Sermon – March 30,2 014

Categories: Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyCause and Effect? [1]

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“The disciples asked, ‘Rabbi, is the sin of this individual what caused the blindness or the sin of this individual’s parents?’” — John 9:2.

Here is a question to which we all want an answer: “Why?” Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? Why did Mom always like you best? Why did this happen to me? Why was the one Jesus cured born blind? (Slight pause.)

O.K., as I do too often for some and not often enough for others I will yet again, relate this to baseball. Back when I was very young, when the New York Mets first came on the scene, they were the worst team who ever played the game at the major league level.

That season they set a new modern era record— a record yet to be broken— and lost a total of 120 games out of the 160 games they played. They finished 60 ½ games out of first place.

My late mother, also a baseball fan, noticed bad luck seemed to haunt the team. Nearly every game they lost was determined by a bad hop on a easy ground ball, a blown call by an umpire, a ball lost in the sun. Because of any and all of these mishaps opponents seemed to score the winning run. She fully believed there must be some cause for this waywardness of chance, this lack of luck. She constantly asked: why?

Perhaps it was some star in the sky out of place, some ill wind blowing over Coogan’s Bluff in the Bronx at the Polo Grounds. Mom, at one point and somewhat whimsically, wondered out loud if the manager, Casey Stengel, had done something in his early life or was currently doing something nefarious to warrant this fate, this streak of misfortune, a kind of no bad deed goes unpunished concept.

And after all, if the results on the field could at least be attributed to something, anything, what she saw might in some way be explained. Then, when a mere 8 years later the Mets shocked the Baseball universe by winning the World Series over a heavily favored Baltimore Orioles team, she was equally convinced the bad luck of the previous seven years was being paid back all at once.

She may have had a point. These were among the things that happened in that championship year: the Mets won each game of a double header, both by a score of 1-0, and in both games the weakest batter in the line-up, their pitcher, drove in the only and winning run.

The Mets had a no-hitter pitched against them in mid-September as they drove relentlessly toward the National League Pennant. And then, of course, there was the famous shoe polish incident in the last game of the World Series against Baltimore.

Pitcher Dave McNally bounced a pitch that appeared to have hit Mets left fielder Cleon Jones on the foot and skittered into the Mets’ dugout. Baltimore claimed the ball hit the dirt, not Jones. The umpire agreed.

Mets manager Gil Hodges then slowly walked from the dugout, showed the ball to the umpire who found a spot of shoe polish on the ball and awarded Jones first base. The next batter hit a home run. At first unlucky, now they were… lucky— cause and effect— and things do equal out— right?

Well, maybe; maybe not. But that, I think, is how we humans see things— we often see in terms of cause and effect. And, as this passage which written some 2,000 years ago might indicate, it’s not just we moderns who see things in scientific terms, who see cause and effect as if it were a mathematical idea. Aristotle, who lived 400 years before this passage from John was written saw things in terms of causality too— one of the bases of Aristotelian Philosophy— cause.

But I think there is a more important question contained in this passage than how do we see. The more important question is: how does God see? (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the Gospel According to the School of John: “The disciples asked, ‘Rabbi, is the sin of this individual what caused the blindness or the sin of this individual’s parents?’” (Slight pause.)

One of the facets of Facebook is when you come on something, be it a picture or a cartoon or a saying you want to share with a friend, it’s easy to share it. The process is called tagging. Whatever it is you want to share you tag it with the name of your friend. And then they get an e-mail saying they have been tagged.

That happened to me this week. Someone tagged a cartoon with my name, knowing I would see it. The caption said: ‘which came first?’ The initial panel depicted a God figure who stretched out hands and there was a poof and a cloud of smoke. When the smoke cleared both a chicken and an egg appeared.

The next panel said “simultaneous creation.” The last panel had God saying, “Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh— simultaneous creation— they will never figure this one out.”

And, of course, a continual question we tend to ask is: ‘which came first— the chicken or the egg?’— cause and effect. But I wonder, is that the way God sees it? Or, better yet, is cause and effect a question God would even have? (Slight pause.)

Well, what is the implication of cause and effect? It implies there is some kind of economy at work. That economy could be labeled a debit and credit system. I think we buy into that. We believe everything in life is based on debits and credits.

We believe in an economy of merit. We believe we earn what we get. We believe we reap what we sow. We believe poor people cause poverty.

That is a very human reading of the world. Therefore, if a person is blind, even blind from birth, there must have been some debt, some liability incurred and that creates an obligation which must be either paid back or forgiven in some way.

But is that how God sees the world? (Slight pause.) I believe the economy with which God sees things might be called an economy of grace. And that is very, very hard for we humans to grasp.

Theologian Richard Rhor says we base almost everything in human culture on achievement, performance, accomplishment, payment, exchange value, appearance, worthiness of some sort. This might be called “meritocracy”— a rule of merit. Hence, unless we personally experience a dramatic breaking of the agreed-upon rules of merit, it is almost impossible to disbelieve or operate outside of this rigid logic. (Slight pause.)

So, does that state of being— merit— actually exist? It is a reality? Is everything based on debits and credits? Is merit always rewarded? Do we always earn what we get, always reap what we sow.

Or even in our own personal lives do we see sometimes thing we might call shortages or overages? Do we something get things we know we don’t really deserve? Do we sometimes pay a price we know we don’t really owe? Put another way: is the world fair?

Do poor people really cause poverty or is that a systemic problem? Is it possible that sometimes people work very hard for something and are never rewarded? (Slight pause.) And how does God see the world? (Slight pause.)

I firmly believe God sees the world in terms of grace. I believe that, for God, grace breaks our ironclad rule of cause and effect. Grace is God’s magnificent jailbreak from our self-made prisons. Grace is the undeserved key whereby God, the Divine Locksmith, for every life and for all of history, sets us free. (Slight pause.)

The key to entering into the new social order Jesus sees is never our own worthiness. It is always God’s graciousness.

In the realm of God we are all blessed by divine mercy and not by our own performance. Any attempt to measure or increase our worthiness in the eyes of God will always fall short, or will force us into a position of denial and pretense, and that often produces hypocrisy, even violence— to ourselves and to others. [2] (Slight pause.)

I need to be clear: an “economy of grace” as opposed to “economy of merit” is very hard for humans. As Rhor said, we base almost everything in human culture on achievement, performance, accomplishment, payment, exchange value, appearance— worthiness of some sort. However, all that is our own self made worthiness.

You see, it is God who determines our actual, our real worthiness. And God loves all people— no exceptions— even the person born blind— a very different way of looking at things.

All of which is to say, as the reading from Ephesians says (quote): “Live as children of light.” See the light; strive to see the light. Tall order, that— but it is the place to which God calls us. Amen.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY

ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I did something like this at a Children’s Time a while ago. If you look in your bulletin you will see an insert with two pictures, both taken by Bonnie. They are both of our niece and nephew, Phoebe and Clay. One captures them at about ages 4 and 6. That’s the black and white photo. The photo on the opposite page captures them at about 19 and 21. Question: how does God see them? Does God see them as young? Does God see them as they are in the older picture. Does God see them as they are now, some twelve years later? What is the vision God sees? Does God always see with the vision called love?”



 BENEDICTION: There is but one message in Scripture: God loves us. Let us endeavor to let God’s love shine forth in our lives. For with God’s love and goodness there is power to redeem, power to revive, power to renew, power to resurrect. So, may the love of God the creator which is real, the Peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding and companionship of the Holy Spirit which is ever present, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge, love and care of God this day and forever more. Amen.

[1] For those who might be listening to this Meditation online, it needs to be noted that the pastor was in the process of recovering from a late Winter cold. Hence, those who are used to the “normal” tones of the pastor will notice a difference.



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