Lent 3: “God pours out life-giving drink”
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It’s human nature to fix blame.
As soon as something bad happens—
from the merely annoying to the cataclysmic tragedy—
we try to figure out who or what to blame.
It’s understandable we do that.
The reaction is almost involuntary.
We humans have within us a sense-making reflex, seems to me.
We want the world around us to make sense.
We want to know where things fit in the larger scheme.
Mostly, we want to know where we fit.
So if something bad happens that impacts me,
directly or indirectly,
finding where to fix blame
helps me avoid the internal distress of wondering
whether somehow I participated in it,
whether I was complicit,
whether knowingly or unknowingly,
it happened on my watch,
and I maybe could have done something to prevent it.
This natural human reaction takes different forms.
Sometimes it’s what we call “survivors’ guilt.”
We don’t understand why a loved one died and we didn’t,
so one way to deal with the guilt
is find a rational explanation
for why things unfolded the way they did.
Or it can take the form of blame-shifting.
When something bad or unfortunate happens,
there may be evidence we did play a part—
we, as in me personally,
or we, as in the group I’m part of,
my larger community, my church, my nation—
and one way to ease the burden,
is to wiggle our way out of taking responsibility,
to shift blame.
Take national wrongdoing, for instance.
We as a country do all we can not to take stock,
of the direct and indirect impact of our past policies—
heavy-handed economic practices,
or political alliances with oppressive regimes,
or other international foul play—
so when there is a major terrorist attack,
we can blame those evil radicalized individuals . . .
or when there is massive movement toward our borders
from violent countries to our south,
we can blame those running for their lives,
and call them a threat, or an invasion,
and refuse to even think about
how we may have helped create
the conditions they’re running from.
It’s far too costly for a whole nation to repent,
to turn around and change its ways,
so it’s understandable that we fix blame elsewhere.
Why do you think climate change denial is even a thing?
It’s for this reason exactly.
It’s too costly to change our ways,
so we do anything, including ignoring hard evidence,
in order not to take responsibility.
Why do you think so many people who are offended
by the words and behavior and policies of our president—
are so quick to lay blame at the feet of that one man
for all the dehumanizing and uncivil behavior in society—
for all the polarizing conflict over race and immigration
and gender and a growing white nationalism?
Are we afraid there are ways we also might have contributed?
Ways we have conveniently ignored
what has been there all along,
and not done enough to combat it with the gospel of Jesus?
Now to move from the collective to the personal,
it’s painful for someone to bear the burden of responsibility,
even a small part of it,
when something goes horribly wrong in life.
This is why personal injury attorneys will never run out of work.
They have a whole population of people
who are constantly looking for others to blame.
Let’s not just accuse the attorneys
of taking out full-page ads and highway billboards,
in order to drum up frivolous lawsuits.
No, they are just catering to our instincts.
They know we are looking for someone else to blame,
someone else to pay,
for our accidents, illness, injury, and death.
Now of course,
sometimes people who have a responsibility to help,
end up hurting us,
due to their negligence, incompetence, or even ill will.
Those persons do need to be held accountable.
That’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m just saying, not every bad thing that happens
is a direct result of someone’s negligence.
There are horrible accidents that are just that,
Blame is a hard thing to calculate and quantify.
But we want to . . . so badly.
It is this very aspect of human nature
that explains why we have, in scripture,
the texts we read this morning,
as well as many others like them.
There is a huge amount of scripture devoted to this question—
who can we blame?
Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes,
much of the law and the prophets,
the Gospels, and more, all asking,
Who can we blame?
The ancient world, out of which the Bible emerged,
had a different framework for thinking about cause and effect.
Most everyone understood . . .
events unfolding on the earth,
are closely linked to events unfolding in the heavens,
in the world of the gods.
This was true for nearly all cultures—Jewish, Christian, pagan.
Conflict between the gods,
was mirrored in the conflicts on the earth,
and often led to conflicts between the gods and humans.
So, it’s not surprising scripture sometimes reinforces this idea,
that if something bad happens to me, or my children,
or my children’s children,
it is God’s doing, as punishment for sin.
You see it throughout Old and New Testaments—
Suffering as retribution for sin.
Health and prosperity as reward for righteousness.
But it would be wrong to make a blanket statement,
and say this view is the view of scripture.
Because this is a question where the Bible argues with itself.
There is active debate going on in scripture,
about who is to blame for suffering.
And you see divergent views.
And you see these views being debated.
And you see certain views evolving, developing.
That’s the nature of the Bible,
which makes the task of interpretation
often interesting and challenging.
So with that in mind,
let’s listen in a new way to these challenging texts for today.
In Luke 13, people came to Jesus for some commentary
on a tragedy that had just occurred.
We don’t know the details,
but apparently Pilate had his soldiers enter the temple
and kill some Galilean pilgrims who had come to make sacrifices.
It was state-sponsored mass murder, in the Jews’ holy place—
violent repression at its worst.
Their “blood was mingled with their sacrifices,” Luke says.
Naturally, the people were wondering why?
Who sinned, and what was their sin?
What were these Galileans guilty of?
So they looked to Jesus to shed some light.
His comments confronted their view of the world.
“No . . . to what you’re thinking,” he said.
These Galileans were no worse sinners than
the Galileans who did not die in the massacre.
But . . . unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
And in case they didn’t catch what he said,
he brought up another example.
“What about the tower of Siloam
that fell and crushed 18 people to death?
Do you think they were worse sinners,
than those who were not crushed by the tower?
No . . . but . . . unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
And then Jesus tells a parable.
A landowner waited three years for his fig tree to bear fruit.
Three years. And nothing.
So he ordered his gardener to cut it down.
It’s useless, he said.
It’s taking up space. Wasting soil.
But the gardener—the one who looks after the tree—
says, “Please, no.”
Let me dig around it. Work some manure into the soil.
Let it be. Just one more year.
See if it bears any fruit.
Then we can cut it down if we have to.”
In light of the blame-seeking and blame-shifting world we live in,
this is a Gospel word about divine judgment and divine mercy.
I imagine the response of Jesus to these questions would be the same,
if we asked him today,
why at least 600 people, probably well over a thousand,
in poverty-stricken southeast Africa
died this past week in a cyclone and torrential flooding.
Did they sin?
Or why 50 Muslims died at the hand of a gunman in New Zealand,
or why 157 on board the Ethiopian jet died in a crash,
or why 44 people died in a chemical plant explosion in China,
or why 50 burned to death in a bus collision in Ghana on Friday,
or . . . (where should I stop, on just this weeks news?)
Were they being punished for their sins, or someone else’s?
Jesus’ answer would be the same:
“No . . . but . . .”
No, the ones who died
are victims of national tragedy,
or . . . had a tragic accident,
or . . . are repressed by violent regimes,
or . . . are suffering the effects of climate change . . .
They are no worse sinners
than those who come out unscathed.
But . . . sin does have consequences.
Sin does, in fact, result in suffering.
To use Paul’s words from Romans, “the wages of sin is death.”
It is not a question of direct cause and effect.
No one—no one—suffering grief or loss or physical illness
or any tragedy outside their control,
should ever be blamed for the fix they are in.
The truth of the matter,
is that we all share the blame.
That’s not what the people wanted to hear,
who came to Jesus with that question.
But it’s what Jesus said.
They were looking to understand the suffering.
They were looking for some blameworthy explanation.
They were looking to be exonerated.
Maybe that’s the most powerful reason
why our human nature makes us
want to figure out who’s to blame for tragic circumstances.
If we can point our fingers at an evil out there . . .
we don’t have to come to terms with the evil in here.
If they died because they were sinners and God was judging them,
then I am innocent.
I am justified.
I am on the right side.
Or . . . if they died at the hands of evil people with evil intent,
then we still don’t have to examine ourselves.
We don’t have to ask complicated and painful questions
about how we contributed to the situation we’re in.
Or to say it like Jesus did, we don’t have to repent.
Jesus challenged his questioners head-on.
They wanted to fix blame, maintain their innocence.
They wanted to build this hedge around themselves.
They wanted to believe they were in control.
Jesus said, “You all need to repent.
You need to turn around.
You need to look at things differently.
You need to live in the world differently.
I gather from this passage, as well as from lots of other texts,
that God is offended more
by people who pretend to be strong and in control of life,
than by those who really blow it, and know it.
Sin—personal and collective sin—breeds death and decay.
Things go downhill when humanity rebels against God.
Creation itself suffers from the sin of humanity.
The earth groans.
Fig trees don’t bear fruit.
Cyclones devastate the poor.
Repentance breaks the cycle.
Repentance opens the door for God to act.
Repentance is telling God we let go of our controlling ways,
and allow God to work, in us and in the world around us.
Now the kind of repentance God is calling you toward
is not mine to say.
You will need to do your own discernment,
maybe with your own community of accountability.
But the Gospel truth today is that God is patient,
willing to wait yet another year,
to cultivate, soften, fertilize the soil some more,
and wait for our response of openness and vulnerability.
When we come with open and empty hearts,
God is ready to receive them, and fill them.
Let us confess again our hunger and thirst.
—Phil Kniss, March 24, 2019
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