February 25, 2016 by jmar198013
The manuscript of my sermon for this coming Sunday, February 28, 2016. Third Sunday of Lent. Year C.
The Scriptures for Sunday are:
And for those who’d rather listen, an audio link is embedded below:
Slaughtered neighbors and tumbling towers
I am always hesitant to speak of September 11, 2001. Even now—nearly 15 years on—it remains a raw place in our history. Not only that, it is a deeply contested event. Politicians, preachers, and conspiracy theorists have invested it with political, even religious, significance. It exposed the incompetence of our national leadership, say some. Others say, No, it was a set-up, a work. Some say, It was blowback. And still others say, It was the judgment of God.
Whenever the events of 9/11 come to mind, those famous words of Jesus echo across the centuries: The vultures gather wherever there’s a dead body (Luke 17.37).
I remember when I saw the vultures start to gather around 9/11. It was two days later. September 13th, 2001.
I didn’t actually see the vulture descend. Instead, I noticed people rushing from all over the place to chase the vulture away.
The vulture that day was Jerry Falwell, a popular TV preacher and university administrator. The nation was still in shock. Trying to process this terrible thing that wasn’t supposed to happen here. But Falwell decided it was his pastoral duty to place blame. Not on the terrorists who did the act. But on American citizens. Falwell appeared on television and said: I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians . . . the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America: I point the finger in their face and say you helped this happen!
In other words, 9/11 happened because God is angry. We’ve been too soft on the bad guys, so God incinerated three thousand people in an instant, to show us how angry he is.
Everyone from the President down came unglued over it. Editorial broadsides were unleashed. The wheels of the outrage machine began to churn. Falwell was goaded into issuing an apology. He didn’t apologize for what he had said. Only that it was poorly-timed.
Well, it seems like no one learned anything from the Falwell 9/11 fiasco. Because in the wake of every catastrophe since—like Hurricane Katrina or the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting—people who claim to be speaking for Jesus go out and say the same kinds of things Falwell did.
Is that really the best answer the church has to give? In times of trauma or tragedy—when everyone is asking, Why?—our response is: Well, it’s that wrath of God again?
Do we really believe in that God? Is that even the God we want to believe in? More importantly—is that the God who is revealed in the life and deeds and words of Jesus?
Our Gospel lesson today speaks directly to those sorts of questions. Jesus was confronted by news of slaughtered neighbors and tumbling towers. And people wanted to know, Why?
Jesus takes a side in an old argument
Jesus was mid-sermon when some folks in the crowd told him about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices.
It’s pretty obvious from Jesus’ reply that these folks weren’t just informing Jesus of a tragedy. They weren’t just sharing the news that some of Jesus’ neighbors had been murdered. They weren’t protesting how evil Pilate was to slaughter those Galileans.
It’s obvious, from how Jesus answers them, that they think those Galileans had it coming. They want Jesus to say, Those Galileans were bad, and God was mad. They want him to say that Pilate was God’s agent of wrath to punish those wicked Galileans.
But Jesus refuses to go there with them. He squashes their assumption that you can make an easy connection between suffering and sinfulness.
Me, I want Jesus to tear into them for blaming the victims. I want Jesus to start chanting down Babylon. I want Jesus to call fire and brimstone down on Pilate. I want to hear a blistering prophetic rant about God’s coming judgment on Rome.
But Jesus doesn’t even do that.
Jesus turns it back around on them. Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.
Now, the folks who told Jesus about the Galilean massacre—who believed those dead Galileans deserved what happened to them—they actually had the Bible on their side. They could give you book, chapter, and verse for what they believed.
For instance, Deuteronomy 28.2 plainly states: All these blessings will come upon you and find you if you obey the Lord your God’s voice. Meanwhile, verse 15 of the same chapter clearly says: But if you don’t obey the Lord your God’s voice by carefully doing all his commandments and his regulations that I am commanding you right now, all these curses will come upon you and find you.
So there you go. If you obey God, you will be blessed. But if you disobey God—if you step out of line just one little bit, flub any of the commandments—well, then God will curse you with everything from hemorrhoids to gout to insanity to your fiancee sleeping with a stranger. It’s all right there in Deuteronomy 28.
In fact, it’s all summed up neatly in the first Psalm: The Lord is intimately acquainted with the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is destroyed (Ps. 1.6).
It’s a neat and orderly system. Bad things don’t happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. God is just and fair, so he has ordered his universe in such a way that the good are rewarded and the evil are punished.
Besides, they could pinpoint the very sin those Galileans had committed. And it was a biggie.
Pilate, remember, had killed those Galileans while they were offering sacrifices. I love how the older translations render it—the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices (RSV).
Well, according to Deut. 12.11, what they were doing was a big fat no-no. Moses had plainly told them to to only offer sacrifices at the location the Lord your God selects for his name to reside. And the location God had selected for sacrifices to be offered was the temple in Jerusalem. The Galileans had willfully decided to sacrifice somewhere else, and God had punished them for it. They disobeyed God and they got got for it.
But Jesus told them they were wrong. Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? Of course that’s what they thought! No, I tell you—those Galileans weren’t the worst sinners ever, and Pilate was not acting for God when he killed them—but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.
So Jesus brings up an example of his own. What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.
Eighteen people, minding their own business. And then—BAM!—they’re crushed to death by faulty architecture. Jesus’ point is simple: Accidents happen. There is randomness in the world. There is chance. Some people are unlucky. Terrible things happen to decent folk every day.
Jesus had book, chapter, and verse on his side, too. Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, voices emerged that challenged the Deuteronomy party line.
Voices like Qoheleth, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth had observed that the race doesn’t always go to the swift, nor the battle to the mighty, nor food to the wise, nor wealth to the intelligent, nor favor to the knowledgeable, because accidents can happen to anyone (Ecc. 9.11).
Voices like the prophet Jeremiah, who had complained to God: I still have questions about your justice. Why do guilty persons enjoy success? Why are evildoers so happy? You plant them, and they take root; they flourish and bear fruit (Jer. 12.1-2). So Jeremiah had noticed that not only do bad things happen to good people; often, good things happen for bad people.
Perhaps the loudest voice raised against the Deuteronomy party line is that of the righteous sufferer, Job. At one point during his torment, Job concludes: either way it ends up the same, I can only conclude that God destroys the good right along with the bad (Job 9.22, MSG).
Jesus seems to cast his personal lot with Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, and Job. And he says that in a world where accidents can happen to anyone; where evildoers are so happy; and where the good are destroyed right along with the bad; there is nothing to be gained from pointing fingers. There’s nothing to be gained from arguing about who is to bless and who is to blame.
Nope. No one gets out of this world alive. Everyone dies, the good along with the bad. Maybe not at the hands of a brutal dictator. Maybe not because you get crushed under a tower. Maybe you just go to sleep one night and never wake up.
Jesus’ point: you don’t get to decide when, where, or how you die. But you do have a choice about how you live.
The repentance Jesus wants is empathy
Right now, Jesus says, we are free to choose how we’re going to live.
The older versions say it like this: except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Repent or perish, they say. Turn or burn.
Is that what Jesus meant? I don’t believe so.
When Jesus told them, unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did, I suspect he meant something along these lines: How do you know God was punishing those Galileans? Who gave you the right to speak for God? I promise, you have more in common with those Galileans than not.
The repentance I imagine Jesus wants from them—the change he wants to see in their hearts and lives—is to try on a little empathy. A little compassion. A little mercy. A little grace.
And I suspect that’s the change Jesus wants to see in us, too. You know, every time something pops off, suddenly everyone’s an expert. We all know whose fault it is. Those people in New Orleans were mocking God. Those people in New Orleans were too lazy and stupid to leave when they were told. The government blew up the levees. If these black kids would quit doing stuff to get arrested, maybe they wouldn’t die in police custody. No one’s talking about black-on-black crime. No, it’s the police who are out of control! Why do you hate the police? If only one of those people in that church had a gun when that kid started shooting up the place, they could have stopped him. No, all these shootings are because too many people have guns in the first place.
I think Jesus wants us to knock it off. Whyever it is that people are suffering and dying, it’s certainly not so we can win cultural, political, or religious debates.
But when our neighbors hurt, it is a fantastic occasion for us to be empathetic. To show compassion. To extend mercy and grace. To recognize that we have more in common with them than not.
And if we choose otherwise—if we choose to keep on judging and blaming instead of seeing that they are more like us than not—we do so at our own peril. To reject empathy and compassion and grace and mercy is to burn the bridge we all must cross.
A patient gardener
We don’t get to choose how or where or when we die. But we do get to choose how we’re going to live. And we can choose to live with empathy.
To drive in his point, Jesus tells the people a story about a dysfunctional fig tree; a grumpy vineyard owner; and a patient gardener.
A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’
We have to be very careful how we hear this story. We tend to rush to conclusions as we connect the dots. Of course, the vineyard owner is God. Humans—you and me—are the fruitless fig tree. And God is tired of us not doing what we’re supposed to be doing—just wasting space and resources. And God is ready to chop us down. That’s the judgment. But Jesus steps in and soothes his Father’s wrath, pleading for God to give us just one more chance.
But I don’t think that’s how you’re supposed to hear the story. Reading it that way reinforces this destructive idea that Father God is angry and ready to chop us down; while Jesus is the nice guy who comes and saves us from the wrath of his Father. But Jesus himself said elsewhere, Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (John 14.9). I’ve heard it put this way: God must be as least as nice as Jesus.
I think we humans are the vineyard owner. We’re the ones who write people off. We’re the ones who are prone to judge some of our neighbors—say they’re worthless. They’re just a waste of oxygen. They’re a drain on our resources. And they need to be cut off. Chopped down. We’re the ones who project the judgment of God onto each other.
Because I suspect, deep down, sometimes we want—I know sometimes I want—a God who doesn’t just get mad, but gets even. It’s easier for us to say we love our enemies if we believe that God will get them in the end. And as long as I’m not the one he’s getting even with today—if I’m not the fruitless tree he’s chopping down—well, I must be doing okay.
But today, we have heard the gospel—the good news—from Isaiah. We have heard God declare: Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways. Chopping down that fruitless fig tree—writing off people from the other side of lines we have drawn—that’s our ways. That’s not God’s way.
God’s way is the way of the gardener. God comes to us in Christ as a servant who says, I will dig around that fig tree and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year.
Jesus shows us a patient and nurturing God who’s willing to get his hands dirty. To get down in the mud. To do the stinky work of spreading manure. A God who is not spending all his time judging the tree for not bearing fruit. Or arguing about why the tree isn’t bearing fruit. But instead, Jesus shows us how God patiently goes about the work of nurturing that tree so that it can live and thrive.
Do you believe this is what God has done for you? Do you see how God keeps doing this for you every day?
Well then—why wouldn’t he be doing that for your neighbor, too? Even the neighbors you don’t like.
Free to get down and dirty
After 9/11, Jerry Falwell thought America had it coming. When Pilate murdered those Galileans, some of their neighbors thought they had it coming.
That’s what happens when we get to thinking that God’s ways are our ways. That God is like that vineyard owner—ready to chop down the fig tree that isn’t thriving; and not the patient gardener who has compassion on the tree. Who is willing to give the tree an opportunity to flourish. Who is willing to work with that tree, to nurture that tree, to get dirty for that tree.
It’s a failure of empathy. We fail to see that we have more in common with those who are hurting and dying than not.
Assigning blame, naming who’s on God’s hit list—that’s hard work, isn’t it? Once you start down that way, you’ll just keep adding more and more people to the list. And no one is saved by that.
Oh, but once our hearts are opened to the good news that God is really like that patient gardener who has compassion on the tree everyone else had written off, we are set free to live with empathy. With compassion. With mercy. Because that’s what it means to live in God’s image. That’s how we start to bear a family resemblance to Father God.
We are free to get down in the dirt with the people who are hurting and weak and hungry and poor and abused. We don’t have to blame them anymore, and we don’t have to pin it on God. We can start giving our neighbors a fighting chance. Be their advocates when others want to cut them down. Nourish them. Feed their roots. Give them some healthy soil.
After all, that’s what God does for us, isn’t it?
Mr. Rogers used to say that in times of distress, of trauma, of turmoil, of tragedy, the thing to do is look for the helpers. They’re the ones doing God’s work. You’re sure to find God among the helpers. Hopefully, God finds us there, too.