Who Sinned?

+ A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on March 22, 2020 +

Text: Psalm 23; John 9:1-41

Video: LINK

“Rabbi, who sinned,” they asked. Was it because of “this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

On the face of it, this seems like a ridiculous question, doesn’t it?
With our modern medicine and scientific knowledge, we know that blindness isn’t caused by sin…don’t we?
And yet, as Professor Rolf Jacobson[1] from Luther Seminary would tell you this question is all too common, even in our modern world.
Dr. Jacobson lost both of his legs to cancer when he was a child and explained in a recent podcast how people from church would cast blame on his family for his illness, that they assumed his parents weren’t preparing nutritious enough food—which apparently in their minds caused the cancer.
He said people told his family they should have prayed more or been more righteous so they wouldn’t suffer in this way.
I’ve heard similar stories from so many people living with disabilities or illnesses.

It’s like we feel a need within us to blame someone.
And some part of us just assumes that if a person were more faithful, more blameless, more…something, they would not get sick or be paralyzed or be born with a disability.
I don’t know why we do that.
Maybe we feel a need for answers to why this is happening, some sort of explanation for the unexplainable.
As if that will somehow comfort us.
As if that will somehow tell us how we might avoid such situations in our life.
As if we assume that these conditions somehow make us less than whole or unworthy of God’s love.

I’ve heard echoes of this question bouncing around in so many ways during the past few weeks. Maybe you have too.
“God, who sinned that we should be stricken by this virus?”
“Who can we blame for what is happening in the world right now?”
“Lord, why is this all happening?”
Even this isn’t anything new, is it?
All too often I’ve heard preachers blame deadly diseases or catastrophic hurricanes or any major disaster on supposed unfaithfulness of the people or on members of the LGBTQ community or whomever they have decided are sinners.
They seek to assign blame as if we will be comforted by a God who wrathfully and spitefully sends viruses or disabilities or disasters upon the earth, upon God’s beloved children, as some twisted punishment.

So, when so many of us are either explicitly or implicitly looking for someone to blame these days, when we are looking for answers for why this coronavirus pandemic has happened, we hear the words of Jesus this morning.
We hear Jesus’ answer to his own disciples who assume that someone must have sinned for this man to be born blind, who are looking for answers for what has happened.
And Jesus could not be clearer in his message—no one’s sin caused this to happen.
There is no one to blame for this man’s blindness or for the spread of Coronavirus.
These are not curses sent from God.
They’re simply not; God doesn’t work that way.
And frankly, Jesus doesn’t seem too interested in providing easy answers to the question of why these things happen.
Perhaps that’s frustrating to those of us who want to know why, but I think he’s showing us that we are asking the wrong questions in looking to cast blame.
Jesus absolutely refuses to blame anyone for this man’s condition.

Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?. Healing of the Man Born Blind, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56662

But he does say that this is an opportunity to do the work of God, to share the love and healing of God with a person who could certainly use it.
This is a chance to allow this man to personally and tangibly experience God’s love and show the whole world the power of God.
And so we hear today that it is through this man who had been alienated and rejected, who was living on the streets and forced into begging for survival, whose own religious leaders had labeled a sinner and unworthy of God’s love, it’s through this man that Jesus shows the power and majesty of God in a most remarkable way.

This gospel reading is full of questions and finger pointing, of convoluted reasoning and accusations, even of fear and anxiety.
So maybe it’s helpful to look to where we find Jesus in this story.
And where do we find Jesus here?
It’s not in the theological debate among the religious experts, it’s not in wrangling over who should be classified as a sinner, it’s not in casting this man out of his community—it’s quite the opposite.
Jesus comes to a man who has been abandoned by his family, by his community, by any sort of support system.
A man who is forced to beg to stay alive, who is struggling just to get by.
Jesus comes to that man who has been isolated and forgotten and rejected and he brings him hope and healing and life.
He brings this man into community and relationship.
He comes to be with this person and enacts God’s work of love so this man can experience it in his own life.
Jesus doesn’t look to the past, doesn’t look to cast blame, Jesus looks to the present needs of this man, to be present with him in his deep need, and how brings him into an enduring community that will never end.

I think that’s what I am craving the most right now, presence.
In this time of social distancing and isolation and shelter in place orders, I am missing connection with people.
I hate that our best medical science tells us that we can’t gather here right now.
That we can’t see each other as we usually would.
It’s so easy to feel alone and abandoned and forgotten.

And so I’m especially thankful for our psalm today, that most well-known and beloved psalm that many of us can probably recite by heart.
We hear those familiar words that bring comfort and assurance in our most trying times.
We hear God described as our shepherd who walks with us as even as we journey through the valley of death.
Who prepares a table of abundance when nothing else seems certain.
Who brings us out of fear and restores our soul.
We don’t hear it in today’s already long gospel reading, but in the verses that follow this reading, Jesus goes on to explain what he is doing with this formerly blind man—he is bringing him into a new community, removing the isolation and separation he experienced so he can live and thrive in a new flock where Christ is the good shepherd who deeply loves his sheep and will never, ever abandon them.

Latimore, Kelly. Good Shepherd, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57121

This is the God we praise in that beloved psalm, the God whose very presence comforts us, who pursues us with goodness and mercy all the days of our life, who brings us into everlasting relationship with God.
This is the God we see in the gospel today, not one casting blame or labeling people as sinners, but one who finds us when we are alone and abandoned, who comforts us when we are suffering, who abides with us, who showers us with love in real and tangible ways, who brings us wholeness that the world cannot bring and reminds us that we are never alone.

My friends, it would be easy to spend these days and weeks in isolation desperately trying to find someone to blame.
Unfortunately, this is primarily what I have been hearing from our nation’s leaders: Blaming a particular country where the virus originated. Blaming an inadequate and delayed response by our government. Blaming the media. Blaming whomever they can. Pointing their fingers at anyone that would take the blame off of themselves.
I even hear that among friends on social media as they criticize each other’s reactions to the pandemic casting shame and guilt and blame.
But in these weeks ahead, I sure hope that we can treat each other with a little extra love and grace.
Lord knows we can use it.
Because while we may make mistakes, while we may not do everything right, while none of us are perfect, I genuinely believe that most of us are doing the best we can to adapt to the realities of these days.
And while I admit that there are certainly some people I can think of whom I would blame for the situation we are in, while it’s true that health organizations will surely track the exact origins of this virus, and while I can only assume—and frankly hope—that there will be serious investigations to governmental actions when this is all over, I’m not sure that this is where God is calling us to dwell in this moment.
I don’t think that’s how God wants us to spend this time.

Jesus cures the man born blind - John 9:1-41
JESUS MAFA. Jesus cures the man born blind, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48383

If we look to Jesus and follow his example, we don’t need to look to the past and assign blame, but instead we are invited to look around us and see the members of our community who are suffering right now, who are feeling isolated now.
We are invited to look at the world like Jesus does and see the present needs of our neighbors and how we can bring them love and compassion and healing.
We are invited to use our energy, to use the time we now have due to cancelations and isolation, use this opportunity to do what we can to support human flourishing and the health of our community.
We are invited to make God’s love known in our lives and in the community in ways beyond words, but in ways that can be fully experienced.

My friends, especially during this season of baptismal renewal, we remember how in the waters of our baptism God has proclaimed us as God’s beloved children, that God has assured us of God’s abiding presence with us, and that God has anointed us as bearers of God’s good news and God’s hand and feet doing God’s work in the world—making God’s love known in word and deed meeting the needs of our neighbors.
Christ is coming to each of us today, each one of us wherever we are, to remind us of the promises that he made in these waters, to invite us to wash in those promises and let the healing water flow over our bodies and into our souls, to open our eyes and see our world—our neighbors—as Christ sees them, to use the assurance we have in this sacrament to find the courage and strength to follow his example when the world so deeply needs to experience love of God within us and among us.

While they may not get the headlines right now, I am so grateful for all the ways I am seeing people following this example in our world today.
There are so many ways that people are looking beyond blame and doing what they can to care for their neighbor.
Like doctors, nurses, first responders, and hospital staff who are putting themselves in harm’s way to care for those among us who need physical healing.
Like grocery store workers who are making sure food and medicine remains available in a frenzied time.
Like food bank workers making sure that those who have lost their jobs can still put food on the table.
And so many more examples of people refusing to give into fear and instead spreading love and compassion.
Following Jesus’ example even looks like communities like this one who are doing our best to adapt to this strange situation and support each other however we can even when we can’t gather in person and trying to connect in new and unfamiliar ways.

Johnson, Eastman, 1824-1906. Lord Is My Shepherd, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55852

My friends, I know that we all have so many questions right now.
I know that we all what to know what is happening and why.
But I hope that in these days of doubt and uncertainty, we can hold fast to the assurance that no matter what, God is with us; Christ is with us.
In the depths of our fears, in the isolation that social distancing can so easily bring, in whatever might lie ahead, Christ is with us, standing with us, loving us, and bringing us into community.
So rather than using our time to find someone to blame, we can use the sure and certain knowledge of Christ’s presence boldly follow our Lord’s example until all people fully experience and see God’s power and majesty in their lives.
We can use this opportunity to do God’s work, to love and care for each other, to build community in new ways, to bring life and hope and healing.

That is my hope for this community in these weeks.
That we can support each other, love each other, bring each other hope.
That we can always remember that Christ is ever with us, walking with us in our deepest sorrows, bringing us healing and hope and love.

Be well, beloved.

[1] Luther Seminary’s Sermon Brainwave podcast for Lent 4A (March 22, 2020)

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