Thoughts on 4th Sunday in Lent, March 22, 2020
by Rev. Jim Ryan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Let’s face it, this Gospel passage (John 9:1-41) is a wonderful story, a narrative worthy of Lent. Liturgists like it, especially when used in conjunction with catechumens who are preparing for their Baptism at the Easter Vigil. Catechists like it for its abundance of lessons to be gleaned. But for community listening and sharing this narrative is way too long.
Too long, especially, because the central piece of it is one kind act. One simple healing. All the rest is noise and filler, frankly.
So, let’s take a look at what Jesus did. He made a mud paste, applied it to the blind person’s eyes and told him to wash in the pool. Later, for some reason, Jesus followed up with the now healed man to see if his faith now saw as clearly as his eyes did.
The rest of this story is, as I said, filler. Let’s keep focus on this act of kindness because in a time of Covid-19 we require clear-eyed sight. In a situation of social distancing and stay-at-home orders we will all be called upon to carry out small acts of kindness. Given the possibilities of sniping and bickering isn’t acting kindly to be preferred?
The picture of the two runners at the top of today’s Order of Service speaks to me of kindness. Maybe you have seen this picture. It tells the story of one runner – the leader with victory in sight – who pulled back to wrap arms around another faltering runner for support. In this way they finished the race together – not in first place, but in full possession of the prize of kindness and friendship. These are the acts of kindness we will be called upon to do in the time ahead, pandemic time.
Recently, I heard a telling comment from David Brooks, columnist and social commentator, of the New York Times. He has been reading up on the history of pandemics. Possibly the worst pandemic of avian influenza to impact this country occurred in the aftermath of World War I lasting at its height over the two years, 1918 and 1919. It is referred to now as the Spanish Flu.
What intrigued Brooks is why this outbreak is not more imbedded in our cultural history. Why doesn’t it stand out as a nation united in a straightforward determination to battle such a foe and come out on top? He discovered that a very telling reason why the cultural move has been to sideline the cultural lessons of that flu and that time was because people were ashamed of their actions in face of the flu.
In a time that required social solidarity and cohesiveness too many people disregarded public health guidelines, declaring, yes, a hoax perpetrated upon them. Historians and society itself have not been kind due to the evidence of selfishness and disinformation that only served to exacerbate and not mitigate the deadly and tragic events of the so-called Spanish Flu.
As many of you know Jean grew up in Cherokee, Iowa, a farming town in northwest Iowa. The Catholic cemetery at the town’s outskirts contains at its center a large cross and a circle of graves. The graves, if memory serves almost a dozen of them, mark the burial of members of the Servite Community of Nuns, the Order of the Servants of Mary. In early 20th century Cherokee, the Servite Sisters had their Provincial Motherhouse and training center for the young nuns there.
The Sisters who are buried in that cemetery were aged 18-21 at the time of their death and all died between 1919-1920, all victims of the avian influenza. You can be sure that such concentrations of death in those years are replicated all over the country due to the tragic impacts of Spanish Flu.
So, we have been here before. It just may be that this time around we could muster the resources that will prevent a story of shame, a narrative of inattention and unnecessary deaths from being told about us.
Now, while being fed stories of don’t worry about the Stock Market, the banks, bouncing back and all that, does it seem to you that capitalists have missed the boat when it comes to maintaining and sustaining a healthy, cohesive, mutually supportive society? Does it seem, rather, that just ordinary folks are picking up the ball? And shouldn’t plain ol’ ordinary folks get the most support to keep families, neighborhoods, towns, villages, and cities – keep them vibrant pieces of a healthy society?
Here’s how kindness takes over. Simple acts of leaving a $50 tip for a $10 pick-up order. Simple acts of volunteering to deliver free meals to the families of first responders and health care workers. Simple kindness of sewing masks in the millions – because there is no monetary profit in having masks and other pieces of protective equipment stored in quantities that justify preparedness to maintain public health.
Because markets and the capitalists who oversee them are ill-equipped to honor the need of our collective public health it is time for kindness and charity to take over. Charity has always had an uphill climb as an organizing principle of society. WHAT, GIVE IT AWAY? Don’t play the fool!
So, let’s think about this. In a time of falling markets those who believe in markets (yes, it is a belief system) can only say, “Just wait, they’ll come roaring back. Markets will save us.” Doesn’t that sound a lot like faith? And a misguided faith at that.
I mean, with all the accumulated wealth that has been concentrated and squandered on the few in this society how is it possible that a faith is maintained in the social benefit of capital markets? Why fight over the crumbs of 2-4% return on investment?
Rather than a misguided faith, we can live out a vital, beneficial, and transparent faith by adopting charity as a way of life.
One person who paid the ultimate price for advocating charity was the 14th century Christian mystic, Marguerite Porete. She was burned at the stake with full approval of church authorities, of course, for her heretical views. Marguerite taught what today’s volunteers experience when they deliver free food and the family on the receiving end gives them hearts drawn and decorated by their children. Can’t pay for food with paper hearts, you say?
Here is what Marguerite Porete, in her book The Mirror of Simple Souls, has to say about charity which she ascribes as feminine:
“Charity gives to everyone everything that she possesses, and does not withhold even herself, and in addition she often promises what she does not possess, in her great generosity, hoping that the more one gives the more one will have left.”
Jesus’ single act of kindness to a blind person creates a lifetime of sight and of faith in that person who now sees. The Chosen One directs us from kindness to charity.
What an organizing principle for a healthy society!
A Prayer (JR)
Spirit who gathers, be present here and now.
I open my mind, heart, and body to acknowledge you in me, I in you.
Be in my thoughts which are full of concerns about fever, pain, and discomfort.
Be light in my darkness, a song for my comfort.
Be love for family and friends and all others in this time of need.
We are present in acts of kindness, doing as you did –
the Promised One who brings hope and light.
We keep the Lenten challenge to grow deeply in this Spirit of giving
for the sake of the other.
O Christ, give us light, now and evermore. Amen.
I’m reading this late, I know but better late than never. I’m a doer, not a sitter, and this staying home has given me more time to clean up all the areas neglected in our condo. Maybe I’ll finally get to the meditation but right now I’m thankful for all the support of family and friends especially our daughter, Sue, who has taken over organizing care for Cathy now that we can’t. I’ve always been less understanding of Sue’s faith that God directs all that happens in this world ( eons away from my belief) but her love and care for us and her ability to be a caregiver to whomever needs her goes far beyond what I always thought I was good at doing. Maybe that’s my meditation on charity!
All I can do now is donate to those in need and leave the doing to others like Sue but more importantly emphasize that and not make judgements on others beliefs!
Jim, many thanks for your thoughts and insights! Your words lead me back to the poetry of Wendell Berry, who writes: “So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love somebody who does not deserve it…Invest in the millennium. Plant Sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest…Call that profit…Practice resurrection.” (Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front).
I’m off to walk in the woods!
Peace & well being, Gary