The Rev. Sarah Buteux
Preached at Common Ground on October 5, 2017
To Blame or to Build?
Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”
Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”
He said this and then spit in the dust, made a clay paste with the saliva, rubbed the paste on the blind man’s eyes, and said, “Go, wash at the Pool of Siloam” (Siloam means “Sent”). The man went and washed—and saw. John 9: 1-2
I really felt like I needed to write something for tonight, but I kept putting it off for two reasons. One, it seems that there is always something new and awful happening every moment and writing ahead of time feels increasingly premature. And two I kept checking the news to see if we knew “why?” yet; why someone would do something so awful.
As if a note or a girlfriend or a browser history could ever explain or make sense of such a senseless act of violence.
Blame was our topic for tonight. And although I had planned to have a very different kind of discussion, the topic of blame, unfortunately, feels more relevant than ever. After something like this happens, one of the real reasons we want to know, “why?” is so we know who or what to blame. Because if we can figure out whose fault it is, we can hopefully keep it from happening again, and even more hopefully, keep it from happening to us.
After all, this was not an “act of God,” so to speak. This was the act of a deranged man who maybe could have been stopped. I don’t know. Hurricanes, earthquakes, being born deaf or blind, we really can’t control those things, so we call them “acts of God,” and we spill a lot of ink and endure a lot of angst wondering why God would allow such things to happen.
Is it because of something we did? Is it because of something we failed to do? If so, it would be great to know what that was or is, because then we could do whatever needs to be done to please God and avoid suffering.
But Jesus says that God doesn’t work that way. God doesn’t cause blindness or earthquakes or hurricanes. God doesn’t inflict suffering on the sinful or the righteous. Jesus doesn’t tell us why bad things happen. What he does, is show us where God is when bad things happen.
Jesus spits on the ground, makes a paste of mud, smears it on the eyes of the man born blind and the man is cured. God is present with people, like Jesus, who are willing to get their hands dirty, risk their lives, do whatever they can, in order to help.
Whenever we hear about bad things happening, we hear about the people who ran toward those in need, rather than away. The first responders and the good samaritans, the parents and partners, who find the courage and love to help regardless of the cost. That’s where God is. That’s how God acts.
God had nothing to do with what happened in that hotel room though. The indiscriminate violence that rained down on people was not an act of God but, as our president said, “an act of pure evil.” I’ll give him that.
What’s bothering me though, is that in our country we keep treating these massacres as acts of God, as random occurrences, as the act of a lone gunman whose violent impulses could not have been predicted or controlled any more than the weather, when in reality that lone gunman wasn’t alone at all but surrounded by a society awash in guns, a society that values our right to amass as many weapons as we can afford more than it values our right to peacefully co-exist. He wasn’t alone at all.
There are always people who push against that narrative of helplessness in the face of violence. Many of you in this room resist it with all your heart. But for whatever reason our voices haven’t broken through yet.
And sure, we can blame it on red states, Republican law makers, the NRA, and the culture of violence and gun’s that proliferates in this country. But blame doesn’t make the problem go away.
And here is where I could launch into the familiar litany about how we need to keep praying, but that even that is not enough. This is where I tell you to call your representatives in the Statehouse and Congress, but we live in MA where they all seem to get it. Even our Republican Governor is on board with common sense gun legislation.
I’m honestly not sure what more we can do on the political front, and maybe some of you will know and you can share that information with the rest of us.
What I do know is that whatever we do has to begin, not with pointing fingers at those who are wrong or don’t get it or let this happen. It has to begin with us, with a fearless and honest assessment of our own souls and our complicity in a society that glorifies and thrives on violence.
I came across a quote by the Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that really struck me last week but has haunted me ever since Monday. He once said:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Evil is not a person or persons to be taken out. And you can push back if you want to and say that if ever there was a person who was evil it was Stephen Paddock…but I think in some weird way that lets the rest of us off the hook. His actions were evil. But I think we have to be careful about labeling people as pure evil because it allows us to distance ourselves from them in a way that is not entirely honest.
I believe evil is a force within all of us that takes over when we see others as less human than ourselves. We can act on it in ways that are small and ways that are large, but one of the reasons blame is so dangerous is because it plays such an easy and convenient part in that process of separation. It gives us a way to distance ourselves from each other, to see ourselves as better than one another, when the truth is that we all need to deal with anger and violence and evil in our souls.
In his response to the Massacre, Jack Owensby wrote: “…even when we achieve a political solution, our spiritual challenge remains. To be followers of Jesus the Prince of Peace requires reflection, repentance, and transformation. So long as violence in any form is our customary means for maintaining our security, our status, and our stuff, we will all remain mortally wounded.”
Jesus didn’t play the blame game. He didn’t blame the blind man’s condition on anyone. Not even God. What he did was get down on his knees. What he did was something useful. What he did was find a way to bring healing and hope into a hopeless situation.
My old friend and colleague the Rev. Andy Stinson managed to do that on Monday morning after he read the news. He somehow found the time and the words to write a meditation before he went off to work. He said that our job, in the face of evil is to “meet the chaos of the crucifixion with the power of the resurrection.” And then he went to meet his church at a habitat site.
“Our response to those that would tear the world down is simply to build the world back up.
I don’t care what you did to build today,” he writes. “I don’t care if you cleaned a room, or did the dishes, or put your hand to your craft, maybe you made a bed, or bought someone a coffee, or encouraged a friend, or fixed a squeaky door; what you did today built the world and every act that builds and encourages is a candle that fights the darkness.
And friends, there will always be darkness, but our call is to build, and to build, and to build again. Whatever you did today that built or illumined the world, no matter how seemingly insignificant, was a direct attack on the work of Stephen Paddock and every other monster that would forfeit their humanity to become a beast.
At my church this is missions week, and I’ll be working every day on our little Habitat House in our little town. And I am proud of each soul that will come out and lend their hand at the building of the world… because in our small and imperfect way we will gather, and we will pound nails that will strike at the heart of the dragon.”
Possible Questions for Discussion
1. “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Agree or disagree?
2. “I believe evil is a force within all of us that takes over when we see others as less human than ourselves. We can act on it in ways that are small and ways that are large, but one of the reasons blame is so dangerous is because it plays such an easy and convenient part in that process. It gives us a way to separate ourselves from each other, to see ourselves as better than one another, when the truth is that we all need to deal with anger and violence and evil in our souls.” Sarah Buteux
Why is blame so seductive and satisfying?
3. “…even when we achieve a political solution, our spiritual challenge remains. To be followers of Jesus the Prince of Peace requires reflection, repentance, and transformation. So long as violence in any form is our customary means for maintaining our security, our status, and our stuff, we will all remain mortally wounded.” Jack Owensby
Where do you rely on violence rather than God?
4. Jesus didn’t play the blame game. He didn’t blame the blind man’s condition on anyone. Not even God. What he did was get down on his knees. What he did was something useful. What he did was find a way to bring healing and hope into a hopeless situation. The Rev. Andy Stinson, said that our job, in the face of evil is to “meet the chaos of the crucifixion with the power of the resurrection.”
How are you meeting the chaos of violence with the power of resurrection? What are you building?
Andy ended his little meditation with this poem by Kent Keith that was inscribed on the wall of the Mother Theresa’s Orphanage in Calcutta:
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind,
people may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful,
you will win some false friends and some true enemies.
If you are honest and frank,
people may cheat you.
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building,
someone could destroy overnight.
If you find serenity and happiness,
they may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today,
people will often forget tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have,
and it may never be enough.
Give the best you’ve got anyway.
in the final analysis it is between you and God;
it was never between you and them anyway.