Lent 4 /A
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23;
Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
Why is this happening?
What did we do to deserve this?
Where is God in this mess?
One of the things that always surprises me is how very current and relevant to our contemporary times is the Gospel assigned on various Sundays. Despite being written 2,000 years ago, and assigned to this Fourth Sunday in Lent almost thirty years ago when the Revised Common Lectionary was finalized and adopted by the Episcopal Church and most other mainline denominations, this Gospel story about Jesus healing the man born blind is particularly current for the situation in which we – and indeed, the whole world - currently find ourselves. Amidst the uncertainty and anxiety of the world – amidst the death and disruption we find ourselves facing as we all confront the COVID-19 outbreak, this morning’s Gospel speaks directly to the very heart of the matter. And, if we are willing to listen, Jesus speaks directly to our hearts regarding this matter.
In fact, the case can be made that this long story about the man born blind, which we find only in John’s Gospel, is always current, for it directly addresses what seems to be a very real part of our human nature. We only need to look at the news, or around town, or in our own lives, to ask the disciples’ question for ourselves: “Who sinned?”, and thus caused this to happen?
Put another way, we ask the persistent question: How can an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God allow totally undeserved suffering to exist in the world that we believe God both created out of love and continues to love unconditionally?
The question is a hardy perennial. It’s been around since folks started thinking about what it means to have a God who is always just, loving, and good. So far, there have been no really satisfying answers, no nice, neat conclusions. But the question still persists. And it has to — for to ask this question is part of what it means to be a thinking and loving and compassionate person, engaged with the suffering of others and the world. In fact, we human beings seem to be hard-wired this way. Our human brains demand that things that happen must have a reason, an explanation — they have to “make sense” — if we’re going to wrap our minds around them.
Jesus encounters a man blind from his birth; and his disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
And there it is. “Rabbi, who sinned?” Did you catch it? There, in that question, is that human hunger for some explanation in the face of tragedy, pain, and suffering — especially tragedy, pain, and suffering that apparently make no sense, that we can neither understand nor justify.
We all know about this question. And we have all asked this question, in one form or another. We acknowledge that much of our own pain – and the pain of others - and the pain in the world – is hard to understand, difficult to explain. It’s like the fate of the man born blind; it just happens. But why?
In these situations, we all ask our own versions of “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” We ask why there is so much pain. We ask why people, especially good people, get sick or get hurt when it isn’t their fault. We wonder why bad things are allowed to happen to good people. We ask why so many will die so young. We wonder why so many relationships and families that begin in such deep love and commitment do not work out the way they should, the way everybody wants them to work out. We wonder about earthquakes, and tsunamis, and hurricanes, and famines, and pandemics. We wonder about a lot of things. And we repeatedly ask, “Why?”
The disciples wanted to understand this tragedy – and with that knowledge, come to understand all other tragedies. Sure, if the man had become blind because of his own carelessness, or if someone else had blinded him - on purpose, or by accident - then it would still be a tragedy, but it could at least be understood and explained. And having it “make sense” would make it easier to deal with. But that’s not what happened with this blind man. So, speaking for all of humanity, the disciples pose the question: Rabbi, why?
Jesus rejects all the explanations previously given: that bad things happen because the victims are bad, or because the devil makes them happen, or because someone doesn’t have enough faith, or because they don’t pray correctly or live correctly, or whatever explanations folks have come up with before and 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 that we want - answers that clear everything up and wrap it into a nice, tidy package.
Instead, we’re left with the brute fact that we live in a world that often isn’t fair, or just, or understandable, a world that is marked by ambiguity and inconsistency. 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 if we believe strongly enough – without any doubts! - we’ll no longer have need for an answer. But the questions do matter; even questions which we come to accept won’t be answered in this life. We will never understand to our full satisfaction, and it doesn’t do any good to pretend otherwise.
But Jesus says two very important things to his disciples, and to each of us. These are not what we long for, answers to the question of “why,” and we are mistaken if we treat them like answers.
They are not answers, but what he says helps us cope with the ambiguity and uncertainty of our lives.
The first occurs when Jesus says of the man born blind that, through him, the works of God can be revealed and made manifest. In other words, the place to look for God in this tragedy, or in any tragedy, is not at the front-end of it. God is not what causes pain and suffering and tragedy to happen. God won’t be found there, sitting in heaven, passing out cancer cells, birth defects, earthquakes, strokes, car wrecks 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 necessarily something that cleans up, fixes the mess, and makes it disappear - but always something that redeems and transforms it. The God who is found there – the God who is active there – is the God who still carries wounds of the Cross 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 on himself in the vastness of his compassion and love.
Remember, please remember, this is not an explanation of what happens. God didn’t blind the man before he was born, so he would be handy for Jesus to use as a sermon illustration years later. That’s not the point. Nor is it God’s way. As our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry says: “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.”
Instead, the point is this: that God can be found in very real ways, even in transforming ways, in the very heart of undeserved pain and inexplicable disasters. That’s the first thing Jesus says.
The second thing Jesus says is this: “We must work the works of him who sent me.” Notice that Jesus says not “I”, but “We.” We must work the works of God. Tragedy, pain, and suffering call us to minister and serve. This may or may not be a call to fix whatever the problem is – and truthfully, often, we simply cannot fix it – but it is always a call to reach out, to care, to serve. It is always a call to discover, to bring and share the presence of God into the very 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 rush in and minister and serve. God doesn’t work that way. The call to ministry and service is part of Jesus’ response to the reality of tragedy and suffering — not a rationale or a justification for them. And the call to minister and serve is also our call, as Jesus’ followers.
These two things are what Jesus says 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 own suffering is not definitive answers or explanations. Instead, what makes sense out of these situations is the presence of a God of compassion and love in the very midst of the tragedy. What makes sense out of tragedy is not that we understand it, but that we understand it to be an opportunity to serve. In the midst of tragedy, God takes our tragedy and confusion, our uncertainty and anxiety upon himself. God is present in it and through it. God calls us to love him, and to find him in our own pain, and in that of our brothers and sisters. God calls us to reach out and serve him and others in the midst of the pain and suffering.
In the midst of a pandemic that encompasses the entire world, this is, admittedly, not the explanation we ask or hope for. It certainly isn’t the definitive answer we want. Still, it’s the truth. It’s honest. And it promises both that we matter enough for God to join us here, and that our love and service and care for one another are important. And 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 – and thankfully - is enough.