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.
Every cloud has a silver lining. It’s always darkest just before the dawn. Look out for blessings in disguise. Well-intentioned, however misguided, idioms and platitudes that people offer when tragedy strikes. They are usually said from people who may not have experienced any sort of tragedy or suffering in their life. Most perplexing is that these axioms aren’t even true. It is not, in fact, darkest just before the dawn. I am not frequently up so early, but when I am, there is quite a bit of light in the sky before dawn. It might be more accurate to say, “It’s always darkest when the moon isn’t out and when the lights are off.” In other words, it’s always darkest when there is no light.
Even so, when tragedy strikes, many of us offer platitudes and explanations for the tragedy that are usually of more comfort to us than anyone else. We have certain views of God and the world and how the whole thing works together, and we offer our explanations in an attempt to meld these things together in a way that makes sense to us. The only problem is that they don’t always make sense to God.
The disciples ask Jesus a question that shows their hand – a belief that every hardship is directly orchestrated by God as an object lesson or a punishment. They see suffering and they want to know what purpose God has behind it. After all, Newton’s Third Law of Motion tells us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So why was the man born blind? If God is in control, then God must have a purpose for every incident of suffering, which means God must have caused the suffering. But, if our theology makes God the author of tragedy, we can spend our lives trying to find the purpose behind every incident of pain and suffering. May we pray.
It was June. June 13, 2000. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. I was still working for the same regional food store company I had worked for in high school, but now on the executive fast track, I was an assistant manager at the highest volume store in the company. They were grooming to 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.
My parents came by the store on their way home from dinner to pick up some ice cream. I poked my head into the walk-in cooler where Matt was replenishing the beer. Matt had been my best friend since second grade. I went back up toward the front end and talked with Regina, the last cashier on duty 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 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.” 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!”
Too many of us learned that God micromanages everyone’s life – that God has a good and perfect plan for our life, and that every significant event in our lives – good or bad – is caused, organized, and scheduled by God. These beliefs may give children a sense of comfort – a sense that God is in control and that everything is right in the world, but they only work as long as things are going well. However, childish views of God are only harmful when we face adult problems.
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.” I don’t believe in a god who takes children away from us for selfish reasons. When the AIDS epidemic broke out 25 years ago, how many so-called Christians rejoiced in what they perceived to be God’s judgment on homosexuals? I don’t believe in a god who is used to promote hate speech, bigotry, and exclusion. When an earthquake shook Haiti, how many false prophets said it was God’s judgment on that nation for its rebellion against God? I don’t believe in a god who is so insecure in himself that he kills off those who rebel against him, because I believe in a God who sent his son to die for us while we were yet rebellious sinners – and that proves God’s love toward us.
Has anyone here ever experienced hardship, suffering, or tragedy? Has anyone here blamed themselves for those things? Like the disciples, have you wondered, “Who sinned to cause this calamity to happen?” I have. Or, have you found yourself angry at God for allowing, designing, or orchestrating suffering in your life? I have.
First, let me invite you to stop blaming yourself for every tragedy that’s happened in your life or in the lives of people you love. God isn’t punishing you or them for something you did. There is a whole lot of suffering in the world that happens senselessly, or by circumstance, or dare I say, because of the presence of evil in the world.
And the presence of evil allows me to invite you to do one more thing. There are factors and forces at work in the world that do not come from the hand of God, which means that God probably doesn’t have anything to do with the pain you’re going through. And since God didn’t do it, you can stop being angry at God.
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, and God acts accordingly. Anything that falls outside the purview of love, or mercy, or compassion is not the work of God. God can still work in the midst of the greatest tragedies, 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 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 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 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 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.”
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.
If we understand who God is, we will be grateful. Gratefulness is a state of being that springs from deep within the heart. Gratitutde is an attitude – it is the disposition that leads us to give thanks in all circumstances, even those situations in which it seems we have nothing for which to give thanks.
Rose Kennedy said, “Birds sing after the rain. Should not humans be allowed to delight in whatever sunshine remains in their lives?”
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.
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. We can waste a whole lot of time asking, “Why did this happen? What was God trying to teach us through this? What is the secret message of God in this instance of suffering?” Rather than asking, “Why did this happen,” we would be better served by asking, “What does God want us to do about it?” Where we find God is not necessarily in the tragedy, but in the response of God’s people in ways that are consistent with God’s character.
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 evidence of God working in her life.
I went back over some of my personal writings from a year ago, and came across some things I wrote in the hours after she died. “Her time of pain and struggle is over, for which we're grateful. We're grateful for the life of a wonderful lady who loved us all infinitely. We're grateful her life ended with dignity. We're grieving for our loss and dealing with all the pain that goes with it. We're also grateful that her suffering is ended and that peace has finally found her.”
Julie Thomas 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. Cancer is an awful disease for which I never give thanks. I said it before and I’ll say it again – to hell with cancer. What we learned to do was give thanks in the midst of cancer. This week, grief is very real for not only for me, but for many of you as well. But 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 to whom we belong. Even in the midst of grief we can be grateful, because the character of God proves itself to be trustworthy.
And then, some reflections I wrote a few hours before her funeral. Had I been in any sort of emotional state to preach her funeral, the sermon may have sounded something like this:
“Today is Sunday. At 4pm, there will be a service of my planning to celebrate my Mom's life. We're taking Mom to church today. She wouldn't want it any other way.
“We're going to celebrate. We'll celebrate the wonderful, full, and rich life of a great lady. We'll celebrate a lady who looked death in the face and said, "I'm not afraid of you." A few months ago, mom expressed to all of us that she wasn't afraid of death and was living in a "win-win" situation. "If I get better, I'll spend more time with all of you. If I die, I'll go to heaven and be with the Lord." She was clear that her service was not to be a time to dwell on sadness and sorrow, but a time to celebrate. We'll witness to our faith - a faith that celebrates victory over death, a faith that looks death in the face and says, "I'm not afraid of you."
“I've told the organist to throw out anything that even resembles "usual" funeral music. No dirges. Nothing sad or sorrowful. We'll sing. A lot. Family favorites that witness to our faith in the one who is stronger than death. For funerals, organists will often play softer as very little of the congregation sings. We've got musical talent on both my dad and mom's side of the family, and they love to sing. I've told the organist to just hit the tutti button and play the hell out of it. Open up that organ and blow the roof off.
“Our grief and our pain is still with us. Even Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus.
“But death is not the end of the story. Even as we shed tears for our loss, we place our faith in the one who has overcome death. Where, O Death, is thy victory? Where, O Death, is thy sting?
“Today, we'll head to church, and there will be a service that celebrates our faith in the one who overcomes death. Even up until a few weeks ago, Mom would have been in church on Sunday.
“Sunday has been established as the day we Christians remember that death is not the end of the story. We celebrate our faith. We witness to the lives of the saints who have passed from this life before us. We find ourselves caught up in a great story that is larger than ourselves. We allow God to insert hope into our lives.”
One of the things we people of Christian faith affirm is that we enjoy perpetual fellowship with those who have gone on to the Church Triumphant ahead of us. We call this “The Communion of the Saints.” Every time we gather around the Lord’s table, we live out this belief, because joining us at the table, through the mystery of the grace of God, are all other Christians around the world and throughout time, including those who are dearest and closest to us. When we celebrate Communion, we celebrate a lot of things, but among the things we celebrate is our connection to all the saints through Christ. For this reason, it is always appropriate to celebrate Communion at a funeral, because this is a meal not of death but of resurrection, and it is a tangible way of remembering and communing with those who are no longer with us on this side of the resurrection.
God knows our suffering and enters into it with us. God can still redeem even the most damaging and harmful situations for good. God leads us through the valley of the shadow of death and teaches us not to fear evil. God sets a table before us in the presence of our enemies, God calls us to a table, and promises to strengthen our bonds with him and with each other in the breaking of bread and receiving from a cup, and invites us to a feast and gives himself to us as the Bread of Life.