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Lent 3C Sermon
Luke 13: 1-9

February 28, 2016


Sermon Archives


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.

Why? Whenever something tragic happens and lives are lost or relationships are broken, we always ask that question: “why?” I suppose it’s because we want to do all we can to protect ourselves from such tragedy in the future – hence the air-travel process in these years since September 11, 2001 is much different than it was before, and our country is divided between those who believe that the answer to gun violence is either arming more people or more gun control. But another reason we ask, I think, has to do with our desire to keep order in our world – everything must be a cause and effect relationship. Our scientific, mathematical minds want to explain the reasons for everything…even if there isn’t any kind of reasonable, rational explanation for them at all.

So, some people in Jesus’ day approach him asking him why – why did Pilate have those Galileans killed and mingle their blood with his pagan sacrifice? Sure, they may have been attempting a bit of a revolt against these Roman occupiers, but we still wonder why God would allow them to be caught and punished in such a way. Jesus takes their question seriously and affirms the fact that this is a puzzling, troubling part of human life. People suffer innocently; And we are prone to ask, “Why?”
While we cannot form an entire theology of suffering out of one single Biblical text, we can listen to a few things that Jesus is trying to teach us about it. First, suffering is not a form of punishment. If there is anything we can take from Jesus’ sharp retort to his audience – “Do you really think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” – it is that suffering and calamity are not God’s punishment for sin. Just to make sure the crowd listening gets the point, Jesus goes on to offer a second example of folks killed when a tower fell on them, asking once more, “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem,” again answering definitively, “No.”

Secondly, 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 that we read about in the news – are sinful. Moreover, what if the wall Jesus references was built by a fraudulent contractor using shoddy workmanship to save money? 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. Hence the security measures we now employ and the regulations and inspections that contractors work under.

All of which brings us to a third, and very important, thing we can say from this passage: God neither causes nor delights in suffering and calamity. This is where the parable about the fig tree comes in. Now, a quick warning: we tend to read this parable allegorically, assuming that the landowner is God and the gardener is Jesus, but parables are never that easy or cut and dried. Besides, nowhere in Luke do we find a picture of an angry, vindictive God that needs to be placated by a friendly Jesus. Rather, Jesus portrays God as a father who scans the horizon day in and day out waiting for his wayward son to come home (you’ll hear more about that in next week’s parable); and as a woman who after sweeping her house all night looking for a lost coin throws a party costing even more to celebrate that she found it. Luke’s Gospel overflows with the conviction that “there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Maybe, just maybe, the landowner is us, or at least he represents our own expectations of how things SHOULD work if indeed this world is, as we hope it is, “fair.” We define fair as receiving the rewards or punishments that we deserve. If we plant a tree and do everything right – cultivate it, prune it, make sure it has water, sun, manure and all of that – there is no reason it shouldn’t start growing figs on it. What if we were to see ourselves and our attitudes in the landowner, and God in the gardener? What if God is the one who knows that there are not always easy answers to the “why” questions, and that sometimes what is called for is patience and love?

One thing that we have to remember as we consider this parable is that this whole discussion takes place on the road to Jerusalem, as Jesus is making his way steadfastly to the cross. And in light of this passage and the whole of Luke’s Gospel, we might then recognize that the cross is not about punishment for sin either. Not for Jesus’ sin, certainly, but also not for ours. Now you may be asking some questions right about now since that is, of course, a tradition interpretation of the cross: that because God is just, God has to punish sin; and because God is loving, God beats up on the sinless Jesus instead of us sinners. But I have a hunch that this understanding of the cross says more about our inadequate understanding of justice and suffering and the “why” of it all than it has to do with the power of the cross. So, in contrast to this theory, I’d suggest that the cross is not about punishment but is instead about identification, solidarity, and love.

Rather than imagine that God has to punish someone – and that we’re fortunate that Jesus was used as a substitute instead of us – what if we recognize that God’s answer to sin isn’t punishment but instead is love. That is, in Jesus God loves us enough to take on our lot and our lives fully, identifying with us completely. In the cross, then, we see just how far God is willing to go to be with us and for us, even to the point of suffering unjustly himself, and innocently dying the death of a criminal. And in the resurrection, we see that God’s solidarity and love is stronger than anything, even death.

Based on that insight, what can we say in the face of suffering and loss? That God is with us. That God understands what our suffering is like. That God has promised to redeem all things, including even our own suffering. That suffering and injustice do not have the last word in our lives and world. And that God will keep waiting for us and keep urging us to turn away from our self-destructive habits to be drawn again into the embrace of a loving God.
Just as we focus on our need for repentance during Lent, we also focus on God’s incredible mercy and steadfast love. It doesn’t answer all of our “why?” questions because sometimes there just aren’t any answers. Sometimes the cause and effect systems that we set up in our lives and in our minds just don’t work. Sometimes the children die before the parents. Sometimes the presence of evil triumphs temporarily. Sometimes good and faithful people break their promises or hurt us. In all of these situations, God’s presence to suffer with us, cry with us, and grant us peace is the gift of love that conquers sin, death and the devil much more effectively than punishment would. Thanks be to God that he is, as we ourselves have confessed, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; Amen.