Sunday, April 03, 2011

Responding to Evil

Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A)
1 Samuel 16.1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5.8-14; John 9.1-41
Sunday, April 3, 2011 – Trinity, Redlands

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9.2)

This question by the disciples gets to the heart of what may be one of the thorniest issues in Christianity: theodicy. Theodicy deals with the question of how can an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God allow evil and suffering in the world? In our attempts to reconcile our image and felt experience of God with the reality of evil and suffering, we struggle with explanations that seek to make sense out of this apparent dichotomy. And while we Christians struggle on one side of the equation, there are those who are not believers who claim that the existence of a loving God and evil are logically incompatible, and conclude that since evil and suffering obviously do exist in our world, God could not possible exist. Sadly, it is the experience of evil and suffering that is probably the main reason many people reject Christianity - a faith that can help them deal with evil and suffering.

When it comes to evil, there is a classification system, of sorts, that helps us in our thinking about the subject, and plays a part in our view toward evil. The two classifications of evil are moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is the result of an event that is caused by the intentional action or inaction of a person or entity. Moral evil has both a perpetrator and victims. Examples of moral evil include murder, violence, adultery, dishonesty, and slavery, to name a few. Why does God allow such moral evil to occur and to persist in the world? While it may not always be a satisfactory answer, we recognize that such moral evil exists because of freewill that has been given to us by God – freewill that is misused for selfish purposes and against other human beings. God has given humanity the gift of freewill and self-determination, and for reasons we cannot completely fathom, God chooses not to interfere. Influence, yes. Interfere, no.

Natural evil, on the other hand, is a bad event that occurs without the intervention of an agent. Natural evil only has victims, and is generally the result of natural processes. Examples of natural evil include disease, birth defects, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and anything that in legal terms would be designated as “an act of God.” Why does God allow such natural evil to occur and to persist in the world? That is a little harder to understand, and for some, a little harder to stomach than the acceptance of moral evil. Natural evil does not involve freewill, so why doesn’t God use a little of that omnipotence and prevent such things as Hurricane Katrina or earthquakes in Haiti, New Zealand, and Japan? And while that is one of the mysteries of our God, many people are not content to settle for the unknown, to the appeal to mystery, and struggle to make sense out of natural evil.

Who of us has not occasionally asked “why me” or “why is God doing this to me” when bad things happen to us? Now I speak in the broadest of terms, but what tends to happen when we try to make sense out of natural evil is that we sometimes seek to introduce other variables into the equation. We introduce variables that add a human dimension to the moral neutrality of natural evil –blame or responsibility. “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Generally, the only way we can make sense of an all-powerful God allowing evil and suffering in the world is by presuming divine punishment for some wrongdoings or sinful behavior. Even if we cannot see the specific reason, the sinfulness being punished, we are readily able to accept that God must know what he’s doing. To explain the apparent inconsistency between our all-powerful God and the existence of evil and suffering, we provide a connection, justified by finding someone to blame. In so doing, we attempt to turn a natural evil into a moral evil.

Now on a certain level we know that God doesn’t cause bad things to happen – at least I hope we know. But it is certainly rampant in our society. So we need to be able to name it and put it in proper theological perspective.

After all, we see examples of this every time there is a major natural disaster, a sizeable incident of natural evil. Think back to Hurricane Katrina. At the time, many people asked why this happened. Most likely a rhetorical question, but there were those who immediately leaped in and tried to explain the natural evil by turning the incident into one of moral evil. One nationally recognized televangelist said that “Katrina was God's punishment for sinful behavior in New Orleans.” Another prominent Christian figure attempted to link Hurricane Katrina with an act of judgment against legalized abortion. Human sinfulness was brought into the equation as a way of explaining a natural phenomenon, attempting to make natural evil into moral evil, with the incident itself being divine retribution.

And most recently, with the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, many people naturally asked why this happened. And again, there were those who had answers that involved attempts to place blame. On the Monday after the earthquake, the Governor of Tokyo said “The Japanese people must take advantage of this tsunami to wash away their selfish greed. I really do think this is divine punishment.” He did later apologize for the insensitive comment. But a prominent American figure kept the notion alive by maintaining that the earthquake and tsunami were a message from God as a punishment for sinfulness. Here again, mislaid allegations of human sinfulness was brought into the equation in an attempt to make natural evil into moral evil, with the incident itself being divine retribution.

In response to the comment made by the Governor of Tokyo, a Buddhist monk said, “We can’t pinpoint exactly what brought this about. For Buddhists, it almost doesn’t matter what caused this situation; what’s important is the response.” And I would say not just for Buddhists. While alleged Christian figures make ludicrous claims about natural evil actually being incidents of God’s judgment and punishment, the truth of the Gospel on such matters is born out in today’s lesson. “[Jesus’] disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him’” (Jn 9.2-3).

Jesus is very clear. The man was born blind – a natural evil. When the disciples attempted to make it into an issue of moral evil, attempting to determine the cause of the sin that resulted in the man being born blind – which, by the way, was a very common view of that time – Jesus put an end to such a perspective. Sin had nothing to do with it. The man was the victim of disease or some natural defect that resulted in blindness. Now what Jesus does say by way of explanation is that “he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.” In other words, the point is not to find a cause for the natural evil that has occurred, but to view it as an occasion for doing God’s work; in this case, the work of healing. Was the man born blind so that God’s glory could be revealed through his gaining sight? Maybe, maybe not. The important thing is that the natural evil that was his plight was ultimately used to reveal God’s glory. In other words, it doesn’t matter what caused the situation; what’s important is the response.

The imagery of the man’s eyes being opened, of gaining sight, in combination with the imagery Jesus uses of light and darkness, is a clue that this is not just about Jesus showing God’s glory in the immediate event, in the healing of the man born blind. In the story, it is not only the man who gains sight, but also the disciples. And so do we as the audience. As the events unfold, we too gain sigh, or insight, into how to respond to events of evil – certainly natural evil, but moral evil as well. We are called to open our eyes to see as God sees – to look at such events of evil as God would, and to respond accordingly. With opened eyes we see that it’s not about what blame is falsely or ignorantly placed on a situation, but rather how we respond. In a broader sense, the work of God that is done through incidents of evil is the work of mercy and compassion. Just as Jesus had compassion on the man born blind and healed him, we are called to have mercy and compassion on those who suffer as a result of evil. We are called to look with eyes of faith and to see how God’s work might be revealed – what can be done to bring the light of Christ into a dark situation.

There are so many examples of how this parish looks at dark situations in our world – incidents of evil – and sees not with the eyes of judgment, but with eyes of faith, sees the suffering of evil’s victims, and seeks to reveal God’s work of mercy and compassion through those situations. We help those with behavioral issues through our support of Sierra Vista Rehabilitation Center in Highland, providing various items needed by the residents. We help low income and homeless families through our support of Family Service Association with the food collected weekly during the offertory. We help those who are homeless and hungry through our support of the Shared Ministries, in which we providing a meal one Saturday a month to the homeless population of Redlands. We help the homeless through the Cold Weather Shelter at Blessing Center, when one night a week our parishioners staff the Shelter. We help those who lack access to adequate health care through our support of the annual medical mission to Nicaragua. We help abused women and children through our support of Option House, by providing them with much needed personal and household items. We help those who are in prison or who have recently been released through our support of Step By Step in its various efforts to minister to parolees and the families of those who are incarcerated. And Trinity has also been great at stepping up to help out with special needs, such as when Episcopal Relief and Development raised money for Haiti and most recently, Japan. We have seen with the eyes of faith – not casting judgment, but seeing as God sees. And in our response, the glory of God is being revealed.

Through the example of your works of mercy and compassion, you have helped open the eyes of our youth. Several months ago our Youth Group, after hearing about the plight of homeless teens here in Redlands, have started a project to help YouthHope, the program that provides assistance to the homeless teens in Redlands. One Sunday a month, our teens come together to prepare a meal that will be served to about 100 homeless teens later in the week, providing one of the few meals these kids have each week. The eyes of our youth were opened to an incident of evil, to a need in our community. They saw with the eyes of faith, the way God sees those homeless teens, and they responded. In their actions, the glory of God is being revealed.

With eyes of faith we see that God works in, around, and through events that are counter to God’s purposes in the world, and that in the process, God’s true purposes are accomplished. God needs us to be his hands and feet in the world to do this. So as we work in, around, and through those events of evil, our eyes are opened, we work to accomplish God’s purposes – namely the showing of the glory of God through our acts of mercy and compassion. We are not judging, only loving; just as our Lord does with us.

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