What are the right questions?
A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent
When do they start? As soon as we can speak in complete sentences. "Daddy, can I have a candy bar?" "Mommy, does Grandma live in a house?" Questions. As children grow up, their questions get harder to answer. "Why do people have different skin colors?" "What do angels look like?" "Where do we go when we die?" The questions don't stop after we grow up. Especially religious questions. Especially the "why" questions: Why do we say those same words every Sunday? Why do we have communion? Why aren't there more women and children at the altar? And the harder "why" questions: Why do people burn copies of holy books? Why do I do bad things? Why is there suffering?
I remember the first time I really dealt with that last "why" question. Years ago I met with other clergy and lay ministers for some conversation and support, at a time when all of us found ourselves caring for people with a new disease, one that barely had a name. We were talking about what it was like for us to be pastors to people with HIV/AIDS. I was still a baby priest, and I was looking for answers that one of the older, more experienced ministers might give.
During our conversation one of those wise, old clergy said, "I've stopped asking the 'why' question." The room got silent, and I turned my head, trying to see who was speaking. "I don't ask the 'why' question anymore. 'Why did this happen to me? Why don't people want to come see me now? Why does God hate me?'" The silence grew deeper. I waited for every word. "The 'Why?' question will never get answered," he said, "at least not on this side of heaven. So," he continued, "I've decided the 'Why?' question is the wrong question, and I've stopped asking it. The question is not 'Why?' The question is 'Who?' Who is never afraid of me? Who will not abandon me? Who loves me?"
What kind of questions do you ask? What ARE the right questions? Sometimes we ask or answer questions that beg a yes/no, either/or answer. Paper or plastic? Republican or Democrat? Those two-choice or dualistic questions can also be religious: Is God a God of justice or a God of mercy? Is he Protestant or Catholic? Have you been born again? The problem with what some people call our "dualistic" questions, the problem with thinking that all the important questions can be reduced to "either/or," is that it can force people into a false choice. Sometimes, "paper or plastic" is the right question. But when it comes to God and religion, sometimes we are asking the wrong questions.
"Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" The disciples, having heard lots of questions people were asking of this rabbi called Jesus, came up with a question of their own. As they walked with Jesus, they saw a man blind from birth. Here's my question: How did they know he had been born blind? We can't find the answer to that question in the Gospel text. But the question the disciples wanted Jesus to answer was not an open-ended question. It was either/or: Is this man blind because his parents sinned, or was he blind because of his own sin? Of course, if it was the man who sinned, he would have had to commit that sin before he was even born!
The disciples simply want Jesus to make a choice. But the choice is a false one, and Jesus doesn't fall for it. He doesn't play the blame game: Who's to blame, Jesus? Whose fault is it? Those are the wrong questions, Jesus teaches them. This man's blindness is not about him, about his or anyone's sin. It's about God - and about God's opportunity. Jesus is inviting his friends to think differently about blindness. Indirectly, he asks his disciples to consider some non-dualistic, open-ended questions, like: Where do you find God's "works"? How are they revealed to you? What is your role in the works of God?
God's works are found in things like healing the sick and, in next week's Gospel story, raising the dead. God's works are what we call miracles. Here's a yes/no, either/or question: Do you believe in miracles? If we believe in God, maybe the right question is, "What evidence of miracles can you and I find?" The formerly blind man had evidence: All I know is: I was blind, but now I see.
In today's miracle story, Jesus uses saliva and dirt to make what used to be called a salve, mud that makes him see. It saves this man from a lifetime of blindness. But that's not all there is to the story. This miraculous story of healing is not just about eye-sight. It's also about insight, wisdom, seeing with what the mystics call "the third eye." It's a story about those who have other kinds of blindness. It's about those who can't see or hear the right questions, questions like, How am I blind to the world around me? How are my deeds living up to my creeds? How can I see more clearly the ways in which I am a part of God's miraculous, mysterious universe?
Except for the man born blind, no one in the Gospel story today wants to consider the right questions. Not the disciples, not the man's neighbors, not the Pharisees. When they do consider the right questions - like the Pharisees asking how this man received his sight - it's for the wrong reasons. After all, it was the Sabbath, and the fourth commandment - "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy" - demanded there be a day of rest each week. After all, God rested, and so should we. But exceptions make the rule, and Jesus came into this world, not to keep all the rules and laws, but to fulfill them, to give them new meaning. Why, for example, would "rest" not include rest from a lifetime of blindness? Why would God not want healing to happen on God's special day? Why would there not be a miracle on the day that the Lord, the miracle-maker, has made?
When my mother was a teenager, she and other youth climbed on a bus and went on their way to a Bible college, to study to be missionaries. The bus never made it. Some young people did not survive the crash and its tragic consequences. Others were seriously injured. My mother was one of the injured, and in the hospital she was told she would never have children. Years later she found the doctor who had given her that sad news and showed him a picture of her five children. Literally, I walk this earth by the grace of God.
Please understand me. My story would not be a miracle story for a mother or father who loses a child. Anyone who says, Thank God my child was spared! may be blind to another parent's lament: Why did MY child not survive? Generally, God and God's world are not either-or - "either this child or that one." God and God's world are, far more often, much more mysterious, much more "both-and-and" than we want to believe. But miracles do happen, as the singer songwriter Carrie Newcomer puts it, "every shining now and then" ("If Not Now"). And we can find miracles all around us, if we use our "third" eye. Miracles like Nancy Little, who, because of illness, never should have survived her adolescence, but she lived a long life as one of All Saints' women of wisdom.
Sometimes, especially in the spring, even in Lent, when the sun gets really bright, we may need to squint a little. We may even feel the need to close our eyes. But in that shining moment, there may be a miracle happening, and if we close our eyes, all three of them, we just might miss it.
Sisters and brothers, as we continue on our journey with Jesus, in the midst of this season of Lent and spring, let us consider the right questions. Let us not ask, "Whose fault, whose blame, whose shame?" Let us open wide that "third" eye of ours, and ask open, honest questions, child-like questions. Let us ask the right questions - questions from Jesus, questions from God. Let us stop asking, "Whose sin is it?" Let us ask: Whose faith is it? Where's my faith today? Where's the miracle, to which I once was blind, but now, I see?