Grace and peace to you in the name of our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. With the coronavirus pandemic, we find ourselves in unfamiliar times. Most of us have not experienced first-hand this type of global frenzy and community response to ‘social distancing.’ Here in the Bay Area, while we are ‘sheltering-in’, many have health concerns as well as financial concerns short and long term.
The coronavirus pandemic got me thinking about pain and suffering; maybe you have been pondering this as well? A natural tendency for anyone witnessing pain and suffering is to ask why, “Why am I experiencing pain and suffering, Why is this happening to me, to us?” And when tragedy comes to peoples of the world, there is a follow-on question, “Why is there pain and suffering in the world at large?”
The Gospel text for Sunday March 22nd is about Jesus’ encounter with a man born blind. It is also a story about Jesus healing a man born blind. A part of the story too is the communities reaction and the communities response to the man before he is healed, after he is healed, and how this healing seems to be difficult for them to grasp.
The disciple are a curious bunch, and our story starts with the disciples asking Jesus a question. Notice that their question is close-ended. Their question presumes only two answers – the cause of this mans blindness is either this mans sin or his parents sin. It is rather difficult for this man’s blindness to be caused by sin if he was born blind. So, logically then, it is his parents that are the source of the sinfulness leading to the man’s blindness. With their built-in assumptions, the disciples question almost presumes an answer: The parents sinned so God inflicts punishment and causes this man to suffer because of what his parents did or didn’t do.
Their question is mis-formulated; it is a poorly constructed question. Don’t get me wrong, asking why something occurs, or why things happen, is not bad. The scripture is filled with characters asking God, “ Why, why, why ?” I suggest, that the vigorous and hearty asking of “Why?” is not only okay – it is healthy in our growing relationship and understanding of God, and it is the first step toward reconciliation with God in the midst of pain. In addition, it is right in line with Biblical tradition:
Moses in the wilderness with his people cries out, “O Lord, why have You done evil to these people?”
Gideon in a time of anguish says, “If the Lord is with us, then why has all this befallen us?”
Then there is good old Job who is the classic confrontation of the problem of evil and suffering: “I have my life,” Job cries, “I will freely express my complaint, I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God, ‘Does it seem good to you to oppress me — to favor the wicked?”
And if we are still not convinced, there are the words of Jesus Himself from our scripture today: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” which from the 22 psalm
So, asking why was not the problem, it was the presumption in the disciples question that was problematic.
In our text this morning, Jesus makes it clear that God did not punish this man. God is not a God who inflicts suffering as a punishment for sins. Oh yes, there are ramification for sinning, but it is not as if God says, “okay you sinned so I am going to punish you . . . and if you have a big-time sin . .. I am going to punish you big-time.” Jesus indicates that God is not the source of this mans blindness. Just as God does not bring about the suffering caused by tornados and hurricanes, or fires that race through communities leaving homes, and belongings and memories in ashes, neither is God the source of suffering brought about by the coronavirus.
If we say God is responsible for suffering and pain, using it as a form of punishment, that is scapegoating. Blaming someone else or something else for a condition, in this case an unfortunate situation, is fundamentally wrong on several levels.
Firstly, there can be an element of judgment if we go in that direction. For example, as people were willing to see Gods action as judgement by connecting the parents sinning and laying blame on them, as if to say they did something wrong, the parents become bad-people. The town folks could legitimize the mistreatment and disdained for the parents. Through mis-guided assumptions, we too project judgement. Do we see people projecting judgement today . . . do we see people labeling others as ‘unfit’, ‘unworthy’, ‘illegal’, and in doing so we treat them as something less than human, and not worthy of our love and compassion?
There is a second problem when we scapegoat and when people attribute pain and suffering with punishment from God. It gives us an excuse to turn away when a tragedy strikes. When there is pain and suffering, if there is the notion that God did it, then we can move into a dismissive position. We can use the excuse that, since God is responsible, there is nothing we can do. We can throw up our hands with the attitude, “ it’s out of my control, best not to get involved. I am not a part of the equation, I do not have to do anything, in fact there is nothing I can do. This is God we are talking about, who am I to interfere. God ordained it, this person’s condition or this communities situation is out of my control.” This attitude provides all the excuse we need to walk away and turn a blind eye to the situation.
Ah, but if God is not inflicting punishment and not the source of suffering, that for some other reason the suffering occurs, then are we not called to respond to the hurt of the world to the pain and suffering that exists? When our brothers and sisters are hungry and need food, naked and need clothing, are lonely and need a visit, are sick and need healing, are distraught and need a friend, when they are homeless and need shelter, are we not called to respond? The text from Matthew 25 comes to mind.
This puts us on the line . . . if we are Christ’s hands and feet in the world, then we are called to act, to engage, to participate, roll-up our sleeves and respond. If we are to be love and compassion in the world as shown to us in Jesus Christ, the question then becomes what will we do? There are a couple of things to consider in our call to participate.
First of all, I think it important to grow in awareness. We need to stay plugged into what is happening in our communities. Pretending that the suffering does not exist, or that we can look-the-other-way, is in correct. We need to be a tentative. Loving neighbor, caring for neighbor requires an awareness of neighbor. It requires getting to know them and their story. After growing in awareness, action is the next step.
You are probably familiar with the WWJD bumper stickers, “What Would Jesus Do?” It is a kind of clever bumper sticker that has waxed and waned in popularity over the years. On the surface, maybe it is good because it prompts folks to think. It may even cause people to think in a new way about being Christian. But is not the better question, the real question, “What Would Jesus Have Me Do (WWJHMD)?” Do you see the difference between the two questions?
The second question pulls us into the situation in a different and more meaningful way. In the second question, we are engaged, living in the world, seeing the world, being in the world as a Christian, as an active Christian (that is redundant isn’t it – “Active Christian”). I also like this perspective, WWJHMD, because I am not Christ, none of us are, we are human. I may be going out on a limb here, but I don’t think God wants us to be exactly like Jesus. Though we are indeed spectacular, none of us are Divine. But each of us has gifts, we are all gifted in different ways. So, with your gifts, how will you respond to suffering in the world around you? How will you approach the personal suffering and pain you and others experience? Heavy questions; I know these are heavy questions . . . especially as the coronavirus infects people across the globe.
We are not apart from creation; we are a part of creation. We are called to be in relationship to our brothers and sisters . . . as best we can, to be in solidarity with them and be present in their struggles. It is not easy, in fact it is downright difficult at times to care for others. But we are called in our baptismal covenant to: “ . . . proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.” We are a part of the bigger picture \ creation story.
In closing l would like to move to one last point . . . God is not absent when we face trials and tribulations . . . when we suffer, God in fact suffers with us. Think about it. When you cry out “Why?” You are crying out to someone who knows what it is like to wonder why, to feel alone and abandoned and to feel physical and emotional pain. God is not absent when we suffer, but is right there with us. Sometime ago, a friend said to me that during one of the most painful experiences of his life, he cried out to God — “Where were You when my son died tragically, he was too young, his whole life ahead of him, where were You in my greatest moment of pain and suffering, where were You?” My friends said that a quiet, gentle voice came to him one day . . . the voice seemed to say, “I was by your side, I know your pain. I was in the same place you were when my son died, when they crucified my son.”
Why do pain and misery plague our lives at times? Does God permit it, if so why? Every intellectual answer to these questions will necessarily fall short of satisfying the pain that comes with suffering. It is the affirmation of God’s presence with us — even during our suffering that will finally lead us out of the darkness. Ultimately – in Rev. 21:3-4, the scripture teaches us that God will right every wrong, mend every broken heart and fill every empty heart that has turned to him for comfort.
My friend who lost his son, well, he also shared with me, “For all that I have seen, I will trust God for all that I have not seen.” As you journey may you take comfort in knowing that compassionate God, is with you always. AMEN