Saturday, April 02, 2011

Punishment just doesn't work! Lent 4 A

I find it intriguing how after thousands of years, we humans have not really changed a whole lot.
This whole, “Not Changing” thing is one of the things that prevents me from being a Humanist.  A Humanist is someone who believes that we humans will reach our potential if we are just allowed to seek those things that are good, true, and noble.  A Humanist believes that the Earth can become the utopia that is presented in Star Trek; a place that supplies all things for all people and a place where there is no one in need and no one is at war.  And, the Humanist believes this can all come about without the need of a God or other divine intervention.  And we can see from our gospel reading from today, that even after 2000 years of seeking those things that are good, true, and noble, we still haven’t made huge strides forward.
Now that may sound kind of harsh, but give me a chance to explain:  In the gospel reading for today, when the disciples see the man who is born blind, their immediate thought is that the blindness must be punishment.  They ask Jesus, “…who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  The immediate assumption is that when we see things in our world that appear to be “bad,” then that must mean that something was done by someone and that something is deserving of punishment.
Now, I don’t want to get into a whole discussion of the merits of punishment and whether we should punish people and children, just suffice it to say, on a theoretical level, punishment doesn’t work.  Yes, punishment does seem to have some short-term advantages, but in the long run, it really doesn’t get the results that are wanted.  So if it really doesn’t work, then why would we assume that punishment would be God’s way of teaching us things?  By their questions, we know that the disciples believed God worked mainly by punishment, and by listening to just about any Televangelist, this is still the assumption being made today.  And whether we like it or not, this assumption has probably taken root in each of us.
The disciples were just SURE that someone had to have sinned for the man to be born blind.  They were SURE that the blindness was a form of punishment.  And since blindness was seen as a terrible thing, the sin that was being punished had to be a pretty terrible sin.  They were SURE of this, and this was the way they processed the world.  But Jesus gives them a different answer:  Jesus tells them that neither the man nor the man’s parents sinned!  How can that be?  Something so horrible as being born blind MUST be a punishment for something!  But Jesus doesn’t back down, he doesn’t say, “Well, yes, the man’s parents were Packers fans.”  No, he says that the blindness is actually something that can be used so that God’s works may be revealed!  What we would usually see as a punishment, God can use to reveal God’s glory!
Now, we need to be careful here:  I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that God caused the man to be born blind.  Granted Jesus says, “…he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him,” but I think we could get totally off the track by following this line of reasoning.  Suffice it to say that there are plenty of “bad” things in the world.  Suffice it to say that “bad” things are going to happen in our world.  And suffice it to say that God does not need to create “bad” things within our world.  But having said that, God does not just let the “bad” things be “bad.” 
If the man was born blind as a punishment, that seems rather harsh to me, especially if it was something that the man’s parents did.  If the man was born blind by some quirk of fate, well, that doesn’t seem much better.  But if the man was born blind and God could use the situation to reveal God’s work in the world; well, then a bad situation is redeemed through God!  And we stop and consider it, we must admit, God’s works have been revealed, for thousands of years, through this blind man.  The man may not have chosen to be born blind, but God redeemed his blindness through this story.
But back to the concept of bad things that happen are a form of punishment; this is a concept that is still plaguing us today.  It is a way of scapegoating people and groups.  It is a way of turning our back on those in need.  It is a way that we can feel superior to others.  If God is punishing these people, then we should not stand in God’s way!  And actually, this argument was used when vaccines and antibiotics were first presented; God was punishing these people and we should not stop the hand of God.
But, as I said, punishment does not work.  And God, in God’s greatness, would not resort to a method that did not work.  So we need to readjust our thinking.  We need to stop looking at the “bad” things in life as a punishment for some sin we may have committed and start looking for how this can show God’s works in the world.
When we are pushed outside of our comfort zones, we find that we are capable of so much more than we ever thought possible.  And even though we may not like to think about it, we are not the people we are because of the easy life we have had; we are the people we are because of the hardships we have survived.  The things that make us unique and wonderful are the difficulties we have surpassed.
When I look back at my life, there are many things that feel like they were punishment, but with the gift of time, I see how these things have prepared me for other challenges to come.  Quite literally, I am standing before you today because I broke my ankle 25 years ago.  Breaking my ankle set me on a different life course and has revealed to me God’s work in the world.  And I hope through my broken ankle, God’s work may have been revealed to others.
We can look at our impending closure as a punishment for some sin either committed by us or by those who have come before us; but I don’t think Jesus would want us to follow this train of thought.  I think Jesus would rather have us search for a way that God’s work can be seen in the world.  How does this event send us on a new and different path of service?  What have we learned here that needs to be shared with others?  I am sure that after his eyes were opened, the now former blind man, had insights that he alone could share with those around him.  The blind man would know stumbling blocks that others may not even have considered. What insights do we have that we can bring to other congregations?  What stumbling blocks do we now know that we can warn others about?  We have a gift of experience that is rare in the church world.  We have seen what can happen and have lessons to share.  We may have been blind, but God has worked to open our eyes.  And now we are sent to go out and share the message.
During this time of Lent, I invite you to remove the thought of punishment and replace it with loving leadership.  We are not being punished through the closure of St. Swithin's, but we are being led into new and different territories.  The world around us may be like the Pharisees in the gospel demanding that we acknowledge our sin, but we need to be like the man and give glory to God.  We have been given this experience and are being asked to spread the lessons we have learned and to share the loving works of God in the world.  Although this is painful, we do not experience the pain for nothing nor do we experience it alone.  God is with us.  Christ is with us.  Our Messiah is our guide and will lead us each to that place where we can show God’s glory to the world.

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