This weekend in worship, we dedicated 423 quilts, 50 school kits, and about 30 baby care kits. The kits and the majority of the quilts will go to Lutheran World Relief, and the rest of the quilts will benefit local ministry partners like the Greene Food Bank, Camp Ewalu, Riverside Bible Camp, Lakeside Bible Camp, Bremwood residential youth treatment center, and our own congregation.
In addition, we had a “Pie-by-the-Slice” fundraiser for the parish nursing program, hosted a Safeguarding God’s Children workshop, began first communion classes, and kicked off Financial Peace University. Finally, we celebrated two baptisms during the 11:00 service. Oh, and there was a funeral on Saturday. It’s been a busy couple of days!
The texts for this fourth Sunday in Lent are Ephesians 5:8-14, Psalm 23, and John 9:1-41. Here’s my sermon for St. Peter Lutheran Church in Greene, Iowa.
On Wednesday afternoon, a British man drove a car into a group of people on a bridge in London, killing three people, including an American tourist and a mother on her way to pick up her kids from school. He then stabbed an unarmed police officer to death before being himself killed by police. Several of those hurt in the terrorist attack were French high school students.
Also on Wednesday, in Wausau, Wisconsin, very close to the summer camp I worked at in college, a man shot and killed four people, including bank employees and a police detective.
On Monday night in New York City, Timothy Caughman, a 66 year old black man, was stabbed to death with a sword by a 28 year old white supremacist who had come to the city looking for black men to murder.
We can look for things to blame, like religion, sin, racism, guns, mental illness, terrorism, systemic problems, or whatever, but the reality of our world is that bad things sometimes happen to good people.
On January 10, 2010, over 100,000 people in Haiti were killed in the earthquake, including Ben Larson, a student from Red Wing, Minnesota, in his final-year at Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque. I just finished reading his wife’s book about that terrible day and her healing from it.
On April 29, 2004, my godparents’ youngest son, Jacob, died from cancer at the age of 6.
One day in first century Palestine, Jesus was walking along, and he saw a man who had been born blind. When his disciples noticed the man, they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
When we hear about tragedies, we want an explanation. We want to believe that awful cliché that everything happens for a reason. Tragedies are opportunities for God to work, and Jesus takes this opportunity to do a miracle, but he’s very clear to those asking that the man’s blindness was never a punishment.
And yet, we still so often ask, “Whose fault is it? Who sinned that this happened?”
Having a reason is somehow comforting. We want to be able to label the cause of a tragedy, because labeling it, naming the cause, allows us to feel a sense of control.
Some people looked at the earthquake in Haiti and tried to say that it was God’s punishment for voodoo-ism. Many initial reports about Timothy Caughman’s murder—the man killed with a sword in New York—made a point of mentioning that he was homeless, which not only does nothing to excuse an act of racist terrorism, but turned out to be untrue. How often do we point to sins we assume have been committed when we hear of suffering or tragedy?
Who sinned, that this man was born blind?
When he responds to the disciples, Jesus is clear: This man’s blindness has nothing to do with sin, either his sin or his parents’ sin. That’s just the way he was born. Sometimes, perhaps more often then we think, more often than we’re comfortable with, there is no explanation.
Jesus makes this point at least one other time as well, in Luke 13. In that passage, there had been a tragedy where 18 people died when a tower collapsed, and Jesus says they weren’t any worse sinners than anyone else living in the area.
Sometimes, bad stuff happens for no reason. Even though we might want answers, all we have is the promise that in those darkest times, in those tragedies, in the valley of the shadow of death, as our Psalm today put it, God is with us, seeing us and comforting us.
That’s a powerful promise, and we’re called to remind each other of God’s presence in the midst of suffering. We’re called to trust, not to assume or make up reasons for things that can’t be explained.
In this story, where the disciples see an object lesson, an opportunity to point out sin, Jesus sees a person. Not only does Jesus see him, he takes the initiative to transform his life. The man doesn’t ask to be healed, he doesn’t ask to be an object lesson, and it’s entirely possible he doesn’t know anything about Jesus, much less that Jesus is God.
The man is blind not just literally, but also in that he doesn’t know who Jesus is, and that’s more the main point of the story. As we read through this chapter, watch what happens to him.
First, he washes as Jesus told him to, then he comes back and he can see. Other people who know he’s been blind see him and say, “Wait a minute, didn’t that guy used to be blind?” He tells them “Yes, I was blind, but then some guy named Jesus put mud in my eyes, and I washed it off, and now I can see.”
Naturally, they ask him where this Jesus fellow is, but he doesn’t know.
A little later, the Pharisees, the religious leaders, the ones who think they know everything about God, ask him about Jesus, and the formerly blind man says, “Well, he must be a prophet.”
They keep questioning him about whether Jesus is a sinner, trying to trap him, but he refuses to play along. He won’t speculate or try to explain what happened. Instead, he sticks to what he knows. “I was blind, but now I see.” Sounds like a song, doesn’t it? Here’s what I know: I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now, I see.”
We’re called to do the same thing, to tell how we’ve experienced God, not to try to explain everything. By the end of the story, when Jesus seeks him out and finds him again, he says, “Lord, I believe.”
The man goes from being physically blind to having his eyes opened, but much more importantly, he moves from spiritual blindness to faith.
The Pharisees go the opposite way. At the beginning of the story, they’re convinced they can see, probably better than anyone else. They are perfectly comfortable with labeling people as holy or sinful, as in or out, as good clean religious people or as unclean Others.
They assume the man is being punished for some terrible sin, so they can’t understand when he’s transformed by Jesus. Rather than accept him, they banish him.
In the last verse of our reading today, Jesus cryptically tells the Pharisees, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” It’s the people who are absolutely sure that they are right, Jesus says, the ones who are certain they’re right in how they’ve labeled others, who are in the wrong.
Light comes from seeing through Christ; but if you claim to see without Christ, all you end up with is darkness.
Jesus doesn’t look at tragedies and try to find someone to blame. He doesn’t look at the labels people have been given and take them as eternal designations. Instead, he encounters people and changes them. As Paul describes it in his letter to the Ephesians, Jesus brings light into people’s lives. Jesus brings a new birth.
In fact, before we finish looking at this story, I want to point out one more detail. Look at how Jesus goes about healing this man. He spits into the dirt to make mud, then uses the mud for the healing. Obviously Jesus doesn’t need mud to heal, but there’s a connection to something deeper.
Remember the creation story in Genesis 2? What does God form humans out of? God takes the dust of the earth and shapes it, then breathes life into the mud to make people. As we said on Ash Wednesday, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. When Jesus uses mud, it’s like he’s giving this man a whole new life. The man is born again, re-created.
We too are re-created by God’s work, born again. For us, it is not through mud, but through the waters of baptism that we are washed clean. We drown, and we are reborn as children of God.
May we live as people who are born again. May we share the light of Christ with others. And may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus forever. Amen.