Third Sunday of Lent, March 24, 2019
Choir anthem, Down to the River to Pray
Audio includes portions of hymns, anthem by choir, readings, sermon, meditation, offertory by Matt.
Strength of heart comes from knowing that the pain that we each must bear is part of the greater pain shared by all that lives. It is not just our pain but the pain, and realizing this awakens our universal compassion.
Take no Thought for Your Life, Howard Thurman
Take no thought. This day I shall desert my anxieties. I shall forsake them—cut them off from the food supply of my spirit. Confident am I that if I do not feed them they cannot long survive.
I shall seek to limit my primary exposure to those who exploit my anxieties by their tendency to exaggeration and alarm. I shall seek to broaden my exposure to those whose lives give forth confidence and calmness.
God’s hand do I yield myself this day, with all that it involves for me, with the faith that I can take complete refuge in the knowledge and the love of God. For me this will not be easy, nor do I lightly undertake it.
Take no thought for your life. What a strange think it is, this injunction! Up to this period of my life I have seemed to survive by taking thought for my life. Upon deeper reflection, I begin to see that my life is not now, nor has it ever been, my own.
I did not create nor have sustained my life through the years. In so many ways, without my own plans and purposes hard places have been made soft and rough places smooth. It is a source of immeasurable satisfaction and comfort to me to know that God, who is the Source and Sustainer of life, can be trusted to see me all the way to the end and beyond.
Take no thought for your life—it is in God’s hand and ever, when I am obeying the laws of life it is God who works through me.
Take no thought for your life.
Luke 13:1-9 Scholars’ Version
Some who were there at the time told him about the Galileans, about how Pilate had mixed their own blood with their sacrifices. He answered them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were the worst sinners in Galilee because they suffered this? Hardly. However, let me tell you, if you don’t have a change of heart, you’ll all meet your doom in the same way. Or how about those eighteen in Siloam, who were killed when that tower fell on them—do you suppose that they were any guiltier than the whole population of Jerusalem? Hardly. However, let me tell you, if you don’t have a change of heart, all of you will meet your doom in a similar fashion.”
Then he told this parable:
A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard; he came looking for fruit on it but didn’t find any. So he said to the vinekeeper, “See here, for three years in a row I’ve come looking for fruit on this tree, and haven’t found any. Cut it down. Why should it suck the nutrients of the soil?”
In response he says to him, “Let it stand, sir, one more year, until I get a chance to dig around it and work in some manure. Maybe it will produce next year; but if it doesn’t, we can go ahead and cut it down.”
Raids on the Unspeakable, pp. 159-160 Thomas Merton
Poetry is the flowering of ordinary possibilities. It is the fruit of ordinary and natural choice. This is its innocence and dignity.
Let us not be like those who wish to make the tree bear its fruit first and flower afterwards—a conjuring trick and an advertisement. We are content if the flower comes first and the fruit afterwards, in due time. Such is the poetic spirit.
Let us obey life, and the Spirit of Life that calls us to be poets, and we shall harvest many new fruits for which the world hungers—fruits of hope that have never been seen before. With these fruits we shall calm the resentments and the rage of man.
When I Cried for Help Mary Oliver
Where are you, Angel of Mercy?
Outside in the dusk, among the flowers?
leaning against the window or the door?
Or waiting, half asleep, in the spare room?
I’m here, said the Angel of Mercy.
I’m everywhere—in the garden, in the house,
And everywhere else on earth—so much
Asking, so much to do. Hurry! I need you.
Change of Heart
On the third Sunday of Lent we find Jesus explaining what it means when bad things happen.
Someone tells him a tragic story about Pilate slaughtering worshipers. The text reads, “mingling the blood of the worshipers with their sacrifices.” A pretty gruesome scene. There is no other record of this action by Pilate outside of the gospels. There is no record outside of the gospels of Herod slaughtering the innocents in Matthew’s birth story either.
In these cases, the gospels are defended by saying that these stories of Pilate and Herod might not have captured the ear or eye of other historians who wrote about Pilate or Herod. The gospel writers know about events that other historians do not or did not care to preserve. That is a bit unlikely, especially, in the case of Herod and Pilate, these accounts fit a story pattern.
Another way we defend the gospels when they tell made up stories about historical figures, we say that Herod and Pilate did a lot of bad things and while the events in the gospels may not have been historical, they fit the types of things these bad guys would do.
I don’t know if I can defend the gospels that case either. If these stories about Pilate and Herod are not historical, then they are made up and fit into a narrative. It pushes ethical limits beyond the breaking point to make up stories about people because those people are your enemies.
In any case, the story (or maybe it is history) is that Pilate brutally murdered people in this instance while they were worshiping. People who were there at the time are telling Jesus about it. The scene is like people saying, “Hey, Jesus remember when that happened? What do you think about that?”
What about the victims? Why them? Was God punishing them through Pilate? That type of thinking was not unusual. The Bible is filled with it. God using a foreign power to defeat the Israelis to show them who is boss. Why are our enemies defeating us? Why is God allowing them to be so cruel to us? A common answer by the prophets is that this is Yahweh’s punishment for breaking the covenant with Yahweh.
These are not abstract or rhetorical questions. Why are our enemies defeating us? Why is God allowing them to be so cruel to us? There are people asking these questions this very minute. People in Yemen. People in Gaza. Women and children in both places whose blood certainly has been mingled with everything sacred into a profane mess of violence. This is happening now. There are perpetrators.
Jesus pushes the story in a different direction. He is not concerned with the perpetrators but the victims and their guilt or innocence.
Jesus says, “Were they the worst sinners in Galilee? Hardly.”
Jesus is doing something here. He is challenging the theology of victim-blaming at least as a default explanation. Then he does something very strange. He says,
“If you don’t have a change of heart, you’ll all meet your doom in the same way.”
What? How does that fit? While the people are scratching their heads, Jesus comes up with another one.
And remember those 18 people in Siloam, when the tower fell on them. Are they guiltier than the rest of the population of Jerusalem?
I want to say that I know you know that of course things like accidents, like the ferry that sunk in Mosul, Iraq this past week killing over 70 people, or diseases, or weather events, kill otherwise innocent people. Sometimes there is a human cause, a blame, an omission or a commission of action, sometimes not, but in either case the victim has questions.
If you are victim, it is hard not to take it personally. We may ask,
“Why is this happening to me?” Or
“Why is this happening to someone we love?” Or
“Did we do something wrong?”
No matter how sophisticated your theology, still it is easy to take it personally. You can say, as I say, that God doesn’t punish people. That confusing natural disasters or the evil of others as God’s punishment is superstitious and old-fashioned. In fact, we know that that theology of blaming the victim has caused additional suffering on many.
Nonetheless, for the person who experiences suffering, it can feel like God has your number.
Here is the thing. Jesus while challenging that theology, nonetheless, uses it.
This tower that fell down that Jesus is talking about that killed eighteen people, that we also have no other record of that event beside the gospel story, anyway, did God’s finger push it over right on top of these 18 bad folks?
“Hardly,” says Jesus. But then Jesus adds:
“…if you don’t have a change of heart, all you will meet your doom in a similar fashion.”
But wait a second, Jesus. If you are saying that God isn’t responsible for the tower falling or for Pilate and his murdering, then how is it that you say that we will all meet our doom in the same way if we don’t change our behavior? Aren’t you blaming the victim again?
I have to think those who heard Jesus say it, assuming for the time being that this does go back to Jesus in some way, had the same questions as I do. Jesus’ injunction in both cases doesn’t seem to follow.
“Unless you have a change of heart, you will meet your doom in a similar fashion.”
Even as he just said that the victims of Pilate were not the worst sinners in Galilee nor were the victims of the falling tower guiltier than the rest of Jerusalem.
Then he tells a parable about a fig tree.
A fig tree that has not been producing fruit. He tells the vinekeeper that he has been checking on this tree for three years and no fruit. It is a waste of space and a waste of nutrients. Cut it down.
The vinekeeper says to give it one more year. He’ll put some manure on it. See what happens.
Really, Jesus? That is your answer? Manure happens?
No, Jesus is actually saying,
“Manure happens, if you are lucky.”
The thing about Jesus is that he rarely gives the answer to the question people are asking. The questions often serve as springboards to another topic or to turn the question on its head. Or as I believe in this case, to make the questioner look inward.
Jesus was originally presented with the Pilate story and then he ran with it.
We are all going to “meet our doom” one way or another. If meeting our doom means death, it will come. It may come through a disease, or an accident, or a tragic murder, or taking our own life, or however many ways there are to die, each of us will be found by one way some day.
That is how it works. It isn’t even. It isn’t spread evenly these ways of dying. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus is reported to have said that it rains on the just and the unjust. It [Life, God?] doesn’t just offer refreshing, life-giving rain to the good guys and life-ending hurricanes on the bad guys. The violence unleashed by the powerful on the oppressed is not allowed because the oppressed deserve it.
It doesn’t seem to be in Gawd’s interest (and I am spelling Gawd G A W D) as in fake God, to do anything about natural disasters, faulty towers, or murderers. These events are the manure that happens and no divine magical being is likely to do anything about it.
We all know that.
What we do not often know is how short and fragile life is. We know it but we don’t often believe it. We put that off, that business about our own lives ending. We take those notions and push them out of our minds and we busy ourselves with the immediate.
We try to create little bubbles of permanence to live in, but they pop. Permanence is the opposite of what we have been given. And we have been given it. We didn’t ask for it.
Poof. Here you are.
Poof. One day you will not be.
There is no guaranteed order to it. Life happens. Death happens. And it isn’t fair.
Who am I to have a beautiful and loving wife? I don’t deserve her. That’s not fair.
Sometimes the injustice of the universe works in my favor.
And you can go down the list of things that are unfair that work to our advantage. Of things we didn’t earn, yet inherited. Of fruits we eat from seeds we did not make grow. That practice of going down the list of things that are unfair in the universe that contribute to my well-being.
We call that gratitude.
Just because we call it gratitude it doesn’t mean we are better than anyone else.
Just because we call it resentment, it doesn’t mean we are worse than anyone else.
A change of heart can mean many things. I think it is the movement from resentment to gratitude. From “Why is this happening to me?” to “Why not?”
The change of heart has to do with the fruit we have been planted to produce. That is what Jesus cared about and that is why he preached about it so much. Produce fruit. Produce goodness. Produce truth. Produce love. Produce faith. Produce forebearance. Produce justice. Produce grace. Produce joy. Produce sacrifice. Produce labor. Produce music. Produce art. Produce compassion.
Anytime he had a chance to preach that sermon. “Produce fruit,” he did it.
Pilate does bad things.
Towers fall on people.
If we are lucky, like the vinekeeper that tills the fig tree,
God will dig a hole around us
and throw some manure on us,
because that means God still has hope for us…
To produce some fruit.