The Gospel for The Fourth Sunday in Lent this year is John 9:1-41. Jesus seems to give a non-answer to a very serious question about a blind man’s suffering.
Rabbi Harold Kushner's book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, was a best seller. In the book, the rabbi addresses the haunting question about the correlation between sin and suffering, about righteousness and rewards. Rabbi Kushner says it all has to do with luck. There is good luck and there is bad luck - neither of which is dependent upon a person's goodness or badness. There is a kind of randomness to life.
Today, we want explanations, answers that make sense to us and reassure us that we are okay. Thousands perish of AIDS and famine in Africa, people are crushed in an earthquake in Haiti or Chile, hurricanes destroy lives and property in Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands, floodwaters destroy people's homes, terrorists gun down innocent people in the streets, and the Coronavirus Pandemic casts a pall of sickness, unemployment, economic calamity, and death across our planet. How can God be good and still allow bad things like these to inflict good people like us?
Jesus' own disciples asked him questions like that. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus didn't take Rabbi Kushner's approach. In today's climate, Jesus wouldn't win any awards in the pastoral care department either. He said, “Neither. This man was born blind so that the glory of God might be revealed.” Consistently, Jesus denies any direct correlation between the kind of person you are and what happens to you. In another instance he declares that, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
Why did this happen to me? Probably, for no good reason. Bad things happen to the good and the bad all the time. The notion that only good things happen to good people was put to rest when they crucified Jesus. Now, this same Jesus takes our question and makes it cruciform: can you trust God - in joy or in pain - to be your God? Can you love God without linking your love to the cards life deals you?
And then, we have televangelists who tell us that this pandemic is divine retribution for some views people have on various social issues. They want us to believe that if we don’t agree with their particular view of things, God will smite somebody at random and it will be our fault. That’s a pretty scary way to look at our God.
God's love carries no promises about good or bad save the promise that God will not allow anything worse to happen to you than happened to God’s own Son and that beyond sickness and death, life is changed, not ended.
Saint Augustine of Hippo mused over the great suffering that occurred when the barbarians sacked Rome. He noted in his City of God that when the barbarians raped and pillaged, Christians suffered just as much as non-Christians. Faith in Christ did not make them immune to pain and tragedy. Augustine wrote, “Christians differ from Pagans, not in the ills which befall them but in what they do with the ills that befall them.” The Christian faith does not give us a way around tragedy. It gives us a way through it!
What do we do with our neat little distinctions in a church where we think being nice is the way to salvation? God's sunshine and rain keep blurring them! This is the way God responds to our questions - not with answers that flatter us, or make the world simpler than it really is, but with God’s life given for us, that we might more fully give our lives to God.
So, during this time of anxiety, let's look for ways for God might be manifested in our lives and ways God can use us to bring peace and calm and hope to others. We don’t know how long this social distancing will last nor do we know the full impact of this health crisis. Gathering together is central to how we have always done Church but we can't do it right now. We are trying to learn and practice more and new ways to be Church when we can’t physically meet together. Worship will be streamed by video each weekend we are apart. Our clergy and pastoral care ministry are reaching out to people in the parish who are vulnerable. We are encouraging everyone to connect to our online directory (Breeze). We've set up a Helping Hands Network in order to learn who needs to receive help and who is willing to provide help. Groups are meeting via video, teleconferences, and email chains. When we need to get important information out, we will be more redundant than usual, employing a variety of avenues including social media, email, voicemail, and text messaging.
If you have put off learning how to use new technology in order to communicate with others, please, please find someone to help you learn what you need to do today! We need to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices. This situation is not likely to be over for months. Our faith compels and equips us to find the way through this and do it together!
The Very Rev'd Ron Pogue
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church