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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
What is courage? By definition it is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear. The word courage itself comes from Middle English French word “corage” or of the heart. We often speak of courageous moments in war and battle, but I believe there other occasions for courage. Count Vittorio Alfieri, an Italian poet and dramatist wrote, “Often the test of courage is not to die, but (it is) to live.” That seems to be the challenge for each one of us this day. How do we live a courageous life for the sake of others in the Face of the Corona Virus?
The Bible is filled with stories of men and women who live faithfully and courageously in life’s shadows. But the story of blind man at the center of this morning gospel is different. Surprisingly, accidentally and almost unwillingly, he is forced by Christ’s mercy to become a man of courage.
The young man certainly didn’t consider himself courageous. Scripture doesn’t even record the young man’s name, but ancient tradition states his name was Celidonius which means “Little Swallow.” For the early church fathers, Celidonius’ miracle of healing was even more remarkable. St Basil wrote that this was not just a case of giving sight to a blind man born, but rather it was a miracle of giving sight to a man who had no eyes at all. In the Orthodox Church’s liturgy for the Sunday of the Blind Man, they sing, “Along the way, our Savior found a man who lacked both sight and eyes.” In their tradition, Jesus formed the eyes themselves from the clay and spittle, and placed them in the man’s empty sockets. Unfortunately for us, St. John doesn’t provide us with any of those colorful details. It would make a great visual in the children’s sermon.
From the day the blind man Celidonius was born, he heard voices around him. Observers often had a harsh and brutal way of characterizing people they did not know. In front of the sufferer, they made judgments based on their understanding of the world. Jesus’ own disciples dismissed Celidonius. “Rabbi,” one disciple asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In the disciples’ minds there were only two possibilities for sickness and tragedy. Ancient tradition had taught them that someone had to have sinned, “The sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” Or as the prophet Ezekiel had written, “The soul that sins, it shall die.” They believed that the nature of God was to punish.
But Jesus doesn’t accept such an explanation. Who caused this to happen, this man or his parents? “Neither,” Jesus responded. Then he answered with a third option, one that his disciples had not thought of. “This man before us is blind, so that the marvelous works of God can be shown.” My friends, when the world us around seems to be pulling us towards one side or another, to simplistic answers and responses, be open to the possibility that God just might be offering a third option as well.
For Jesus, that possibility was a kind and gentle way of treating someone in need, as opposed to those who brushed them aside dismissing them as a burden and curse. That is your hope as well. When Jesus saw someone in need, he didn’t use that person’s plight to underscore his own moral and theological agenda. No. Jesus saw an opportunity to do God’s work. And he has invited his disciples, ever since, to do the same.
Jesus spat onto the ground, made a little mud, and then smeared it into the man’s eyes. He then told the blind man to go, and wash in the pool of Siloam. And for some odd reason, Celidonius went. The journey to the water was not easy- especially a blind man. The pool of Siloam was outside Jerusalem’s city wall. He would have to descend a long flight of stone stairs maneuvering against the crowd of pilgrims. And yet somehow, Celidonius found the human courage to do it. But how?
The great American defense lawyer William Jennings Bryan once said, “Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice.” In this chance encounter between the Jesus and Celidonius, the blind man was greeted with a choice. Destiny is a choice. Jesus made mud and spread it on the man’s eyes and sent him on his way. With courage, the young man chose to follow Jesus’ instructions. And when he came back he could see. But that wasn’t the end of the miracle, my friends. No, the true miracle was that Celidonius was also becoming a new man, and his courage was in important part of his character. How surprised he was that the very people he thought would welcome him into the Temple, would be the very ones who would drive him out.
Now you may be wondering: What could be so offensive and disturbing about this blind man’s story that the Pharisees would refuse to listen to him? Was it because Jesus had healed the young man on the Sabbath? Maybe. But I rather suspect that the Pharisees were angered because the timid young man had changed. He was no longer a poor beggar pleading for mercy and loose change. They were expecting a weak coward, one who in perilous emergencies would run away. Instead Celidonius was filled with confidence, hope and courage, and he boldly cried out, “Do you also want to become his disciples?”
Perhaps that is the courage that you are searching for in these difficult times. It is certainly the confidence and hope the world needs in the face of the corona virus. We all trust that there is a healthier, happier and brighter day waiting for us out there, but we are still seeking the strength to make that long journey down to the water to wash our muddied eyes in the Pool of Siloam. It’s not easy. For all of us, there is still too much of the path that is unknown. But my friends, Jesus is inviting you to go the water to be healed, to have your eyes spiritually opened and to be changed.
The story of Celidonius suggests there are three steps in this spiritual journey towards courage. First of all, you must be prepared to take a chance. The blind man didn’t come to Jesus, but Jesus came to him. He heard the voice, “I am the Light of the World,” but Celidonius didn’t know Jesus. He recognized simply that someone was showing him respect and honor and care. And so, in spite of his blindness and hopelessness and the ridicule of the crowds, he allowed himself to be touched by Jesus. He allowed him to place the saving earth and spit upon his eyes. And then he took a chance… he went to the Pool of Siloam and he was healed.
My friends, we all have to take chances these days. Every time I open the google web page, I am reminded of the five things need to remember to help stop the Corona Virus. HANDS, ELBOW, FACE, FEET, FEEL. Hands, Wash them often, Elbow-cough into it, Face, don’t touch it, Feet, stay more than three feet apart, although the CDC says six feet, and Feel sick? Stay home. This is a time for you to witness to your family with your own five things to remember that are life giving. Take a chance and pray together. Give thanks together. Ask your family what gives you joy. Challenge them to say what they are afraid. It is very natural to be frightened and anxious- and not just children. Read scripture. Even if you simply repeat the passage we have just read. Take a chance. Perhaps there’s a risk for you- the possibility of failure is real. If you’re looking for the courage to make changes in life for your family and those around you, you need to take a chance.
Second, be prepared that people will doubt you and your intentions. For those who are struggling to nurture their faith, personal change doesn’t come easily. No one believed that this was the same blind man. Celidonius’ own neighbors couldn’t be sure it was him. They never questioned that he could see, but they questioned how he had changed. For you, there will always be those who doubt you. They’ll ask what happened. So? Simply say, “God and the CDC has given me you a lot more time, and I’ve always said I would nurture my faith when I had more time.” In these moments you must be prepared to be strong to your convictions and to seek the sources that will strengthen you. The blind man nobly confessed, in spite of all the doubts swirling about him, “One thing I do know, once I was blind, but now I see.” My friends, what is that one fundamental truth that you can cling to when men and women question you?
And finally, remember that loyalty to Christ and your family has its price and its reward. The Pharisees cast Celidonius out of the Temple, but the true Lord of the Temple found him. The CDC and a Governor’s Emergency order is separating us from our neighbors, and from our families. There is no doubt, however, that this distancing is also a Christian action. We are practicing safe distancing out of love for our neighbors. Jesus is always faithful to those who are true to him. And so we read that when Jesus heard that Celidonius they been driven out of the Temple, he went and found him. Yes, the young man was surprised that his courageous persistence would drive him. But he was not surprised when Jesus came to him. “Lord, I believe,” he said and he worshiped him. Courage, faith, and destiny, you see, are all matters of choice.
The beloved hymn “Amazing Grace, How sweet the Sound” was written by an Anglican priest John Newton. Twenty-one years earlier, however, people doubted his faith and sincerity. He was a slave trader on the west coast of Africa. Every Sunday he read the church liturgy to his crew twice, in the morning and at evensong. And throughout the service he heard the sounds of a doomed humanity rising up in his ears from the hold of the ship. After a long personal struggle, he heeded God’s invitation. He took a chance and abandoned this lucrative trade in slaves. With a new courage he changed his life.
My friends, these are difficult times, and world needs Christ’s confidence, hope and courage. You can be that source of light and hope for your family and friends. Do not be afraid. But, be of good courage- and take a chance. Amen
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.