyone what the church is doing here in the first place.
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Christian faith is of course well suited to bear witness to “the works of God” in dismal circumstances. And those “works” aren’t always about healing and happiness.
From the New Testament’s perspective, at least, the church should expect to deliver testimony in dismal circumstances. United to an incarnate and suffering God, we’re essentially engineered to do that. Plus, it can be easier for others to see the light when we all dwell among deepening shadows.
Like Jesus, the saints have continued to defy many prevailing assumptions.
Jesus promised Paradise to one of the lowlifes crucified alongside him while their executioners jeered them.
If Rodney Stark’s famous thesis is correct, Christians’ behavior during the Plague of Galen (165-180 CE) and the Plague of Cyprian (250-262 CE) strengthened the vitality of the church’s witness. Christians’ seemingly irrational determination not to abandon their diseased family members and neighbors made them appear uncommonly virtuous (and increased their own survival rates!).2 Please note: This is not an argument for exposing yourself or your community to greater threat of illness in the current setting. It’s to say that times of risk and isolation call for active advocacy, compassion, and allegiance to one another. Otherwise, why call yourself Christian?
Christians historically have stepped up to alleviate poverty and suffering because those are the things Jesus spoke most clearly about. To say nothing of the fact that those are the places and faces where we encounter Jesus himself.
And when we find ourselves helpless to stop the hardship or be agents of healing, we simply bear witness. Like the man in John 9, we just refuse to stop embodying confidently what we believe to be true.
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Finally, Working Preachers, look forward. As we walk nearer to the cross through the valley of the shadow of death during this surreal Lent, prepare yourselves for the tasks to come. Surely we will experience some goodness and mercy along the way and even more on the other side.
Nevertheless, when the pandemic dust has settled, the traumas will remain. The virus will have claimed the somatically vulnerable. Economic fallout will certainly punish the financially vulnerable for a long time.
We can inoculate against diseases. It’s harder to stop the common assumptions from replicating though.
As soon as we bury our dead our norms will rise again, dragging us into fights about which politicians to blame, who will have to pay to make up for all the lost capital, and finding out who bought up all the Purell at the local store.
When all is said and done, this crisis might assist in eradicating poisonous theologies about prosperity and success. Or it could make them multiply.
We might have a chance to knock down our bigoted theologies of American (or Western) exceptionalism, too. Or we could see them reinforced.
All of that remains to be seen. All I know is, we will need preachers who can help us see, in any season, where the works of God are being made manifest. That starts now, as we devise new and creative ways to demonstrate love and compassion in public, alongside the old ways.
You were called for this: to bear witness to our experience of the works of God in times like these. Please don’t stop. And thank you for doing so, especially now.
- On the Sermon Brainwave podcast for Lent 4A (March 22, 2020), Joy, Karoline, Rolf, and I have what I think is a valuable conversation about what Jesus means by “God’s works” in the John 9 context and how preachers can work with this story without exploiting the man or his blindness. We recorded that podcast long before we knew how chaotic and scary the week of Lent 4 might look like for most of us who are reading this column.
- Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton University Press, 1996), 73–94.