St, John's, Centreville
March 24, 2019
3 Lent C
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Jesus says, "Unless you repent, you will all perish, just as they did." Our gospel lesson this morning is about repentance and mercy.
In the first part of our gospel reading, we hear that some people are telling Jesus about the murder of many Galileans in the temple by the Roman army. They are at the temple presenting their sacrifices when they are brutally slaughtered by Pontius Pilates' troops - no trial, no convictions, no mercy, no warning.
Why are the people telling this to Jesus? Perhaps they are looking for some righteous anger, maybe for Jesus and his followers to rise up against the Romans once and for all. But Jesus is not concerned about the Romans right now. He is concerned about the souls of the people who are standing right in front of him. So he turns this into a teaching moment.
"Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?" Jesus asks the people. Then he answers his own rhetorical question. "No" he says. They were not worse sinners than any of the people standing in front of him. But all need to repent of their sins.
Jesus then asks the crowd about the 18 people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell. Do you think they are worse offenders than others living in Jerusalem? "No," Jesus replies. But all need to repent of their sins.
The connection between sin and suffering is common throughout the bible. Because it was often hard for people to explain why some things happened, like natural disasters, it was easier to say that the people who were killed had sinned. It was a cause and effect - people sinned and terrible things happened. They wanted to explain why things happened in order to make themselves feel safer, more secure.
It was hard for them to explain why some people got sick and died, so it must have been because people sinned. They knew nothing about the science behind natural disasters or germs and diseases that make people sick. In this illustration, Jesus is trying to help people see that these things did not happen because people had sinned. These things were part of an imperfect world.
Jesus uses these stories as a warning: to repent early and often because you do not know when you will die. In both of these instances the people talked about, the violent deaths happened without warning, so the people had no opportunity to repent. They had no time to prepare themselves, to get in right relationship with God. Life is fragile so repentance cannot wait. It must be an ongoing part of our lives.
None of us know when or how we will die. Any of us could die at any moment from an illness or accident. We may not have time to prepare for our death. So we need to repent of our sins, our failures and shortcomings, continually, in case our death is imminent and unexpected.
Jesus wanted those listening to him, as well as us, to look for our security, not in ourselves or in earthly things, but in God. We cannot protect ourselves from death. Our faith must be in God alone, not just to protect us from the evils of this world, but to know in the depths of our being, that God is with us whether we live or die. When we repent of our sins and put our lives into God's hands, we will come into God's eternal kingdom.
I don't think Terry Barnes knew on Wednesday that she would die on Thursday. But she had a strong relationship with God, a love for God, and I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is with God now and is resting in God's loving arms.
God is not responsible for the tragedies that happen in our world - for the cyclone in Mozambique that killed at least 400 people; for the flooding in the mid west or the tornadoes in the south; for the shootings in New Zealand that killed 50 people. God is not responsible for the deaths of children and adults from starvation, abuse, or disease. God is not a detached observer of our suffering. Rather, God is immersed in our suffering with us, sharing our pain and grief.
We all tend to ask, "Why did this happen?" Most of the time, we don't know why. A more important question to ask is "What are we going to make of this?" Every tragedy contains the seeds of resurrection. Out of our pain and suffering can come hope and positive actions. Out of Good Friday comes Easter. There is often an outpouring of community support and love to those who have survived a tragic event. But our compassion cannot stop there. It must continue long after the story is off the front page of the newspaper.
The second part of today's reading is about the fig tree. Jesus tells this parable to his listeners in order to show them God's mercy. Our God is a God of second chances. In this story, the owner wants to cut down the fig tree because it has not produced fruit for three years and is just taking up space and resources. The gardener wants to give the fig tree another chance, and in the meantime, the gardener will give it extra care and nurture it, giving it water and fertilizer. Then if it doesn't produce fruit in another year, then he will cut it down.
God gives us more chances than we deserve, to turn our lives around, to repent of our sins and walk in the pathways of God. Our God is a merciful God, but also a God to whom we must one day give an account of how we have lived our lives, how we have used the gifts that God has given us, how we helped others, how we left the world a better place....or not. We will be judged but our judge is merciful. God's judgement is never separated from God's mercy.
Lent is a yearly reminder that repentance, turning to God, is the natural character of the Christian life. Repentance is not a one-time event. It is daily and lifelong. We model in Lent the process of our redemption through self-examination of our selfishness and sin, and the renewal of our commitment to Jesus Christ.
So let us all listen to what Jesus is telling the people he was with, as well as telling us, in this gospel lesson - to recognize and repent of our sins daily, or hourly if we need to. Because we do not know the time or the circumstances of our death and we may not have time to get ready. So we must always be ready, to repent of our sins, to trust in God's love and mercy, and enter God's heavenly kingdom. Amen.