This sermon was written by Rev. KJ Norris and delivered electronically on Sunday, March 22, 2020 during the Coronavirus Outbreak. It is based on John 9.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Have you ever made a mud pie?
Earlier this week, my sister Kimberly and I were out digging in the dirt. We rent a small plot of land up the street from our house where we can grow vegetables. And in this warm spring weather, we went up to do a little surveying. To see what is going on in the garden. To turn over the soil. To get our hands a little dirty, or truth be told, to get a little muddy for our small plot was full of very wet dirt.
Kimberly is really the one who gets me into these digging adventures. When we were kids, our dad would go out in the spring and begin to turn over the dirt, get the flower beds ready for spring. I was content to run around in the yard, chasing the dog or playing on the swing, but Kimberly would find a way to plop down right in the mud and create something wonderful. A mud pie delight.
I didn’t know it then but Kimberly was actually joining a long line of ancient tradition of building things out of the clay, out of the dirt, out of the mud. Ancient peoples could create just about anything they needed out of the ground. Houses were build from mud bricks made by hand. Potters were skilled making the clay just a perfect consistency to create bowls and cups. Too much water and the vessels could not maintain their shape, too little water the vessels would dry out when they were fired and would crumble to the ground. They were known for adding just a little spit to the mix to get it just right.
This lead the Pharisees to make a rule. You see the Pharisees were the ones in charge of explaining the Scriptures. That was their job. They did their best to help people interpret what God was saying through the Scriptures to the people in their day. And they knew that God had said we should take Sabbath. We should set aside a day to rest. A day to be reminded of all the good things in life. A day to remember that God loves us and that we are to love God and one another.
And the Pharisees saw how the potters worked, how they used clay to make bowls and cups. How they spit a little into the mud to get it just perfect. And the Pharisees said: if you spit into the dirt and make mud, you are doing work. We cannot work on the Sabbath so mud pies are out.
But along comes Jesus.
Jesus who never cared much for silly rules. Jesus who found joy in all of life. Jesus who loves to see children playing in the dirt and who calls them to come to him.
He is walking along and sees a man who has been born blind.
And his disciples ask the age old question: What causes suffering? Why was this person born blind? And they ask it with a kind of hypothesis, thinking they know the answer: Who sinned: this man or his parents, that he was born blind?
I think it is a natural question. After all, we often see that sin brings bad things into our lives. A man loses his family because he cheats on his wife. A women fibs a little on her taxes one year and has to pay a fine plus double the money next year. Actions often have consequences. So it seems natural to ask: did this man sin?
And if we take out this thought a little further, we can come to believe that life is just a cycle of many lives. If we are good now, we will be rewarded later. If we are bad now, we will be punished later. Perhaps this man did something in a former life or before he was even born that caused him to receive blindness as a punishment.
Jesus responds firmly: NO! Those who are born with a disability, those who are born differently-abled are not in anyway being punished for a sin that happened before they were born.
And then the disciples ask it another way to: Did his parents sin that he was born blind?
You all know I am a nanny and have been a youth director and teacher. I’ve had the great joy of working with many different children of all ages and abilities throughout my life. And it has been a joy getting to know their parents as well. I don’t know one parent who hasn’t asked this. When something happens to our children that seems out of the ordinary. When they are born differently-abled. When they are sick. When they become injured, parents ask: was it something I did? Did I cause this? Did I sin and bring harm to my child?
Jesus responds firmly: NO! Parents, you can let yourselves off the hook. Sometimes bad things happen to our kids. You are not being punished for your sins.
Sin is one of the most difficult things to understand theologically because it is complex. There is punishment for sin, just as we already said. Sin has consequences; it does bring bad things into our lives and God wants to protect us from hardship and suffering so God gave us the law. God shows us what is good and right so that we can experience love. So that we can prevent some harm from coming into our lives and so that we will not bring harm into others’ lives.
But suffering and death are a part of our world regardless of how much or how little we sin. Not everything that happens to us in life is a punishment. Not everything good is a reward. Sometimes people who do wrong seem to be rewarded. Sometimes people who do good suffer. In Matthew, Jesus says it this way: The rain falls on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45, pastoral paraphrase). This is the reality of the world we live in this: we all suffer. We do live in a chaotic world.
Right now we are seeing the chaos of the world on a more grand scale than we usually see it. We are watching large numbers of people get sick with a disease that has no known cure. We are watching friends and neighbors who work hard and who want to work lose their jobs not because they have done something wrong but simply because there is no work to do. We are watching our kids be kept out of school with the hope that slowing down our lives will slow down the coming of this disease so that hospitals won’t be overwhelmed with patients and so that scientist have time to find a way forward.
We are living in a chaotic time.
But the good news of the gospel is: God enters into the chaos. God does not stand far off, ignoring the suffering or not seeing our situations, instead God goes to work.
Throughout the Gospel of John the author shows us what Jesus’ relationships with people are like. How Jesus interacts with us. And in this story in particular: How people fail to understand what God is doing.
Jesus goes to work in this person’s life without him even asking. Did you notice that? This person who was born blind never asks to be healed, never confesses Jesus is Lord, never even acknowledges Jesus, but Jesus goes to work anyway. Although it is the Sabbath, Jesus bends down into the dirt and gets the mud to just the right consistency. He gives it a little spit to get it just right. And then he places it on the man’s eyes.
Perhaps this action might remind you of another story. God at work in creation. God in Genesis 2 reaching down into the ground and forming the first human out of clay. The Adam, the A-dam, literally, the mud-person. Jesus is showing here that he is God. The One God. God at work as God has always been at work. Jesus making a mud pie.
And the man’s eyes are opened.
People, of course, don’t believe it. They don’t recognize him at first. They don’t think he can be the same person. He is completely transformed. Not even recognizable.
One funny story I read this week during my sermon preparations was about a miner whose life was totally transformed because Jesus came into it. The guys were teasing him at work about his new found faith. They were saying: Come on, do you really believe Jesus turned water into wine? The miner responded: I don’t know about that, I wasn’t there, but I do know this: At my house, Jesus turned beer into furniture!
There is something that happens in our lives when Jesus comes into them. We become different people. Sometimes people cannot even recognize us. And we may not know everything. We may not be able to explain the transformation that John is describing where a person who was born blind literally is given sight. Or we may never see a miracle of this type in our own lives, though some of us might.
The one thing that is for certain is that all of us can experience a kind of awaking as God works in our lives. In a very real sense, we are all born blind, unable to see. Unable to know right from wrong. Unable to see the sin in our own lives. Unable to know our calling and value. We are all blind. But Jesus is at work in us. In our homes. In the church even with the doors closed tightly. In the world.
Some of us are blind thinking that God is an angry God causing us to suffer. Some of us are blind thinking we are not sinful and have no need of God. Some of us are blind like the Pharisees, so busy trying to follow the rules that we miss God at work. Some of us are so blind we don’t even know to ask God to come into our lives.
But God is at work anyway. God is at work now in the power of the Holy Spirit as God has always been, from the beginning of creation and through the creativity of Jesus—God in the flesh, making something new and beautiful out of the dirt and clay and mess and chaos happening all around us and inside of us.
Jesus is at work bringing order out of chaos.
Right now we are in the season of Lent. The season where we are invited into more prayer. More reading of Scripture. More fasting. More time to focus on God and particularly on what God did through coming to earth in the form of a mud-person. Fully God and fully human, the Lord Jesus Christ.
We are in a season where we prepare ourselves to look at the cross. To look at death and pain and suffering and to stand in hope while seeing these things, knowing that they are not the end. Knowing that resurrection is coming. Knowing that Jesus is victorious over sin and death. Knowing that Christ has risen and Christ will come again.
Our Scripture reminds us this week that we cannot explain suffering. But God takes even suffering and brings good. Even the greatest sin and suffering the world has ever done: taking One who was sinless, the One who was the very embodiment of love—mocking him, beating him, hanging him on a cross. Even this God used for good.
We can worship God today knowing that God is at work bringing new life. Bringing joy out of sorrow, bringing sight to our blindness, breathing life into mud pies.
So, this week I want to encourage you to go out and dig in the dirt. It is something we can do while we are social distancing. Perhaps do as my great-uncle always did and plant your St. Patty’s Day Peas as he called them. It’s not too early to put in peas here in Western PA.
Or just go out and turn over some dirt. Get your hands dirty. Remember that God created you and loves you. Remember that even in this time of social isolation, you are not alone. Find ways to take care of yourself and know that you are loved.
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.