As I reflected on today’s gospel (Luke 13:1-9) and prepared this sermon I thought about the Russian war on Ukraine, the six million covid deaths worldwide, the collision between a pick up truck and a van that killed nine last Tuesday, the death of my son and other tragedies in my life.
Not much has changed since the time of Jesus. Tyrants are still acting, towers are still falling, and tragedies are still happening.
For me, those kind of events continue to raise questions about God, fairness, and mortality.
- They challenge my beliefs, hopes, and illusions that there is some all-knowing, all powerful, Big Other, Magical Other, out there who, if I just believe, pray, and behave rightly, will make sure none of that happens to me or those I care about.
- They contradict my notions of fairness and that you get what you deserve, the good will be rewarded and the bad will be punished.
- They remind me of my mortality and that life is fragile, short, and uncertain.
I don’t want to hear: “God is in control,” “Everything happens for a reason,” “Just have faith,” or any other trite, shallow, and tired platitude that so often gets spoken in these situations.
I want to know why these things happen, don’t you? I want some explanation and way to make sense of it all. I want my fantasy that if I can just understand it then I can control it. Maybe you do too. But today Jesus isn’t helping with any of that.
He doesn’t give a solution to our struggle. He doesn’t offer an explanation or a way of understanding why Pilate mingled the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices, or why the Tower of Siloam fell.
What if those things are not the point of today’s gospel but the intensifiers of today’s gospel? And what if they are in our lives as well?
I don’t mean that we should diminish the losses in our life and time, or in the life and time of Jesus, but that we should feel them more acutely and let them call us into a better way of being.
Tyrants, fallen towers, and tragedy intensify the preciousness of life and bring greater awareness to what we are doing with our lives. They intensify the value of relationships and invite us to consider how we are treating creation and one another. They intensify the meaning of this moment and remind us that nothing should be wasted or taken for granted. They intensify the urgency and need to redeem the past and open our eyes and hearts to a new and better way, to the possibility of the impossible.
They intensify the need to look at ourselves and our world with new eyes, to see each other in new ways, and to gain clarity about what really matters and how we want to live. To use my metaphor from Ash Wednesday, they pull back the husks on our lives.
And I wonder if that intensification is the reason Jesus does not deal with the why question. He is moving the focus away from why these kind of things happen, and placing it on how we live in a world where these kind of things do happen.
How is usually a better question than why. How opens the way, why narrows the way. How tends toward the future, why tends toward the past. How is imaginative, why is definitive.
How do we find our place amid uncertainty and turmoil? How do we not lose ourselves to the pain and tragedies of our lives and world? How do we keep ourselves in the midst of conflict and violence? How do we sharpen our vision to see more clearly? How do we keep our hearts soft and keep hope? How do we live amidst death?
“Repent.” That’s Jesus’ answer to the how question, and he says it twice in today’s gospel. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
What does that bring up for you? I think our understanding of repentance is often too small. We make it only about behavior and changing from bad to good. There’s nothing wrong with that and I’m in favor of good behavior but Jesus is very clear that he is talking about more than bad behavior.
Listen to what he says: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you.” “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.”
He’s not offering a cause and effect explanation, he’s offering a choice between life and death. And that choice is always before us. Every moment is a burning bush moment of divine presence, hope, new life and more life. The only question is whether we will “turn aside to see this great thing.”
Will we turn aside to find the courage, hope, and perseverance needed in the moment? Will I turn aside to address the needs and interests of another? Will you turn aside and break your usual patterns of thinking and acting? Will you turn aside to see the opportunity for love, compassion, forgiveness? Will we turn aside and bring good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, release the captive, and let the oppressed go free? Will I turn aside to do justice, bring peace, welcome the stranger, and love the enemy? Will you and I turn aside from the fear, busyness, and distractions that keep us from living the life that wants to enter the world through us?
What’s the turning aside that needs to happen in your life today? And what if that turning aside is repentance? What if repentance is continually turning back to life in a world where tyrants act, towers fall, and tragedies happen? What if repentance is changing our mind, getting our life turned around, and going in a better direction? What if repentance is reimagining ourselves to be more and our lives to be larger than what has happened to us or what we have done and left undone?
Take a moment and reimagine yourself as more than your history (James Hollis, Swamplands, 127). This isn’t about undoing or redoing the past. It’s about how you want to live this moment, the next, and the one after that. Reimagine your life. Reimagine your relationships. Reimagine how you might live beside and respond to the tyrants, fallen towers, and tragedies in your life and world. What do you see? What does all that look like? What is it asking of you? What do you need to do, change, reclaim, or let go of in order to start living your reimagined life today?
This is our work to do. No one else can do it for us, and neither will God or Jesus. If things are going to get turned around then it’s up to you and me, just as it was for Moses in today’s reading from the Old Testament (Exodus 3:1-15).
God tells Moses “I have observed the misery of my people,” “I have heard their cry,” “I know their sufferings,” “And I have come down to deliver them.”
I’m sure Moses was thrilled to hear those words. Who among us today doesn’t want to hear those words from God? They are words of care, compassion, and justice; words of hope and change; words of presence and promise that things are finally going to turn around.
God’s concerns, however, become our work, and God says to Moses, “So come, I will send you.” And isn’t that what we pray for each week?
Each week at the end of the liturgy we pray, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” And God says to us, “So come, I will send you.”
Like I said, this is our work to do.