When I was in elementary school, all of my teachers had signs in their classrooms: neat teacherly writing, carefully printed in black marker on white poster board.
There were rules: keep hands, feet, and objects to yourselves; follow directions the first time given; treat other people with respect.
And there were consequences: a verbal warning, your name written on the chalkboard, a checkmark after your name, a trip to the principal’s office.
There was a clear relationship between the thing that you did—or the thing that you failed to do—and what happened next. There was a clear relationship between the rules and the consequences.
And it’s nice to imagine that the world works that way… that there are rules and there are consequences… that breaking the rules leads inevitably to the consequences… that only the people who break the rules suffer the consequences.
It’s nice to imagine that the world is just.
There once was a man who was born blind. He had never seen the blue purple yellow red waters of a pool, or the green orange violet grass of a park. He had never seen a perfect moment… made of flecks of light and dark… on an ordinary sabbath day.
One day, he was sitting on the side of the road, begging. He didn’t have much of a choice… there weren’t employment services for the blind, there weren’t accommodations for people with disabilities, there weren’t a lot of people willing to take responsibility for their blind friends and neighbors.
But one day, he was sitting on the side of the road, begging. And he felt some people stop in front of him, and he heard an unfamiliar voice ask, “Teacher, who sinned, that this man was born blind? This man or his parents?”
The owner of that voice imagined that blindness was a tragedy and that the world was just… that there were rules and there were consequences… that breaking the rules led inevitably to the consequences… that only the people who broke the rules suffered the consequences.
So when the owner of that voice saw a man who was born blind, he knew that someone had broken the rules. The only question was, “Who?”
Was it the man himself? Had he broken the rules? Had his own disobedience rippled back through time so that the consequences could appear at the moment of his birth?
It is easy to see someone who is suffering and lay responsibility at their feet; we do it all the time. He should have kept their hands, feet, and objects to themselves; she should have followed directions the first time given; they should have treated others with respect
Or was it the man’s parents? Had they broken the rules? Had their disobedience led to the consequence of caring for a blind son?
It is easy to see someone who is suffering and lay responsibility at the test of a stranger; we do it all the time. We imagine that we’re pulling people out of a river and we imagine that there are people upstream pushing them in. And those people should keep their hands, feet, and objects to themselves; they should follow directions the first time given; they should treat others with respect.
We imagine that the world is just. And, when we see that the world is not just, we imagine that we can find someone to blame. So we ask the question, “Who sinned, that this man was born blind? This man or his parents?”
It’s easy. And we do it all the time. And I get it. But…
I’ve told you this before. The world is broken. There are things that we do and there are things that we leave undone. There are words that we say and words that we leave unsaid. There are thoughts that we think and thoughts that we leave unthought. There are ways that we chip away at the world… and there is a chasm between the world-that-is and the world-that-God-is-calling-into-being.
And sometimes, those acts… those omissions… those sins… map neatly onto their consequences. But most of the time… they don’t.
Sin does not cause blindness. The child who chips away at the world doesn’t lose their sight; the parents who chip away at the world don’t watch their child’s sight grow dim.
Except, sometimes, sin totally causes blindness. Lack of access to prenatal care causes blindness; malnutrition causes blindness; environmental toxins cause blindness; hazardous workplace conditions cause blindness; war causes blindness. There are countless ways of chipping away at the world that cause blindness. And blindness is just the tip of the iceberg.
And, before I go too much further, blindness isn’t always a tragedy. Sometimes, blindness is only a tragedy because it reveals the sins of the world; because there aren’t accommodations. Sometimes, blindness is just a difference.
Most of the time, it’s not clear who is breaking the rules and who is suffering the consequences. Most of the time, it isn’t clear which act, which omission, which sin, led to this consequence.
The truth is that we live among broken systems that aren’t quite anyone’s fault… and that lead to broken lives for which no one will quite claim responsibility. And some of those broken lives are ours. And it’s all too complicated.
There is no sign, in neat teacherly writing, carefully printed in black marker on white poster board. There is not a clear relationship between the rules and the consequences. The sun rises on the evil and on the good; it rains on the just and on the unjust.
So we ask the question, “What am I supposed to do with that?”
There once was a man who was born blind. One day, he was sitting on the side of the road, begging. And he felt some people stop in front of him, and he heard an unfamiliar voice ask, “Teacher, who sinned, that this man was born blind? This man or his parents?”
Another unfamiliar voice—it must have been the teacher—replied, “No one sinned. He was born blind. And I’m going to reveal God’s work in him. We must do the work of the one who sent me now, during the day; soon it will be night, and no one will be able to work.”
And then someone took some mud and smeared it on the man’s eyes. And the second voice—it was sounding more familiar; there was a man who had been preaching around town—told him to go wash in the pool.
You and I know that the world is not simple. Things are… complicated… we live among broken systems that aren’t quite anyone’s fault… and that lead to broken lives for which no one will quite claim responsibility. But…
In this moment, the teacher does take responsibility. In this moment, the very word who was in the beginning, though whom all things came into being and without whom not one thing came into being, who was with God and who was God, who is the light of the world, burning in the darkness… takes responsibility… and says, “In the face of every sin and sorrow—in the face of a broken world, among broken systems and broken lives—I will care for you.”
The whole of the gospel might be in those five words. The whole of the gospel might be in that moment when the one who is calling the world into being says—too one man on the side of the road, to all of creation, to each and every one of us—“I will care for you.”
And the whole of the answer to our question might be found there, too.
What do we do with the hard truth that the world is broken… and things are complicated… and we don’t know how to fix it? We care for each other.
And I know that can be complicated, too. But it might start here: We feed the hungry. We give something to drink to the thirsty. We welcome the stranger. We give clothing to the naked. We take care of the sick. We visit the imprisoned.
And it might grow from there: We bring good news to the poor. We proclaim release to the captives. We free the oppressed.
And little by little… one act, one word, once thought at a time… our eyes open and we see each other anew… and we fill the cracks of the world with the love.