Rev. Danielle K Bartz March 19, 2023
John 9:1-41 “Seeking: Who Sinned?”
In 2005, in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina and the levy-break that flooded the lower 9th ward of New Orleans, Franklin Graham – son of Billy Graham and conservative televangelist – said in an interview that God was punishing New Orleans for the ‘sinful’ nature of what happens there. While he tried to backtrack what he said, the damage was done because, while most people were appalled at his statement, there were undoubtedly a few who believed him.
In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of American (ELCA), one of our sister denominations, gathered in Minneapolis to discuss the ordination of openly LGBT ministers. On the morning when the debate was to start, a storm system blew through Minneapolis, one that had been predicted to happen, which sparked a tiny, isolated tornado. It partially damaged the steeple on the Lutheran church across the street from the convention center where the ELCA was gathering to discuss making their denomination more open and inclusive. An unaffiliated Baptist minister in Minneapolis remarked publicly that God was punishing the Lutherans for their acceptance of ‘sinful’ behavior. His comments gathered enough attention that the ELCA had to make a public statement refuting his ridiculous claims. And while the ELCA went on to vote a couple of days later to ordain openly LGBT ministers, once again harm had already been done.
The examples of people, in the name of God and/or Christ, using the idea of another’s sin as a means to explain, or blame, are too numerous to count. It has been happening since the earliest ideas of a deity who is connected to humanity. With our human need to explain what happens, in our need to feel like we have control over what happens, we seek out reasons for the good and the bad. It makes total sense to me – so much in this world is largely uncontrollable. People get sick for no reason, harm is done without an explanation, and events outside of human control happen that effect the course of people’s lives. For most people this is a frightening reality and so they combat their fear by trying to explain away why bad things happen. And often, far too often, the simplest solution is that the person who has been harmed somehow deserved it. The nebulous idea of sin, a concept that no one can agree on a definition for, is a convenient solution. That person must have been sinful, we decide, otherwise that bad thing would not have happened. If I didn’t believe it was empty, I would say that Jesus would be turning over in his tomb every time someone tried to blame another person for the harm that was done to them.
Because just three verses into the long passage that we read this morning, we hear Jesus say, unequivocally, that sin was not, and is not, the cause of harm that comes to people. The disciples, seeing a man who was born blind, asked a question that many of us, if we are truly honest, find ourselves asking. Who sinned? Was the man born blind because of his own personal sin, or was it the sin of his parents? And Jesus answers the disciples’ question clearly. He does not tell them a parable, or offer them some obscure, difficult to understand explanation – which so commonly occurs in the Gospels. He says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Sin was not the cause, Jesus says, because God does not work like that. God does not keep a tally sheet and if we reach a certain threshold of ‘sin’ then a punishment is doled out. God does not work like that. In fact, God works in the opposite way. Jesus said God’s love and glory can best been found in those who have been harmed. God does not punish because of sin, God’s love is revealed in those whom society has pushed to the margins.
It is one of the great tragedies of religious institutions that the concept of sin has been weaponized and used to control. So, this morning, I want to offer a counterargument to the idea that sin is the reason bad things happen to people in the form of God’s punishment. To do this, we must first understand where the idea came from in the first place. St. Augustine, a father of the Christian religion whose impact continues to be felt, came up with the idea of Original Sin, the idea that all humans are born sinful, and it is the role of humans to spend all of our lives atoning for that sin in an effort to get to heaven. All of this is based on Augustine’s interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve gave into temptation and ate fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in direct contradiction to God’s command. Augustine believed that all of humanity was descended from Adam and Eve and because of their sin, we are all born sinful. Never mind that the story of Adam and Eve in the garden is just one of two, or arguably three, stories about humanity’s creation that can be found in the beginning of Genesis. Never mind that the ancient Jewish faith never interpreted their own creation mythology in that way. Never mind that the story of Eden is concluded not by God casting out and throwing away Adam and Eve by turning away from them, but rather by crafting them clothes, in other words giving them protection as an act of devotion and love, as they ventured out into the world. Never mind that Jesus himself said that sin was not the cause of human harm. Augustine’s belief held sway and continues to be the undercurrent of how we tend to look at the world. So, the question too often asked is ‘who sinned’. Or worse yet, no questions are asked at all, and judgment is all that occurs.
But, if we choose to reject Augustine’s ideas of sin, if we choose to reject the way that sin is weaponized and used to control, if we choose to reject the assumption that humanity is able to judge itself leaving no room for God – if we choose to reject the question ‘who sinned’ because sin is the only possible answer – then what questions can we ask? Because there is nothing wrong with asking questions. Questions, curiosity, a search for wisdom is what connects us to God and to one another. What questions can we ask instead? We can ask ‘What happened to you?’ in an effort not to judge, but to understand and come alongside someone. We can ask ‘How can I support you?’ to once again allow God to work through us. We can ask ‘How can I be a good neighbor to you?’ We can ask ‘What good can I celebrate with you today?’ because we know that good always exists. We can ask ‘May I pray for you?’ to remind everyone that God’s love and grace is never broken or far away.
I believe that sin is real – I believe we are all capable to making choices that harm ourselves and harm our neighbors. I believe we are all capable being apathetic about or complicit in systems that hold people down and harm our world. I believe that sin is real, but more importantly I believe in a God who has named each of us Beloved in the moment of our creation. I believe in a God whose grace surpasses all human understanding. I believe in a God who seeks out the hurting and lost, not to judge, but to show the world what love can look like. As Easter people it is our calling to come alongside this hurting world, not to judge, but to enact God’s love. Let us not ask the question ‘who sinned’. Let us ask this world and ourselves how we can embody Christ and the love of God for all. Amen.
God of love and grace, your love of us surpasses all our abilities to understand. You created us in love, and we carry your love with us everywhere we go. For this we are eternally grateful, and it is in this gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, too often in this world we choose to ignore you and pass judgment ourselves. We confess this to you and ourselves and stand in awe of the grace that you give. We pray that you would remind us always to first see your face in those we encounter, and to share your love in extravagant ways.
One of the ways God we can open ourselves to your love for us and for all is through prayer. We offer to you now the prayers of our hearts and spirits, trusting that you hear and respond.
Great and good God, you have shown us what it is to live a life devoted to you through the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. May we ever seek to follow him in all that we do. We pray all of this and so much more in his name and now in the way he taught…Our Father…