The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 19, 2023
It happens all the time. I’m paired with some other random guys to play golf. And in the chit-chat small talk, you ask each other what you do for a living. You can see this playing out. Real estate, finance, insurance, “Well, I’m a priest.” I’ll tell you, people clean up their language real quick after I drop that. The reactions, the reactions almost always fall into one of three categories. First, no one will talk to me the rest of the round. That’s fine, I can work on my swing in solitude. Second, people want to go super deep and talk theology. C’mon on man, I’m out here to work on my putting. And the third, the third is always that guy who says he doesn’t go to church. Which is fine. He says that he just does the right thing. Do good, and good will come back to you, they say.
On the surface, it sounds fine. Yeah, everybody should just do the right thing, just be a good person. But maybe because I just don’t feel like getting into it right there on the tee box, I never ask the obvious follow up question. What is right? Who decides what is good? What makes a good person? Now we have some general sense, some guardrails. Mother Teresa, good. Hitler, bad. Lying, cheating, stealing, bad. Charity, good. But we also sense that this doesn’t tell the whole story.
And I’m not being drastic here. We can convince ourselves that just about anything is good. That is the lesson that the twentieth century taught us. Untethered, we create our own goods, usually based on what we like or don’t like. So we get to create the standard for good and right. We presume we are good people, like that guy on the golf course, so whatever we do is the good thing. But we have to careful here, but this can be the unsuspecting path to bigotry, to hatred, and to genocide. All done in the name of “good” and “right.”
Of course, this not just a modern issue. This gospel story grapples with this idea. Who is good? Who is bad? How can we tell the difference. The story says, “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (John 9:1). The disciples see a man born blind, so they assume that someone must have done something bad. Like, his blindness was a punishment for a sin. But something more sinister is lurking. Because they can also assume the opposite. Let’s say they come across a man who is not blind, who is healthy, who is wealthy, they could assume that someone has done something good. That this is a reward. This is not too far from the prosperity gospel of today. Do good things, and God will make you rich.
But Jesus undermines the whole premise.“Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (John 9:2). And from that marvelous line, we learn all manner of theological truths. We learn that God is not keeping score like some divine referee in the sky. We learn that sometimes bad things just happen and sometimes good things just happen. We also learn that instead of talking about people like the disciples do, we can talk with them, like Jesus does. You see that, right? The disciples are like behavioral scientists, studying, examining this man; pointing to him but not engaging with him. They ask, “what went wrong with this man? He’s not right. He must not be good.” But the theological truth here is that every single person has value because they are created by God. And even this man born blind is worthy of Jesus’ attention.
This is the dichotomy of the religion of the world and the religion of Jesus. The religion of the world is quid pro quo. You get what you deserve. Do good, and good comes back to you. So your whole life is a hustle, to please some god or power or energy or whatever who will give you back what you deserve. What a terribly sad way to live.
But the religion of Jesus is grace. Thanks be to God, that we do not get what we deserve. Thanks be to God, that Jesus takes the time to speak with this man, to open his eyes. To give him grace, whether he deserves it or not. Because the inverse is also true. Just as neither this man nor his parents sinned to make him blind, neither this man nor his parents did anything good to make him see. It was a gift from God. It was grace. Unearned, undeserved, unmerited gift of love from God. God is happy with the man, simply because he is a human being, created in the loving image of God. There is no hustle, there is only grace.
All this has been weighing on my mind of late. I see it all too often in my pastoral work. I have seen the terrible consequences of the religion of the world. I have spoken with people who believe that since nothing good has happened to them, then they must not be good. It crushes their souls. I mean, we have people who are so convinced that they are bad, or wrong, or not beloved by God, that they are harming themselves. Children have taken their own lives because of what other people have said about them or their bodies. I know it sounds okay, just be a good person, but that has destroyed people.
On the other hand, I have also spoken with people who believe that since nothing bad has happened to them, then they must not be bad. This is a quick path to narcissism. So they live completely unhinged, believing that whatever they do is good simply because they have done it.
I know, I know that we aren’t suppose to judge. But we have to say something. If we don’t, then truth, good, and right become meaningless. So I do believe there is a Christian moral imperative to do good, to do the right thing. And I know that right and good can be hard to discern. The work of deciding what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, is vital to the life and health of our church and world. It’s hard. And sometimes we change our minds. Sometimes we grow and adapt. Clearly, the disciples of Jesus believe that the man born blind is a symptom of some sort of sin. But Jesus changes their minds. That is good.
Finally, I realize full well that this sermon is quite dense. And I can only get to the tip of the iceberg in a ten minute sermon. And I know that if I go over ten minutes you start to get anxious about missing your lunch reservation. The good news is, that you can visit www.trinitygalv.org/sermons to read this whole thing again! But I suppose the whole point of this sermon can be summed up in two words: ideas matter. While the idea of “just being a good person” sounds fine on the surface, it will not sustain us for the long haul. But Jesus, Jesus has a better idea. The idea that is great and glorious – the idea is that you, you are loved by God however you were born; born to riches or born poor; whether you were born in light or in dark; you are worthy to God. Open your eyes to see this idea – that you are good not because of who you are, but because of who made you. The Lord God.