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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Empty and Full (Community Lenten Reflections): Psalm 51:1-12 and Luke 1:26-38

1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
5Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.


26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

If you have consulted your calendar today, you’ll notice that it is March 25. Today is exactly nine months before Christmas, which makes today the Feast Day of the Annunciation. That is, today we celebrate the message given to Jesus’ mother Mary that she will bear a son who will save his people from their sin. To those among us who follow the liturgical calendar, this may mean more than it does to those among us who do not. Or, if you’re like us Methodists, who pick and choose when we follow the liturgical calendar and the lectionary as seems most fitting our needs, today may be a confusing time that perplexes worship planning.

In true Methodist fashion, we who like to find a middle way, I have cobbled together today’s service using one reading from the Lectionary for this coming Sunday – the Psalm, and another reading for the Feast Day of the Annunciation, our reading from St. Luke’s Gospel.

It seems a strange juxtaposition, does it not? On the one hand, the Psalmist cries out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God!” Cleanse me! Purge me! Empty me! Let all the things in my life I cling to be wiped away. On the other hand, the angel tells Mary that she will literally be filled with the things of God. The Psalmist acknowledges guilt, having been born a sinner when conceived. The child Mary will bear is without sin, the one who will become sin for the world. The Psalmist recognizes the inherent distance between God and humanity; Mary is told that through her, God plans to come and dwell among us.

In fact, the first part of the message Mary receives is this: “The Lord is with you.” In fact, these very words are ingrained in many of us with a rhythmic pattern. A friend of mine who is now a Lutheran pastor recalls going to see Star Wars with his family in the theater back in 1977 when he was growing up in the midwest. That part in the movie came up when, for the first time, one of the characters says to another, “The force be with you.” He said, “200 pious Lutherans in the theater immediately responded, ‘And also with you.’”

In many of our traditions, this is how worship begins – the presence of the Lord is invoked and wished upon the worshippers. “The Lord be with you.” (Wait for response). It’s a call to prayer, acknowledging that the grace of God is present even before we invoke God’s name. “The Lord be with you.” (Wait for response). It is a statement of blessing – that the Spirit of the Lord, a unifying Spirit, may remain between the two of us even while we are apart from one another.

The angel explains the details of the plot to Mary, and her only question is a good one: “How can this be?” Having been answered to her satisfaction, her only response from this point on is yes. “May it be to me as you have said,” she says.

I wonder what would happen if the people of God were to respond similarly. If God spoke, in whatever way that happens in our particular traditions, and we simply said yes. “May it be to me as you have said.”

And yet, that seems easier said than done. There are so many things that keep us from being able to say a clear, resounding solid “yes” to God. Distractions, ambition, pride, selfishness, disinterest all get in the way. And here is where the words of the Psalmist during this Lenten season do us good, as we ask God to create within us clean hearts, to restore us in our relationship with God and nurture our relationships with each other. Before we can be filled with the things of God, as Mary was, we first need to be emptied of the things of ourselves. Being part of the work of God means that we must surrender our wills to God’s, and I think that the exact intersection between this Lenten Psalm and the news given to Mary.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, gave us a covenant service by which we could strengthen this bond and continually give ourselves over to this work. The central prayer of the service is the thought upon which I wish to leave us today:

I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low by thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Redeeming Time - Exodus 20:1-17

Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. 4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. 12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

At Cross Trails Church in Gainsboro, TN you’ll find a version of the Ten Commandments translated into Jackson County English. Now, my Hebrew isn’t all that good, so I guess God must have given these commandments in Southern Hebrew. And you know what? I love that God speaks to us in our native language. Pastor John and I have an ongoing discussion about how when God speaks to him, God says “y’all.” When God speaks to me, God says, “yous guys.” To people in middle Tennessee, God says: (1) Just one God. (2) Put nothin' before God. (3) Watch yer mouth. (4) Git yourself to Sunday meetin.' (5) Honor yer Ma & Pa. (6) No killin.' (7) No foolin' around with another fella's gal. (8) Don't take what ain't yers. (9) No tellin' tales or gossipin' – I suppose this would also include following up statements with “bless their heart” or couching gossip as a prayer request. (10) Don't be hankerin' for yer buddy's stuff.

In our society, something about the number ten suggests completeness. For one, it’s a manageable number. You have ten fingers, so keeping something to ten keeps it in the sphere of managability. A quick search on Google will reveal lists of Ten Commandments – the Ten Commandments of Investing, the Ten Commandments of Home Ownership, the Ten Commandments of Fly Fishing, the Ten Commandments of selecting the right college, and so on.

I think everyone here today would agree that the Ten Commandments are important for Christians to know and follow. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, and that’s exactly what we’ll talk about today. May we pray.

As I say the words, “Ten Commandments,” no doubt a number of thoughts will come into your head. Perhaps you have an image of Charleton Heston coming down off the mountain in that great epic movie, or the time you accompanied your Jewish friend to synagogue. Perhaps you’re thinking “law,” or “rules.” Perhaps “guidelines” or “covenant.” Perhaps you’re thinking of Miss Kitty who taught you the Ten Commandments back in your 3rd grade Sunday School class, or perhaps you’re thinking about the Alabama Supreme Court.

This last reference reminds us of how controversial the Ten Commandments have become. On one hand, they have a universal character about them. Recent polls indicate that roughly ¾ of Americans – this number has not changed significantly in decades – affirm the Ten Commandments as an important set of moral standards with broad and far-reaching applicability. It is hard to avoid recognizing that the kinds of directions in the Ten Commandments are widely present in a variety of societies and cultural traditions throughout space or time. Within the Ten Commandments are moral guidelines found in many of the world’s major religions. In the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, the biblical narrative recognizes the wisdom of the big ten and obeying them beyond the confines of Israel.

On the other hand, the Commandments have a particular character about them. That is, they are given within a particular faith – the Hebrew faith – and passed along to the descendents of that faith, including Christianity.

You can feel the tension between those two positions – one extreme that says the Ten Commandments are universally binding, and one that says they are particular to the Hebrew faith and its descendents. I know good, faithful, Bible-believing, Spirit-filled Christians who fall along this entire spectrum, and who have vehemently strong opinions on this matter.

So what do we do? First, I think the argument over where the Ten Commandments should be displayed is one of those issues about which faithful Christians can disagree. This is one of the things I love about being a United Methodist – we do not have to hold identical opinions about everything under the sun. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, frequently said, “In matters that do not strike at the heart of scriptural Christianity, we are free to think and let think.” Regarding what we believe, he said, “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” Whatever we think the place of the Ten Commandments is outside the synagogue and church, we are free to hold differing opinions.

Second, I’d like us to consider the context in which the Ten Commandments are given. It’s back in verse 2 of today’s reading: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” In other words, the Ten Commandments are given in the context of an existing covenant. It’s as if God says, “Just as a reminder – I am God. I’ve done some things for you that you may remember. I’ve made a covenant with you. I am your God, and you’re my people. Since you’re living in my house, I have some rules I want you to follow. Don’t think of these as restrictions, but think of these as helping you grow in your relationship with me and with each other. If you follow these things, you’ll find yourself growing in your upward relationship with me and in your outward relationships with each other.”

So, the point of the Ten Commandments is not to enforce some universal moral code, but to draw us into deeper relationship with God and each other. What if we took the time and effort that goes into the debate about where and how the Ten Commandments ought to be displayed and devoted that to inviting people into covenant with God? What if we devoted that time and energy to building our relationships with each other? It seems to me there are a whole lot of people out there vehemently arguing about the importance of the Ten Commandments, but I feel our time could be better spent internalizing and living them out than in passing legislation for or against them. I’ll bet Georgia congressman Lynn Westmoreland wishes he had learned this lesson before this interview. (Show clip from 2006 interview - Steven Colbert & Westmoreland http://www.funnyhub.com/videos/pages/ten-commandments.html).

It seems that sometimes we miss the forest for the trees, doesn’t it? Before we argue with each other about the Ten Commandments, it might be a good idea to actually know what they are.

Let’s focus on what we can agree on here. The Ten Commandments are important to people of Hebrew faith and its descendents, including us Christians. Jesus told us to remove the log out of our own eye before helping our neighbor with the speck out of theirs. Whether other people are exposed to and following the Ten Commandments is an issue to be dealt with after we, ourselves, are following them completely.

While we could focus on any of the Commandments in greater detail, I want to consider this one: Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord make heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

From the very beginning, a rhythm and pattern is established by God in the account of creation. During those proverbial days of creation, God works six days, and then says, “You know, I’m not going into the office tomorrow. I’m going to take the day off.” Perhaps God had consulted Ray’s Weather, and Ray predicted the seventh day was going to be a five-golf-ball day.

The pattern of six days of work and one day of rest is a good one to follow. God created us with a yearning to rest and enjoy what we have done, to stop working, and breathe deeply. John Calvin, who in many ways founded what we understand to be the Protestant work ethic, wrote, “Work is good, but when we work all the time work becomes a curse, not a blessing.”

And yet, particularly within our society, the tendency toward workaholism continues at a blinding pace. Particularly in this economic climate, those of us who still have adequate employment may find ourselves working all the harder, proving ourselves to be hard-working, loyal, productive members of the organization – you know, the valuable team members they wouldn’t want to let go if things got tight. No doubt many of us are putting in long hours all week, and then going in for a few hours on Saturday before starting our second job.

Not only do we work like dogs, a lot of us are proud of it! We don’t need rest! We don’t need sleep! We don’t need time for renewal or recreation! Look at how hard we work! Nevermind the fact that we’ll have a nervous breakdown at 33. Nevermind that we’ve neglected our families at the times they’ve needed us the most! Nevermind that you’ll have a massive stress-induced heart attack in your 50s! 24/7 is not just a phrase, anymore – it’s a way of life.

Many of you recall when society itself seemed to support a sabbath. Stores, restaurants, and gas stations were closed on Sundays. The nostalgic among us will yearn for a return to these simpler, more innocent times. But I also know that many you experienced those Sundays as oppressive. Oddly enough, you had to help prepare that big mid-day meal, you had to set the table, and then you had a mountain of dishes to wash. After you did all that work, odd considering that is the type of work prohibited in legalistic interpretations of the sabbath, you were confined to the living room or perhaps the front porch for the remainder of the day. Some of you weren’t allowed to play games, or invite a friend over, or head to a friend’s house, or go to the playground, or spend money on anything.

While I appreciate these attempts to remember the sabbath and keep it holy, I think they completely miss the point. First, if you want to be that legalistic, the actual sabbath is still Saturday, not Sunday. In the Jewish understanding, the seventh day, the day of rest, is the sabbath. It is significant that Christians worship on Sunday. Sunday is the day of our Lord’s resurrection, and so every Sunday, Christians celebrate a little mini-Easter. Sunday is the first day – the day associated with creation. But Sunday is also the eighth day – the day the Jews associated with redemption. So for Christians to worship on Sunday, we celebrate who we are as God’s beloved children created in God’s image, but we also celebrate our redemption in Christ. We celebrate that because of Jesus, we find our rest in him through the power and witness of the Holy Spirit.

Second, the sabbath is not about legalism or restriction. Indeed, Jesus reminds the religious leaders of his day, “The Sabbath is made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.” In other words, a day of rest is a gift to us. The purpose of the tradition was not to add another rule to the list of religious requirements and obligations. It is about the nurture and restoration and healing of human lives. Jesus wasn’t interested in legalism, but he was interested in whole, healthy human beings. John Calvin again: “On the Sabbath we cease our work so God can do God’s work in us.”

So then we find ourselves back in a more traditional understanding of the Protestant work ethic – work hard all week, and then take a day to rest and enjoy the fruit of your labor. In the tale of creation, after all, this is what God did! However, I’d like to remind you where humanity shows up in that particular story, and perhaps reframe the discussion a bit.

Whatever you understand the days of creation to mean, notice that humankind is not created until the sixth proverbial day. Before that, God has been creating all the creatures – wild animals and creeping things (Gen 1:24) – it seems to have been a full day. But the last item on God’s agenda before he turns out the lights on that sixth day is to create humankind – male and female God creates us in God’s image, and God blesses us, and makes us stewards over the whole created order. The next day, the proverbial seventh day of creation, the sabbath God consecrated, is humankind’s first full day. I imagine them waking up, saying, “Hey God – what are we gonna do today? Name and catalog the animals, or the rivers or the oceans? Name the mountains or the stars? See how many kinds of trees you’ve planted in this garden?”
“Today, my children, we’re going to rest.”
“But God, we haven’t even done anything yet! We haven’t worked! We haven’t earned our rest yet!”

The sabbath is a gift from God before we have done a thing to deserve it. The sabbath is itself a gift from God who is gracious, who gives good gifts to God’s children before we have asked for them, before we have earned them, before we deserve them. God does not give the sabbath as reward for work completed – God gives the sabbath as a pure and simple gift before we’ve done a thing. Honor the sabbath and keep it holy, because it is a gift from God, it is a means of grace, it is how God redeems and hallows time, it is where our relationships with God and one another are nurtured.

The story is told of an American boat that docked in a small Mexican fishing village. The owner of the boat complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. “Not long.” “Then, why don’t you stay out and fish more?” The small catch was sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family. “What do you do with the rest of your time?” the American wondered. I sleep late, I fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village, see my friends, have a few drinks, and have a good time. I have a full life.”

The American interrupted. “I have an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I can help! First, you should fish longer hours every day. With the extra money from all the fish you sell, you could buy a bigger boat. Then, with the extra money from the bigger boat, you could eventually buy a second, and a third, and a fourth, and eventually have a whole fleet of boats. Then, instead of selling to the middle man, you can negotiate directly with the processor and perhaps have your own plant! Then you could leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York City!”

“How long will that take?” “I dunno, 20, 25 years. When your business gets big, you can get into the stock market and make millions! After that, you can retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children and grandchildren, take a siesta with your wife, and spend the evenings enjoying your friends.”

We can spend a lifetime working to get somewhere. Many times, however, we find that we’re already there. We can work and work to earn some rest or a chance to slow down. But God invites us to recognize that rest is a gift we already have.

Remember the sabbath and keep it holy. Slow down, and enjoy the good things in your life as a gift from God. Spend time with God and with those you love. Time is both a gift from God and a precious resource. Remember the sabbath, and keep it holy.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Where Was God? John 9:1-7 (Blackburn's Chapel)

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 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. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back and was able to see.

When you finished high school physics, did you think you would never have to recite Newton’s laws of motion again? So did I. That’s part of the reason I majored in humanities and not in the sciences. I was never going to balance another equation or determine the velocity of a watermelon seed spit by my cousin. But this morning, I need to review one of those laws with you. Finish Newton’s third law of motion for me: “For every action . . . . there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Whether they knew it or not, the disciples were articulating this law quite well in this morning’s Scripture passage. As they’re walking down the road, they ask Jesus a question. Spotting a man born blind, the wheels in their heads start turning. In their worldview, hardships are the result of sin. In fact, they are the direct result of sin. That is, some specific sin causes each specific hardship. It would be only logical, therefore, that the man’s blindness is the direct result of some specific sin.

The disciples question represents one end of the spectrum, in which we humans chart the course of our own destiny. Good things happen when we act righteously, bad things happen when we act sinfully. It’s a sort of a “What goes around comes around” flavor of theology. Before we get into too much of a rush to dismiss their question, we have to admit that a whole lot of what happens to us is the natural consequence of decisions and actions we’ve already made. If you choose to tell your significant other they look fat in whatever outfit they’re wearing today, there will be negative consequences directly related to your decision. If you choose to embezzle money from your employer, there will be negative consequences directly related to your decision. If I choose to regularly and excessively exceed the speed limit – now you know we’re dealing in the hypothetical – there will be negative consequences that even the combined legal powers of Four Eggers, PW Glidewell, Don Watson, and Jim Deal can’t get me out of. There are certainly a number of hardships that are the direct result of our own sin.

Before we dismiss the disciples’ question too quickly, the sins of our parents can also have a harmful effect on us. When a mother addicted to crack gives birth to a child, the child suffers the direct consequence of its parents’ sin. When parents spend all their money on their own selfish indulgences and there is nothing left to adequately feed, clothe, and shelter their children, children suffer the direct consequence of their parents’ sin.

At the other end of the spectrum is a theology in which God dictates the results of our lives. That is, God sets forces in motion and orders the world in such a way that only the results God desires actually happen. Indeed, St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” This premise is easily misinterpreted, however. We often hear that all things that happen to us are good, or that all things have a good in them. We can spend our lives trying to find the purpose behind every incident of pain and suffering. In this view, God sadistically places obstacles in our path in order to teach us something or make a point. Remember, according to this view, every instance of pain or suffering is there on purpose because some good is going to be worked out of it.

We see this viewpoint lived out when bad things happen to good people. It’s almost a default mode that we go into when there is unexplainable tragedy. When my mom was first diagnosed with aggressive stage 4 breast cancer in June of 2004 and even since then, I can’t tell you how many times I saw this lived out. As she kept a daily journal in those first few months and continued to keep it, she toyed with the idea of turning her daily musings into a book. One of the chapters in that book was going to be, “Stupid things people say when someone has cancer.” One of my personal favorites was, “I’m sure God did this for a reason.” I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “God didn’t do this! And if he did, that’s a God I don’t want anything to do with.”

These comments reflect a very popular theology that is widely held. When tragedy strikes, people are prone to just shrug their shoulders and say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Religious expressions of this popular theology would say, “I guess it must have been God’s will that this happened.”

I need to push back against that. This view says that everything that happens is God’s will. Every child who dies as a result of hunger does so at the will of God. Every time someone’s spouse comes homes drunk and beats them does so at the will of God. Every person who commits a rape or a murder does so at the will of God. You see why this breaks down. Pretty soon God is turned into a monster who intentionally calls down suffering on the world in order to accomplish something else. Quite frankly, if that was my view of God, I would have stopped believing in God a long time ago.

The theologian William Barclay lost his 20-year-old daughter in a horrible boating accident. Years later, he received an anonymous letter. “Dear Dr. Barclay, I know why God killed your daughter. It was to save her from corruption by your heresies.” “I wanted to write a letter back,” said Barclay. “Not in anger and fury, because that came and went in a flash. I wanted to write back in pity telling whomever ‘Your God is my devil. Your God is the God I don’t believe in.’”

Or, think about what gets said around other tragedies in which people specifically make God the author of suffering, always for some divine purpose. When a child dies, someone will inevitably say something like, “I guess God just needed another cherub in heaven.” Theirs is the God I don’t believe in. When the AIDS epidemic broke out 25 years ago, how many Christians rejoiced in what they perceived to be God’s judgment on homosexuals? Theirs is the God I don’t believe in. On September 11, how many Christians announced that God was angry with us for coming loose from our moorings as a nation? Theirs is the God I don’t believe in. How many Christians divide and separate, and sing wonderful songs of praise to God, yet bar from their pews anyone unlike them? Theirs is the God I don’t believe in.

God doesn’t give people cancer. God doesn’t cause traffic fatalities. God doesn’t inflict illness upon children. God doesn’t do to his children what we wouldn’t do to our children.

Here’s the reality. We live in a world in which the rain falls upon the just and the unjust alike. There is a great deal of suffering in the world. God is not the author of this suffering. God has not caused this suffering. So where is God in all this?

The scriptures tell us that God is kind. God is loving. God is merciful. God is compassionate. These things describe God’s nature. God does things that are consistent with these particular characteristics. Anything that falls outside the purview of love, or mercy, or compassion are not the work of God. God can still work in the midst of the greatest tragedy, but God has not caused them. God can still redeem good out of the jaws of the most tragic circumstance, but God did not commit the tragedy.

Back in our text today, why was the man born blind? Jesus tells us it was not because of anyone’s sin. He was not born blind as an object lesson. He was not born blind in order to teach us something. He was not born blind in order to be given sight.

Where was God in the story? God was being glorified. Whether the rain falls or the sun shines, whether the wind blows or the sky is calm, God is being glorified. Whether we are born blind or with sight, God is being glorified. Whether we suffer with cancer or live a long and healthy life, God is being glorified.

Where was God? God was being glorified. God was being glorified in the man’s blindness. God was being glorified in the man’s sight. God was being glorified in all the conditions and circumstances of the man’s life. In fact, later in this story, the man is brought before the Pharisees and religious leaders to give an account of his healing. They are concerned with procedure, offended by a healing taking place on the Sabbath. Indeed, God was being glorified, yet they failed to give glory to God and chose to focus on circumstances of little consequence.

In my mom’s battle with cancer, a battle that is slowly defeating her, where is God? Well, if we focused on the cancer itself, if we focused on this particular storm of life, it would be difficult to see God. But my mom has said, “I’m not going to be a victim to cancer. I am going to enjoy the people and the things in my life that bring me joy.” My mom has chosen to focus on the blessings in her life, in the midst of great pain and difficulty, instead of wallowing in her illness. Now, it still hurts. It’s still difficult. As a family, we’ve shed a lot of tears over the last five years, and we’ve grieved, knowing that cancer will eventually take my mom from us on this side of the resurrection.

Where is God in all that? Mom has used the events surrounding her cancer to minister to others. She has helped other people and their families going through what she has. She has shared her faith story with new boldness and clarity. She sees God all around – in her friendships and family relationships, in the beauty of creation, in the laughter of her grandchildren. As a family, the moments we have together have become all the more precious, and we recognize every additional day with her on this earth is a unique and precious blessing from God.

There is so much that is good in our lives, how can we not be grateful? God walks with us and will not let us go. God doesn’t do bad things to God’s children. God is our rock and refuge. And in the midst of suffering, we have an outlook on our suffering that says, “God, do something good with this. Help me to count my blessings and savor the joy I have each day.” Finally, we rest in God’s arms, knowing that we have a Father who loves us more than we could imagine or believe. As people of faith, that’s how we’re called to face those darkest and stormiest moments in our lives.

Perhaps the question to be considered this morning is not, “Where is God?” but rather, “Who is God?” I cannot believe in the God who loves pain. I shall never believe in the God who does not know how to hope. I cannot believe in the God who only cares about souls and not people, who is unmoved by human suffering or thinks it’s simply people getting their just desserts. I cannot believe in a God who is incapable of making all things new, who never weeps, who has no mystery, and is nothing more than a little more powerful, vindictive version of ourselves. I cannot believe in a God who is not love and does not transform everything he touches.

I believe in a different God. I believe in one who knows our suffering, who weeps with us in our suffering, who enters into our suffering with us. I believe in one who is with us in our suffering, and can still redeem even the most damaging and harmful acts for good. I believe in one who leads us through the valley of the shadow of death and teaches us not to fear evil. I believe in one who sets a table before us in the presence of our enemies, who calls us to this table, and who promises to strengthen our bonds with him and with each other in the breaking of this bread and the taking of this cup. That is my God and I shall have no other. Amen.