Sunday, March 19, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 17:16; sermon starts around 27:45)
In our Wednesday evening gatherings for Training Disciples, we have been engaging in bible study and reflection and prayer, all centered around the theme of “blessing the Lent we actually have.” It’s a Lenten curriculum inspired by this book: The Lives We Actually Have: 100 Blessings for Imperfect Days – and boy, there is a lot of goodness in here. Both the book and the curriculum were written by a bestselling author named Kate Bowler, who is a professor of religious history at Duke Divinity School.
The book Bowler is probably best known for, though, is this one, called: Everything Happens for a Reason, And Other Lies I’ve Loved. It’s a memoir of sorts. When Bowler was 35 years old, she was unexpectedly diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer and told that she likely only had another two years to live. Thankfully, it’s been eight years since then, and she is in remission now, thanks be to God! But Bowler wrote this book about the kind of toxic positivity and terrible theology that we tend to reach for in times of trouble – especially this idea that everything happens for a reason – this idea that suffering and pain and loss are somehow part of what God plans and intends for us.
It’s a terrifying thing to believe, when you stop and think about it. But I suppose it’s comforting to believe that there is something divine or redemptive about our suffering – that it’s all according to plan, even if the plan is terrible. It also tends to give us permission to distance ourselves from the suffering of others – because that, too, is “all part of the plan.”
But, contrary to this idea of God, what Bowler shows through her writings is a God who walks beside us, a tender, caring God who comes down right into the middle of the mess and chaos and disarray of our daily lives to give us the strength and comfort to keep on going. She gives us an image of God that is actually much more in line with what we know of God from scripture – especially from scripture like Psalm 23, which we read today. There we see that God is one who gives us rest and brings us beauty, one who anoints us and comforts us, one who goes with us all the way, even into the darkest valley.
So, knowing all this, it’s a bit troubling to read our gospel reading for today and immediately come across this exchange between Jesus and his disciples in verses 3 and 4:
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.John 9:3-4
“He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” – that sure sounds uncomfortably close to that whole idea of “everything happens for a reason.” That sounds an awful lot like God’s picking on some random person just to prove a point. Jesus acknowledges that this man was born blind: it wasn’t that he lost his sight to illness or accident – he was never able to see to begin with. It’s no one’s fault; he was simply born this way. And Jesus tells his disciples that this man’s blindness will reveal God’s works, for God’s glory.
So how do we make sense of what Jesus says here? How does this square with our understanding of God as someone who is present with us in suffering, rather than someone who would ever cause us to suffer?
It’s kind of tricky. This is where you really have to pay attention.
We have often read and studied Jesus’ words in this passage, but both we and the disciples come to this conversation with a set of assumptions that don’t necessarily match up with what Jesus is saying.
Jesus never speaks about the blindness of this man in terms of suffering or punishment. It’s his disciples who immediately jump to that conclusion, assuming that this man’s blindness must be some kind of punishment for sin – whether he was the one who sinned or his parents. And even we tend to assume that his blindness is some kind of sickness in need of healing – that his blindness probably felt like a punishment.
But that’s not necessarily true. Being blind in and of itself doesn’t inherently entail suffering. In fact, there is a whole contingent of the disability community that would very much take exception to that idea. Being blind can be a huge part of someone’s identity – especially for people born blind, like this man in John 9. It’s just another different way of being in the world that has its own unique gifts and challenges, the same as any other. And it’s especially telling that when you read this gospel passage closely, you’ll notice that the word “heal” or “healing” never comes up – not even once. Each of the many times this man is asked to tell his story, he talks about Jesus “opening his eyes,” not about Jesus healing him.
All this being said, though, we do see that this man actually does suffer. It’s just not because he’s blind. We can notice it in the ways the other members of the community act and speak toward him. They discuss him with each other as though he’s not standing right there, and even when they do talk directly to him, they discount what he has to say. The religious leaders even end up running him out of the synagogue. And all of them are well aware that this man has been living in deep poverty this whole time, literally begging in the streets to try and get by. And yet, they’ve done nothing to help improve his situation.
This man isn’t suffering from a lack of sight; he is suffering from a lack of compassion. Even in the first century, there were many ways that his neighbors could have helped accommodate him and make space for him to fully participate in community life. This whole idea is something called the “social model of disability”: basically, the problem isn’t that someone has some kind of a physical limitation. The problem is that their society refuses to make itself more accessible to people who are different.
Jesus does choose to give this man sight. And by doing so, Jesus frees him from a life of begging in the streets and opens to him the possibility of being seen and respected as a full member of the community. Through this man born blind, Jesus does indeed reveal the work of God, just like he said. But I would argue that the true work of God here isn’t the act of opening this man’s eyes. It is the fact that Jesus shows him compassion.
If this man’s community had chosen to treat him with greater compassion, they might have experienced for themselves just how transformative the power of compassion can be. They might have experienced the joy that comes from making space for another person in the circle – especially for someone different from themselves – and in so doing, they might have experienced the love and compassion of God for themselves all the more deeply.
Instead, the compassion that Jesus shows this man ends up acting like a kind of mirror. It shows this strong contrast between the way Jesus treats people and the way that people treat people. To this community, it reflects their own hardness of heart, their own lack of compassion. It’s not a very flattering reflection.
To be fair, it’s pretty easy for us to look back at this story from thousands of years ago and shake our heads at these people for how they ignored the struggles of this community member right in their midst. But the truth is that the compassion of Jesus convicts us, too, as uncomfortable as that might be to admit. When we look into the mirror of Jesus’ compassion, we see reflected back to us the people we find hardest to love and easiest to exclude; we see reflected the ways that our generosity and care extends to a certain circle of people – but not beyond it; we see reflected the anger and resentment and shame in our own eyes when Christ shows compassion to the people whom we have failed to love.
But that’s not where Christ leaves us. As we have firmly established, Jesus didn’t come to make us suffer – he’s not just out to make us feel bad about ourselves. Even as we recognize how far we fall short of the unfailing compassion of Christ, we must also remember that Christ’s compassion is for us too. It is this very compassion that leads Christ to forgive us and redeem us, even when we fail hardest. With boundless compassion, Christ comes to meet us where we are – right in the middle of ‘the lives we actually have.’ Christ comes to make us new and to help us grow, to make each day a new chance to live out the love to which we are called.
The compassion Christ has shown us empowers us to go and do likewise. I doubt we’ll ever be able to miraculously give sight to the blind. But we already do have the power to show compassion to our neighbor.
And it is compassion that will change the world.
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