Rethinking Why Bad Things Happen
John 9: 1-9
When I was growing up, teachers of young children would put a question to children in a playful, rhyming way. The game is called “Who stole a cookie from the cookie jar?” Do you remember it?
Leader: “ (Name) stole a cookie from the cookie jar.”
Accused: “Who me?”
Group: “Yes, you!”
Accused: “Couldn’t be!”
Group: “Then who?”
And then the accused gets to name another person.
We have observed that such childish games do not stop when we get to be teenagers. “Who drove the car and didn’t put gas in it? (Silence.)
Or as young adults: “Where is your assignment?” (“My dog ate it.”)
As adults we hear this all the time; many have not matured enough to accept responsibility for their actions. It happens even at the highest levels of government. Politically Americans have blamed the Russians, the Chinese, the Mexicans and more, warranted or not, for a variety of circumstances. Republicans blame Democrats, and Democrats blame Republicans. Cheating husbands may blame their wives for lack of affection, and cheating wives may blame husbands for lack of attention. It is the story of relationships. And there is still blame going around when dealing with the Covid-19 virus. Where did all this blaming start? In the Garden, of course! When the human race began. “The Lord God said to the first man in Genesis 3:11 “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” And the first man replied: “The woman, whom you gave to be with me, gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” So then the Lord God turned to the woman: “What is this that you have done?” And the woman replied, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate it.” Isn’t it interesting that the only one who doesn’t blame someone … is the Tempter! He took the responsibility and the consequences! Goodness! I hate to tell anyone to act like the tempter, but to invite people to own what they’ve done is just the right thing to do.
The one who is mostly blamed for bad things happening in the world is … God.
God gets blamed for storms. God gets blamed for taking a child to heaven too soon. God gets blamed when someone dies in a car accident because his friends say, “It was just his time.” Methodist Pastor Adam Hamilton addresses these issues in his book that he simple called Why?” Our church studied his book last Fall. Listen to his chapter titles: “Why do the innocent suffer?” “Why do my prayers go unanswered?” “Why can’t I see God’s will for my life?” and “Why God’s love prevails.” People have asked forever why bad things happen. But you may be comforted to hear that people have forever tried to assign reasons for someone being, hurt, disabled, or killed. Take, for example, the story of a blind man. “John actually says specifically, “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who was blind from birth.” [John 9:1] He wasn’t blinded by getting into a bar fight and losing. He wasn’t blinded after he broke into another man’s house. He was blind “from birth.” So, you know who got blamed: God. And here is what happened: it wasn’t a stranger, or a Pharisee who asked this question. It was Jesus’ own disciples! “Rabbi” they asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” For Jews in Jesus’ day and earlier, they believed that everything that happened was from God. Wars, deaths, having no money, having lots of money, being able to have children, not being able to have children- it was all from God. So rich people felt like God especially was pleased with them, whether God was or not. Poor people felt like they must have sinned against God and wondered what they had done. Women who wanted to become a mother and couldn’t conceive believed that was because of God too. They thought God let Israel get invaded by Assyria first, then Babylon second, because they were not faithfully honoring God. So, if a man was blind, the disciples believed it was because someone sinned. The only question was who. But Jesus set them—and us straight—with his answer. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” [9:3]
Sometimes children treated at Shriner’s Children’s Hospital, for example, are not there because someone sinned; most often they are there from what is sometimes called a birth defect or some genetic issue or accident. Yet in Jesus’ day, people were ready to assign fault, or blame someone for a person with disabilities. Jesus said no. “So that God’s works might be revealed” Jesus said. Some of the most inspirational stories in sports happen around Special Olympics. Perhaps this shows God’s works being revealed:
In 1976 at the Special Olympics in Seattle, “nine contestants lined up at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. At the sound of the starting gun, they all started off in their own way, making their best effort to run down the track toward the finish line. That is, except for the one young boy who stumbled soon after his start, tumbled to the ground, and started to cry. Two of the other racers, hearing the cries of the boy who fell, slowed down and looked back at him. Then without hesitation, they turned around and began running in the other direction toward the injusted boy. While the other contestants struggled to make it to the finish line, the two who had turned around to run in the other direction reached for the boy and helped him to his feet. All three of them linked arms and together walked to the finish line. By the time the trio reached the end, everyone in the stands was standing and cheering, some with tears running down their faces. Even though by turning back and helping the boy who fell they lost their own chance to win the race, they all had smiles on their faces because they knew they had done the right thing.” [From the Unitarian Universalist curriculum, “Love Connects Us” grades 4-5.]
Mr. Rogers taught children that whenever they were in trouble, look for the helpers. Little did one boy know that his helpers would be young and as disabled as he was. “Was that God’s work being revealed? Is helping others part of Jesus’ entire teaching, to “love your neighbor as yourself” and to follow the Golder Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you?” When you hear others putting the blame on God for things, perhaps you can change the direction of the conversation with words like: “Never mind how it happened. Will you join me in lending a hand?” And perhaps even guiding a conversation away from blaming God for the death of a baby or horrible storm. May our Gentle God comfort you in your abilities and your disabilities, one day sending angels to carry you over life’s finish line.
Let us pray:
Help us, O God, not to give in to tired clichés about you that people repeat. Instead, help us to direct people’s eyes and minds to your great works and gentle mercies, manifested in our world around us. In Jesus’ name who seeks to open sometimes the eyes, and always the minds, of the blind.
Jeffrey A. Sumner March 22, 2020