Sermon: Third Sunday in Lent

March 3, 2013

You know I love movies, so last Sunday, when the Academy Awards were held, was one of my high holy days. This year was especially good as the Academy celebrated movie musicals. So in my own personal nod to the Oscars, tell me if you’ve heard this one before: “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could. So somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good.” Recognize this song? It’s from one of my favorite movie musicals of all time: The Sound of Music. It’s from the scene in the garden when Captain von Trapp proposes marriage to Maria; she is sure that she must have done something good in order to have earned such joy. “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could. So somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good.”

It is a basic explanation of the idea of karma—the philosophy that our conduct dictates the kinds of things that happen to us. Now I love my Rogers and Hammerstein, but they are not theologians. So today I ask you, is this song true? Does what goes around really always come around? Do people always get what they deserve? My friend Nancy used to say, whenever some man did one or another of us wrong, “Well, at least time wounds all heels.” I am not sure that’s true, but I know we really wanted that to be true. We wanted the punishment to fit the crime! We’re Lutherans; we like to talk about mercy and grace. But in our secret hearts, isn’t there someone each one of us would be just a little glad to see get what we think is coming to them?

Careful. Isaiah reminds us today that God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts, nor are God’s ways our ways.

But to go back to the question of the day: is it possible for nothing to come from nothing? Whether or not God uses a simple cause and effect quotient for blessings or punishment isn’t a new question. In the Old Testament book of Job, after Job loses his home, his health, and his family, Job’s friends gather around him to ask, “What is it that you have done that has made God so angry with you? Repent of it, so that God will bless you.” Or remember the story of the man born blind from John’s Gospel, and how people came up to Jesus in the temple asking him, “Who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?”

When a horrible tragedy occurs, many people’s first question is, “Whose fault is it?” Remember Jerry Falwell blaming the events of 9-11 on feminists and homosexuals for bringing God’s wrath down on our nation? Or Pat Robertson announcing that the earthquake in Haiti was the result of that nation’s “deal with the devil” 100 years ago? And just this week, could you ever turn on the TV without hearing everyone blaming someone else for the sequestration? We can’t bear the idea that there’s no one to blame.

It’s hard enough to have to muddle through a crisis. It’s even worse to have to do that while people speculate about what you did to deserve it. But the very worst part can be wondering in your own heart, “Why did God let this happen to me? What have I done to deserve this? Where did I go wrong?” Is that really how God works? If we are good, good things happen to us, and if we are bad, bad things happen to us?

All these questions lead us straight to the heart of today’s Gospel reading from Luke. A group of people come to tell Jesus that some Galileans had been killed by the Romans during a religious festival for allegedly plotting against the occupation. It wasn’t unusual for the Roman government to violently put down any attempt at rebellion. In fact, the punishment of choice for that kind of crime was crucifixion. People now gather around Jesus to ask, “ Did they deserve to die or not?” Were these Galileans “freedom fighters” or “terrorists”?

But Jesus won’t go there. Instead he reframes the question, asking the crowd, “Do you think that because these people suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? What about those18 people who were killed when a tower in Siloam collapsed? Did they do something to deserve that kind of death?” He might have been asking, “Did the people in the Twin Towers deserve to die?” or “Do the people on the East Coast need to repent of something to prevent future storms like Sandy?” Is there really a cause and effect relationship between sin and suffering? Does everything really happen for a reason?

Jesus’ answer to this question is a resounding NO. No. No. No. There is no correlation between death/loneliness/illness/poverty and people’s fundamental righteousness or sinfulness. Accidents really do happen. Non-smokers really do get lung cancer. Babies are stillborn or die from SIDS, even when their parents have done everything exactly right. People no better and no worse than you have been devastated by tsunamis and droughts and unemployment. If you recall, Jesus’ answer regarding the man born blind was, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned that he was born blind.”

Jesus flat out tells us that a person’s suffering is not God’s punishment. And conversely, oh–please break it gently to Julie Andrews!–a person’s happiness or wealth or comfort is not a sign of God’s favor either. It rains on the just and on the unjust alike. We may sometimes wish there was such a thing as karma, but as we heard in today’s Old Testament reading, God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

Consider Jesus. Jesus definitely suffered, but he did not sin. Doesn’t that put a quash on the theory that bad people suffer and good people are blessed? There are people who would argue that Jesus suffered because he took our place. His suffering was meant to be ours. They say that God needed to punish humanity for all of our sin, but Jesus took the bullet for us, so to speak. If God operated on a cause and effect system, that might have been true. But what does that say about the nature of God? Do we really think that our creative God—the God who dreamed up the seahorse and the Venus Flytrap, who devised unique fingerprints and snowflakes—couldn’t come up with any way to save us other than becoming human and dying so that God wouldn’t have to kill us? In order for the slate to be wiped clean, must it be wiped with blood? Doesn’t that explanation drag God down into our vicious, violent humanity at its worst? God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts, and God’s system of justice is not like our system of justice.

In our world, we want someone to be punished when things go wrong. We want to hold someone responsible. Blame the Muslim militants, corrupt government, Republicans, Democrats, our parents, somebody! Nothing comes from nothing, so someone, somewhere, is at fault for this mess, right? But Jesus never once did that. He never used his power to hurt, only to heal and help. This made the people around him nervous. Roman leaders said that Jesus would incite riots and lead the country into political upheaval, just like those Galileans in today’s Gospel reading. Jewish leaders said that Jesus was blaspheming by calling himself the son of God and that Jesus would lead the faithful into sin. Everyone whispered, “We need to get rid of the threat.” The whole crowd of Romans and Judeans became united in allowing their righteous anger to burn so hot that it killed.

Hating together may unite us, but it is not God’s way. Consider Jesus’ parable about the fig tree. It’s not bearing any fruit. By human logic, you gardeners know, if a plant you have been tending still isn’t flourishing after about three years, it’s time to dig it up, get rid of it, and plant something else. But God’s thoughts are not the same as our thoughts and God’s way is not our way. In God’s system, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. The Gardener in this parable begs for just one more year with the tree. Let me work with it a little more, fertilize it better, do a little pruning. Just one more year, and then it will bear fruit.

Fruit, in the Bible, almost always stands for righteousness. Jesus, the Gardener, seems to be saying of his followers, “Just give them one more year, and then they will see the truth. Just one more year and then they will stop participating in the horrible cycle of violence begetting violence. Just one more year and they will start to care more about distributing mercy than meting out guilt….” But we are now over 2000 years removed from Jesus’ appeal for “one more year,” and not much seems to have changed. Will nothing get us out of this rat race? God help us!

Here’s the Good News: God has helped us. And God didn’t need innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. It may be our way, but it’s not God’s way. Of the old way of shame and death, Jesus’ final word is, “It is finished.” The cross splits the old blame game in two and lays it to rest. A resurrected Jesus announces, “Behold, I am making all things new!” God knew that the only way to address our perverse view of the world was to enter into it, to share our struggle and pain. But Jesus still remained enough unlike us that he did not sink into our sin. Instead Jesus demonstrated God’s way for us—the way of right relationships and faithfulness.

Even when he is unjustly accused of blasphemy and inciting rebellion, Jesus does not search for a scapegoat. He does not blame Pilate or Herod or the priests or his disciples or anyone else. On the cross, Jesus submits to violence, but does not respond to it with violence himself. He shows us another way to be– a way of humbly trusting in God’s goodness and strength instead of in revenge. When we look at the cross, we can remember that God is at work in the darkest, vilest places in the world, not giving sinners what they deserve, but striving for the healing of all creation.

Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts. God’s way is not our way. For this we can all breathe a sigh of relief. So freed from the cause and effect rigidness of karma, how do we live?

First of all, Jesus says, Repent. Look deep inside, and turn away from the violence within. Stop judging who is righteous and who is not. Even if we could figure out who did what, it is not our job to purge the world of sinners. If we did, who would be left? We need to stop hurting others to make ourselves feel more whole. That’s not God’s way. We need to stop hurting ourselves too. In repenting for how we have gone astray, we sometimes forget that God made us and called us good, and that God loved and saved us.

Because of Jesus, we can turn to a new basis for unity–not hating together, but instead, gathering together to share bread and wine and forgiveness of sins. Jesus asks us to do this in remembrance of him. He asks us to reach out with stories of hope to all people, trusting that God is making something out of nothing. No matter what we did “somewhere in our youth or childhood,” God is bringing new life out of places where we only see death. We are freed to blossom and bear fruit, freed to live and love as God’s own beloved people. Thanks be to God! Amen.

~Pastor Susan Schneider


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