Mud In Your Eye
At Duke you have to participate in field education placements. You have to at least do two of them during your three years there. While I was there I did five. I did that many because I wanted to push myself to get as much practical experience as I could out in the real ministerial world and plus they help with tuition. I did everything from work with a local church to working with children at a recreation center in a low income housing development in Durham. The one that impacted me the most was when I was placed at Duke University Medical Center working with a ministry called Partners In Caring.
Partners In Caring worked with and through the infectious disease clinic. They concentrated on ministering to the patients and families who were infected with HIV and AIDS. If a patient came into the hospital with HIV or AIDS the infectious disease clinic would be called and one of the chaplains or the intern, me, would go visit them. It was an eye opening experience and I will remember it for eternity. I was able to come face to face with some of my own fears. It pushed me past my own comfort zones and I am better for it.In a field education placement you had a mentor. During one of my talks with my mentor he asked me what the first thing is that pops into my head when I met people living with HIV/AIDS. Fear of contamination? No, I knew too much about the disease to know I could get it from holding a hand or sharing the same air. The truth was the first thing that popped into my head was “how did they get this disease.” I wanted to know how. Was it drugs, homosexual or heterosexual intercourse, or was it through birth? I wanted the juicy details but then my mentor asked me, why? “Why do you want to know? To make you feel better they have the disease? Will it enable you to cast judgment upon one moment in their life that they now have to pay for with their lives?”When I was honest with myself I realized that if I knew how they got it, I could pass judgment upon them and reconcile to myself that they deserved to be in that hospital bed. When I came to this realization I felt dirty and I felt like I wasn’t doing ministry. I was offering judgment when I should have been offering compassion and love instead. Maybe it wasn’t with the words I said, or the prayers I prayed, but in my heart there was judgment and I knew the patients could feel it.As the disciples and Jesus walked along they discovered a blind man who was blind from birth. The disciples looked at Jesus and asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" There was this idea that if some one was physically challenged, if they were crippled, deaf, blind, or dumb, it was because of sin. Their aliment was caused by either their own sin or the sin of their parents. Exodus 20:5 rang in the disciple’s ears as they laid eyes on this blind man. “For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” The blindness of this man according to the disciples and probably everyone else around him was caused by God because of a sin that was committed against God. God had judged this sin and the punishment was to make this man blind.
Now we hear this story in 2008 and we giggle a little bit. We know that when I sin it doesn’t mean my child will become blind. We laugh at this ancient way of thinking. We know that if a person goes blind in their old age that it is probably because of cataracts, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, a detached retina, or even glaucoma. We, in the post-modern age, understand disease and that it is not caused by God as a result of our sins. We’re better than that, right?
Bishop Will Willimon tells this story of when he was the Dean of the Duke Chapel and the Tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean. He says, “In the days that followed I received two or three telephone calls from local reporters. Calls from news reporters to me are a rarity. The first reporter said, ‘I’m doing a story on the Tsunami and its aftermath. How do you as a person of faith explain this event? At first I wanted to reply, ‘How do I explain it? Well, I’m not an oceanographer myself but I think that the earth’s crust cools, the plates shift, [an] earthquake happens, and then the tremors set off huge waves out at sea. At least that’s what I picked up on the Learning Channel.’ That wasn’t what the reporter was looking for. He asked me a question ‘as a person of faith.’ What do people of faith say in the face of the terrible Tsunami? What they really mean is, ‘You say you believe God is good. Well, how could a good God allow something like this to happen?’”
We ask this all the time. When someone hears the news that they have cancer or another chronic and terminal disease one question always comes to the front of our tongue, “What did they do to deserve this?” When Hurricane Katrina hit Alabama state senator Hank Erwin gave this explanation for the storm: "Warnings year after year by godly evangelists and preachers went unheeded. So why were we surprised when finally the hand of judgment fell? Sadly, innocents suffered along with the guilty. Sin always brings suffering to good people as well as the bad." We heard from many other religious preachers quote that New Orleans finally got what they deserved. God judged that town because they are known to be a place of sin.
Wait a second…I thought we had grown out of this way of thinking? I thought we were a little better than the disciples? The truth is we may understand disease, weather, and the world better because of science but when disasters strike, when disease hits home, we always ask the same question that the disciples did, “God, who sinned, that this person, this town, this nation was afflicted with this disaster or disease. Why God did you do this to them?”
Does God allow these events to happen? Does God sit up on his cloud in heaven and toss lighting bolts down to torment and plague his beloved creation? Does God allow children to starve or people in the Superdome to suffer? As Will Willimon goes on to say, “Is that God’s responsibility or ours.” We want answers to suffering because if we know why then our souls feel better. We see people who are poor and we feel better if we say, well they simply cannot handle their finances. We see those in other countries who are hungry and we feel better when we say that is because of their corrupt government. We see those who are sick and dying of AIDS and fell better when we can say you reap what you sow. We see suffering all around us and if we can come up with an answer of why then we feel so much better and we sleep better at night.
Thank God, this is not how Jesus responds. Jesus sees suffering and he doesn’t ask why but he asks how. He asks himself, “How can I heal this suffering.” What does Jesus do here? He sees the need of the blind man and he heals him. Jesus works up some mud with spit and dust and tells him to wash away his life long blindness. His eyes are open and he can see. Like the Samaritan women at the well last week, Christ cared more about the person than he did the theology or social ramifications and doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty.
A church, in a town not too far away from here, was having a discussion about the need to do something about the homeless population that was growing in the area. The church committee on Mission and Outreach met and decided that a sub-committee must be formed to look into the problem and the church’s response. The sub-committee would then report back to the regular committee, who would then take their findings to Administrative Council. The sub-committee did their work and then they returned to report their findings. The Mission and Outreach committee then met to get ready to for the other meeting. The night of the Administrative Council meeting they gathered for some coffee and goodies before the meeting. Then the meeting started and they began to hear the committee’s findings. After the report was finished people started to ask questions and before they knew it there was an argument about what the church should do. Two points of view emerged and they butted heads over this issue, and neither side was giving in.
About five minutes into the argument one of the members of administrative council got up, collected all the left over food and coffee and exited out the door. The argument continued to rage for about an hour. The Administrative Council finally concluded that the issue needed to be kicked back to the sub-committee for further review. As the final vote was being tallied the man who left the meeting returned. The chair of the Administrative Council called on the man and requested that he vote on the subject. He said he couldn’t because he wasn’t involved in the discussion. This angered the chair and he demanded to know where this person went to. The man replied, “On my way here tonight I passed a homeless man sleeping on a park bench a block away from the church. As I listened to the argument about our response to the homeless situation and I looked over at a table filled with food and coffee I knew we would throw away or take home. I decided that he could use this food, so I collected it all and walked up there to give it to him. We prayed together and he wanted me to tell you thank you and that he will pass on what ever he doesn’t eat to his friends.”
The wonderful part about the scripture today is that Jesus answers the question the reporter asked Bishop Willimon. The reporter asks, “How do you as a person of faith explain this event?” Jesus answers by saying this is an opportunity for God’s work to be done. When people are in need it is not the time to sit back and have a theological debate. When people are in need we should not sit in a room and discuss our helping strategy. We should ignore our gut to know why it happened, instead get our hands dirty and go to be with those in need.
By putting aside all our blown up theology… By acting not talking and contemplating… By not asking why and purely getting his hands dirty is what Jesus came here to do. Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to announce the time had come when God would save his people.
And all of God’s people said…AMEN.