Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 24, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

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

Why do bad things happen to good people? 

What did this person do wrong that received this diagnosis? 

Why does God allow evil to flourish?

What did the worshippers in the mosques in Christchurch do to deserve what happened to them? Or those who died in Cyclone Idai in Southern Africa? Or the farmers in Nebraska? Or the people of Yemen who are starving?

            It’s a question as old as time. Surely there must be a reasonfor the suffering? In John’s gospel, the disciples ask Jesus who was the sinner, the blind man or his parents (9:2). In Jesus’s time, any kind of disability or misfortune or calamity was believed to be self-caused. The entire book of Job is about this very subject, with Job’s three friends dropping by to try to convince him just to fess up to whatever he did to offend God, and then all would be well. But Job protests that he is innocent, and, in the end, God does not really give him an answer to why he allowed the disasters to befall Job. What God does is to point to the unfathomable mystery of creation as if to say, “You cannot possibly understand my ways.”

            There are plenty of modern-day religious folk who are still stuck in victim-blaming mode for any number of tragedies, from Hurricane Katrina to 9/11 to Parkland, the so-called gay agenda has been blamed, as has as taking prayer out of schools or abortion or feminism. There is plenty of blame to go around according to some.

            For many of these events and catastrophes, we can trace causes to any number of things: climate change, American foreign policy that often props up dictators to the detriment of the people, inaction on gun legislation, environmental degradation. The list goes on.

            And sometimes there is no good explanation. Just an accident. Some quirk of cells in the body not behaving the way they should.

            In our story from Luke, there are a couple of current events causing concern among the people. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Pontius Pilate was a tyrant. He was the military prefect in Judea under the Emperor Tiberius, and in the course of making a sacrifice to the emperor who was worshipped as a God, he threw in some Galileans for good measure. Those around Jesus want to know if these poor folks deserved this fate, if it was because they were more sinful than other Galileans. From the distance of a couple of millennia, it seems obvious to us that the sin here is with Pilate and the abuses of empire and power, but for poor 1stcentury Palestinians steeped in the understanding that personal behavior causes suffering, the sinfulness of the sacrificed must have seemed a logical conclusion. 

            But Jesus not only debunks that thought, he adds the completely accidental death of 18 others in saying that it was not the fault of anyone. That’s not how God’s judgment works. And then he offers an invitation to repentance that sounds a bit like a veiled threat – you’d better repent or something similar might happen to you. Sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it?

            Well, Luke was writing this at an interesting time. The previous chapter and the beginning of this one are all about the eventual apocalypse. The community of believers had thought it was coming long before, and the delay in the second coming has caused a lot of doubt and uncertainty. This is why we get stories of watchfulness because we do not know when the Son of Man will return. Be ready, just in case.

            But Luke being Luke can’t stay in judgment forever. Luke always, always throws in a good measure of grace. A similar story in Matthew and Mark has Jesus cursing the fig tree for bearing no fruit and the tree withering right then. Not Luke. Always the champion of the underdog, Luke has the gardener intervene, plead for some time, tend the tree so that it might have a chance to bear fruit.

            Our God is a God of second chances. And maybe even third and fourth chances. Who knows, that gardener may have continued to plead for that fig tree even the next year. But don’t miss the point that the aim is for the tree – that’s us – to bear fruit. And the fruit we bear is God’s love and care for the world. And what fertilizes usis time spent with God in worship and prayer, tuning our hearts to discern to where God might be nudging us. And that call to repent is a call to turn, to return, to turn around toward the God who beckons us, who desires nothing more than the flourishing of all of humankind.

            As Meister Eckhart(1260–1328),the 14thcentury mystic wrote:

God’s seed is in us. If it were tended by a good, wise and industrious laborer, it would then flourish all the better, and would grow up to God, whose seed it is, and its fruits would be like God’s own nature. The seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree, the seed of a nut tree grows to be a nut tree, the seed of God grows to be God.[1]

            But what about the suffering in our world, the tragedies and the accidents, the famine and natural disasters? They may be fully explainable through human misdeed or sin or neglect, or maybe stuff just sometimes happens. And blaming God or railing against God for not preventing it is akin to believing that we are in charge, that we are the boss of the world, and we only want a God who does our bidding or we’re going to get mad and take our toys home.

            Maybe a better response is for us to dig in and do what we can where we can for those who need us. That can be our neighbor who is shut-in or a mom dealing with a sick child who could use a hand with the other children. It can be sitting with someone while he undergoes treatments for cancer or running an errand for someone who is under the weather.

            There is, however, a prerequisite for all of these things. You must have a community of people around you. You must know your neighbor, your kids’ friends’ parents, your church family. And building community doesn’t just happen. We need to be very intentional about it, otherwise we may think we have friends, but what we really have are acquaintances, folks with whom our conversations are no deeper than the weather.

            That is the antidote to the evil in world. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but if we are going to cope in a world that sometimes seems turned upside down, we’re going to need friends around us whom we trust, who really know us, and with whom we can be vulnerable and needy.

            A lot of theologians love to explore theodicy, or the existence of evil in the presence of a loving God. But really, all we have is the cross, an instrument of death, that shows us that no matter how dark and disastrous something might be, God can turn it into something good.

            So let’s build our community where we are planted, sink deep roots and bear the fruit of love and compassion in this world. No, it won’t end evil, but it will give us the capacity to bear it, and to work to change it, one act of kindness at a time.

[1]Meister Eckhart, “Of the Nobleman,” Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, trans. Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn (Paulist Press: 1981), 241.

ASEPSermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 24, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas