All The Time.
In some of the African-American churches I’ve had the opportunity to worship,
The call to worship is simple, and profound:
“God is good…all the time!” the preacher proclaims,
to which the congregation responds:
“All the time…God is good!”
“God is good…ALL the time…”
It is an article of faith. Testimony.
A declaration to a world in which things aren’t good, not all the time
A world where people are blind…both blind physically
In that they cannot see
And blind spiritually
In which they do not know where they are going
or what to hold on to.
There’s a bit of a disconnect: this affirmation, and the things we experience.
We know this. And the scriptures know this.
For example: if you spend more than five minutes flipping through the psalms
You learn quickly that they contain the full spectrum of human emotion.
Much of this comes from the lament tradition,
Written during some of the darkest times of the Hebrew diaspora:
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.
O God, why do you cast us off forever?
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck….
Last week Landon preached out of these very psalms
To talk a bit about anxiety and worry among people of faith.
At the same time,
the Psalms also contain some of the most powerful, poetic words of assurance
Words Of God’s abiding presence and concern.
So, for instance, in Psalm 139, one reads:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
And settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
Even there your hand shall lead me,
And your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
And the light around me become night”
Even the darkness is not dark to you,
The night is as bright as the day
For darkness is as light to you….
That’s sort of a scriptural way of saying
“God is good…ALL the time…”
Thank God for the Psalms…
Like many people, my transition from childhood into early adulthood
was directly impacted by two key markers.[i]
The first was my awareness of tragedy and suffering and evil in the world…
For many here, your first awareness might have been
the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr
Or John F Kennedy…
Or maybe it was devastating pictures of Vietnam,
nuclear silos during the cold war…
coming of age during the depression…
For a generation of older Millennials it was 9/11.
My moment was the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in January 1986,
That shook me, unexpectedly, from a life of pure play and freedom as a child
Into life that is also full of serious questions,
The awareness of pain and sin and hurt…
The second marker was my early appreciation of music
as an expression of the human spirit…
how music conveys feelings and emotions that I longed to express
but failed to find ways of doing so, particularly as a child…
One of my favorites growing up was The Indigo Girls,
a quirky folk-rock duo that got going right when I was becoming a teenager.
They have this song called “Crazy Game” that quickly became THE SONG
that I think of when I consider my adolescence:
Crazy game, I never should have started to play,
but now you couldn’t tear me away
cause love is sweet, sweet baby
So good to you.
. . .
You dry your tears.
Don’t be thinking grey is here to stay.
Sometimes everything is in the way
you’re wanting to look at it,
turn your view around,
dry your eyes.
Eyes like yours should carry a smile,
I haven’t seen them sparkle in a while, give it one more try, dry your eyes.
Cause if you’re ever believing I’m thinking of leaving
look to the moon,
Cause it’s a fact she may go wandering about
but she always comes shining back and it’s true, i’ll wait for you.
So, that’s my personal confession, and I offer it because I think it is fairly typical.
This coming to a clear-eyed awareness of this complex world of ours
This growing into adulthood: it’s not an easy thing.
As a friend said this week on Facebook: Adulting is Hard.
But it is a natural part of what it means to be human,
The transition from childhood into adulthood
And with it an open-eyed search for answers
For understanding why things are they way they are.
We naturally go from experience to a search for meaning.
For me: It was my awareness of human suffering,
principally the suffering of innocents,
and my comparing of that suffering with the promises of our faith
that God loves each one of us, that God is working to make all things new,
it was THIS that caused me to begin my journey to an adult faith.
In very real ways, I continue to wrestle with this.
Every time I read stories about apartment fires and bombings in Syria
Where scores of civilians, women and children, have died,
Or about flooding or hurricanes where small store-owners lose….EVERYTHING
Newborns contracting rare ailments or friends who get cancer
or victims of terror attacks run over on London streets…
These things lead me to God. They lead me to ask WHY?
My friends, we are carrying around with us a lot of pain,
A lot of worry. Every day of our lives.
They aren’t the only things that bring me to God.
There is so much more: joy and beauty and grace and celebration
that fills my heart and my prayers…
BUT… if I am honest, and introspective in a confessional sense…
The suffering of the world that holds a primal place in my longing for God…
I want to understand!
I want it to be better!
I want suffering to end!
I want justice to prevail, the lion to lay down with the lamb!
I want to know where the causes are, who the causes are,
and to DO something about it!
I want, as Anglican NT Wright puts it, the world put to rights.
If you’re like me, then we share something with the lament tradition of scripture.
Why, O God?
I have grown suspicious of anyone
who talks too glibly about this age-old mystery.
The thing about this “crazy game” is that we keep looking for neat, tidy answers,
And those simple answers have a tendency to elude us.
This much is clear: scripture addresses this situation quite well,
Just not in a neat, tidy way….
Today we have before us a lesson from the Gospel according to John.
Here the main characters of this story share this basic human quality
Trying to make sense of suffering and hardship—
in this case, the hardship of the man blind from birth.
They come to Jesus, and they ask him “Why?”
But they go beyond this question for understanding,
and they reveal their presumption that the answer has to be some fault.
Someone, somewhere, has to be to blame.
And if we can put our finger on who to blame,
then maybe we can come to terms with it, this human suffering.
Maybe we can understand it, and that can make it easier to live with…
We can cut out the cause, banish him or her or them.
It just might make life, well, safer, for me and mine…
Isn’t that what we’re all wanting?
Isn’t this what the disciples were asking for from Jesus?…
the riddle to be solved,
the “Ah-ha!” that delivers us from the downward spiral of uncertainty?
Aren’t we asking why because we simply want to know?
Come on Jesus, just give it to us straight–
why was this man born blind?
Why is my relationship in shambles?
Why does she have to suffer with cancer like that?
Who’s to blame, God…is it him or his parents? Her or me?
God, I know you have an answer for that! I know you know the answer, God….
The amazing thing, the healing thing, that we learn in John is this:
Jesus doesn’t seem to be too interested in this question.
God doesn’t seem to be so into the “blame-game.”
Yes, it is a deeply human, completely understandable impulse,
But Jesus is telling us that healing begins as we begin to let go of that question
And move on to something else…ENTIRELY.
John tells us that the question actually distracts us
from what God is doing in the midst of every tragedy, any suffering.
John tells us that that while the disciples are busy spinning their questions in place—
GOD is getting down to the dirty work.
Jesus himself bends over and scoops up dirt from the ground—
mixes it in his hands with some good ‘ol fashion spit
and smears the muddy paste all over the blind man’s eyes.
There are no voices of angels harkening in the distance. There is no magic fairy dust—
this isn’t a Jesus who approaches a stranger from on high…
this is the Jesus who notices us and stops for us in the midst of real life
and in the midst of the questions real life asks.
Yet, did you notice, even the healing hands of Christ himself
do not deliver our blind friend from darkness…
it’s not that mysterious concoction of mud and mess that opens his eyes.
It’s not until Jesus says, “Go! and Wash!”—and the man does—
that the healing begins.
Whatever questions the man born blind had about his life,
his condition or his past are tabled—if only for a moment
—in order to listen to the voice of the Christ in his midst.
And if we tune our ears just right,
then we can almost hear the man whispering to his Lord,
“Alright, if I can’t know why, then please God, please:
help me to figure out what’s next.
I’m listening, now tell me what to do.”
“Go and wash,” Jesus says…then come back and look at me! See me for who I am!
I am the One who stopped to care—
I am the Light that no darkness can overcome!
I am your God who crawls into the muck and mess of life with you…
I entered Sheol for you!
I’m not afraid of who you are…
remember, my own hands helped to knit you in your mother’s womb.
I already know about your faults and your fears, your lies and your dirty little secrets.
I know about the guilt and the shame that you cannot seem to shake…
and still I forgive you, because you are my precious child, and I love you.
So go and wash, my son…
for the darkness of night has broken forth into morning—come, and see!
Cradled in the very arms of these verses themselves
is the entirety of the gospel message:
unsolicited and uninvited,
God enters our world and uses the mess of life—
the very “stuff” that you and I are made of—
to heal our brokenness and to restore our vision!
We get Jesus: the One who takes us just as we are—where we are—
and heals us from the inside out.
There’s no life “redo” issued—no offer to erase what’s already happened…
simply the call to listen and to follow.
And this I believe, is where spiritual healing begins to happen:
in the movement from the why to the what next?
Moving beyond the fault-finding impulse of our lives,
To the search for where healing exists, where grace is possible.
But if it’s that easy, and we simply follow the blind man’s lead—
if we move beyond asking why—
why the illness?
Why the broken heart?
Why the disappointment?
Why this pain?—
and instead start asking, “Ok, God, what’s next?”—
then will all the hurt simply stop dead in its tracks, will the suffering end?
Will it all get fixed and go away?
Well I wish I could say yes, but unfortunately it’s not quite that simple,
because a changed heart isn’t the same thing as a brand new one…
and healing still doesn’t rid us of the vexing problem of memory.
Doesn’t preclude us from the next round of pain…
But I will tell you this,
and I believe it with every fiber of my being:
this healing power of the Holy Spirit in the face of deep suffering is real.
A seminarian by the name of Grier told a story
of healing in the midst of immeasurable tragedy,
that I want to share with you this morning.
It was a Monday morning about 10 o’clock when the call came…
Grier was working in North Carolina as a youth director in a Presbyterian church
when her pastor called her down from the office to tell her that Hunter—
one of their most active 9th graders, had been taken to the emergency room—
he wasn’t conscious, a blood vessel had ruptured in his brain.
Grier froze, and had nothing to say.
In fact, she had no idea what to do…so her pastor put his hands on her shoulders,
stared her straight in the eyes, and he said “Grier, welcome to the ministry.”
At 24 years old, she had never experienced anything like this—
she had never been to the hospital to see someone who was dying.
She had never lost a friend before.
Wholly unprepared to be of any help to anyone,
she went through the motions and gathered her keys, got in her car,
and drove off to the downtown hospital.
When she got there,
she was greeted by the soft eyes and pursed lips of Hunter’s mother.
They didn’t speak a word to each other, just hugged and held on.
Then, from around the corner flew her best friend yelping in hysterics,
She said nothing–just opened up her arms and clung to her…trembling in fear.
And then – unsolicited and without invitation—
the ding of the elevator chimed
and out poured five of Hunter’s closest friends
…then three more…then eight…they just kept on coming!
When they saw Hunter’s parents they ran to them in tears, gasping for breath,
“When can we go in and see him? What’s going on? Is he going to be alright?”
Eventually, the nurses had to come over to herd the adolescent mass
into a special waiting area—so Grier followed,
still in shock and wondering if somehow it was still possible
that all of this was just a nightmare.
Hunter’s mother came in and told all the young people that if they wanted,
they could go in to Hunter’s room to say goodbye—
so two by two and three by three, Hunter’s friends—
some of them youth from the church
some who had never been to a house of faith—
they went in: to hold Hunter’s hand,
to read him poetry,
to sing and even to laugh with one another about old times,
to pray with him.
Grier said that, for the most part, she simply stood there like a wallflower,
doubled over in awe as this swarm of 14-year olds
embraced the body of their dying friend—
tubes and monitors and needles and all.
Hunter died later that day, and his parents called to report the news to the church.
And, at the end of the conversation, Hunter’s mother asked the lead pastor
if it would be possible for the youth to plan and lead in Hunter’s memorial service.
And thanks be to God, he said, “Yes, of course.”
So two days later on a dreary January afternoon, twenty-five Senior Highs youth
gathered in their youth room to learn how to piece together a funeral service.
Just as in pain as any of the rest –perhaps more so–these kids got down to business,
and with the help of the church staff and youth advisors, they started to decide:
-Who was going to help select the scripture passages?
-Who was going to open the service in prayer?
-Who would be willing to learn how to write a funeral homily
and share it in front of 12 hundred people?
-Who had ideas about which hymns we should sing?
For 3 hours they sat in that youth room together—collaborating and care giving—
making sure that every last detail of that service would go over just right.
And it did.
Their church was bursting at the seams,
and the young people led one of the most moving and beautiful
and challenging worship services Grier has ever been to.
Grier reflected on this and she said:
You see, they got something about the “what next?”—
their suffering was no less real than anybody else’s, yet somehow,
some way they were able to pause
and listen for the voice of Jesus
who showed up in the midst of the darkness.
I think they must have heard him saying something like,
“Go! Plan this service for your friend! Care for Hunter’s family!
Lead our church! Bear my Light, and let it shine!”
Their friend had died, a mother and father had lost their son—
yet somehow, even THERE, the faint glimmer of hope and life could be seen
seen in the faithful actions and loving kindness of our church’s young people.
And that was the day I learned that pastors really do cry,
and that they certainly don’t have all the answers….
That was the day when I first believed that the Light of Christ
is never lost in the darkness.
That was the day I learned something about our own Healing Lord—
and something about what it must be like to have been born blind, and now see.
That was the day that I decided I’d go to seminary.—Grier said…
I don’t have all the answers and all understanding
about evil and suffering in the world…
But I’ve seen grace, and I’ve seen healing, and I’ve experienced hope.
And I continue to pray for the ability to move from the WHY to the WHAT’s NEXT…
And I pray that for you, too…
God is Good…All the time.
[i] This sermon contains elements adapted from an earlier sermon entitled “East of Eden: On a Fault Finding Mission” preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church of Prairie Village on June 22, 2008. Some elements, including citation for the Grier’s story, are lost and are not original.
Image from: http://bluewave.com/blog/blurry-photos-powerpoint/