This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, is built around the readings for the Third Sunday in Lent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Here is a recording of the sermon at the 10:30 service
Here is a transcript of the recording
O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; *
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, *
that I might behold your power and your glory.
Please be seated.
We come here this morning with deeply troubled and questioning hearts.
And we’re here because we have heard that Jesus’s disciples are going to ask him about the people lost when the Tower of Siloam fell, and about those whose blood Pilot spilled in the temple in Jerusalem.
We’re here on this day because we ourselves have been bombarded with more bad news than we can bear. Most recently, we’ve heard of a cyclone in Africa that has left a huge inland sea in a place where people once lived. And we too have heard of blood spilled in a temple, this time in Christchurch, New Zealand.
If Jesus is going to be addressing events like these, then, we certainly need to be here!
Where else would we go?
Sudden tragedies like these, any loss at all, remind us of the fragility of our lives, of our own mortality. And they can fill us with dread and anxiety. And they raise some really uncomfortable questions.
How can a loving God allow such things to happen?
How can God allow these unspeakable injustices to persist?
Those are deeply troubling questions that we have wrestled with ever since we became aware of that presence outside of ourselves, the source and ground of our being, that is God. And it would seem that the folks gathered here around Jesus this morning have defaulted to a comfortable answer. A comfortable answer that is as old as the question itself…
“The people to whom these things happened… the people upon whom the tower fell, the people who died in the temple, somehow they must have deserved it. They must have earned what happened to them. You see… God is just and good. Don’t blame God for what happened. Those people got what was coming to them.”
That’s how the disciples arrived that morning. But Jesus is having none of that!
This whole exchange reminds me of this illustration that keeps showing up in my Facebook feed. It often has different texts, different word bubbles. But this one has a very handsome, long haired Jesus, sitting on a park with a young man, who is well dressed, and they’re in conversation. In this particular version the young man says, “You know I have always wanted to ask you why it is that you allow suffering: hunger, poverty, homelessness, disease, to persist in the world.” Jesus looks at him and says, “You know that’s really funny. I was going to ask you the same thing.”
Jesus says to the people who are gathered here this morning with him,
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you;”
that’s not how it works…
“but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
The question of Theodicy, how is it that a loving God allows suffering to persist in the world, is not a question that Jesus is interested in dealing with this morning. That may be the question that we came to ask, but he has now turned the tables, aiming that question squarely at us!
In New Zealand it took two days for the government to start talking about banning military style assault weapons. And six days later they were announcing a ban and starting a buy back program.
In this country, after the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook, a huge majority of people favored new laws, closing and the gun show loophole, and stepping up our background check programs. And our elected representatives ignored our voices, and voted those laws down!
We have elected representatives in this country who use fear to blunt our reason.
They use thinly veiled hate speech to paint others as our enemies, and then, when someone acts out against the enemies that they have devised to keep us divided, they pretend that they are surprised.
They deprive our LGBTQ brothers and sisters of their basic human rights and dignity, depicting them as less than human, and then they twist our Holy Scriptures and use them to justify their bigotry and hatred.
Right here at home, for several years, study after study, nationally published studies, tell us that Dane County, not Milwaukee, not Birmingham, not Montgomery, not Selma, but Dane County; right here where we live, is the worst place in the country to raise African American children!
We have known this for years… And we, who have promised to “Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves…” We, who have promised to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being…” we still struggle to believe those reports and to work to end
The evil we have done
The evil that enslaves us
And the Evil done on our behalf.
It’s scary. It’s convicting, to think that we allow these evils to continue because we are complacent, tired, inattentive, afraid, because we feel powerless. But you have to ask yourself what agenda is really being served here? And what is it that’s so important… What perceived slight or wrong is so egregious that we would fail to speak up; fail to stand up for those who are being injured, diminished, demonized, and oppressed?
Why haven’t we demanded the changes that are needed in order for us to live in peace and love, to live in a world defined by who it is that we claim to be? Why haven’t we made sure that the people whom we elect to lead us are moving our society towards the fulfillment of God’s dream for all of God’s children? It’s even scarier to wonder if we are perhaps allowing these evils to continue, even perpetuating them ourselves, because we somehow profit or benefit from them?
Could it be that we are allowing these evils to persist to protect our own privilege, our own power, our own wealth, status, and rank? Could it be that we are allowing them to continue because we don’t really believe in God’s abundance, and if someone else gets theirs we might not get ours? Those are scary questions to contemplate because they cut right to the very core of who we are! But those are the questions that Jesus won’t let us to duck this morning.
We come here today wanting to know, trying to make sense of the presence of suffering in the world. “How can a loving God allow such pain, injustice, and horror to exist?
And Jesus looks us straight in the eyes and asks us why we, not God, not “they,” not someone else, but we… Why are we allowing these evils to persist?
And then, as if that weren’t bad enough… Jesus tells us that if we don’t repent of these evils, we will perish just like the people in the temple whose blood was mixed with their sacrifices!
What does that mean? How can that be? Is a tower going to fall on us? Do we need to lock the doors to the church and place armed guards on the front porch?
This should sound familiar to you…
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
“German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller wrote this poem about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and the subsequent incremental purging of their chosen targets, group after group.” 1
And given all of that, and all that we’ve thought about this morning, it’s not hard to imagine that these evils persist, they will, eventually, get around to focusing their attention on us, and that we too, might perish.
But it is worse than that… It’s worse than that.
If we are perpetuating these evils, if we are allowing them to persist because we are complacent, tired, inattentive, or afraid… Or even worse, because they somehow benefit us, because they prop us up… and because we are afraid that we might lose something if they are challenged and stopped… then my brothers and sisters we are already perishing!
O God, you are our God; eagerly we seek you; *
our souls thirst for you, our flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
If we are allowing these evils to persist, we are cutting ourselves off from the very ground, source, and being of our lives…
If we find ourselves in this position we will forever have to hide behind the bushes and separate ourselves from God for fear that we will be found out. If that’s what’s happening… we are already perishing.
The good news in today’s gospel is first, and may not feel like such great news right now, Jesus isn’t letting us off the hook! He’s here this morning calling us out, making sure that we’re paying attention, asking us hard and difficult questions, so that we can grapple with the truths of our own lives the lives of the people around us.
He’s also here, and this may not sound like great news either, pilling manure on us, asking for more time, tending to us here in the vineyard, nurturing, pruning, shaping, so that we can begin to bear good fruit.
In all of this Jesus is our advocate, our companion, our teacher, and our friend. And in all of this he is giving us the opportunity to repent and to cease to perish.