Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A
19 March 2023
1 Samuel 16:1-13
In the church in which I grew up there was a young man who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. He also had a bad hip because his alcoholic father had beat him when he was little. Jochen, that was his name, lived in a home for people with disabilities at the other end of town. On weekends he came to visit his elderly aunt and that is how he came to our church.
Jochen was my first conscious exposure to a person with a disability. Jochen had a deep childlike faith, he was like a child, and he was a loyal friend. His longing for friendship made him like the rest of us.
In grade nine I did a three week practicum in a daycare for children with spina bifida and cerebral palsy. I loved being with those kids, that they loved me back helped, as did the fact that the staff was welcoming and gave excellent directions. But there is only one story I remember from those days. One day we went on an outing to the local park and to get there we boarded the tram that went by the daycare. Imagine a bunch of three and four year olds in little wheelchairs. If you were around them enough you would see that they were just as cute and as full of beans as any other child their age. But it’s not something we see often, and most of us aren’t used to people with disabilities, let alone children. And as we were riding the tram, another passenger, moved by compassion, came up to us and insisted we take the box of pastries he had bought for some other purpose.
Jackie and I met at UBC hospital three months before I returned to Germany. We started dating about a week before I returned. We wrote many letters and racked up high phone bills between then and our wedding. I arrived two weeks before the wedding and Jackie took me to meet her siblings and family. Jackie’s eldest sister Jill was living at Woodlands then and that is where I met her. When 12 years later we moved from Winnipeg to Abbotsford we were glad to be near family, and we were glad to be near Jill, and glad that our children got to be near Jill.
In our reading from John nine we encounter a man with a birth defect. He was blind. We learn that he made his livelihood by begging. The disciples ask Jesus whether the man’s blindness is his own fault or the fault of his parents, because it must be someone’s fault. I am saying the last part with irony, for some of us were conditioned to find fault, though needing to find fault is not helpful for living in community. But the question of the disciples was an earnest one. It is a question about causality. Implicitly, at least for our ear, it is also a question about the suffering of the righteous, because Jesus does not engage the question of fault. Rather he says, that neither the man nor his parents’ sin caused his blindness.
In our book study last Tuesday we did not talk about this story but we engaged the question of how it can be that bad things happen to good people and to people of faith. And while the Bible generally says that the righteous will be rewarded, I think here of what is said to the people on the threshold to the promised land, “Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe [the Lord’s decrees and commandments] diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, (…), has promised you.” (Deut 6:4) Yet the prophet Jeremiah exclaims, “You will be in the right, O Lord, when I lay charges against you; but let me put my case to you. Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (Jer 12:1) And then there is the Book of Job that raises the same question.
The Gospel of Luke also addresses this question in a scene where people raise one calamity and Jesus raises another, only do deny any causality between the event and the sin of those who suffered. In John Jesus says to his disciples, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” That is the approach I took on Tuesday. If Jesus takes this position, how could we say anything else? And if we did, what kind of God would it be that we proclaimed?1 And this is an important question. If we believed in the wrath of God, how would this relate to the God revealed in Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself”? (Phil 2)
And so we deny any causality between sin and birth defect. And yet this is not the whole story because Jesus also says to his disciples, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” What does that mean? Is Jesus talking about the man’s healing? Was the man was born blind so that the Son of God could perform an object lesson?
Signs play an important role in the Gospel of John. In the other Gospels many of the things John calls signs are simply called healings. And although some of what John calls signs can also be regarded as healings (as the healing of the man born blind), their purpose extends beyond the healing itself. Also, not all of the seven are healings.2 The signs serve to show who Jesus is, as we learned at the very beginning of John’s Gospel. Jesus is the Word through whom all things came into being, Jesus is life, he is the glory of God, and of particular important for this story, Jesus is light.
But in this story we also learn the meaning of darkness. Darkness is to not recognize Jesus.
That means that the sign that is performed here is that the man who was born blind comes to faith in Jesus. His healing is miraculous but it takes a backseat to his faith, it is simply the sign he was able to read and that those who were literate were unable to read.
And for me that answers the question whether he was born blind so Jesus could perform an object lesson. The answer is no. He was born blind so that God would be glorified. God is glorified in his faith in Jesus. And having faith in Jesus changes the paradigm, for it is in Jesus that God is revealed, that means in his life among us, in his suffering, his death, and his resurrection.
When we lived in Abbotsford, John Bell from the Iona Community in Scotland came to give a workshop. I vaguely remember a story he told about a child with Down Syndrome he met in a church he visited. It was not a very friendly church. It was a congregation were people sat apart and little interaction could be seen between those in attendance. But a child with Down syndrome and without the inhibitions the rest of us carry, made people smile and look up, and brought joy in what before had been a joyless assembly.
I follow the blog of a mother of two children with additional needs. She writes beautifully about her children. One time she writes about taking her daughter to the circus:
“Curiosity was your ticket to the circus. You were born with a lifetime membership.
And unlike most people, you have never learned how to live your life without it.”
Years ago I was told by well meaning people that it would be kinder for you and for me if you were not born; only because you have Down’s syndrome. They did not know that bolted onto your extra Chromosome was a Golden Ticket of Curiosity with a ringside seat.”3
Her daughter was not miraculously healed from her birth defect and yet her life is beautiful.
The glory of God is revealed in the man’s faith in Jesus, not in his healing, for even though Jesus healed many, Jesus did not heal all.
At Readers this past week we read a chapter about getting lost. The author writes about her own life, “In my life, I have lost my way more times than I can count. I have set out to be married and ended up divorced. I have set out to be healthy and ended up sick. I have set out to live in New England and ended up in Georgia. When I was thirty I set out to be a parish priest (…) almost thirty years later, I teach school.”4
Her point is that if we don’t get lost, then God can’t find us, even while we do not intend to get lost. Our attempts to not get lost all aim at control but the goal of the life of faith is for God to be in control. Later the author reminds us of the witness of the Apostle Paul who writes of the Lord’s revelation to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Weakness is not abnormal but the human condition. Job says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return (…) blessed be the name of the Lord.” We begin dependent and we end dependent, and in between we live in the illusion of independence. Paul concludes, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
My goal is not to romanticize disability, sickness, or any other hardship. God knows our struggles and God promises to make all things new. But in the meantime, God is found right here, in Word and sacrament, in life’s daily struggles and challenges, in our weakness as Paul puts it, and God is glorified in our very lives.
1 The fall of the Northern Kingdom, and the fall of Judah a hundred years later are not God’s punishment but the result of people’s unfaithfulness.
2 Turning water into wine (2:1–11), Cleansing the temple (2:12–17), Healing the nobleman’s son (4:46–54), Healing the lame man (5:1–15), Feeding the multitude (6:1–15), Healing the blind man (9), The raising of Lazarus (11).
4 The Practice of Getting Lost, Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, New York, NY: 2009 HarperOne, page 72