A Comforting Thought

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | March 13, 2022

Luke 13:1-9

My dad lived in a world of justice; justice given, and justice received. It was a world in which wrongs could be put to right. He loved nothing more than a just cause. If my friends and I were ever in a scrape where someone would say, “John, get your dad!” he was in a sense the “nuclear option.” Do you really want to push that button? For dad, it was all about control. Violence and the threat of violence is one way to maintain a sense of checks and balances in the world. Justice as a way of assuring that people get what they deserve. Sometimes my dad’s justice involved people getting hurt.

The idea of justice seems right. There is plenty of injustice in the world. Our laws and systems go some way toward creating a sense of justice. Sometimes it seems too harsh and sometimes it seems people “get away with murder.”

People say, “An eye for an eye!” But the system of justice from which that statement comes was created to prevent overkill, such as a life for an eye. It was also part of a system that decreed the death penalty for such crimes as wearing two different types of fabric or eating fruit from a tree younger than three years old.

What about cosmic justice? Do we live in a world where people get their just deserts, what’s coming to them in any universal sense? In other words, does God punish the wicked and reward the righteous?

Many of the people in Jesus’ day believed in cause and effect. God punished bad people and rewarded good people. It was a way of explaining why some people suffered while other people prospered. God was either punishing you or rewarding you.

In some ways we cling to the belief that things happen for a reason. People say, “I believe everything happens for a reason,” or “God has a plan. We might not see it now, but it all comes together – everything works together for good…”

The problem is, try telling that to someone who is going through something not good. Take your pick of human pain, suffering and calamity and try telling someone that it’s all for good and they just don’t see it yet and there’s a reason for it and in the plan somewhere. No. It just doesn’t work that way.

But so much of Christian religion is that way. In the Christian circles of my childhood and youth, God was viewed as a cosmic lesson giver. This view was based on the truism: God has a wonderful plan for your life. A wonderful plan – so far so good. A plan for peace, happiness and joy; a plan for abundant life. Yes, that sounds like a good plan. Where do I sign up?

Not so fast – first things first: For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Yes, that’s true, no one is perfect. Not even little ten-year-old John Mann. You can’t have it both ways, John. You can’t come to the boy’s club and do all the fun things without there being a catch to it. You are a sinner, John.

It was last night of the boy’s club before we recessed for the summer. One of the leaders gave a talk about getting into heaven. He said you can’t buy your way in and you can’t get in just by being a good person. There was only one way: repent or perish.

After the talk I spoke with one of the leaders who asked me, If you died this very night (and it was for some reason always at night that this proverbial death might occur) where would your soul end up? Heaven or Hell? John, can you think of any reason why God should let you into heaven?

That’s a mind-bending question for a ten-year-old. Let’s see, heaven or hell? Cloud nine or the eternal lake of fire? You had better get on God’s good side while you still have the chance.

Sometimes I would attend a Sunday night service at the church. Sunday night was good because there was often a “testimony time.” People would stand up and share about what God was doing in their life. These testimonies were often inspirational stories that were unfiltered and unchallenged.

One of them went like this: A young woman in the church, probably around 16 years of age, told how she had gone to visit the parents of children who were attending the church’s Sunday school. She wanted to tell them about the love of Jesus. But somehow, she never quite sealed the deal and she left their house knowing that they had not prayed the prayer of salvation.

What happened next was that a few weeks later those parents were killed in a car accident. I knew of this because they lived just two blocks from where I lived. The teenage girl telling this tale burst into sobs, because she had the chance to save their souls, and she didn’t. She wailed, “Now their blood is on my hands!”

Imagine that being the lesson you were meant to take home from church: Their blood is on my hands!

What a God we belied in. On the one hand, if you were in the fold and safe from the eternal fires of hell, then you had to be minding your p’s and q’s or God might send some calamity into your life to “prune” you. On the other hand, if you rejected God’s offer of salvation, you ended up in eternal torment. Even worse, you could show up at the pearly gates with someone’s blood on your hands.

Not much of a choice when you think about it.

Fortunately, there is a different view, the truth we might say, and it comes straight from the source of grace, Jesus himself. The story is told of how he was presented with a situation. Some people had been killed. Did they deserve what happened to them?

We might imagine it like this: Pilate had ordered his troops to deal harshly with people who threatened to disturb the peace. No gathering in groups; no rabble rousing. But that also meant that people could not gather in groups to practice their religion.

So a group of devout Jews decided to test Pilate’s will. They gathered in the synagogue in their community and in defiance of martial law they were going to sacrifice a goat. The soldiers arrived and the congregation was ordered to disperse. They didn’t and so the soldiers started killing them.

Had they done something to displease God?

Not long after that a watchtower in Jerusalem collapsed and eighteen people were killed. People just minding their own business when calamity struck.

Had they done something to displease God?

Jesus asked the question, “What do you think?” And he answered it by saying, “No.” He encouraged people to “repent” or they would perish in the same way.

But that doesn’t sound very kind and gracious. What he was implying is that the people who died were no worse sinners than anyone, or to the people to whom he was speaking, “You are no better than they were.” To repent in that context means to turn away from believing that God hands out punishments and rewards in the form disaster or wealth.

Scapegoats are people who take the blame for the rest of society.

In the ancient Jewish religion, the scapegoat was an animal that bore the sins of the people. It might at times have been a goat or a bull, or a dove. The sins of the people would be placed on the animal and then it was sacrificed. When the animal died, the price of sin was paid. So the theory went.

But that system of belief never runs out of the need for scapegoats. Once the sins have died with the scapegoat, soon enough another one needs to be found. Someone or something has to be to blame. It’s easiest to blame the victims themselves. They must have done something to bring this on themselves.

Of course, we don’t think that way, do we?

As the story is told, Jesus went on to illustrate his thinking by telling a parable. A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard. One day he came looking for figs, but there were none to be had. He told the gardener, “That tree is useless. I’ve been looking for figs now for three years. It’s a waste of good soil. Cut it down.”

The gardener said, “Let’s not be hasty. Let me work with it and nurture it along. I’ll fertilize the soil and let’s see what happens next year. If there aren’t any figs, then you can chop it down.”

The meaning of the parable is that we see things from a finite view. We are confined in the judgements of time and space. God sees the long view and so is patient. We would blame the fig tree for not being productive. God would say, give it more time; nurture it along.

The parable also implies that no matter how many times the owner might come back and want to cut down the fig tree, the patient gardener would say, “Let’s give more time. Let’s nurture it along.”

Jesus is saying then, rather than God saying, “You did a bad thing and I’m going to punish you for it,” God is saying, “I see your ultimate potential and I am willing to be patient with you.”

Personally, I find that to be a comforting thought. Comforting, as opposed to easy answers wrapped in a neat package. Amen.

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