Our church is continuing its year-long theme, "Who is our neighbor" with an emphasis on health issues in our community. On Sunday we had a guest speaker, so my sermon is a little more concise than usual:
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
October 28, 2012
46They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" 49Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." 52Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
We’ve got about nine days until the election, and I think I speak for many of us when I say, “Thank God. Make it stop.” ...The ads, the phone calls, and the soundbites. It’s been a particularly bizarre season for soundbites. Barely a week seems to go by without a political candidate putting his foot in his mouth. This week a Senate candidate from Indiana, Richard Mourdock, was asked about abortion. Many people who are pro-life make exceptions in cases of rape—in fact, most people do—but this particular person does not, and he said,
Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
My intent in bringing this up is not to talk politics, but theology. What do we believe about good things happening out of bad, even terrible, circumstances? Does that mean the bad thing was part of God’s plan?
Some are inclined to give Mr. Mourdock the benefit of the doubt—he wasn’t saying rape is good, he was saying that life is good, regardless of how it comes about. Others said his theology is flawed: pregnancy through rape is not the work of a good God, but a consequence of an evil human act and a burden that no woman should be forced to bear.
What’s more, I read countless reflections this week by people, friends, who have been victims of sexual violence who were hurt deeply by his words. A few weeks ago in worship we heard Jesus’ words, cautioning us not to create a "stumbling block" for others. Mr. Mourdock’s comments created a painful stumbling block for those who are still struggling with the painful aftermath of these traumas.
Let me put to you another situation: a few weeks ago I read a blog post by an Episcopal priest and a breast cancer survivor. She talked about the impact of cancer on her life, and she gave thanks for friends and family who supported her, she gave thanks for the strength to withstand the treatment, and she gave thanks for world-class medical care and the means to access it—something not everyone has. And then she said, “And thank you, God, for cancer.”
Thank you for cancer.
She went on:
Because of cancer I learned lessons I didn't know I needed to learn. Because of cancer I discovered a depth of love, faith and gratitude I never knew existed. Because of cancer, I learned that bad news is best handled when infused with the Good News.
Is she right? Does God make cancer happen? Is Richard Mourdock right, about God’s intent? Does everything that befalls us have God’s fingerprints on it?
The question of God’s involvement in good and evil has puzzled theologians for thousands of years. The fancy theological word for that question of good and evil is “theodicy.” And for many people living in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century, it is the sticking point for faith. It’s hard to reconcile the existence of a good and loving God with the holocaust or the killing fields in Cambodia. And it’s not a problem we’re going to solve at Idylwood Presbyterian Church on October 28, 2012. But Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus gives us a few pieces to the puzzle:
God is a God of mercy. Repeatedly Bartimaeus calls out “have mercy on me!” Mercy is compassion. Mercy is kindness. Mercy is care. Does that sound like a God who makes cancer happen, who is so bent on granting the gift of life that God will use a rape to make it happen? There is nothing merciful about that.
God does not impose on us. Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” He doesn’t presume. He doesn’t assume he knows what Bartimaeus wants. He asks, and he waits for the answer. God is not a presumptuous God. Ultimately we are given the dignity to ask for what we want, and to make meaning of our experience for ourselves. I read a reflection by a woman who became pregnant through rape and made the audacious decision to keep the baby. And for her, there was redemption in that decision. And that’s the key phrase—for her. It’s her right to make meaning of her experience; no politician should do it for her. No clergyperson should either. I wonder about the priest with cancer—it’s fine for her to thank God for it but I sure hope she doesn’t insist on her parisioners’ doing so. If God, if Jesus, is gentle enough to ask, “What do you want? How do you see your life and your need?” then that is our call as well. God does not impose, and neither should we.
We are partners in our healing. Bartimaeus has to get up and go to Jesus. There is no remote-control healing here. He’s gotta get up and move, he’s got to ask for what he needs in order to receive it. That means that we avail ourselves of the medical technology that we are fortunate to have. That means that if we’re overweight or a smoker or making poor choices with our diet, we are called to do something about it, not hope for a divine rescue.
And again, that’s the problem with Mr. Mourdock’s theology. If God is the author of everything that happens, then what’s the point of striving for wellness, or going to the doctor? What’s the point of doing anything?
That doesn’t mean that our efforts are always successful. We know the heartbreak of people who do everything right, who make all the right choices, and who still suffer from disease or injury. There’s no getting around that.
And principled people can come to different conclusions about abortion and when life begins. But Mourdock’s theology is wrong. A God of mercy, a God who does not impose on us, a God who asks us to be a partner in our own healing, desires our wholeness…desires our peace… desires our shalom. And not just our wholeness and peace and shalom, but that of this world that God loves.
In Christ, God is reconciling the world. Thanks be to God.