By Rev. Heather Blais, Rector
So far this Lent, we have used the reflection from Ash Wednesday written by Frank Powell, the “9 Sins the Church is Okay With” as a lens into the gospel lessons. First we considered the sin of worry, and then the sin of fear. Today, I’d like us to think about the last sin Powell mentions, lying.
Let me remind you of what Powell said, in his own words, about lying:
“If gluttony is the elephant in the room everyone sees, but no one talks about, lying is the elephant in the room no one sees. Lying is so socially acceptable, even in Christian circles, that it often goes undetected. We’re desensitized to it...If you’re like me, you say things all the time and never follow through. You lie to make yourself sound better. You lie to stay out of trouble. You lie to get ahead. Sometimes you lie just to lie. Jesus says there’s no place for that if you’re a Christian. Your word matters. If you say something, God expects you to do it. It’s better to tell the truth and lose your job than lie and keep it.”
Powell’s words are a painfully honest reminder, that if we we are not intentional about our words and actions, we may quickly find ourselves heading down a slippery slope of little lies. The tricky part is, there is a reason the Church is “okay” with this sin. We are “okay” with lying because the Church is guilty of lying as an institution. And sadly, it’s not a new behavior.
Throughout all of the Church’s history, groups of powerful leaders, both lay and ordained, have called upon God’s name to condone human suffering, war, slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and more. These leaders, who were operating under the guise of serving God, told lies about the nature and will of God. Harmful, horrible lies. Yet even when during those times when we turn our backs on God the Holy Spirit shows up to guide us out of our mess. The Holy Spirit uses prophetic voices to call us out on our lies. They call us into right relationship with God. They force us to remember the truth: the God of all Creation is a God of abundant, unconditional love.
One of the lies that the Church continues to perpetuate, is this idea that human suffering is a direct result of divine punishment. In other words, every bad thing that has ever happened to you is a punishment for a sin you committed. When bad things happen to us, whether they’re mundane or serious, it’s easy to ask: “What did I do to deserve that?” Or when catastrophe strikes, whether it’s the cyclone in Fiji, the war in Syria, or the random shootings in Kalamazoo, Michigan last Sunday, the question that wrenches our hearts is, “Why do bad things happen to us?”
By far the most popular answer to this question is the belief that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. And this answer comes from a good place. We really, really want the world to work like that. We want there to be a reason for human suffering, and it would make sense that it has to do with something in our past, something that is sinful. In a world where that’s true, people have a say, in the matter of suffering. In that world, if people are good, they can avoid suffering.
It is this belief that bad things happen to us as a divine punishment for our sinfulness that Jesus takes issue with in today’s gospel. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, teaching his disciples and the crowds along the way. Some of the followers were trying to prove to Jesus that they understood the signs of the times (something Jesus had blatantly said they did not understand just a few verses back). These followers cite the example of Pilate’s recent slaughter of some Galileans who had gone to Jerusalem to worship. Yet Jesus responds: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did” (Luke 13:2-3). Jesus is pretty clear on the matter—their suffering and death had nothing to do with their sinfulness.
And just in case those listening didn’t understand his meaning, Jesus adds a story of his own. “Or 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did" (Luke 13:4-5). Jesus tries to course correct this way of thinking. Yet he does so not by severing the connection between sin and calamity—instead he severs the connection between calamity and punishment. “Do you think they were worse sinners than all the others? No. No worse than you” (Luke 13:5).
Those Galileans were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those folks in the tower of Siloam—they were no worse than anyone else. It was a random accident. The other problem with this theology is the notion that God is the immediate cause of all events, which leaves no room for human freedom in the created order, and therefore for events that God does not control. Jesus used this moment, not only to course correct their theology, but also as an opportunity to speak of actual judgment.
He does this by telling the parable of the fig tree. A landowner had planted a fig tree in his vineyard, and he figured that it was about time to gather some figs from it. But taking a look he found that the tree was barren. As a good steward of his land and crops, the landowner concluded there were two problems: First, the tree is worthless because it has been barren for three years in a row; and second, it is taking up valuable space in the vineyard. It was simply time to cut it down. Yet the caretaker pleads for patience from the landowner: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down" (Luke 13:8-9).
What if in this parable, God were the gardener and we were the fig tree? He is quite partial to this unyielding fig tree. He’s determined to loosen the soil around us and even spread manure in the hope that we may bear fruit. Why is God the gardener so invested in this fig tree? Why is he so invested in us? Because God loves us and wants the best for us.
Jesus doesn’t offer an explanation as to why bad things happen, instead he points out sometimes misfortune is of our own making, and sometimes it’s tragically unlucky. Jesus invites us to repent and recognize that we are all broken human beings. Once we have done that—our life and world will begin to look differently. We will be able to see that life is a gift, that God is seeking us out, and that there is so much good we can do with the time we are given. Life is short, and we don’t know how ours will come to a close, but we do know it is a gift, not to be squandered but rather spent in the pursuit of good things for God’s people. God is digging around our roots, spreading manure in the hope that we’ll blossom and bear fruit; fruit that will last.
This idea that the bad things that happen in our lives is some sort of divine punishment is simply a lie. A lie the Church has allowed to perpetuate for far too long. It is our job as the Church to let the Holy Spirit guide us in helping the world to understand sometimes bad things just happen, but God is with us every step of the way and loves us beyond measure.
As we make our way back into the world this week, I want you to pay attention. Really close attention to the conservations you have with people. How do people try to explain or justify suffering and hardship? Do they blame it on God? Do you blame your own hardships on God? What would it look like for you to spread the Good News to them? The Good News that God is not punishing them, but rather loves them beyond measure and yearns to be in deep relationship with them. Amen.
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