September 24, 2023
• Rev. Mindie Moore
Just a couple of weeks ago, the NFL season kicked off. And one team in particular had a lot of hopes and dreams for what this new season would bring. They had a new quarterback. A GOOD quarterback. A hall of fame quarterback. And there was a lot of expectation for what this quarterback would do and where this team might end up.
Unfortunately, that team is the New York Jets, and that quarterback is Aaron Rodgers. (SLIDE) And on Monday night football, just FOUR PLAYS into the season...Aaron Rodgers got sacked, went down, and tore his achilles...and his season was toast.
And this was SHOCKING. I watched a replay of Peyton and Eli Manning doing commentary on the game and Peyton just kept saying, “Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy Cow.” And Eli just had this grimace. This was clearly NOT the outcome that anyone could have anticipated and it was such a blow to high hopes that all these Jets fans had for their team.
And if you were a Jets fan in this moment, or you do that fantasy football thing, after all your hopes and dreams for this season were on this one person and the team that was being built, it is likely that you asked-
(SLIDE) Why did God let this happen?!
And is that an overreaction in this particular situation? I mean, maybe. BUT- this is a question that is on the tip of our tongues so often in so many situations. And it’s one of the most pressing questions that people wrestle with in their faith or even people who don’t claim faith wrestle with it. Because it applies to everything- football, our relationships, our faith, the global news. Like how does God let all of these terrible things just keep happening and what does it mean for us?
So that’s what we’re going to unpack today as we wrap up this Stumped series. And as we look at this question, I think the very first thing we have to be honest about is that (SLIDE) bad things are going to happen. Period. A lot of times we think if we just live in a certain way or do a certain thing, or get all the pieces of our lives lined up just RIGHT, then we can avoid the tragedies and setbacks that happen. It’s kind of comforting to think that we have the ability to duck and swerve and stay out of the struggle’s way.
But...if we’re honest...that’s not really how life goes.
You know, with this Aaron Rodgers situation, I’ve seen a lot of people trying to figure out why this happened to him, and an emerging narrative is that the artificial turf in the stadium is to blame. Now, real talk, I know just enough about football to barely even use this situation as a sermon example with a tiny bit of integrity and there is no way I can debate the merits of real turf v. artificial turf and sound like I know what I’m talking
about! So we’re not going THERE- but here’s what I thought was so interesting- this conversation is showing this really human need to try and explain or find a reason behind WHY this bad thing happened. We want to know! We think if we can find a reason, or a cause, or name someone at fault, then maybe we can avoid it happening again OR at least just make sense of it.
But that’s not always the best use of our time or energy. I mean, all we have to do is look at the Old Testament book of Job to see that this pursuit falls apart pretty quickly. Job’s story is that he was the MODEL CITIZEN. Best guy ever, most interesting man in the world. And then...literally, despite his best efforts to get it all right...everything falls apart. He loses it all. His life is in ruins and people want to know- why would this happen to YOU? To a guy like Job? Of all the people?!
And in that story- there's a lot of back and forth between Job and God, we learn a lot about how God shows up in our suffering, but you know what we really don’t learn- we don’t learn why. At the end of the day, there’s no good reason for all this hard stuff that happens to a good guy like Job.
And really if you read through so much of the Old Testament, this is one of the main things that all of these different stories are trying to work out. All the history, all the messages from prophets, all the rules- these were people who were trying to work out why they had gone through some really terrible things. These were people who had been through an event
called the Exile, which in the simplest terms possible meant that some other nation had come to their place, destroyed everything and kicked everyone out. They had a this huge collective trauma that they were trying to heal from and understand. So when we read the first part of our Bible, we have to understand that they’re wrestling with this same kind of question that we’re talking about today. In fact, they spend the whole first part of this book asking questions like these: (SLIDE)
Is it God punishing us?
Did we do this to ourselves?
Why did this have to happen?
Does God even care about us?
...Have you ever found yourself asking questions like these? I know I have.
These are questions that we can ask on a really large scale, like when we’re confronted with all the tragedy and despair we see in the world, but they’re also questions we ask in our day to day lives. And that’s what we see in the Scripture we read today. This Scripture is in the New Testament, in the Gospel of John, and we’re reading a story about Jesus and his disciples engaged in ministry together. And the disciples are trying to process what they are experiencing alongside Jesus. They’ve encountered this blind man and back then, blindness was more than just loss of sight. It’s loss of access. It’s loss of privilege and
social standing. A lot of the time, people believed that being blind was a punishment for something specific. And so at that time, your physical condition had a domino effect on so many other things in your world.
And my guess about the disciples is that once they started hanging with Jesus, they started encountering and recognizing a lot more of the suffering in the world. They couldn’t ignore it because these were the people who Jesus spent time with. These were the people who Jesus moved toward when everyone else moved away. And so they’re getting up close and personal with the losses and tragedies of life, and just like all the people who came before them, just like you and me- they had questions! They wanted to know:
Jesus, how did this happen? Who made a mistake? Who is being punished? And I think under all of that is the unspoken question- how do we keep this from happening to us?
See, I think so often, when we encounter suffering, when life goes off the rails, when we are just full of grief and sadness for ourselves or someone else, so often (SLIDE) We want to find comfort in an explanation, but really God wants us to find comfort in God’s promise.
God promises that God is a God of love, of grace, of faithfulness, or presence and most importantly, God promises that those things aren’t conditional. Even though sometimes it’s hard to see those things in action, and I KNOW it can be hard to believe those things, those qualities of who God is don’t
go away when the world gets tragic. God’s goodness doesn’t change even when life gets really chaotic.
But it’s a pretty common human need to try and make sense of it all. To try and find the answers. And the tension is that if you’ve ever been through something really devastating that was hard to make sense of, the people who want so hard to make sense of it for you...are often not that helpful! Like, think about the disciples here with the blind man. Say Jesus had said, “you know, it was actually his mom. She wasn’t great. She didn’t follow the rules. So that’s why he’s blind.”
What would they done with that information? Do you think it would have made the blind man feel better if they had pulled him aside and told him that? Like, “Hey, we talked to Jesus and he’s got some insight. It was mom. Sorry about that.” No way! Because when we’re in the middle of suffering, answers don’t actually solve our problems.
The person I think who articulates this the best is Kate Bowler. (SLIDE) She’s a professor at Duke and she when she was about my age, when she had just had her son, when she had just been given tenure at Duke...she found out she had Stage 4 colon cancer. And it was not a good prognosis. Other than an experimental treatment that she enrolled in, there was no hope for survival.
And so she was dealing with this absolutely devastating news, in a time in her life that was supposed to be so full of every perfect thing, and she was just theologically shell-shocked. This
challenged every single thing she believed about God and how God works and it didn’t make it better that every person in her life had some kind of opinion about WHY this was happening to her.
She said this in her book called “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved”: (SLIDE)
“Everything happens for a reason.” The only thing worse than saying this is pretending that you know the reason. I’ve had hundreds of people tell me the reason for my cancer. Because of my sin. Because of my unfaithfulness. Because God is fair. Because God is unfair. Because of my aversion to Brussels sprouts. I mean, no one is short of reasons. So if people tell you this, make sure you are there when they go through the cruelest moments of their lives, and start offering your own. When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver is handing them a reason.” ― Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved
Reasons are so tempting in the face of suffering.
And I have to admit to you, that I actually struggle a lot with the fact that even Jesus offers a reason to the disciples in this story. So I want to unpack it a little. Because part of me wishes he had just said- it's the mystery of God. I can’t explain it, you can’t
explain it, let’s just love this guy. Like, that’s how I would want to answer the question!
But Jesus, he says this- he says: (SLIDE)
“This happened so that God’s works might be displayed in him”
Well, what does this mean?
Because on first read, it could be tempting to think that Jesus is saying “his blindness is going to be our platform for showing off how God works” and if you’ve ever been in a situation like this, some kind of suffering or devastation, I can just take a wild guess that not a single one of us wants to be that platform.
And that doesn’t really sit super well with me and how I see Jesus interact with and value people. But here’s what I wonder about this answer that Jesus gives- is it less about the actual condition that the man has, is it less about him being blind, and more about the fact that Jesus encountered him and that the disciples bore witness to this man and his pain?
Because again, it wasn’t just the fact that the man couldn’t see that was heartbreaking for him in this story. It was the fact that this physical trait meant he was socially cast aside. He would not have been collectively valued or cared for. And now here’s Jesus and his disciples and he’s got their full attention. He’s having this encounter with someone who DOES value him. With someone who DOES believe that he’s worth the time and effort and healing that’s about to happen. He’s with someone who
doesn’t shrink away from the suffering but who knows what it’s like to suffer himself and holds hurting people close.
That’s what Jesus does in the face of this question. He doesn’t actually spend a lot of time trying to make meaning, he spends his time drawing near to those who suffer. And it reminds us that our God isn’t afraid of our pain. Our God is not afraid of the hurt and fear that we carry. Our God is a God of response and hope- and the point of this story as I read it is that we’re supposed to be about those things too.
Because when we encounter tragedy, (SLIDE) we can’t always explain it- but we can respond.
Jesus says in this conversation with his disciples that he is the light of the world. And once he says that, he gets to work healing this man. And if you keep reading this Scripture it says this:
6 After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. 7 Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam”... So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.
Jesus uses simple, ordinary means to respond to the suffering he encounters. It’s a miracle and it’s hope, but in practice it’s really not very dramatic or exciting. He just takes what he has and he uses it. And just like Jesus, we get to take what we have and use it. The truth is, we can’t stop bad things from happening. They’re going to happen- to us, they’re going to
happen to people we love, they’re going to happen to people we’ve never met but whose stories break our hearts. I wish I could change that, but that’s the world we live in.
But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless in the face of these hard things. Whether we’re the ones suffering or we’re the ones witnessing the pain, we can know that our God is present and with us and that THROUGH us, we get to see that light that Jesus talks about.
So maybe you need to hear that encouragement today. Maybe you are in a place where you are asking- Why God? And you’ve been asking that for an awfully long time. Your suffering isn’t short and sweet and your heart is broken. If that’s you- I want you to hold on to the promise in this story that Jesus is ready and willing to get in the mud and spit and hold you close. I want you to hold on to the promise that even in the hardest moments, you’re not alone. And I want you to hold on to the promise that there is no amount of pain or grief or anything that could drive Jesus away from you.
And if you’re the one who’s witnessing the pain- I want to encourage you to remember your call to be the light. To take whatever you have- maybe it’s a phone call, maybe it’s a meal, maybe it’s money, or time to serve, maybe it’s a prayer. Whatever you have, it’s enough. It’s enough for God to use to create some kind of healing in this world.
Even in the middle of some hard, terrible thing- God's goodness and work can be on display. And whether we receive it or we give it, we get to be part of it. Let’s pray.