What Did They Do to Deserve That?, Lent 3 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Exodus 3:1-15; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8

What did they do to deserve that?

Jesus knew questions like this were on people’s minds when they came to tell him horrible news: Pilate – yes, the same Pontius Pilate who oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus – slaughtered some Galilean Jews. Making Pilate’s appalling action even more offensive is that he did this terrible thing while they were offering their sacrifices in Jerusalem.

It’s Jesus who asks the questions on everyone’s minds: Is it because those Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans that this happened to them? Did they do something to deserve such an awful death?

And it’s Jesus who gives the answer: No.

Or when the tower of Siloam fell and eighteen people were killed, crushed because they stood in the wrong place at the time, is that because they were sinners? Jesus says no.

The question is this. Is God keeping track in some gold-leafed ledger who’s been naughty or nice and whether to respond with earthly punishments or rewards? The answer is no. Does God allow tyrants to kill people or tsunamis to drown people because they’ve done something to deserve it? No.

Another time some people ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither.” says Jesus, and he cures the man of his blindness. Jesus denies a correlation between the man’s problem and someone’s sin.

Yet, it’s a persistent question. And it goes with a persistent assumption, that somehow what people get in life is what they deserve – that there must be a connection between the sorts of people they are and the bad or good things that come their way in life. We’ve heard people say, “I wonder what he did to deserve that?” or make pronouncements, “this plague/natural disaster/fill in the blank is God’s punishment for their sin.”

Well, says Jesus, take it from me, that is not how it works. Sometimes we do suffer as a direct result of some wrong we have done, some bad decision, some action we’ve neglected to take and we suffer the consequences. Mistreat your body, and you will get hurt. Mistreat a friend, and you may damage your friendship. The negative consequences of our actions can be clear. But sometimes we’re confused, not when we can see how a mistake or bad action has led to suffering, but when we’ve been good, done right, tried hard, and still, nevertheless, we suffer.

As Christians, we really shouldn’t be so surprised when this happens. The idea that only good things happen to good people should have been put to rest when Jesus was nailed to the cross.

Christian faith is no magic protection against tragedy. The cross is our central symbol – the cross, where an innocent man died the death of a criminal. Nonetheless, Christians have long wondered why bad things happen to people, even good people. In his book The City of God, St. Augustine considered the great suffering that occurred when the barbarians sacked Rome, and he noted that when the barbarians raped and pillaged, Christians suffered just as much as non-Christians. Faith in Christ did not make them immune to pain and tragedy. Augustine wrote, “Christians differ from Pagans, not in the ills which befall them, but in what they do with the ills that befall them.” The Christian faith does not give us a way around tragedy. Faith gives us a way through tragedy.

So, no we can’t look at tragedy and assume that someone did something to deserve it.

“But,” Jesus says, “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

What kind of a reply is that?

Jesus is not saying that questions are bad or that ‘why’ isn’t a vital human question. Jesus is saying, don’t be distracted by the wrong question. To Jesus, the ‘why’ isn’t important. God made us in love and gave us free will, freedom to choose how to respond, how to act. In freedom, humans have written symphonies and started wars. God made a dynamic world in which natural things change and evolve into beautiful new forms of life and into cancer cells.

A good question to ask, according to Jesus, isn’t: what did she do to deserve that suffering? The much more important question is: how is your relationship with God? Jesus says don’t be distracted by looking at what happened to someone else. Don’t spend your time wondering what must someone have done to deserve what they are going through. Instead, look at yourself – while you still have time.

Jesus refuses to get caught up in the question of whether or not someone else deserves to suffer, and instead asks another question: What in your life needs repenting, acknowledging, and turning around? What needs to be turned over to God? What needs to be forgiven?

Things will happen. And while the gift of earthly life is still ours, we need to ask ourselves, how is our relationship with God? Do we love our neighbors as ourselves? Are we relieving the suffering of others or just pointing our fingers at them and trying to connect the dots between their suffering and sin?

Our own repentance is the issue, because deserving isn’t. The scandal at the heart of our faith is that God already loves us; that God doesn’t need a ledger or tally sheet because we don’t do anything to deserve God’s love. We have no favor to earn, because God already sees us as God’s beloved ones. All we have to do is live and explore the amazing mystery of our acceptance. We can’t lose God’s favor and make bad things happen to us because we don’t earn God’s favor in the first place.

Life is short. Don’t be distracted by the wrong questions. And don’t be disappointed if Jesus asks you to love God more than you love answers. Because Jesus will do that. When people asked him questions he often responded not with an answer, but with a story. Like he did in the next part of the Gospel lesson.

A man planted a fig tree. The fig tree used up a lot of nutrients but didn’t produce any figs. “Why should I let this do-nothing fig tree use up good soil?” asked the man. “Cut it down.” But the gardener replies, “Let it be for one more year. I will do everything I can for it. If it bears fruit, great! If not, cut it down.”

The gardener in this story is not efficient, practical, or exercising his authority to do what’s most logical. He’s going to waste more nutrients, efforts, and space on a tree that doesn’t show any signs of producing figs.

Does the fig tree deserve it?

That’s not the question. It’s just a story about a fig tree and an extravagant gardener who should remind us of another gardener from way back in the beginning, who just couldn’t help it when he picked up some dirt. God just had to form it into a human and breathe life into it. God just had to make it into someone to love, someone who would be free to choose to love in return. Maybe we can hear this gardener at work in our own lives, saying, “Wait. Give me another year. I’ll do all that I can to nurture this tree.”

Download to the sermon for Lent 3C.

Written by The Reverend Dr. Amy Richter

The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as Rector of St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. She holds a PhD in New Testament from Marquette University and is the author of Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew. With her husband, the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano, she is co-author of Love in Flesh and Bone: Exploring the Christmas Mystery, and A Man, A Woman, a Word of Love.

 

Crooked little heart, 3 Lent (C) – 2013

March 3, 2013

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

In the movie “The American President,” Annette Bening plays Sydney Ellen Wade, an environmental lobbyist. Her job is to convince the White House to advocate for higher automobile emission standards.

During her first trip to the White House, she meets with A.J. MacInerney, the President’s Chief of Staff, played by Martin Sheen. During their meeting, Sydney Ellen Wade becomes frustrated, turns to a colleague, and tells the colleague plainly, “The White House won’t let us leave until AJ delivers the bad news.”

Her colleague is aghast at her brashness, but AJ answers, “I’m afraid she’s right,” whereupon he tells them that the President won’t support the high emission standards they want. And worse, that the President expects them to support his position.

The bad news. The uncomfortable truth. Most of us don’t like bad news or uncomfortable truth. It makes us, well, uncomfortable.

Rather, most of us want to hear what we want to hear. What some people call “words that tickle the ears.”

Psychologists call this phenomenon “confirmation bias,” the tendency to seek out or believe only opinions and reports that confirm what we already believe to be true, not words that challenge us. We like people to agree with us.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the emperor wanted everyone to tell him how stylish and exquisite his new clothes were. But he was naked! Nobody would tell him the uncomfortable truth, except for one little girl. “He’s not wearing any clothes!” She exclaimed.

This is Lent, the Christian season of Uncomfortable Truth, and your nakedness is being discussed openly.

Even discussing why bad things happen to good people – such as towers falling and killing innocents – Jesus oh-so-uncomfortably tells us, “Repent, or you will likewise perish.” Not the ever-popular “I’m OK, you’re OK.”

“Repent!” Jesus tells us. “You have sinned. You have done things you shouldn’t have, and you have failed to act when you should have.” Jesus spoke raw, uncomfortable truths. Our problem is that Jesus still speaks the Uncomfortable Truth, only we can’t hear him.

One reason we can’t hear Jesus is this: the word “sin” has lost its edge, its meaning. It carries too much religious baggage. For some, the word “sin” conjures up images of Catholic confessionals in which teenagers are forced to admit precisely how bad they are. For others, the word conjures up evangelical images of God angrily hoisting helpless people as marshmallows over open flames. Because of its baggage, the word has lost its razor-sharp ability to challenge us.

Sin.

Did you hear the story of the little girl in the confessional? She confessed to the Catholic priest, “Father, I have sinned. I cannot stop looking at myself every time I pass the mirror, and I keep telling myself how beautiful I am.” To which the priest replied, “My dear, I have good news; yours is not a sin; it’s only a mistake.”

To reconstruct the term “sin,” consider its existence in two forms: as big S and little s.

Big-S “Sin” is the state of the world. The fact that the world cannot, despite the best and heroic efforts of so many people – from Jesus to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., to you in this room – cannot seem to right itself. The world is shrouded in darkness. War continues. Brutal killing continues. Abuse and manipulation continue. Hunger and homelessness continue. Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea.

Little-s “sin” represents the actions, the things you, as an individual, do and the things you fail to do. Like cheating on your spouse or on your taxes. Kicking your dog or lying to your friend.

Most of us don’t like to admit the sin in our lives – big-S or little-s – so we try to hide. Adam and Eve certainly denied their sinful plight, metaphorically, which is what it means when the story says they hid their nakedness with fig leaves. We try to hide the shame of our own nakedness.

One way we hide the shame is by changing the language, using softer words. Which is a variation on confirmation bias, if you think about it. “I tried my best,” we might say. Or “On balance, I’ve lived a good life.” Or “I’m a pretty decent person.”

Euphemisms are inadequate fig leaves; you can’t hide nakedness from God any more than Hans Christian Andersen’s king could hide his nakedness from the people.

God sends Jesus along, who in his very public words, slaps us rudely across the face with the stark reminder that we are naked. That we require forgiveness. Restoration.

Because sin is not what you think. Sin is not sin because of the action itself. Sin is sin because of the result. In his essay “What Is Sin?” from his book “Wishful Thinking,” Frederick Buechner writes:

“The power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery. Bits and pieces go flying off until only the core is left. Eventually bits and pieces of the core itself go flying off until in the end nothing at all is left.”

You get that? Nothing is left because of the centrifugal force of sin. What he means is this: Envy is sin because it pushes others away; haughtiness is sin because it sets you apart from others.

Buechner points out that even religion itself – and for that matter, “unreligion” – becomes dark when it expands the gap between you and those who do not share your views. Lent isn’t about sin and repentance because God cares about the silly little things you do – your little-s sins.

Lent is about sin because God cares about you.

God cares about your isolation, cares about a world of increasing isolation. Redemption restores relationship.

Jesus immediately proclaimed Good News, because in restoration there is hope that you do not have to be alone.

Lent presents Uncomfortable Truth – but only if you are paying attention – so that you might become truly free on Easter. Repent, therefore, and receive the very Good News.

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years, he is the author of The Episcopal Call to Love (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

When God becomes flesh, life gets very interesting, 3 Lent (C) – 2010

March 7, 2010

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

When the God who declares from a burning bush, “I AM who I AM. … Tell them I AM sent you!” becomes flesh and dwells among us, life gets very interesting. Pilate slaughters a group of Galileans. A tower in Siloam kills eighteen others. Do you think they are worse sinners than anyone else, asks The Word made Flesh?

We might think the blame game is some kind of ancient mindset, but we may as well admit that we all get into it at one time or another.

Jesus, as I AM made flesh, can hardly believe people think this way. After all, didn’t God make it perfectly clear that the sun shines and the rain comes down on the good and the bad? As Timothy Shapiro explains in his book New Proclamation, Jesus is, in effect, announcing, “The sin is found in those who think the sin is found in those who have misfortune fall on them.”

So Jesus says to repent of this kind of thinking; he says to turn away from the blame game altogether, and show some mercy – the kind of mercy that God, a.k.a. “I AM,” likes to show for everyone, everywhere. See for yourself in the Book of Jonah.

To repent means to turn around or turn back. The idea is that we are walking with God, or walking with Jesus, and then suddenly we find ourselves distracted by, say, the 3,000 commercial messages that bombard us each day. Or by some personal crisis. Or by the day-to-day routine of dropping kids off, picking them up, driving them somewhere else, and then picking them up again. We find ourselves walking in circles at best, rather than walking with or at least toward God.

To repent means to come to our right mind about the way in which we are walking, and to turn, or re-turn, to walking in the Way with Jesus, the Great I AM in the flesh. Or we will get crushed by the weight of our sin. Notice, by the way, it is always our choice – we can walk with God or be crushed by the weight of our sin. Repentance seems, all in all, a very good idea for all of us.

Included in all that is the grace God shows for all people, at all times, everywhere – especially when they choose to repent. Again, just go back and read the Book of Jonah one more time!

Then comes the parable in today’s gospel reading – an enigmatic little agricultural metaphor just dripping with judgment and grace. It seems there is a joke in the Greek. The word for “manure” is, in fact, not so refined; it is street slang, or what we in some more innocent era called a “swear word.” So think of the harshest possible word for manure, and then imagine the gardener – or tenant farmer – saying it to the wealthy absentee landowner, followed by “and if in a year you are still not happy, YOU cut it down!” There would be serious snickering among the tenant farmers and servants in the crowd who only dreamed of ever talking back at their superiors in such a fashion.

And what the story means to convey in part is that the absentee owner does not get his hands dirty, knows little of how to tend fig trees, and is trying to tell someone who knows the tree, the soil, and the kind of care necessary how to do his job.

And it is the gardener who introduces the notion of grace. “Sir, let it alone,” he says, in essence. “Don’t blame the tree, don’t order me to cut it down – give it another chance. Give it a moment of Amazing Grace. Give it a chance, and it will bear fruit in its own time.”

When we finish laughing, do we get that we are the landowner blaming the tree for its lack of fruitfulness? And that we are also the tree, standing in need of God’s Amazing Grace?

Every day when we wake up and get out of bed, God is bestowing upon us a great deal of Amazing Grace, whether we deserve it or not. Another way to put this is that, through what we do or don’t do, we are all complicit in contributing to the misery of others and the devastation of the very planet God created and calls “good” – and if you remember in the first chapter of Genesis, He calls it not just “good,” but “very good.”

Lent is a season that means to remind us that we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under God’s table. But it is God’s primary attribute to have mercy upon us as long as we keep on repenting of our various sins – most especially the sin of playing the blame game.

The Good News is that God does not want to blame us; God wants to save us. And so God came to live among us as one of us to teach us about sin, repentance, and grace. So it is that the Great I AM became flesh and dwells among us to this day!

Here is a take on the subject from William Countryman’s little book, The Good News of Jesus:

The new life of the good news is like this: There was a woman who lived in Sonoma County, near Sebastapol. She had no relatives there – not even any close neighbors. The nearest was an elderly man who lived a half-mile away. Behind her house she had a garden, and at the foot of the garden, two apple trees that were her pride and joy. Once she was called away to care for her only living relative, who was sick and lived very far away. She gave a key to the elderly man, who promised to look in on her house every week or so; but he was too infirm to care for her garden. She thought she would be away a few months, but she was gone two years. From far away, she heard about drought and storms. When at last the woman came home, she found her house had lost some shingles, and there was a little water damage inside. Then she went through the house and out into the garden. It was overgrown with tall grass and nettles. At the foot of the garden were her two apple trees. They were in bloom – at the height of their bloom, when apple trees look like white clouds with a touch of pink and the petals are just beginning to fall and carpet the ground with white as well. She stood awhile and drank it all in, and her heart filled with delight and thanks. Then she unlocked the tool shed, took out her pruners and, wading through the weeds, went down to the apple trees and began cutting out the dead wood. And she thought of the day when she would have apples for herself and her neighbor.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word.

The difficulty of being told we are wrong, 3 Lent (C) – 2007

March 11, 2007

Exodus 3:1-15Psalm 63:1-81 Corinthians 10:1-13Luke 13:1-9

Perhaps in a reaction to a period of history in which it was thought good not to overpraise each other, we’ve spent a generation “affirming” each other. It can be difficult, particularly when we are asked to affirm someone who has just bored us to death with the most awful twaddle.

Lent is a difficult time for those of us who are not used to being told we are wrong. As we follow Jesus to the cross, we notice that everyone seems to be judging him. He doesn’t seem to be cut much slack. There doesn’t seem to be much affirmation, save that of the fickle crowd that easily changes its tune from “King” to “Crucify.”

Moses was being very practical in his argument with God at the burning bush. God was telling Moses to go back to the place where he was wanted for murder and tell the tyrant to let God’s people go. Moses wanted to know by what authority he was being sent.

“My authority,” says God.

Moses then asks the crunch question. “Who are you?”

God answers: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”

The whole theme of today’s prayer and readings is about the special relationship between God and God’s chosen people, and the responsibility the chosen people have toward God. Perhaps we have too easily said that God is love, and gives love to everyone, and forgives everyone – what was once called “cheap grace.” It is not that God isn’t all these things. It is that we are called to be more than all these things.

The first thing for us to note today is that we are the baptized members of the Kingdom. God has chosen us. God is with us and nothing can separate us from God’s love.

In the Gospel today, Jesus’ is being asked about justice. He is being asked about the sort of justice in which we are interested: the justice that affects us. “Why me?” we all cry. “Why do innocent people get hurt in an accident?” “Why do little children get killed in war?” “Why do I get cancer?” Were innocent people among those killed by the Governor Pilate? Were some of those killed when that tower fell down in Siloam good people?”

Jesus doesn’t give them an easy answer. That’s the problem.

We want a God who loves us unconditionally – and that really means we want a God who wants us in our own image. We want a God who lets us be unforgiving. We want a God who lets us write those dreadful e-mail messages we’re sometimes tempted to write. We want a God who lets us be dishonest at work. We want a God who lets us be disruptive at church. We want a God who lets us abuse our families. We want a God who lets us scream for our rights while denying others the same. We want a God who lets us judge, and divide, and moan, and behave as if we were spoiled children.

We don’t want St. Paul, miserable old man that he was. We want Jesus

And Jesus says: Repent.

That’s his answer to those who asked about Pilate’s massacre and the tower of Siloam. There’s no explanation; instead Jesus tells a story. He tells of a gardener who plants a fig tree that grows, is loved and cared for, but produces no figs. The gardeners suggest it should be pulled up. Some might have suggested that as it looked nice it should be left alone. But the owner gives it a year. After that permission is given to weed it.

Now that doesn’t sound very “unconditional.” God’s extraordinary love for us was bought at an unconditional price. Jesus responded to the Father’s unconditional love by abandoning everything. Jesus tells us elsewhere that if we are to follow him, we must be cross-bearers. Our response to God’s love must be to learn to be self-sacrificial, “to give and not to count the cost,” as the old prayer puts it.

All too often we grasp a “users’ faith”: “God loves me unconditionally, therefore in justice I should get …” Or “I got saved, therefore I should have money.” We want a God who takes us as we are, lets us become even worse that we are now, and loves us despite who we have become.

We want a God who gives. Do we want a God who dies?

 

— The Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier, who has most recently served in France in the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, has returned to the United States and is interim rector of St. Thomas a Becket Episcopal Church in Morgantown, West Virginia.