I really struggle with a verse like John chapter 9, verse 4. In this verse, Jesus responds to the disciples’ question about sin, saying, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” A statement like that one feels dangerous to me. On its face, this verse kind of makes it sound like Jesus is saying that God deliberately chose to inflict suffering on someone – like God chose to make someone suffer simply because it would make Jesus look good later.
There is a lot of toxic theology out there that follows this idea. I’m sure you have probably heard some of it at some point in your life. It’s the “everything happens for a reason” school of theology; it’s the kind of theology that teaches that even suffering comes from God – that if you are suffering, it’s either because you deserve it or because God is trying to teach you a lesson or to make an example out of you.
But that’s not what I believe. I don’t believe that suffering is ever part of God’s plan for us, because that simply does not square with the God of love and grace that I know and trust. That’s not who God is. The God I follow does not inflict suffering on people just to prove a point; instead God is present with people in their suffering, supporting them and loving them unconditionally.
So how do we make sense of what Jesus says here? Jesus tells his disciples that this man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.
I have a number of friends who live with disabilities, including some who have vision and hearing loss, and I am thankful for their wisdom in helping me to understand this text. Those of us who are able-bodied and able-eyed automatically assume that this man is suffering because he is blind, and we feel pity for him. But members of the disability community would push back against that assumption. This man has been blind his whole life – he was born this way. He’s not defective – but he lives in a society that centers the abilities of people who can see. And that keeps him from being able to participate.
And his neighbors know this. Listen to how the other people from his community talk about him – they recognize him as a beggar and they say to each other, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” They knew that he was poor, they knew that he sat by the road begging every day. Yet they did nothing to help him. And it’s telling that they don’t use his name or even talk to him at first – they talk to each other about him like he’s not even there.
Imagine how different this man’s situation would be if his neighbors treated him with compassion. Imagine how different his life would be if his community actually cared enough about him to make space for him, if they cared enough to help him find ways to participate in daily life and in the local economy. His neighbors may not have Jesus’ miraculous power to give him sight, but they have always had the power to make this man’s life less crappy.
Jesus sees this man, and he chooses to help him. And God’s works are revealed in this man, just as Jesus said. And it’s not just in the sense that Jesus performs a miracle and gives him the physical ability to see. This man immediately becomes an evangelist, witnessing to the good things that God in Christ is doing. Jesus’ act of compassion gives this man a purpose and a voice. His compassion restores this man to community and shows him that he is worth caring about.
Compassion is a cornerstone of Jesus’ ministry. And that compassion is a virtue that each and every one of his followers is called to imitate – including those of us gathered here today.
Practicing compassion is more important now than ever, in light of the situation currently unfolding across the globe. If nothing else, the coronavirus pandemic has shown us how deeply interconnected we all are and how very much we all depend on one another. We are all in this together.
I know that things have changed rapidly in a very short amount of time. It still feels surreal that any of this is happening at all. Just a week ago, we were gathered together face to face in this very sanctuary, and now we can’t even know how soon we will get to do that again. I know that it is tempting to be skeptical about all of this; it’s tempting to dismiss all of these new precautions as being an overreaction, or even as being politically motivated. The truth is that none of us wants this to be real life.
But it is. This is real life. And it is critically important that we take this situation seriously. We must heed the warnings that we have received from other nations battling this virus, from international health organizations, from the Centers for Disease Control, and from our own federal and state governments. Even if we have a relatively low risk of getting really sick from this virus, we still have a responsibility to do what we can to help keep our community safe.
All this being said, we are not called to respond to this situation with fear or panic. We are called to respond with compassion. We are called to imitate Jesus and to practice compassion for our neighbors. Our social distancing and ramped up hygiene practices are intended to protect the most vulnerable among us, the ones most at risk of getting sick and dying. This includes people over 65 and people with pre-existing medical conditions. And even though you, like me, might not fall into either of those categories, I’d be willing to bet that you care about a lot of people who do, including many members of our congregation.
This is how we care for each other right now. We don’t have the power to heal one another, either by miracle or by medicine; we don’t yet have a cure or a vaccine for this illness. But we do have the power to help prevent it and to help protect each other. We can look out for each other. We have the power to help slow down the spread of this disease so that it doesn’t completely overwhelm our healthcare system.
Caring about each other is something I know that this congregation is very good at. You do it well. You know how to practice Christlike compassion for each other and for our neighbors. You pray for each other, you check in with each other, you keep track of what’s going on with each other’s lives – and all of these things will continue to be important in the coming days and weeks and months. We must continue to practice compassion for one another.
And as the stress of this pandemic wears on, I also encourage each of you to practice compassion for yourself; get plenty of rest and fluids, unplug when you need to, and don’t be afraid to reach out when you need help or when you’re feeling lonely and isolated. You’re not alone.
And above all, remember that God is with us always. God is our shepherd, caring for us, providing for us, and leading us to places of rest and peace. God is present with all those who suffer, supporting them and loving them unconditionally. God surrounds each and every one of us with compassion, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of illness and death.
These are strange and troubling times, and there is still a long road to go ahead of us. But we don’t need to be afraid. God is with us. And surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life; and, whether we are together or apart, we will all dwell in the house of the Lord forever.