Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Where Was (and Who is) God? - John 9:1-7

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.

Jesus and his disciples were walking down the road. His disciples asked him 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.

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.

It was June. June 13, 2000. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. I was a communication major with a strong business emphasis, and was discovering my love for marketing and public relations. I was still working for the same regional food store company I had worked for in high school. Because of my competence and dedication, company executives had placed me on their fast track, and I was now an assistant manager at the largest and highest volume store in the company. They were grooming me for the executive office, and predicting I would be the executive vice president of marketing operations by the time I was 35, which seemed a lot further away then than it does now.

It was one of those warm, still June nights that come to Western New York when the breezes stop blowing in off the lake. My parents came by the store on their way home from dinner to pick up some ice cream. It was their anniversary, after all, and after a nice dinner, they were going to have some ice cream and a movie at home. As the manager-on-duty, I had my nightly routine down pretty well, and while things had been steady all night, they hadn’t gotten out of control. I had some time to chat with the regular customers about the things we always chatted about. I poked my head into the walk-in cooler where Matt was replenishing the supply of beer. Matt had been my best friend since his family moved to town right before second grade and we ended up in the same class. He was home from college for the summer as well, and I got him on at the store a few nights a week in addition to his full-time summer job. I went back up toward the front end and talked with Regina, the last cashier on duty who was responsible for closing up with me that night. She was 72. She had taken this job a few months earlier because her husband was ill at home, and she was trying to make a little extra money to buy groceries with. I emptied the drop safe and headed up to the office around 11, doing the final nightly paperwork so that when we closed at midnight, the only thing left to do would be to balance Regina’s drawer.

Around 11:30, I heard a knock on the door that I recognized by now as Regina’s. Without looking up from the books, I told her I would be down in a minute. She simply said, “A.J., would you please come down here now.” I looked up at the security monitor whose camera was trained right outside my office door, to see Regina standing there, but she was not alone. A man with a ski mask was holding a gun to the side of her head right outside my office.

I opened the door, he waved the gun in my face, and told me to open the safe in the office. He followed me upstairs, and as I knelt on the tile floor in front of that safe, spinning the dial desperately trying to remember the combination, I felt the unmistakable feel of cold steel pressed into the back of my neck. Somehow, the safe popped open, he took the cashbox, and fled without harming anyone.

And so here, I invite the disciples back into the discussion with the question they asked Jesus in the text just read. “Why did this happen? What good was God trying to work out of this situation?” The disciples ask Jesus, “Teacher, why did this happen?” and we find ourselves asking the exact same question.

It was June. June 10, 2004. My mom called after an appointment with an oncologist. Her mammogram had shown some irregularities. The oncologist confirmed it. Cancer. Aggressive. Early stage 4. Treatable; not curable. Angry, so many questions swirled through my head. But at their root, they all had the same curiosity. “Why?” “Why did this happen?”

People offered explanations. I wish they’d have kept their opinions to themselves. Mom kept a journal all through her illness, and toyed with turning it into a book to help other families going through the same process. One of the chapters in that book was going to be “Stupid Things Not to Say When You Find Out Someone Has Cancer.” Well-intentioned people said some of the most hurtful things as they tried to answer the “Why” question. Some of my favorites: “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” “All things happen for a reason.” “I’m sure God knows what he’s doing.” I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “God didn’t do this!” And if God did, then that’s a god I want nothing to do with.

I need to push back against this. We find ourselves here for a Thanksgiving service, but it’s awfully hard to give thanks to God in all situations if this is our view of God. It’s awfully hard to cultivate a lifestyle of gratitude if we believe the one whom we thank is the author of suffering in our lives, no matter how redemptive that suffering may be. Quite frankly, if this were 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, “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. 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.

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.

It was June. June 7, 2008. I knelt in the middle of the stage of Stuart Auditorium at Lake Junaluska. Bishop Lawrence McClesky put his hands on my head and invoked the work of the Holy Spirit in my ordination as an elder. My dad – who was my pastor until I was 18 – was among those with their hands on my shoulders, representing the great cloud of the ordained who had gone before. My mom was in the congregation, proud to see a day her doctors had told her she would not live to see.

The day was, in many ways, the culmination of a series of events that started in motion on another night in June 2000. The night the store was robbed was my last night there, and began an intense discernment process trying to determine what God would have me do with my life. Several months later, I was finally able to recognize and accept my call from God into the ordained ministry.

Did God cause the store to get robbed? Did God place it within the heart of the robber to hold up the store that night? Of course not. That is not consistent with God’s character; that is not who God is. Nevertheless, God was still able to use the situation. Though the powers of the world intended that situation for evil, God was able to use it for good. God was able to stare the powers of evil right in the face and say, “You shall not have the last word. I am still God, and I am still good.”

Back in our text, 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? 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.

If we understand who God is, we have no choice but to be grateful. Gratefulness is a state of being that springs from deep within the heart, and while it related to Thanksgiving, it is something altogether different. Thanksgiving is an act – it is something we do. We give thanks and we name the blessings in our lives. But gratefulness is an attitude, it is the disposition to express gratitude by giving thanks. Thanksgiving is something we do, but gratitude is a state of being. Thanksgiving is an act, but gratitude is an attitude – it is the disposition that leads us to give thanks in all circumstances, even those situations for which it seems we have nothing for which to give thanks.

Gratitude is a pattern. One of the saints says that gratitude is the memory of the heart. The heart gives life by gathering in and then sending forth, so too does gratitude give life by taking in the goodness of God and then sending us forth to share that goodness of God with the world. We gather to worship, we depart to serve. We enter to be transformed, we go forth to transform the world. Gratitude works its way into our hearts, and we carry that with us. We bask in the radiance of God’s goodness, and we carry that goodness into the world, to people whose situations in life are anything but good. And the more we proclaim the good news of this God who places gratitude deep within our hearts, we find ourselves made all the more grateful in the process.

Rose Kennedy said, “Birds sing after the rain. Should not humans be allowed to delight in whatever sunshine remains in their 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.

In our text, the man’s blindness and healing was not the point. The point was that God is be glorified, that we are to give thanks to God, that we are to be grateful in the midst of every circumstance.

It was June. June 7, 2009. Exactly one year after my ordination, my family gathered in the foyer of St. James United Methodist Church, and took a long walk down the center aisle of a sanctuary packed with friends and family who had all come to celebrate my mom’s life and mark her transfer of membership to the Church Triumphant. Oddly enough, I found myself grateful. Grateful for the full and wonderful life she lived. Grateful for her faith. Grateful for her example. Grateful for her love. Grateful for the time we spent together as we knew that her life on this side of the resurrection was ending.

I was grateful, grateful that she chose not to be a victim to cancer, because by focusing on the particular storms of life, we do not see God. However, throughout her life and especially in her last months, Mom said, “I am going to enjoy the people and the things in my life that bring me joy.” She saw 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 shared together became all the more precious, and we recognized every additional day with her on this earth as a unique and precious blessing from God. Through it all, she taught us all about gratitude. Not once did anyone in our family give thanks for cancer. We learned to give thanks in the midst of cancer. This Thanksgiving season, there will be empty chairs at many of our dining tables, and even as we grieve the loss of those who have been dear to us, God is still God – holding us and our suffering close, reminding us who we are and whose we are. Even in the midst of grief, we can be grateful.

Perhaps the question to be considered this evening 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 and enters into it with us. I believe in one who can still redeem even the most damaging and harmful situations 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 a table, and who promises to strengthen our bonds with him and with each other in the breaking of bread and receiving from a cup, who invites us to a feast and gives himself to us as the Bread of Life.

Friends, for this we give thanks. But more than this, we are grateful. Gratitude is a golden thread that runs through everything we do as Christ-followers. This year, I will not wish you a happy Thanksgiving, because thanksgiving is not a noun. I hope and pray that Thanksgiving will not be just a day on the calendar, a day of football and feasting, the start of the holiday season, or the prelude to a retail high and holy day. Thanksgiving is a verb. May we practice it not only in this season, but may the gratitude in our hearts show itself in a lifestyle of thanksgiving, and may the Giver of every good and perfect gift receive all the glory, the honor, and praise.

1 comment:

  1. I was sitting in a church service a few nights ago and it hit me with force: I have a severe medical condition!! Every single person I have loved and lost has left a permanent hole in my heart. Now my heart is like a sieve. Who can go on when their heart is a sieve??