Saturday, March 25, 2017

Year A, Lent 4, Psalm 23, John 9.1-41, Why Me?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Underlying this question is the simple fact that sometimes life seems unfair, even cruel, and it leaves us struggling with the question “Why?”
When Jerry and Susan spoke to me they left me speechless, simply not knowing what to say, and when I tried to say anything they had to correct me.
I didn’t know what SMA was.  Spinal Muscular Atrophy.
It’s a genetic mutation that results in a progressive deterioration of the nerve function, until in the end, a person is rendered incapable of all the vital things for life, like breathing.
When a child is born with SMA they may live a year, or two. 
Jerry and Susan’s newborn Spencer had just been diagnosed.  He would live but a year.
They tried again to have another child.  Andrew was also born with SMA, and died following his first birthday.
Life is cruel.
And we ask why.
Ben was the husband of my youth director, Kirsten.
A young man, a good husband, a new father.
In my office one day, they shared that he was seeing a doctor because of a weakness that had developed in one of his legs.
They were afraid that it might be something horrible like brain cancer.
Trying to calm their fears I remember offering the observation that when faced with the unknown we almost always fear the worst, and rarely does the worst happen. 
Above all, I wanted to reassure them that “it’ll be ok.”
Two months later Ben died of a highly aggressive form of brain cancer.
 Life is cruel.
And we ask why.
About the same time Brad, my doctor, and a member of the congregation in Sandpoint, had a seizure.
His colleague and close friend performed some tests, including an MRI on his brain.
Together they looked at the results:  three small tumors.
That began a two year journey of a slow decline and death.
One of the things he lost was his short term memory.
He would get up in the morning and call into work to see what he had on his schedule for the day, not realizing that hadn’t worked for over a year.
When Brad died he left behind a dear wife, and three young boys.
Life is cruel.
And we ask why.
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
There is a desire within us to find a reason, because if we can find a reason for our suffering, the world seems more fair, and just, less arbitrary and cruel.
I remember telling Brad as he shared the news with me that if our roles had been reversed, it would make more sense.
Afterall, I’m the one who smoked, and drank, and quite frankly didn’t live all that healthy of a life style.
Brad, on the other hand, did everything right.
Were I diagnosed with cancer everyone, myself included, would simply point to the choices I have made and said:  “He should have know better.”
But Brad did everything right.
There was nothing fair or just about his death.
He'd done nothing to deserve that fate.
And so we ask why.
Likewise with Ben, and Spencer and Andrew.
There is no reason to make sense of their deaths.
Their's was a completely innocent suffering and death.
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Jesus’ words work well, when he is there to heal the blind man.
He was blind, but now he sees.
If every time we faced a grave illness or injury God would respond with a miraculous healing we wouldn’t ask the question why so much.
But people die, for no reason.
And we are left with our grief.  And our questions.

As I look back over nearly thirty years of ministry, what I find myself going back to, time and time again, is a simple truth.
We are mortal.  And life is fragile.
And try though we might we cannot pray ourselves out of our own mortality.
At the same time, I also am reminded of how many times the words of Psalm 23 were present amid all this suffering.
Words of comfort and hope.
I believe that Psalm 23 is to be read from the inside out.
We begin with where we too often find  ourselves.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
The Valley of the shadow of death.
Faced with our own mortality.  Struggling with the death of others.
I preached many a sermon on the 23rd Psalm during funerals.
I read it many times during hospital visits.
I shall fear no evil.
Because we are not alone.  Christ is with us.
And the rod and the staff, shepherds tools that would be used to protect his flock, these give us comfort.  Just the knowledge that the Lord is there protecting us from evil, comforting us in our distress, provides hope.
Why is it that we can be  reassured and find hope?
First because of what God has already done.
We remember, looking back over the course of our lives, and take comfort in all the ways God has provided for us.
The LORD makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. You restore my soul, O LORD, and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.
One of the rich blessings of growing old is the recognition that “this too shall pass”. 
I will always treasure the insights of my parent's generation when faced with difficulties.  They had grown up in the great depression.  They faced all sorts of hardship.  And when that passed, they had to deal with WWII.
Through it all came a recognition that God continued to provide for them and care for them in the most uncertain of  times.
“We may not have had much, but we had love, and that was enough.”
And then, as we remember all the ways that God has been with us in the past, we look forward to the promises of what is to come:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Faced with our own mortality we take comfort in being an Easter people. 
Death will not have the final word, God will.
And by the goodness and mercy of God we are promised a place in the house of the Lord, forever. 
In a few moments we will gather around the altar, receive the bread and wine, and here get a foretaste of the feast to come.
The psalmist writes:
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
We come to the table Christ himself has prepared, and we join in a feast of celebration of the victory Jesus has won.
This we do, even as death, our age old enemy, still rages all around us and in us.
One of the special moments I remember with Brad, was that every Christmas Eve he would assist me in communion.  It was his thing.
And then, that final Christmas Eve, when he could no longer come to worship, we celebrated communion with him at his home.
Riddled with cancer, clinging to what life was left in him, we celebrated the victory.
This is my body.
This is my blood.
For you.
There was the assurance of forgiveness.
There was hope.
And most of all, there was life in Christ, the assurance that even as we die with Christ, and Christ with us, we will also be raised with him, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


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