Lent 4, March 22, John 9:1-41
My sermon today is meant to be read not preached and our first attempt to stay in touch with our parish family. While we may not be able to worship together, we can continue to grow spiritually. Who knows what a powerhouse we will be when the virus is defeated?
The Gospel reading assigned for Sunday could not be more appropriate for the very confusing time we are facing. The man born blind is a good one for us to think about and meditate on today. Since I am among the most vulnerable people over 60 and with a pre-existing condition, I am in self-imposed confinement. That puts me among most of our parish family.
We ask the disciples' question: "Who sinned" and thus caused this pandemic to happen? We can set aside most of all John's theology and his discussion about spiritual blindness and look at the question we all ask when things go wrong. How can an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God allow undeserved suffering to exist in the world that we believe God both created and loves?
The question has been around for a long time. We often think about what it means to worship a God who is just, loving, and good. So far, there have been no really satisfying answers, no nice, neat conclusions. But the question persists; it must--to ask this is part of what it means to be a thinking Christian. Things that happen must have a reason, an explanation--they have to make sense--if it is going to be part of our faith.
So, Jesus saw a blind man from his birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" There it is, that suffering--especially tragedy, pain, and suffering that seems to make no sense, that we can neither understand nor justify.
We know this. We know that much of our pain--and the pain in the world--is hard to understand. It's like the fate of the man born blind; it just happens. So, we all ask our own versions of "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" We ask why there is so much pain; why people, especially good people, get sick or get hurt when it isn't their fault. We ask why so many die so young. We wonder why families so often do not work out the way they should, the way everybody wants them to work out. We wonder about earthquakes and tsunamis and now pandemics. We wonder about a lot of things.
The disciples wanted to understand this tragedy--and with it, other tragedies. Sure, if the man had become blind because of his own carelessness, or if someone else had blinded him on purpose, then it would still be a tragedy, but it would make more sense; it would be easier o deal with. But that's not what happened. So, the disciples ask.
One of the traditional answers in Jesus' tradition had been that tragedies such as this are a case of God visiting the sins of the parents on the children. Both numbers (14:18) and Deuteronomy (5:9) say this quite specifically, and it had become a common proverb: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." The parent's sin, the children suffer. While this isn't particularly reassuring, it is at least something; it does offer an explanation. It shows how God, who must be a part of everything, could also be a part of this.
But there were problems with this answer. It just didn't feel right. Many of the great thinkers in Israel's tradition, the prophets Jeremiah (31:29) and Exekiel (18:2), had flatly and very specifically denied this. They had insisted that God did not skip generations, that God treated people as individuals and not as heirs of someone else's sin. So, there was a contradiction in the tradition. It was a puzzle.
So, when the disciples asked Jesus their question, they were asking Jesus for an answer to the ancient question of "Why?" They were asking for an answer to the ancient cry for meaning and justice.
It's important to realize what Jesus does when he responds to this question. He doesn't say, "No, that is not the reason, but this is." Instead--and this is very different--Jesus refuses to make sense of this situation by explaining it in terms of either the divine will or human sin.
So, he rejects the explanation that bad things happen because the victims are bad, or because the devil makes them happen, or because people don't have enough faith, or because they don't pray correctly, or whatever explanations folks had come up with before and have come up with since. Neither Jesus nor the Christian faith offers any clear, rational, sensible explanation of senseless suffering. Neither Jesus nor the Christian faith gives us answers to the problem in the way we want answers.
Instead, we're left with the brute fact that we live in a world that really isn't fair, a world that is marked by ambiguity and inconsistency, a world that is dangerous. We live in a world where tragedy happens for no apparent reason to folks who absolutely do not deserve it. The point is not that if we just have enough faith then these questions won't matter, or we'll somehow understand without an answer. The questions do matter, or we'll somehow understand without an answer. The questions do matter, but we will never understand to our satisfaction, and it doesn't do any good to pretend otherwise.
But that's not all Jesus says. They are not answers to the question of "why", and we make several important mistakes if we treat them like answers. The first occurs when Jesus says of the man born blind that through him, the works of God can be made manifest. That is, the place to look for God in this tragedy, or in any tragedy, is not at the front-end of it, causing it to happen. God won't be found there, sitting in heaven, passing out cancer cells, birth defects, earthquakes, strokes, car wrecks, viruses and blindness like some hideous dealer at a high-stakes cosmic poker game.
Instead, the place to find God is in the middle of the mess, in the very worst parts of it, working there to bring forth something new--not something that fixes the mess, but something that redeems and transforms it. The God who is found there--the God who is active there--is the God who has wounds on his hands and feet and side. It's the God who knows, who cares, who remembers what suffering is like--the God who shares our suffering and pain and who takes it into himself in the vastness of his compassion and love.
Remember, please, this is not an explanation of what happens. God didn't poke the man's eyes out before he was born, so he would be handy for Jesus to use as a sermon illustration. That's not the point. Remember what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says: "If it isn't about love, it isn't about God."
Instead, the point is that god can be found in very real ways, even in transforming ways, in the very heart of undeserved and inexplicable pain. That's the first thing Jesus says.
The second thing Jesus says is this: "We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day." Notice that Jesus says "We." We must work the works of God. Tragedy, pain, and suffering are also calls to ministry and to service. This may or may not be a call to fix whatever the problem is--often, we simply cannot do that--but it is always a call to reach out and to care. It is always a call to discover, to bring, and to share the presence of God in the heart of the tragedy.
Note that this isn't an explanation, either Terrible things don't happen so that we can have an opportunity to minister and serve God doesn't work that way, either. But the call to such ministry and service is part of Jesus' response to the reality of tragedy and suffering--not a rationale or a justification for them.
This is the way Jesus responds to the question "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? " They're also the way Jesus responds to our cries for explanations.
For us Christians, what makes sense out of the world's and our suffering is not answers or explanations. Instead, what makes sense out of these is the presence of a God of compassion and love, along with the opportunity to serve. What makes sense out of tragedy is not that we understand it. Instead, it's that God has taken it upon himself, and that God is present in it and through it, and that God calls us to love him, and to serve him, and to find him, in our own pain and in that of our brothers and sisters.
This isn't the explanation we ask for; it almost certainly isn't the answer we want. Still, it's the truth. It's honest. And it promises that we matter, that our service and care are important. It promises that we are never alone, never forsaken. God is indeed with us, even in the very heart of the very worst. And that, finally, is enough. Jesus, we love you. We praise your Holy Name.
I know this is long, but you are sitting down, you have a cup of coffee and you are in familiar surroundings. It will be a blessing to you if you grow a little spiritually sitting in your own home. Praise the Lord!
The same dynamic is at play here with Jesus and Nicodemus.
God is once again working around the edges, making possible what was thought to be impossible.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of nightfall--John's code for uncertainty and apprehension. He's well aware that Jesus is a capable, insightful teacher, and he's demonstrated his knowledge of Torah. But there's something else about him, something Nicodemus can't quite put his finger on, so he takes a chance and asks Jesus about it face-to-face: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."
Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to see the kingdom of God, we have to give our whole selves over to an entirely different way of being. We must be "born from above." Jesus is inviting Nicodemus into a deeper relationship with the living God, and what's Nicodemus' response? Is it "Yes! Sing me up! What do I do first?"
Nicodemus says, "So let me get the mechanics of this straight. I'm born from my mother, and you're saying I must be born again. That's impossible!"
But the truth is, this happens all the time among people of faith, doesn't it? We offer half a loaf and expect that the Lord will settle for that. Or we miss the point altogether.
Sarah gave birth to her son anyway, Paul put away his old life and devoted himself to the Risen Christ. The same is true for Nicodemus.
After he leaves Jesus, he returns to his position among the Jewish establishment. His conversion doesn't happen with a bolt or a flash; there's no outstanding story that gets passed down through the ages.
But deep down, and ever so slightly, something begins to turn.
Nicodemus is born again, and that experience started under the cover of darkness when he took a chance on Jesus.
He was an uncertain, fly-by-night skeptic. Then at the end of Joh's Gospel, as Jesus hangs crucified, after all the other disciples had fled for fear of persecution, there stands Nicodemus at the foot of the cross. He is armed with myrrh and ales and the other provisions for Jewish burial, ready to bear the beat up and lifeless body of the crucified Lord to its grave.
Jesus said, "For god so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."
We can never fully know what Nicodemus was thinking as he departed Jesus' company after hearing these words. But we can be sure that something within him was changed.
And little by little, his heart was broken open and he was born again, finding his way through darkness and doubt, he found his way to the cross.
We can meet hi there at the foot of the Cross. We are talking about a complete rebirth of our entire existence!
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