Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lent 3, 2013 sermon by Deacon Pam: Good News

Lectionary: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

When people learn that I am preaching on an upcoming Sunday, they typically ask two questions: what’s the Gospel lesson, and what are you going to say about it.

When I have told people about this week’s Gospel, about Pilate mixing the blood of Galileans with sacrifices offered to Roman gods, and the tower of Siloam falling and killing eighteen people, I have gotten: laughter, eye rolls and head shakes; comments like “Better you than me” and “Good luck with that one”, and some suggestions like “Can’t you pick a different lesson?” or “Call in sick Sunday, make Valori do this one!”

My friend and fellow deacon Jerry Beschta likes to say, when confronted with more difficult lessons such as this one, that “The Gospel is always good, but it isn’t always easy.” His saying applies well to this lesson, which, I promise, once we unpack it a bit, is indeed very good news.

If we back up some, to set the lesson in context, Jesus has been teaching a large crowd of people gathered around him. Some in the crowd tell Jesus about Pilate mixing the blood of Galileans with sacrifices to be offered to Roman gods. Their deeper thoughts and concerns about this incident are unspoken, but certainly picked up on by Jesus, and so he asks them - do you think this happened to them because of the degree of their sinfulness?
No, he tells them, then he shares another example that might beg the same question; the eighteen people killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them, were they worse sinners than anyone else living in Jerusalem?

No -that’s not why it happened. It was not a divine punishment, exacted upon them because of their sinfulness.

In saying that, Jesus directly confronts a commonly held belief - then as well as now, if we are honest about it - that bad things happen to people as punishment for their actions. There are other passages in the Gospels where Jesus confronts this same belief, challenging the thought that calamity, disaster, illness and tragedy are the God’s punishment, God’s consequences for our sins.

We still tend to believe that way, to greater and lesser degrees. There are religious leaders who are quick to publicly declare, after most tragedies, the sinners who brought this punishment upon both the innocent and the guilty. Katrina - all those sexual deviants in New Orleans; 9/11 - the ACLU, the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and the lesbians; New Town - the atheists forcing God out of public schools. We tend to dismiss these folks and their theology, usually with a mixture of anger, humor and hopefully compassion for what their world must be like, but we can fail to see how often we do the same thing on a smaller scale.

I am asked, and I suspect most ministers are, on a fairly regular basis - “Why did this happen to me? I’m a good person. I try to do what God wants me to do. I’m not nearly as bad as some other people are and nothing like this happens to them. Why is God punishing me?”

And our deep belief in some kind of divine retribution is reflected not just in asking why unfortunate things happens -unjustly in our opinion - to us or to someone we love; we show it in our validation of, and sometimes glee at what we perceive to be punishment for those we feel deserve it. “They got what was coming to them, didn’t they? What goes around, comes around. I knew they’d end up paying and paying dearly for what they’ve done.”

But Jesus makes it very clear that it was not the sinfulness of the victims that caused their suffering. They were no better - or worse - than anyone else; all are sinners. What happened to them was not God’s punishment, God’s wrath, some divine accounting for misdeeds. Don’t blame - or thank God. That’s just not how God works.

The rest of Jesus’ answer makes it clear from where these tragedies originate. Note what he says, both times: ‘unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Now, at first reading, sounds like Jesus is contradicting himself. They weren’t being punished for their sins, but, unless you repent, you will perish in the same way - still sounds like punishment for sins, doesn’t it?

To get to clarity on Jesus’ answer, we need to take a minute and consider the stories themselves, and the definition of the word repent.
While these exact stories-the mixing the blood of Galileans with the sacrifices and those killed by a falling tower at Siloam-aren’t recorded in accounts of the region during that time period, historians consistently state it it likely they were actual events because they are consistent with other events during that same time.

It was common for Pilate to torture those who were perceived in any way to be a threat to Roman authority, and offering the blood of his victims to the Roman gods was a common form of torture. The tower at Siloam is thought to be associated with the aqua duct the Romans were building at the time, and because the duct was being constructed very close to the Jewish temple, Zionists carried out acts of terrorism, attempting to disrupt construction, kill Romans and their labor force and destroy the structure. Both stories involve humans harming and killing other humans. Both could also be taken from our news today - acts of torture and terrorism are no less common now, perhaps more so. We haven’t really changed much-our methods have just improved, growing steadily more powerful and deadly.

And that speaks to why Jesus tells us to repent, or we will die in the same way. Repent means to change one’s mind, to change one’s heart, to amend how one lives one’s life. We tend to hear it as being sorry for something we have done that is not in line with God’s plans, and there is an element of that, but to repent means “I am going to do things differently from here on, I am going to be different, I am not going to act in the same ways. I am going to change my life.”

Jesus is saying unless we change how we act and think and behave, how we see the world, how we treat others, unless we change our hearts and our minds, unless and until we allow God to live in and through us, then we are going to continue to do bad things to one another. We are going to continue to suffer the consequences of our actions toward one another. We will continue to wound one another, withhold blessing from each other, actively seek to harm others and succeed in doing so, unless we repent, unless we have the change of heart and mind and action that can only come through relationship with God.

God does not cause the bad things that happen to us. They are not God’s punishment for our sinfulness. But they are the results of our unrepentant lives, of our hard hearts, our fears, our hatreds, our prejudices, our judgment, our pride, our ego.

Jesus then tells them a parable that reiterates his teaching and points clearly to the nature of God and God’s unfailing desire for us to repent, to change and God’s willingness to help us do so. Jesus tells the story of a land owner who wants to cut down a fig tree because it has not produced fruit for three years. The gardner intervenes, begging the owner to let him work on the tree, to fertilize it and aerate its roots before cutting it down.

We tend to think the owner is God, in our mixed up way of seeing God - you better hurry up and do something, you better act right, or God is going to get you!

But the owner isn’t God: the owner is culture, the world, society. Cut it down! It’s not behaving like it’s supposed to behave, it’s not productive, it’s not doing what I want, so get rid of it! How like our world! How like us! Quick to destroy, to do away with, to dismiss, anything we don’t see as important or useful or consistent with our wants or needs or ideas.

No, the owner isn’t God; the gardner is God. It is God who asks for more time, who wants the tree to have a chance to grow and be what it was created to be; it is God who offers to continue to work with the tree and to tenderly tend it, it is God who desires to give it every opportunity. Our God just isn’t the God of a second chance; it’s a second and a third and a fourth...our God is the God of infinite chances. And that is exactly how God is, with each and every one of us.

As we enter the last few weeks of Lent, may we allow God to tend our soil, to help us grow, to change our hearts and our minds and actions, bringing forth amazing new life in us, so that we in turn can help God bring about amazing change in our world.


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