By Rev. Heather J. Blais
Confession: I get impatient with church buildings and campuses, which can so often become idols that distract us from following Christ. And yet, this past Monday, my heart leapt into my throat when I learned of the fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France. At the time it was still unclear whether the church could be saved. News and social media outlets exploded as people shared their pictures and stories of Notre Dame, as they mourned the potential loss of such iconic art and history. One friend said when the church’s spire fell, they were immediately taken back to the moment they saw the towers fall on 9/11. A former CNN correspondent, Frida Ghitis, wrote: “The massive, majestic cathedral looked like it had been there forever, and would remain until the end of time. If only for a moment, Notre Dame ablaze reminded us that we all share this world; that human history means everyone’s past.”
It is easy to forget that we are all connected as one human family woven into God’s creation. It seems as though it takes tragedies, wars, plagues, and feelings of outer darkness to remind us that we are in this life together, that we share a common history, and that any suffering and pain in this life is a burden we are meant to carry together.
Good Friday is just such a day. Jesus of Nazareth was arrested, beaten in prison, tried, and executed.
I’m not convinced it had to be that way or that it was by God’s design.
How easy it is for us, both then and now, to play the blame game:
Well, it was Judas, his own disciple who betrayed him…
...or, it was the Pharisees’ fault for being so resistant to change…
...it was really the temple police’ inability to stand up to their bosses…
...it was Annas, after all he sent Jesus to the high priest for further interrogation…
...no, it was Caiaphas; he is the one that suggested giving the Romans a scapegoat…
...well, really it was Peter, how could he have ever denied Jesus not once, not twice, but three times…
...actually, at the end of the day, it was Pontius Pilate who gave the order…
...or it was the soldiers, after all, they are the ones that crucified Jesus…
...or it was the disciples who scattered in fear…
This list could go on, and on.
At the end of the day, there is no one person responsible for the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Nor, do I believe, that it was the plan of God to send his only beloved and precious child to the cross, as some final sacrifice that would allow the atonement practices of old to be fulfilled.
Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is known for saying, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” We also heard him say at the revival that the opposite of love is not hate, but rather selfishness. The opposite of love is not hate, but rather selfishness.
It makes much more sense to me, that the cross is not some perfect plan of restitution, but rather the result of our shared human selfishness. Every single person that I mentioned who played a role on the way to the cross, at some moment in that journey choose themselves over love. Love was just too great a risk to bear.
Yet those folks are not alone. Each of us at different times, has chosen ourselves over the greater well being of others. We have played it safe, we’ve taken the path of least resistance, we’ve done what we needed to do to survive. Yet those actions have also caused harm to those around us. Anytime we are selfish, there is a cost. Jesus of Nazareth’s execution was not any one person’s fault. It was the result of our shared human family choosing selfishness one too many times.
On this day, we remember the way of the cross. We remember an arrest, beating, trial, and execution of an innocent man who simply wanted us to choose love instead of selfishness. It is a tall ask, and it is our calling to wake up tomorrow morning and do everything in our power to choose to live a life of love day in and day out. So that we may share the light bearing, life changing, love and hope of God into our world and that we might draw upon that love as our human family faces tragedies, wars, plagues and feelings of outer darkness. Instead of letting those things overwhelm us, fear and shame us into complacency and inaction, we are being asked to choose the way of love.
As we prepare for tomorrow, about what it means to choose the way of love, let us remember what the great poet and priest, John O’Donohue wrote about resurrection:
“When the cross hits your life, a loneliness, a blindness and a darkness come all around you. Darkness and lostness are the worst parts of suffering. The wonder of the Resurrection is that this darkness was opened out and at the heart of the darkness a secret light was discovered. Each one of us who has come here hasn’t come to this place out of curiosity but we have come because we know the need that is in our lives and we know the frailty that is in our hearts and minds. We are strangers in the world. In our journey through life anything can befall us. It seems to be very difficult for us as humans to learn how to love, to learn how to let the fear and the resentment and the blindness fall away from us and to come into the special joy and peace and freedom of love. No matter how assured or competent we may feel, there is none of us who has not large territories of fear in our hearts, fear of sharing ourselves, of opening ourselves, of entering life. That is why we [will] come to an ancient holy place like this, before the dawn, to let the new tender light of the resurrection touch our helpless fear and transfigure it and open it into courage.”*
Let us come together tomorrow to find that secret light hidden in tonight's darkness. Amen.
*John O'Donohue from his Easter Homily at Corcomroe Abbey 1992. Included in "Walking on the Pastures of Wonder: John O'Donohue in Conversation with John Quinn".
By Rev. Heather J. Blais
It’s six days before the Passover, and you are on your way to Jerusalem. You stop a mile or so outside the city, in the village of Bethany, so you might have dinner at your friend Lazarus’ house. His sister Martha, known for her hospitality, has prepared a beautiful meal. One of Lazarus’ friends, Jesus of Nazareth and his inner circle of followers, are also at the table. As you break bread together, Lazarus’ other sister, Mary, retrieves a jar of what looks to be costly perfume and sits down at Jesus’ feet. She begins to anoint his feet with perfume, and then wiped them dry with her hair. It seems a profoundly intimate thing to do; it was almost as if she was anointing his body for burial. Then things grew even more uncomfortable when another guest, Judas Iscariot, challenged Jesus as to why he was allowing Mary to waste such an expensive jar of perfume on him, when they could have sold it for three hundred denarii and helped the poor. You consider stepping out for some fresh air while these folks sort out their business, when Jesus says something that stops you in your tracks. “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:7-8).
What ends a dinner party faster than discussions of religion and politics? Death. Just as none of the guests at Lazarus’ table wanted to keep talking after Jesus spoke of his nearing death, our culture avoids looking at our own mortality head on. Instead we are inundated with messages from social media, news, medical professionals, and friends that tells us the things we must do to maintain our youth. And since it feels good to feel young, we buy in, often hook, line, and sinker. Yet, that is not what our faith asks of us.
Have you noticed that starting with Ash Wednesday, the readings in Lent have been focused on our mortality?
This theme continues today and all the way through Holy Week. We are being asked to consider our own mortality, to grapple with what it means to live well and to die well.
I hope that every week we leave here with a renewed sense of how we are called to live as followers of Christ. There is a reason you hear us end so many worships with, “My friends, life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us...” There is no time to waste. God is inviting us to live well now, as there are no guarantees of tomorrows. We have this day. We have right now. How will we live a life of love? Yet as important as living well, is planning well for our death.
In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer on p.445 is a little known instruction that asks parish priests to talk to their community about planning well for death. It reads as follows: “The Minister of the Congregation is directed to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.”
According to the Diocese of California, 50% of Americans die without a valid will, and allow the state courts to distribute their assets however the state thinks best. They also note that spring is a common time to write wills because of upcoming summer travels. I think it also makes sense that we would think about making wills, planning our burial services, our healthcare wishes, and any legacy gifts in the lead up to Holy Week. As we grapple with Jesus’ looming death, might we consider our own mortality.
A will or trust is a testament of our faith and values. Our will is one final chance to tell the people we leave behind what matters to us. It is a chance to ensure our children and loved ones are well cared for. It is a chance to give back to our faith community with a legacy gift. Alice Kells’ legacy gift allowed for the renovation of the lower level to include a three story lift, making our entire parish hall building accessible. Whitney Robbins’ legacy gift allowed for funds to sponsor our mission to the community, particularly Whitney’s Pantry. The John Whiteman and Richardson Trust made a legacy gift that subsidizes nearly 10% of our annual budget each year.
In my first year serving former St. James, we were celebrating our bicentennial. Our Stewardship Chair at the time, Dennis O’Rourke, asked that all of us become legacy givers, before we then ask the congregation to consider doing the same. On the church’s end, this meant we would fill out the legacy giving form. On Jason’s and my end, it meant we had to create a will. We met with Kate Downes, an estate planning attorney in Shelburne Falls. We made decisions about who would have guardianship of our children should something happen to us, we made decisions around our healthcare, we named our legacy gifts and our beneficiaries. It had been a task nagging at us since our eldest was born, and it was a relief to have this work done. In addition to estate planning, we made healthcare decisions, and used the church’s form to plan our burial services. Seven years later, Jason and I are now 39 and 35. We do not own a house, but we do have other small assets, and more importantly, we have children that need to be well cared for. My point is, you can neither be too old or too young to do this work. It is a gift for those you leave behind, and it is a testimony of your faith. It is a way for you to take seriously our call to live life well now, and plan for a holy death.
Admittedly, it can be overwhelming to do this planning.
My friends, remember that life is short, and we must live well now, and plan well for those we will leave behind. While this life may come to an end, eternal life in Christ will be the next chapter.
At the end of the burial service we say a prayer that holds the tension of living and dying well, together:
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia (BCP 499).
In recent weeks we’ve been shocked, again, by the latest mass shooting (this time in New Zealand); we see the stunned people in the midwest losing everything in historic flooding. We get nightly reports on the horrors of war – wherever it is this week. A refugee crisis seems to be a constant somewhere. It’s not unlike the old Kingston Trio song about “They’re rioting in Africa, they’re starving in Spain …” On top of all that, many of us suffer tragedies on a more personal level.
It seems quite natural for us to ask then, “Why?” Why did this have to happen to this person? Perhaps the victim was a good, loving person. Meanwhile we hear of scoundrels who live in relative happiness and prosperity. We question God’s goodness and fairness. Sometimes we might even doubt His existence. It’s the classic philosophic problem of evil: How can an all-good and all-powerful God allow good people to suffer and wicked people to prosper?
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus gives us some answers to these difficult questions.
In the context of the Gospel of Luke, in the chapter just before this, Jesus used an illustration of a man who is going to be dragged into court with a losing lawsuit against him. If he is smart, Jesus says, he will quickly settle with his opponent before it’s too late. His point being that we all have a debt of sin toward God. If we are aware of our situation, we will be quick to get right with God before we come into judgment.
Now in today’s Gospel, Luke reports, “on the same occasion,” people reported to Jesus about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. The idea of Pilate's mingling the Galileans own blood with their offerings must have meant a massacre of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem. We don’t know the why, but it corresponds with other historical writings about Pilate's brutality. And the verse does offer an ominous characterization of the Roman governor in advance of his appearance in Jesus' trial.
Then Jesus brings up another tragedy from their recent history, “the tower of Si-lo-am,” apparently a tower in the wall around Jerusalem that must have collapsed without warning and crushed 18 hapless Jerusalemites.
Jesus comments on these news stories of his time. It almost seems a little like gossiping. Just as in our time, narratives of destruction and distress capture the attention. As always, Jesus is telling us not just to look out but is asking us to look in; He is concerned not just with what is going on in our heads but wants us to look at what is happening in our hearts and ask how God is opening us to compassion, prompting us to repentance and leading us to new life.
I think Jesus figured he was speaking here to people who probably didn’t apply much spiritual truth to themselves. From His reply, we can also guess that these men were smugly thinking that those who suffered such tragedies were deserving of God’s judgment, whereas the fact that they had been spared such tragedies meant that they were pleasing to God.
Jewish belief held that whatever evil befell a person was a punishment for sin. So the more a person had to suffer, the greater their sinning must be!
But Jesus rejects this simplistic notion and corrects the view by showing that we all are sinners worthy of God’s judgment. Twice here He drives it home asking whether those who suffered were greater sinners? “I tell you, no,” He says, “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
In emphasizing repentance, I think, Jesus means a turning around toward God and one’s neighbor.
Then Jesus tells this parable about the fig tree that underscores the point: If you don’t repent, you will soon face God’s judgment.
This short parable about a tree speaks of imminent judgment. We’re reminded of the Advent lessons about John the Baptist as Luke uses similar images earlier in his third chapter: “Even now,” Luke quotes the Baptizer, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
These tree parables tend to reinforce ideas in the first half of today’s lesson. Here a cultivated yet unproductive tree may continue to live even without bearing fruit, only because it has been granted additional time to do what it is supposed to do. Unless it begins to bear fruit (used here as an image of repentance), the result will be its just and swift destruction.
Like Jesus' earlier words responding to recent tragedies, the parable warns against false reassurance. Just because you have not been cut down, don’t presume that you are bearing fruit.
The tone of the parable emphasizes that patience and mercy temporarily keep judgment at bay. The role of the gardener offers a crucial picture of this patience and mercy. The tree has not been left to its own devices. Everything possible is being done to get it to act as it should. Correspondingly, God does not leave people to their own resources but encourages their repentance.
It would be tempting to talk about allegorical interpretations of this parable – identifying the vineyard owner as God, the gardener as Jesus, and the tree as … whomever we wish would hurry up and repent – but I don’t know that that’s such a good idea – I think that strips the parable of its power and maybe produces some confusion.
Nowhere else in the books of the Luke author does the writer imply that Jesus tries to pacify that Old Testament God who is too eager to clean house.
Instead, I think part of the parable's power comes through the suspense it generates. Will fruit emerge in time to thwart the ax? How will this season of second chances play itself out? How do the gardener's efforts make the tree's existence a state of grace and opportunity? (Tune in next Sunday when we bring you more Days of Our Lives!)
So, rather than asking the question “Why?” with regard to suffering, perhaps we should ask the question, “What?” What does this tragedy teach me? I think Jesus’ answer is: Tragedies should teach us that since death and judgment are imminent, we need to be ready through true repentance.
You know, Jesus could have used this occasion to jump into a critique of Pilate’s cruel ways, but He’d have missed the spiritual opportunity.
He could have plunged into a philosophical discussion of the problem of evil, but His listeners would have gone away unchanged.
Instead, Jesus took this general topic and homed in on the consciences of those who had raised the subject. He applies it to them twice, and then He further drives it home with the parable.
Jesus seizes on these two calamities that were probably subjects of recent conversation around the local watering hole – one an instance of state-sanctioned terror, one a random accident. It’s tempting to compare these events with happenings in our time like nightclub fires and ferry sinkings and earthquakes and mass shootings from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Charleston or New Zealand.
Any of these tragedies saw people snuffed out with little warning and mostly no clearly apparent reason. These events lead the rest of us to feel how precarious our existence is. Jesus implies that the victims did nothing wrong, nothing that caused their demise. Life is just as chancy as it can be nasty and short.
Although these events might allow Jesus an opportunity to defend God against charges of mismanaging the universe, he does not go that route. He only implies that we mustn’t equate tragedy with divine punishment. Sin doesn’t make atrocities come. They just come, no matter what some televangelists say or whom they might blame.
What life's fragility does do, Jesus says, is give it urgency. Jesus turns attention away from disasters, victims, and "why?" questions to talk to those of us who so far have survived the hazards of the universe and of human society. We shouldn’t mistake our good fortune as evidence of God’s special blessing.
When Jesus says, twice here, that unless you repent you will perish like those others did, he does not promise that the godless will be struck by an asteroid. He refers to death in the sense of the destruction of one's soul. He emphasizes the suddenness with which this death comes.
Just as the victims of Pilate or the tower or more recent tragedies did not enjoy the luxury of choosing the time of their demise, likewise the unrepentant will suddenly find they have delayed too long and lost themselves.
Is Jesus exploiting tragedy here to score theological points? Yeah, I think so – to make a point – He certainly capitalizes on recent horrors to stress the suddenness of death and the unpredictability of life. In today’s world we’re used to the fear mongering that politicians and others whip up after many a natural and unnatural disaster.)
But notice the approach that Jesus takes is along a slightly different path. He doesn’t promise freedom from calamity, but urges his audience against false self-assurances. If fragilness of life demands speed, demands urgency, that urgency shows that life itself has carved out an opportunity for us to jump on God's
graciousness, as the parable suggests.
So what are we to take away from this lesson?
I think probably we should each examine our own lives and look for fruit. There’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5, or the fruit of John 4:36 that you store up for eternal life. Or as John 15 reminds us that it is not possible to bear fruit apart from the Branch, Jesus, for apart from Him we do nothing.
There are many types of fruit that could be examined: the fruit of giving, praying, righteousness, forgiveness, tithing, discipling, leading others to Christ, missionary support, etc. Each is different, but in a sense, each is from the same tree, the same Lord.
Each of us is different with different gifts and fruit (I’ll refrain from likening us to fruit salad), but we are all of the same body.
Let’s use what God has given us for His glory, to bear fruit, and to further His Kingdom.