Our text this morning comes from the gospel of
Luke, chapter 13, verses one through nine. I invite you to follow along
in your own Bibles, or the pew Bible:
At that very time there were
some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had
mingled with their sacrifices.2He asked them, ‘Do you think that
because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners
than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent,
you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed
when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were
worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell
you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
6 Then he told this parable:
‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking
for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, “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?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until
I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year,
well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
So our nation was deeply impacted by that murder
of those 20 children and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook school just before
Christmas. Meanwhile in Brazil, 235 young adults were killed in a
nightclub fire in January, due to a number of safety and code
violations. And then two weeks ago in Damascus, 59 people were killed
from a massive car bomb near the ruling headquarters for the Baath
Party. But of course, most of the victims were just innocent civilians.
Wednesday, in response to the hearings going on in Congress about the
drone strikes, a group of independent journalists released their report
of those strikes in Pakistan since 2004, over 300 drone strikes killing
at least 411 civilians in the process. Nearly half of those were
So I ask you: amidst all of these tragedies and innocent people that die
in such ways, which is worse? Which is the greatest tragedy? Can we
really put that kind of value on them? Whether by human error, gross
negligence, or malicious intent, each and every death of an innocent
victim is a tragedy of its own right. And it defies any easy explanation
or rationalization. You know, just 'being in the wrong place at the
wrong time' is a judgment on the randomness of human life that is hard
to swallow. We as human beings, by our very nature, seek to find meaning
And since the time of Job, we have sought an answer to that perennial
question of suffering -- why is it that innocent people, good people,
can suffer so? And in many cases die terrible deaths. Jesus is presented
with thie age-old problem in the case of a group of Galileans, evidently
slaughtered by Pilate when they came to offer their sacrifice in the
Temple. We don't know why, presumably for some political purpose, maybe
there was some unrest, some kind of protest. And knowing Jesus and the
Disciples were from Galilee, we can imagine that the person who is
bringing this news of this terrible tragedy would anticipate some
expression of outrage from Jesus against this brutal injustice by
Pilate. And instead, Jesus compares their murder to that of the 18
innocent victims who just happened to be a in the wrong place at the
wrong time when a building collapses. And in the process, raises then
this question of the common assumption, of the conventional wisdom of
the day, that somehow they had it coming to them. That they must have
done something to bring this judgment upon them. And in fact, Jesus says
whatever sin they may have been guilty of was no worse than anyone
else's. And indeed, if you accept that logic -- that suffering is God's
punishment for sin -- then we all deserve a similar fate, Jesus says.
And I would suggest this is not a judgment by Jesus on the sinfulness of
humanity, as much as it is a judgment by Jesus on the absurdity of that
logic which turns God into the divine punisher who inexplicably selects
a few as examples to suffer that fate, while sparing the rest. Making
God out to be capricious -- and even more malicious -- than Pilate.
And I absolutely reject that kind of notion of God.
Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopalian priest
who teaches religion at the Piedmont College, a popular speaker,
preacher around the country, author of many books. She began her career
as a hospital Chaplain. And she says the hardest calls, invariably, she
had to make were those on the pediatric ward. When she would be brought
in to comfort some family after receiving some devastating news about
their child. And this one particular instance that stood out was a
five-year-old who had collapsed and had suddenly gone blind. A CAT scan
revealed a tumor on the brain that was cutting off the optic nerve. She
goes to see the mother, in tears of course, reeking of cigarettes. And
this woman confessed to the Reverend Taylor that it was her fault -- not
that smoking caused the tumor (no one could say whether or not that was
the case) -- but that God was punishing her for her failure to quit, and
failing to get her attention, God inflicted this tumor upon her child.
And we wonder why people are angry at God.
So let me be clear, God does not punish us by inflicting pain upon our
children. I mean, if a person did that today, what would we do? We'd
have them arrested, they'd be convicted of child abuse. So whatever our
concept of God, if the behavior of God does not hold to the basics of
morality and decency, I would suggest to you that the problem is not
with God, the problem is with our concept of God. For the God I worship
does not engage in immoral actions.
So whatever the cause of suffering, I do not believe God is one of them.
When someone suffers, we want to know why. We need a reason to make
sense out of it. And even if I'm the reason, if it's something that I
did for which I'm being punished, well better that than nothing. Because
then at least, there's still order to the world -- the good are
rewarded, the bad are punished.
But the response Jesus gives to that kind of logic is an unequivocal,
definite. "NO!". Tragedy and suffering is not an indication of
punishment for sin. And in his refutation of this conventional wisdom to
explain why people suffer, is both good news and some troubling news.
The good news is that God is not this divine punisher who arbitrarily
decides who will suffer and who will not. The troubling news is that
life is not that predictable. Being a good person does not guarantee
that you will be free of pain and suffering. I think we all know this.
Even though Jesus denies any direct correlation
between our actions and divine judgment, at the same time our actions
have consequences. Unless you repent, Jesus says, unless you change your
way of life, unless you go a different direction, all will receive the
same fate. And that seems contradictory -- are we punished for sin, or
are we not? And I think the source of confusion comes out of our limited
understanding sometimes of sin and of God.
The typical understanding of sin is that of breaking laws of God. And
then that makes God into the cop who arrests us, and the judge who
sentences us. And after all, I think this is what we learned as
children, right? You sneak a cookie out of the cookie jar before dinner,
what happens? You get sent to bed without any dinner. And so we learn --
only steal cookies out of the cookie jar when we're having liver &
onions for dinner, right? :)
So, we're not children, and hopefully our understanding of God and sin
matures with age. As adults, we see sin not so much as the breaking of
laws, but as missing the mark. As choosing something less than what God
desires. And in this understanding of sin, God is not the traffic cop
who writes us a ticket for speeding, but God is the traffic cop who
directs us into the right direction.
When I was 19, I went to work for our General Office in youth ministry
in Indianapolis. Of course, home of the Indy 500, and I was so excited
when one of our co-workers said "Would you like to go to the race?" He
knew somebody that knew somebody, and could get me in on the ticket
crew. The only thing was, I had to show up at 5 a.m. to get the
orientation and training to take tickets on turn #2, and then I'd be
free for the rest of the race, to go and enjoy. So I said "Great!". So I
show up there at 4:00 or 4:30 a.m., I'm headed to the race track, and as
I'm approaching, there's a place in the road where obviously they have
to re-direct the traffic because it leads into the racetrack. And only
those with the right identification, with the right sticker or something
were allowed through. Everyone else had to turn right. So here's this
traffic cop, and he's directing the traffic, and every now and then
someone is allowed to go through. Well, here comes this pickup with a
big camper, and he wants to go straight. But he obviously does not have
the right identification, and the cop is saying he has to go this way.
No, he wants to go straight. NO, you can't, you have to go this way. The
cop is being very emphatic. And this driver is saying "NO! I'm going
Well, pickup and camper probably weighs 7,000 pounds, police officer 200
lbs, do the math :) So he gives it the gas, and he's going straight.
Well, the policeman has one of these big, industrial flashlights, big,
long heavy-duty thing. And he's directing traffic with this, and as the
truck drives by, with one smooth motion, he just flips it up and turns
it over, and with all of his force he whacks the rear-end of this
camper, shattering the tail-light in a 1,000 pieces. And then he turns
around, flips the flashlight back over, and has this big grin on his
face, like "Oh, that felt good" :) Well, that's not my image of God :)
Probably a terrible illustration :) Up until that point, he was doing
great, directing traffic, it was when he go violent that he lost it for
Well, you see, at every intersection of life we're faced with choices.
Sin is making the wrong turn, is making that choice other than that
direction which God would have us go. And the consequence of going the
wrong direction may be minor, it may be nothing more than we end up with
a dead-end, and we need to turn around and go back and start over. Have
you ever been there, done that in life? You make the wrong choice, you
learn your lesson and you've got to go back and try again.
Or, it may be major, it may lead to a cliff, right? The results of the
wrong turn is not punishment imposed by God, but natural consequences.
And thus, the role of God is not to punish us for every wrong turn, but
to constantly seek to persuade us at every possible moment, to make the
right choice, to turn in right direction. And it's not that God is going
to whack us one if we make the wrong choice. Otherwise I'd be in serious
trouble - I would have been whacked long ago :)
The parable Jesus tells us is a great illustration of this kind of
understanding of God. This orchard owner wants to cut down an
unproductive fruit tree -- makes sense, right? It's just using up good
soil. The gardener persuades him, no wait, give it one more year, and I
will do everything I can, pull out all my gardening tricks to help it
produce fruit. Now, he can't make it do that, right? What gardener can
do that? But he can do some things to enhance the possibility that it
will bear fruit.
Now, ask: where is God in this story? Is God the land-owner? Is God the
gardener, taking orders from the land-owner? That's kind of an
interesting idea. At the very least I think we can see that God is in
the gardener, helping to direct the choice, giving another opportunity,
showing some grace. God is pointing us, you see, in the right direction.
That does not guarantee us that everything is going to go well in life,
but it gives us the best chance to bear fruit, to find a life full of
meaning. Even in the midst of pain and suffering.
And note there's also in this parable, then, a cautionary warning that
comes with this grace, of this suspended judgment, if you will, of
another chance at life, that there are consequences for not bearing
fruit. And this is a stark reminder, along with this warning of Jesus,
that if you don't change your life, if you don't turn around, if you
don't go in the other direction (that's what 'repentance' means), there
will be consequences .
If we continue to live in ways that are contrary to God, that are
harmful to ourselves or to others, damaging to our own lives or damaging
to the earth, there will come a time when it's too late and nothing can
be done to save us. Whether we're discussing our own personal morality
and choices we make in our lifestyle, use of drugs or alcohol, or
whether we're talking about the national budget or climate change, the
point is that our actions have consequences. And in some cases, those
consequences of the wrong choices or the wrong turn can be devastating.
What alarms me, I think, about the particular national debate around our
budget and the sequestration is that this is a train wreck that everyone
knew was coming. We all saw it. And if our leaders cannot postpone,
cannot redirect the trains on the track with a year's warning, how can
we expect them to do any better with decades of warning and the trends
we see with an issue like climate change?
Every situation in which we find ourselves, as
individuals or families or church or society or our nation, presents us
with choices that have real consequences.
And note the end of the parable -- I didn't cut it short, that's the way
it ends. We're not told what happens to the tree. Does it bear fruit, or
does it not? Is it spared, or is it cut down?
You see, the future is radically open. It depends on our choices.
Following God's direction may not guarantee success, but it gives us the
best chance for making the right choice that will further life and
spread God's goodness. So the direction we choose is up to us.
May we all be open to that direction that comes to us from God.