Who was it who sinned?
Hello! Long time, no see! Again, apologies.
On the fourth Sunday of Lent, one of our church members gave this challenging and thought provoking sermon.
1 Samuel 16:1-13
This long reading from John about the man born blind is very current. We only need to look at the news, or around town, or in our own lives, to ask the disciples’ question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
“Who sinned” and thus caused this to happen? How can an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God, allow totally undeserved suffering to exist in the world, this world that He both created, and loves?
The question has been around since people started thinking about what it means to have only one God who is just, loving, and good. And the question persists; it has to, because asking this is part of what it means to be a thinking, engaged person. In fact, we human beings seem to be wired this way. Things that happen must have a reason, an explanation—they have to make sense if we’re going to wrap our minds around them.
Just three weeks ago we were welcomed into Carolyn’s home and shared a Winter Meal together. It was a wonderful event – there was lots of good food and conversation. At one point, one of our members told me about her sister in Syria and how difficult it has been since the earthquakes. Her sister is ok, and her house is standing, but her mother’s house is damaged, and many, many houses in Aleppo have been destroyed. People have nothing. As if Aleppo has not seen enough suffering. She asked this same question – how can a loving God allow this suffering. I told her, “I don’t know. I don’t have an explanation.”
So, Jesus saw a man blind from his birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” There it is, that 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 know about 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 work out, the way everybody wants them to work out.
· We wonder about earthquakes and tsunamis.
· We wonder about a lot of things.
The disciples wanted to understand this situation. 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 to 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 parents 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 has to 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, notably the prophets Jeremiah (31:29) and Ezekiel (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.
By and by, some other rather ingenious teachers came up with an interesting alternative. Perhaps, they thought, a child could sin while it was still in the womb. Being born blind would be punishment for that sin. Again, while this was a really weird explanation, it was at least some sort of answer. There was some justice to be found, some sense to all of it—even if it wasn’t good sense, even if it felt less right than the earlier answer.
So, when the disciples asked Jesus their question, they were asking Jesus to choose from the two standard, traditional answers, 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.
First, he rejects both options. In doing this, Jesus is rejecting all explanatory answers to the question of “Why?” 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.
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, that we’ll somehow understand without an answer. The questions do matter, but they may not be answered in the way we want.
But that’s not all Jesus says. Jesus says two more things. They also are not answers to the question of the cause.
· 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 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, this is not an explanation of cause. 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. 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 of ‘why’, either. Terrible things don’t happen just 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.
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.
· “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him
· As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me.
For us Christians, what makes sense out of the world’s and our suffering is not finding blame and pointing a finger. Instead, we are: to look for the presence of our God of compassion and love in the midst of the mess; and to see the opportunity to serve.
Back to the conversation at the Winter Dinner. Our friend had asked me how God could allow such suffering in Aleppo. She then went on to tell me the rest of the story. She had heard from her sister in Aleppo, and that her sister was OK. Her sister describe the destruction there, and had then explained:
· that families that had lost their homes had been taken in by neighbours and other families.
· that people who had food and clothing were sharing with those who didn’t.
· that the community was working together to help each other, irrespective of differing faiths.
Our friend was so relieved to hear these things. It brought tears to her eyes as we spoke.
And now it is clearer to me. She identified what makes sense out of this tragedy. God, God of compassion and love, is present in the middle of the mess, in the midst of a divided and hurting community, there to understand and support and encourage and forgive. And we are here to serve, for as long as it is day, we must work the works of him
What makes sense out of tragedy is not that we understand why it happens. 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 find him, and to serve him, in the midst of our own pain and in that of our brothers and sisters.
This isn’t the explanation we may ask for; it almost certainly isn’t the answer we want if we are looking to place blame. Yet it is what Jesus tells the disciples. 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. AMEN