Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sermon, February 28, 2016, by The Rev. Karen Joy Kelly

Year C Lent 3 2015
Luke 13: 1-9

There is always tension between God’s justice and God’s mercy
          I have a friend named Sally. Now Sally is my age. Sally has a son named Stevie. We call him Stevie, although Stevie is in his 50s. At birth, there was a loss of oxygen to Stevie’s brain. He functions as a pre-adolescent and will do so for the remainder of his life.  Stevie lives in a group home, works at a sheltered workshop and loves to spend the money he earns on books – books like Dr. Seuss. My friend Sally has been to hell and back while raising Stevie. People would actually go up to her on the street and say things like, “My you must have done something terrible to end up with a child like that.” So far as we can tell, Sally was a good mother to both Stevie and her daughter, a faithful wife, a God-fearing Christian and loyal Episcopalian. But, that’s how some folks believe. That is certainly what the Jews of Jesus’ time believed.
          Our Old Testament reading this morning is the time honored story of Moses and the burning bush. God revealing himself to Moses and revealing to Moses who it that he is to be and what it is that he is to do. First, like all the prophets, Moses says, “But God” …in other words … “I can’t”. You see Moses had fled from the pharaoh … found himself in a new environment and God changed Moses’ life. But let’s look at the question Moses poses to God. But what shall I say when people ask who sent me? What shall I tell them when they ask your name? God replied with “I am who I am”. Or, at least that’s what our translation tells us. Actually, in those days the Hebrews did not use vowel sounds. What God said was YHWH (yeh weh). The closest to that is the word Yahweh that we see upon occasion. The Hebrews never used the name that God called himself. They substituted the word “Adonai” or Lord. And, technically speaking, YHWH is a verb. It is in third person of the verb “to be.” It translates technically as “He causes to be.” So from God’s initial meeting with Moses, this rather simplistic notion of God has become one way that people look at God. When good things happen, it is because of God. When bad things happen, it is because of God.
In Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians in this morning’s readings, he too referred folk back to the “cloud” and those crossing the desert with Moses … and those who complained and were destroyed. “God is faithful,” he tells us and will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
          Today’s Gospel begins with a gruesome report of how folks had been slaughtered as they were offering sacrifices to God and their blood was mingled with the sacrifices. And Jesus reminds them of those 18 who were killed at Siloam.
          From what we know about Pontius Pilate, he was rather an inadequate public servant. Here we see that he, perhaps feeling threatened enough, decided to sacrifice some Jews who were offering their sacrifices to God. Some thought that he might have thought of them as insurgents by their actions. The accounts of the early historian Josephus (Jo see fus)  recall that Pilate’s confrontation with the Jews do tell of such bloodletting situations. Among his travesties against the Jews, whom he was sent to govern in the outpost of Jerusalem were his seizing of Temple treasury to build an aqueduct and killing a group of Samaritans climbing Mount Gerizim.
          Jesus, in his custom, uses such a moment to teach. He responds with two parallel questions: “Are you thinking that these Galileans were worse sinners than any other men of Galilee because this happened to them?” “Are you imagining that they were worse offenders than any of the other people who lived in Jerusalem?” To which he responded in order, “I assure you that is not so.” “I assure you they were not.”
          In a way, Jesus makes us mindful of Job and his friend who continued to tell him that he must have done something terribly wrong for this to have happened to him. For it was in the Jewish tradition that bad things happen because people do bad things. It was ingrained in the manner of thinking of the time. “If God is responsible for everything that happens, and God is a just God, then calamities must be the result of human sinfulness.”
          However, that is only part of the story.
          The point is, that Jesus has used this example to point out to those who wished to listen that the need for repentance is urgent. It is not enough to simply be in Jesus presence. It is not enough to simply have been baptized … or to have participated in the Holy Eucharist on a regular schedule. These sacraments are to remind, to re-affirm one’s resolve to repent. To turn around. To seek a new direction. To change. They direct us to Jesus the Christ. They are the “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.” They are part of the disciplined life in which we are to walk.
          Luke then chooses to follow this teaching of Jesus with one of Jesus’ parables. This time it is the parable of the barren fig tree, where the gardener intercedes in behalf of the tree, pleading to give it another year. The fig tree escapes being chopped down, at least for another year.
There is but yet a shortened amount of time to repent. We do not know when. Like the foolish handmaidens who did not have enough oil to keep their lamps lit while awaiting the bridegroom. It is like the gospel when Jesus reminds us that it is the narrow door that we are to focus on entering, not the wide gate.
          For we are all called to discipline during this Lenten season. In this third Sunday of Lent, we are called to repent. We are called to live in the tension … the paradox of God’s justice and God’s mercy.
          How does this call you up short this third Sunday of Lent? How does it impact your life?
          The paradox continues with us on our journey. Which is it? God’s mercy? Or God’s judgment? Who is testing whom? How many times are we testing God by not taking the time for Lenten discipline … to walk with Jesus as he walks with us day by day by day? Who knows, outside of God, when the judgment will come? How can we take it so lightly?
          Are we like the fig tree? Is Jesus asking God for one more year for each of us? What will it take for us to come to grips with our own mortality; our own sinfulness; our own needs first and then others?
          What would you do if you were like the fig tree with only a year left? How would you make up for lost time; wrongs committed, opportunities missed.
          Each day is a gift from God. How will you use that gift during the rest of this Lenten season … through the Easter season … and for the rest of your life?
          Yes, it is good to ask questions and to try to understand God. But often we place God in a box. The box we create for God. It is more important to focus on what God wants of and for us. According to a Forward Day by Day reading, [God] is many-sided, multidimensional, powerful, frightening, loving and gentle all at the same time. He exceeds our ability to understand. It closes with this prayer, “Dear God, you are God and I am not. That is all I need to know.”
          By the way, my friend Sally will be the first to tell you that her son Stevie changed her life forever, for the better. She has become a leader in that field … and a social worker with a distinguished career. And instead of saying, “Why did this happen to me?” Sally says courageously, “Why wouldn’t this happen to me?”
          And to that I respond, “Thanks be to God for all who have found strength and new life in whatever journey the great “I am” or another person hands them. Amen”