That was a LONG Gospel reading! Thankfully, it is a really wonderful story, straight through to the end. But as it happen, I want to preach on just the first three sentences.
Our story begins when Jesus and his disciples meet a man who was born blind. The disciples are troubled by this blind man, and they ask the great question, the question that has plagued people for centuries. “Why?” Why was this man born blind?
When they ask that question, the disciples are assuming that virtually everything that happens must have an explanation. If a bad thing happens, someone must have done something bad to deserve it.
So how about this man who was born blind? Did he sin? Of course, it is hard to see how he could have, since he was born blind. So maybe his parents sinned. Maybe his blindness is their punishment. But that doesn’t seem quite fair either….
We’ll get to Jesus’ answer in a minute. But first let’s think about how the attitude of the disciples would play today. We are in the midst of a public health crisis. Lots of people around the world have gotten sick. A growing number of people close to home are getting sick. The economy is suffering. All of us are affected.
So, the disciples might ask, whose fault is it? The Chinese? The Trump administration? The people who spread the illness, however unintentionally? The victims themselves? Somebody must be to blame. Otherwise it wouldn’t be happening. The question is, who can we blame?
Now, mistakes have no doubt been made. Hopefully we will learn from our mistakes so that we will be better prepared if and when something like this happens again.
But in the meantime, while we are in crisis mode, the question of whose fault it is is not very helpful. This is a time for uniting in a common effort to slow the spread of the virus, to figure out effective ways to treat and to prevent it, and to get our lives back to normal.
But the problem with the disciples’ question about blame goes deeper than just being unhelpful during a crisis. The disciples are also making a major assumption about how God acts.
Behind the disciples’ question about sin stands the assumption that not only must someone be to blame, but also that God struck the man with blindness as punishment for the sin, whoever it was that committed it. It as if God sits up in heaven watching us, judging us, waiting for us to make a mistake, and then zapping us.
The disciples probably would not have put it quite like that. Not many of us would put it quite like that. But that is the implication of their question. And that is the implication every time we ask, why is God doing this, that, or the other bad thing. The question itself presumes that God is a more or less mean-spirited score-keeper who happily punishes us for reasons that we often cannot fathom.
But is that the God we worship? Is that the God we meet in Jesus Christ?
Certainly Jesus doesn’t think so. Jesus flatly rejects the disciples’ way of framing the question. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” That is not the right way to think about human suffering.
No, says Jesus, this man “was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” And then, to reveal God at work, Jesus heals the man of his blindness.
This is really important, especially right now. God did not strike the man blind as a punishment for sin. Jesus is perfectly clear about that. God didn’t strike the man blind at all. God’s will for this man was not blindness. God’s will for this man was sight. It was only when Jesus healed the man that God’s work in this poor man was finally revealed.
We are now at the heart of the Christian gospel. We are now at the most important lesson in the Bible. When Jesus heals the blind man, he is showing, once again, that “God so loved the world that God gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17).
The disciples were wrong in their assumption about God. God does not float somewhere above creation ready to punish us whenever we get out of line. God enters into creation, above all in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God takes flesh and walks among us, teaching and healing and forgiving and feeding and suffering, all for us. God takes flesh and walks among us in order to reveal His love by working in us for good.
So, where is God today?
Start with where God is not. God is NOT somewhere out there watching us struggle with covid-19.
Where God is, is right here with us, in the midst of the messiness, the struggle, the pain. God is especially with the people who are sick or scared or lonely or hopeless.
And what is God doing? Well, God is NOT striking us with this virus because somebody sinned.
What I know from my own experience, what I am guessing lots of people know from their experience over the last couple of weeks, is that God is sustaining us as we do our best to get by in a profoundly disorienting time. And thank God for that!
I suspect that God is also working miracles of protection and healing. But God is not likely simply to make the coronavirus go away. For whatever reason, God doesn’t seem to work like that.
Instead God delegates that work to us. God invites us to join Jesus Himself in revealing God’s love in our works right now, by how we live with the reality of the covid-19 virus.
For some of us, the works that we are called to do are heroic. I think particularly about nurses and others on the front lines of the battle with the virus.
But God’s love is being revealed in lots of ways. At the Parish Cupboard, Martha continues to offer groceries to needy families. We can help with that by continuing to make food donations. That’s a great way of revealing God’s works.
People are reaching out to each other in all kinds of ways. Several members of the vestry agreed to contact folks just to see how they were doing. Others have agreed to go shopping for people who can’t get out. That’s a way of revealing God’s works.
Lots of us have been trying to use technology to stay connected, to worship and pray and study together. This service is an example of that. And, despite technical glitches brought on by my incompetence, God’s works are revealed.
Most touching of all to me, young Kaylin has been wondering what lessons she might learn from this crisis. Kaylin speculated that maybe God is encouraging us to spend less time on screens that separate us and more time with our families. If more of us could learn that lesson, surely God’s works would be revealed!
So, my prayer for us all, in this time of quarantine, is that we can see God’s works being revealed around us. And I pray that we can do our part in helping to reveal God’s works. In Christ’s name, I pray. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan