Sermon: Overcoming Isolation
Overcoming Isolation
March 22, 2020

Scripture: Psalm 23 and John 9.1-7

When I was younger, I used to think that the worst thing any of us could experience was death. Then I began to observe a phenomenon while working in Hospice that changed my mind. It wasn’t even intense physical pain or struggles with breathing or even terminal agitation – all of which are simply awful to experience or observe.

The absolute worst pain I witnessed was the anguish that came when a person felt alone and unloved.  There was a 90 year old woman, Helen, who lived in a lovely condominium in one of the suburbs I frequently visited.  She was clearly a woman of means. The furniture in her apartment was so elegant, I felt like I needed to ask permission before even sitting down.  Her walls had tasteful, original artwork. Her needs were provided by professional, round-the-clock shift nurses. You might think she had everything she needed to be cared for as she died.

But, she didn’t. What Helen needed more than anything to be able to die in peace was her two adult children, one who was in San Francisco and the other in New York City.  She told me that she very much wanted her children to be with her and that she pleaded with them to come. But, they could not or would not do that.

Because of this, Helen was denied what she needed most at the end of her life – the presence of her loved ones, the felt experience of being loved. She was also not a woman of faith – so she did not have God to turn to, either.  As competent as her professional caregivers were, they could never replace her children. It was crushing for her and heartbreaking to watch. It also seemed that because of the pain of this, her physical symptoms intensified and her dying process was drawn out.  

I share this story now because it is a pointed example of how isolation from those we love and a lack of connection to God can cause real pain. At this moment when many of us are isolated from family and those we love most, we are truly vulnerable.  Fortunately many of us have platforms like this – Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype to be able to at least see and speak to those we love. Later today, I am going to use Zoom to connect with my son in Virginia and two dear nuns who are like family to us in Cambridge.  Perhaps you’ve noticed a greater sense of felt urgency to be in touch with your loved ones more frequently than before this crisis. Perhaps you are finding yourself expressing more fully and clearly how much you love those who are now at a physical distance from you for an uncertain period of time. At a time of crisis, we need to connect to those we love as much as possible.  

And that felt desire to connect is also showing up in the creative ways people are using technology to help us maintain our social connections and spirits. I think of musicians from Neil Young to Chelsea Barry to the Italians on their porches who are broadcasting music of connection and hope.  

At a time of crisis such as this, connecting with God also takes on more urgency for many of us.  When times are “normal” some of us are more likely to give God a passing thought. But, in times of great stress we become more aware of our need for God’s presence and grace. The good news is that God does not hold this against us. God’s faithfulness to us never fails even when our faithfulness to God does.  In the 23rd Psalm, the writer, David proclaims, “The Lord is my Shepherd…You are with me…You lead me by still waters.” When you hear these words,  do you feel them? Do you have a way right now to be able to experience the presence of God in your daily life?  

Since many of you have heard me preach or teach before, you know that I often mention the importance of a daily spiritual practice.  And I know that many of you listening right now have one. But, if you don’t, could there be a better time to start? 

For Lent, a number of us at the Village Church are now reading spiritual master Henri Nouwen’s Daily Devotional, “Show Me the Way.” In it he says, “Listen to your heart.  It’s there that Jesus speaks most intimately to you. Praying is first and foremost listening to Jesus (or God) who dwells in the very depths of your heart… His voice is the voice of a gentle love.  This listening must be an active and very attentive listening, for in our restless and noisy world God’s so loving voice is easily drowned out.  You need to set aside some time every day for this active listening to God, if only for ten minutes.  Ten minutes each day for Jesus alone can bring about a radical change in your life.”

He goes on: “Deep silence leads us to suspect that, in the first place, prayer is acceptanceThey know that God will show himself in the nature that surrounds them, in the people they meet, in the situations they run into.”. Given the presence of an invisible virus, it might be difficult to imagine that God could possibly be found at a time like this.  And, yet, that is the very point – there is no situation where God can not be found.  Can we keep our hearts open and soft enough to recognize God in the situations we find ourselves in, even now?

In the Gospel reading today, the disciples questioned if sin was the cause of the man’s blindness. And Jesus does not take the bait.  Instead he says, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” When we find ourselves in a challenging situation, as we do right now, it does not really matter for our spiritual lives how we got here or even why we got here.  (This is useful information for scientists and policy makers, but is not a helpful inquiry for our spiritual lives.) Instead, from a spiritual perspective it is more useful to ask: now that we are here, how can we allow God to be revealed in us?  (2x) Even with our challenges now, how is each of us called to manifest the grace and love of God? 

At the heart of today’s lesson is a recognition that God can use ANY circumstance to be present in grace; God can use any circumstance to help us see ourselves, each other, and God in new ways.  Have you noticed how being isolated from others is helping you see yourself, others, the world and God in a different way? Spring has always been a season that has delighted and thrilled me.  But, this Spring, I find myself adoring every sign of new life, being even more attentive to every flower as it blooms; treasuring all of these gifts of the Creator. It’s almost as if Spring is willing us forward beyond our fear, beyond our isolation to the very essence of life.

Once healed, the blind man is sent to be a witness of God’s grace to others. Knowing the presence and power of God in our lives,  what we can do for ourselves and for others today , the ways we can reveal God’s grace, is radically different than what we could do merely a week ago, a month ago, a year ago or more.  To overcome this time of physical isolation, to address our feelings of fear, vulnerability, and uncertainty, all of us have the power to turn to God and to reach out to others in love. In the spiritual life, there is no such thing as distance from God. Our ability to pray and connect with God is as possible today as it was before this crisis started.  Our ability to reach out to others in love, though perhaps taking different forms, is as possible today as it was before the crisis.

The question is:  How will you connect with God today and every day of this crisis and beyond? How will you show God’s love to others from right where you are? Our God and our world awaits your answer.  Amen.