March 22, 2020
1 Samuel 16:1-13
At one point on Friday, one New Yorker every hour died from Covid-19. That’s one neighbor, one friend, one husband or wife, one brother or sister, one dad or mom. One every hour. The devastation of this illness is hard now for us to comprehend. Doctors in Italy, which has a much higher ratio of intensive care beds to people than we do and was much better prepared for an epidemic like this than we were, now must choose who gets treatment and who dies, because they simply don’t have enough equipment for everyone. Here in this city, health care workers are getting sick and running out of personal protective equipment. We will also, very quickly run out of many other things: jobs, income, livelihood, patience. Will we run out of hope?
Tonight, at 8 p.m., one out of every four Americans we will all begin staying inside except to exercise alone, shop for groceries and medicine, or go to the doctor. We don’t even know how long this will go on—two weeks, a month, two months. We don’t know if we’ll distance now, take a break for summer, and distance again when fall comes. All we know is that we are at the beginning of the outbreak here in New York. The time to stop to outbreak passed while our leaders dallied and downplayed. Now all we can do is try to slow the virus down. Even a person with mild symptoms takes a toll on families. My family and I know that firsthand. This virus can take two weeks to manifest, and then two weeks of time wrecking your body. And that’s the mild case. Right now we are self-isolating, more or less. But more or less will not be enough. Perhaps your mind is running like mine: what will our city look like in a week, when paychecks dry up and cupboards empty? What will our city look like in two weeks, when paychecks and hope are but memories for some people? What about four weeks? I don’t know if I can see so far in the future. But by the grace of God, today’s Gospel passage helps us believe what we can see, and trust in things we cannot. We must believe our eyes, and trust in God’s grace.
At first blush it may seem that this story has nothing to do with anything we’re undergoing today. John tells stories that aren’t what they appear to be about, and this is one of them. It is mean to be read symbolically. Ostensibly, John is telling a story about what happens to a blind beggar Jesus heals on the sabbath. Jesus heals the man, he goes to the Pharisees to be pronounced clean, and they freak out. Who healed this man? They think he’s faking, so they call his parents. Is this your kid who was born blind? Yes. How can he see now? We don’t know—ask him. You—how are you able to see? I told you, Jesus healed me. Impossible! I don’t know if it’s impossible or not—all I know is that I was blind and now I see. They throw him out and he ends up following Jesus, who says, “I came…so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” The Pharisees say, “We are not blind are we,” and Jesus says, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say ‘We see’, your sin remains.” So it appears to be a story of healing a blind man—but it’s really a story about seeing—seeing what we believe, and refusing to see what we don’t believe. And it’s a story, finally about trust: Jesus asks the beggar if he believes—and the beggar does. He asks the Pharisees, elliptically, the same thing: and they do not. The beggar, the blind, the ones who put their faith in Jesus encounter the Messiah. The ones who refuse to believe reject him. In John, faith precedes understanding, or in the symbol John is using in this passage, sight. Perhaps a better word for us might be illumination—the light that brings understanding. Light, as we know in the Gospel of John, comes first.
Now, the U.S. intelligence community for some time had been sounding the alarm about Covid-19. According to the Washington Post, high-level briefings began on January 3rd. But for whatever reason, our leaders didn’t want to see what could happen. And it’s not just them—some crazy spring breaker said, “If I get covid, I get covid. It’s not going to stop me from partying.” This virus is revealing our systematic underinvestment in public health, public safety, and public hospitals—40 years of deriding big government, cutting programs, and incentivizing just in time supply chains. The attack on the professionalism and dedication of American government workers has been, literally, the story of my life. And we are paying for it now. But to want a good government that works, you have to believe that such a government is possible. You have to trust the expertise of people toiling away for decades in anonymity.
I suppose, if you had asked me last year, if I thought a global pandemic were possible, I would have said yes, in theory. But I wouldn’t have worried about it. I know we’ve had some close calls with Ebola, swine flu, H1N1. But I would not have believed a quarter of the country would go on lockdown. It would have seemed to sensational to be believed, like a blind man receiving his sight. I don’t think I would have believed anyone who said that. And yet here we are. And I believe materially today is the best day we’ll have for a while.
This is a story about sight, and we human beings are able to see and believe. Sometimes we cannot see, and can only believe when what we once considered impossible happens. Sometimes we see, and refuse to believe the evidence, which can threaten to contradict everything we thought we understood and knew.
We need to believe our eyes, to recognize that things are changing right now in ways that we won’t want to believe. We don’t want to believe that our health care system is not only unprepared for an epidemic, but woefully inadequate in good times. We don’t want to believe that we really do need to stay home and stay away from each other, but we must. We may believe that our leaders have failed us—they may very well continue to fail us. But believe these hard truths we must—only by believing them will we band together to overcome this virus.
But believing what we see is not enough. We must also trust what we cannot see. When the disciples pointed out the blind man to Jesus, they asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” God’s works will be revealed among now in ways that we can barely imagine. God’s works will be revealed in the community of doctors and scientists who will develop treatments and a vaccine. God’s works will be revealed in our commitment to love one another by staying home and staying away. God’s works will be revealed in all the little ways we find patience and comfort in our confinement. Most importantly, God’s works will be revealed as we trust God, whom we cannot see, to give us the strength and illumination of mind and spirit to overcome this virus. A strength beyond our strength, and light beyond our darkness, a life beyond our death: we believe in the holy catholic church, communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. We will continue to do good, because, as Paul writes, “the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.”
We have to believe what see, and trust what we cannot. The love of the God whom we cannot see gives light to our world. It might seem crazy to say, but God loves us, and right now is as close to us as ever before, in our doubt and our dismay, in our worry and our fear, God is here. Jesus promises that as long as he in the world, he is the light of the world. And now that he is risen, that light is never gone. It always shines. Trust in what you cannot see: believe that Christ is with you. He is, forever.