Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
I want to begin this morning by inviting you to think of a tragedy of some sort. I know that sounds rather morbid as a starting point of our time of listening for what God is saying to us, but I assure you that there is a method to this madness. A tragedy can be experienced either in a very personal way or indeed at a very large, collective way. And, perhaps the most characteristic shape of a tragedy is that it “befalls” one, it “happens” – often without a clear sense of rhyme or reason. So, I invite you to think of an unexplained tragedy – either a personal one that you or someone else has experienced, or a larger scale tragedy that has affected a plurality of people – and to write it down on the little slip of paper that is being distributed among you. You do not need to be in a hurry; we will collect these papers during the song following the sermon. And you need not write your name on your slip of paper, unless for some reason you want to do so.
Our Scripture reading this morning is a story about a tragedy at the personal level, of a man who was born blind. I am thankful that, in our day, we have found a better language for disabilities like blindness, paralysis, or deafness. It is no small thing that we now name these conditions as “challenges,” rather than stigmas curses. It is no small thing that we have curbsides where sidewalks melt into the pavement with raised corrugated ramps that enable those who might be in wheelchairs or strollers to enter and exit at will. We have elevator buttons with Braille dots on them and televisions with closed caption. I’m sure that – somewhere along the way – someone experienced these features of our society as onerous government regulations that added cost to everything, but aren’t we a much better society for them? They signify that we make small accommodations to those who have disabilities, which enable them to transform those disabilities into challenges and to participate fully in society despite them.
It is a different story for persons who have suffered personal tragedies in poor countries. I remember a number of years ago we visited a family in
When we think of that man lying on that reed mat, day after day, year after year, we probably have a better sense of what is at stake in the healing stories of the New Testament, like our story of the man born blind from John’s gospel. Someone who was blind – especially blind from birth – was probably unable to work and likely reduced to begging. At best, a blind person was a lifelong single person dependent on the largess of her/his family for sustenance. In other words, blindness was a tragedy, both for the person who was born blind as well as for the rest of the family. When tragedy strikes, we look for reasons, we look for something to explain why blindness befalls this person and not that one, why an earthquake destroys these people and not those people, why the volcano, the tornado, the hurricane, the drunken driver, the collapsing bridge, the faulty wiring, all happen when they do affecting who they affect. And even when we can explain plate tectonics and “El Niño” and ocular development, none of those explanations blunt the feelings of tragedy and despair of those who suffer. And particularly, within a religious structure that attributes life’s blessings and woes to God’s favor or disfavor, a common response to tragedy is the question, “What did I do wrong?” Or, “Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?” Or, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Now we can see what is at stake behind the question that the disciples ask Jesus in our story: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It is not a simple question, because it is about a real tragedy of a man whose blindness had moved him from full participation in community to a kind of marginal existence as a “blind beggar.” And the terms of the disciples’ question are not egregious; they are the best answers that piety had offered to date: His tragedy was either a result of his parents’ sin or his own sin. Everything about this tragedy was reflective of both the awful reality that this man lived and the best conjectures available for why he suffered.
Jesus’ answer, however, changes everything. What Jesus says is, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” What Jesus does is to restore his sight and, in doing so, to reconcile him to full participation in his community. (There is a lot more to this story that shows how the religious leaders threw up every roadblock imaginable to that reconciliation. In the end, it is an ironic story of sight and blindness, darkness and light; but those topics will have to wait for another day.)
The typical human action is to make a tragedy an occasion to fix blame and name the cause. The reaction that Jesus brings is to make a tragedy an occasion to offer reconciliation, to bring those whose ‘befallen’ situation have moved them to the margins and to reconcile them to full participation in community. We will demonstrate the difference between the common response to tragedy and the gospel’s promise of reconciliation in a moment. For now, I invite you to fill out your slip of paper and pass them to the most interior person on your row to be collected during our song, “Called as Partner’s in Christ’s Service.”
PRAYER OF RECONCILIATION
I want to explore two words with you, as we think of both the common response to tragedy and the response that Jesus invites us to embrace.
The word “Tragedy” is old and its roots are somewhat in question. The long-accepted etymology of this word shows its origins in the ancient Greek theater. Tragedy is derived from two words: Tragos, which means “goat,” and Ode, which means a song. You may wonder what a “goat song” has to do with tragedy, but the best explanation seems to be that tragedies were occasions for sacrifices on an altar. Namely, a tragedy was the result of the gods’ disfavor, so a goat would be offered on the altar as a way of appeasing the gods and atoning for the disfavor. If this etymology is correct, the word “tragedy” is an “altar” word, and the question of “Who sinned?” is entirely appropriate.
Jesus invites us to perceive tragedy differently. I want to suggest that in what Jesus says and does in the face of tragedies, a better way to respond to them is to be reconciled. The word “reconcile” is made up of three parts: “Re,” as we all know, means something like “again.” “Con,” as we know from other words, means “with.” And “cile” seems to come originally from the word for a “longbench,” indicating a place where people would sit together. To ‘reconcile,’ then, is to ‘sit again with.’
I would suggest that a Christian response to tragedy is not to answer every question over “why” or to affix blame on the right parties. Rather, in moments of tragedy, we are invited to be agents of reconciliation, where we work to In other words, we take those who have suffered tragedy and make table with them, sit with them, be community with them. Answers or no answers; lights at the end of the tunnel or the difficulty of being in the dark; we sit with others again, even after their tragedy. Let us pray …
As our musicians offer their gifts and as the ushers gather your gifts, we will also pass these slips of paper back out to you, in hopes that you receive, not your own tragedy, but the tragedy indentified by another. And we invite you to take that tragedy home with you, to hold that person in your thoughts and prayers, and to look for ways to be reconciled, to ‘sit again with’ someone who has suffered tragedy.