Changing Direction – March 24, 2019
Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday in Lent
In the name of our all-loving God, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. AMEN.
I believe that the word of God, even though written thousands of years ago, speaks to us in the 21st century. At the same time, I recognize we often get messages from Jesus that are not easy to hear. I am aware that when we read hard stuff in the Scriptures, it’s meant for us, not just for someone else.
Jesus is continuing on the road to Jerusalem and the cross. Our reading begins with Jesus answering the age-old question, why do bad things happen? Why is there suffering in the world? Is God behind the tragedies that befall humankind? Does bad behavior result in punishment from God?
The people talking to Jesus in our Gospel today had asked him if the Galileans who had met with violent deaths at the hand of Pilate had suffered so because they were worse sinners than everyone else. Or if the eighteen people who were crushed by the tower of Siloam were worse offenders than all the others people living in Jerusalem. They could have been asking about those hundreds, maybe thousands who have been lost from the cyclone in Mozambique and Tanzania. Or the flooding devastation in the Midwest. Or the worshipers shot in the mosque in New Zealand. Jesus got this kind of question a lot. And he answers with a definitive “no.” Suffering is not a form of punishment.
Such questions assume a direct correlation between sin and suffering. This idea still persists today. Illness, poverty, disease are often seen as the punishment for sins, known or unknown. I’ve been asked more than once by a sick person, “what did I do to deserve this?” We humans crave a Theory of Everything when bad things happen. We joke about having ‘done something right’ when good things come our way. We’re always trying to make sense of the senseless.
Just because suffering is not punishment doesn’t mean that it is disconnected entirely from sin. Pilate’s murderous acts of terror – as well as those horrific actions of today’s tyrants and terrorists – are sinful. Sin has consequences, and there are all kinds of bad behaviors that contribute to much of the misery in the world, and the more we can confront that sin the less suffering there will be.
As this passage makes clear, God does not visit suffering upon people, and certainly does not punish through tragedy. God is in the business of life, not death. We can quote Jesus to those who suggest, that “God wanted another angel,” at the untimely death of a child or “Everything happens for a reason.” Neither is true. There is not always a reason for suffering, but we can be sure God will be present in the midst of pain. As we hear from the first lesson, God cares about the suffering of God’s people in every age, and promises to be with them.
From the assurance that God does not visit suffering, Jesus turns us to repentance. Not my favorite topic. I’d rather tell you about how much God loves us beyond our wildest imaginations and accepts us as we are. God loves us without reservation, that is true; at the same time God wants us to be all God has created us to be, loving, giving, generous beings. God does not love us if we change, God loves us so we can change. In other words, Jesus is calling for a radical change in how we live.
I am sure each of us has places in his/her life which need repentance, growing in love, openness to the working of the Spirit. There are places and occasions in all our lives where we have been less than loving. We all have garden variety sins. We know where we have fallen short. The word repentance means to change one’s mind, one’s direction. Repentance, however, is not just a personal thing, me and Jesus, me and God. Repentance is both personal and communal.
For the past two+ years a group of parishioners and friends have been meeting weekly to read about and discuss issues of race and social justice. The conversations have often been powerful, participants have been willing to be vulnerable, and the trust that has been built in the group is from the Holy Spirit. I am grateful to all who have been part of this journey. And I invite any who wish to join us on Wednesday evenings at 7.
Racism, as Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners magazine says, is America’s original sin. It has infected and affected our lives in this country for 400+ years. It is a social system built on the backs of people of color that has often been invisible to us white folks. It affects our education systems, housing, churches, employment opportunities, economics, medical care, politics, every aspect of our lives. Racism is sin, communal sin. The sin of discounting and demeaning another, the sin of disrespecting one another, the sin of making others invisible, all part of systemic racism.
Understand that I am not suggesting anyone is a racist. I am saying that racism affects our lives dramatically and powerfully. It’s bigger than we realize. And most of us white people are unaware of its consequences in the lives of our brothers and sisters. Or of our own privilege. I think Jesus is asking us to look at ourselves and our country and begin learning about how we can change this sinful system. It’s we white people who are going to have to fix it since we created it. Jesus calls us to understand racism as sin, as evil, and to repent of our indifference, our disinterest, our apathy, our benefit.
Repentance means a constant, patient growing in love – openness to the ongoing work of the Spirit in us. Repentance is not an all or nothing proposition. It’s not a one-off. We’re all somewhere along a continuum and moving in one direction or another at any given time. It’s a process, like everything else in life.
Jesus then told a parable about a fig tree. A man finds that a certain tree in his garden was not bearing fruit. He’d given it three years, but still no figs. “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree and still I find none! Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” The man is tempted to see the fig tree as an all or nothing proposition. Either it’s a good tree or a bum one. Either it produces fruit or it’s gone. But the gardener is more patient. “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down then.”
Our God is a merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And loves us beyond our wildest imaginations. God is always willing to put a little more fertilizer on us, to give us a little more time, a little more encouragement, another nudge. God knows that our lives are changing and growing and moving over time, and would like to see us moving toward fruitful life. So God gives us every opportunity to repent – to be ready to admit our responsibility for our actions and our need for forgiveness and to have a firm desire to change our life. Yet we know that there will come a day when it’s too late to grow any more fruit – a day when the fig tree will be cut down. Death will come to us all. And that is why there is urgency in what Jesus tells his listeners.
Repentance bears fruit. It gives us hope, it gives us faith and it brings God’s love into our lives and the lives of everyone we touch. So now is the time to repent, even if it’s just a fraction of an inch – a little, tiny stretch in the right direction. There is no doubt that there is some urgency in Jesus’ message today – don’t wait too long to start stretching, for the vineyard owner carries an ax and death will come to us all. Don’t know how to repent? Think about it this way.
If today was the last day of your life – if leaving this church you were hit by a bus or dropped dead from a stroke, what would remain undone? What would remain unsaid? What would remain unchanged that really needed to be changed? Start there. Get moving.
Is there someone you need to forgive, or ask forgiveness from? Is there someone you need to say “I love you” to? Reach for the sweet fruit of repentance that will free us from our tiny prisons of self and put us into some very good company. Reach for the fruit of repentance that will keep us alive and growing and thriving until the day we die, and even then, will lead us into eternal life.