A Pastoral Message on The Living God Who Shows Up in Catastrophic and Challenging Times
Scripture: Gospel of John 9:1-7
St. John’s Baptist Church of Charlotte, NC,
The Rev. Dennis Foust, PhD, Senior Minister
November 7, 2021
On December 26th, 2004, two tectonic plates shifted bumping into one another more than four thousand fathoms under the surface of the Indian Ocean. That shift, almost five miles deep caused an earthquake registering 9.0 on the Richter scale. This caused a two-hundred-megaton jolt causing waves to rise at nearly five hundred miles per hour devasting more than 3,000 miles of shoreline and causing the deaths of at least 225,000 persons in a matter of minutes.
As people tried to make sense of the incomprehensible, theological questions echoed:
“Why did God cause this tsunami?”
“Why did God allow this devastation?”
“Why didn’t God warn people?”
“Where was God while this pain and suffering happened?”
“Where was God in the aftermath of this catastrophe?”
These are not new questions.
These are what we call theodicy questions.
Why do people suffer? Why are we confronted with crises, catastrophes, challenges, and changes that cause us pain?
These theological questions about suffering, whether arising because of situations or surprises, have been around since prehistoric days.
Lucy and Bert read a two-thousand-year-old theodicy story from John’s Gospel today.
This story records the only miracle of Jesus’ ministry in which the person suffered from birth.
There was a belief in Jesus’ day – a belief that still exists – connecting sin with suffering.
People around Jesus, influenced by Plato’s idea, believed a soul predated the body.
Thus, they believed in prenatal sin. The roots of this ungodly idea still show up in some Christian traditions teaching original sin – or that babies are born as sinners.
In the Baptist tradition embraced by St. John’s, we do not teach original sin.
We teach that each human is a creation of God with freedom to respond to God’s grace.
Following Jesus in baptism is a commitment to be his disciple learning the ways of God.
I will offer a sermon on this Baptist principle in 2022, during our centennial year, as we look at Practicing Baptist Principles in the Twenty-first Century.
In the scripture story read today, an unnamed man blind from birth, is Exhibit A as Jesus argues against this ungodly concept that personal suffering is always caused by sin.
The question, asked by Jesus’ disciples suggests they have a sincere desire to learn: “Rabbi, who sinned; this man or his parents that caused him to be born blind?” They were trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. They were seeking to understand how God is at work.
Have you ever wanted to better understand how God is at work amidst your pain?
What does Jesus teach about the Living God showing up in catastrophic and challenging times?
How does God work in your life, in the life of our church, or the world amidst pain?
Jesus does not offer a simplistic explanation.
He says, “this man is not blind because of sin – neither his nor his parents.”
Jesus says, “this is an opportunity to show the work of God. We must do God’s work while we have the opportunity to do so.” THIS MOMENT SHOWS YOU GOD IS HERE.
Jesus speaks of challenges, crises, catastrophes, situations of suffering and surprising setbacks as opportunities to express God’s gracious compassion.
Wherever there is suffering, God is present and active.
We express our commitment by partnering with the God of gracious compassion.
Jesus responded to suffering with compassion, not complacency.
Jesus responded to challenges or needs with commitment, not cynicism.
Jesus teaches us to face every catastrophe or challenge with faith rather than fear.
Beloved, you are the charter members of our second century. In March of 2022, we will enter our second century similar to the way we began our first century. We are wiggling our way out of this pandemic cocoon, considering our church’s past.
As conversations about St. John’s began in 1921, the world was wiggling its way out of the Spanish flu pandemic which had killed as many as 100 million people globally.
In the spring of 1921, the vision of St. John’s began taking shape in people who knew suffering. In 1922, Dr. Joseph Gaines became the first pastor guiding the church to construct this sanctuary in 1926 at a cost of more than $200,000.
In March of 1929, Dr. Chauncey Durden became the second pastor.
Seven months later, in October of 1929, the stock market crashed. Five years later, in November of 1934, St. John’s had $40.43 in the bank as creditors called for payment of their debt of $78,090. The church’s bills were 60 days past due, salaries more than a month behind.
Theodicy questions are mentioned by historians writing of those days during the depression.
Why is God allowing all this suffering? Where is God in all this economic despair?
Yet, the people of St. John’s found God to be faithful during those days.
God provided imaginative and creative approaches and people expressed commitment.
Those who thought there was no way out saw God provide a way through the challenge.
BUT THAT IS NOT THE WHOLE STORY.
On July 23, 1944, the third pastor of St. John’s stood in this pulpit on his first Sunday.
Claude Broach preached his first sermon 47 days after D-Day.
Although this sanctuary was full of vision and hope, there were NO persons in this room under the age of 15 because the polio epidemic was rampant.
I tell you these stories to remind you that the same God who guided those generations through days of challenge and change is guiding us today.
The Living God who Jesus revealed shows up as gracious compassion amidst challenges.
This Living God touched the blind eyes of a man long ago through Jesus.
This same God shows up in your most chaotic or catastrophic days.
You see, in this story from John’s Gospel, the point is not ‘why does suffering happen?’
The point is, ‘wherever, however, and whenever suffering happens, God shows up.’
And God provides the resources necessary to transform every situation.
My dear friends, as the body of Jesus Christ in today’s world, our mission is to show up alongside people who are suffering. Why? Because we live in God and God lives in us.
Following the tsunami of 2004, as people were asking their theodicy questions – “Where is God,” these prayerful words were written by a Baptist missionary serving with God in Asia amidst the suffering:
When wave upon wave of water hit the shores thousands of miles from where they began, You were there.
When waves of destruction washed away everything and everyone in their path,
You were there.
As people You loved, people who loved You, and people who never thought of You ran,
You were there.
When houses fell and possessions and parents and children were carried away,
You were there.
You were there with a broken heart receiving people into Your Presence.
You were there with a listening ear hearing the cries of grief.
You will be there in the weeks, months, and years following this catastrophic event as Spirit. You will be there in the presence of Your people providing comfort, healing, direction, companionship, and resurrection.
Lord of all compassion, help us be with You, as You are with us and everyone. Amen
Lord, as we experience catastrophe, challenge, or change, help us see opportunities to be ministers of Your commitment and gracious compassion. Amen and AMEN.