March 20 2022 Luke 13:1-9

What to Do With Human Failing with most employment, pastoral ministry has occupational hazards. I don’t want to overstate the case. Ministry is not potentially as lethal as it is for police, firefighters, or combat infantry. By comparison, ministry’s hazards are irritations, mere inconveniences.

For instance, simply being a minister is an obstacle to making new friends. Being a minister changes the dynamic of turning strangers into friends.      Then there are those possible member’s family that you may randomly meet or even strangers (who notice you if you are wearing your collar) who often want to wax eloquently about their personally constructed, yet incredibly faulty theological conclusions. “Well, I never go to church, but I believe Christianity requires only that you be a nice person, not steal anything of great value, and never intentionally kill anyone. That pretty well says it all. Don’t you agree, Reverend?”

The temptation is to answer, “Yes, that certainly summarizes Christianity as well as ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’ summarizes astrophysics.” That, I have learned by experience, is best left unsaid. Theologically uninformed people consider themselves entitled to pontificate on their religious views. It matters not how simplistic, erroneous, or even silly those views may be. Ministers spend years doing in-depth Bible study, learning the history and teachings of the church, and honing the skills needed for constructive theology and critical thinking. Yet attempting to negotiate a meaningful conversation with the theologically uninformed or misinformed is generally a waste of time.

I have learned the best way to deal with this occupational hazard is to apply what we in the trade call an S&N — Smile and Nod knowingly. Then instead of responding, “That is the dumbest comment I have ever heard,” try to look interested and say, “I don’t think I have ever heard it said quite that way before.”

I mention this simply as background for today’s gospel lesson. Jesus was embroiled in a difficult conversation on a very complex issue. The subject was causality. Why do certain things happen? It can and often is argued that there is a reason for everything. If that is true, how does one discern the reason? What is the cause/effect relationship? Was that just an accident, a serendipitous confluence of human behavior with the laws of nature or did God cause it to happen? And if God caused it, why did God do that?

Without providing a comprehensive understanding, today’s gospel lesson touches on a tiny slice of causality. The topic is introduced in Luke 12:54-56. To paraphrase, Jesus said to the crowd, “Everyone knows the causes of weather. When dark clouds come from the Mediterranean Sea in the west, you know rain will likely follow. Dark clouds cause rain. When a strong breeze blows from the south, you know it is going to be hot that day. Wind from the south causes a scorching day. You know about weather. Why don’t you understand what causes things to happen to people?”

In my humble opinion, the best answer to Jesus’ question is that “we know how the weather works because it is easy to understand weather. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in meteorology to figure out that when dark clouds appear, rain is likely. That is very different from discerning why the righteous suffer, why the wicked prosper, why bad things happen to good people, or why good people do bad things.”

Without acknowledging the complex and mysterious nature of human causalities, in the first verses of Luke 13, people in Jesus’ audience try their hand at naming the cause of a recent event. As best we can piece the incident together, a group of Galileans had been on a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem. At the great temple, these folks participated in the regular ritual animal sacrifices. The Roman governor dispatched a squad of soldiers to slaughter the pilgrims. As Luke’s gospel puts it, “At that time there were some present (in the crowd) who told him (Jesus) about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices”.

That event, of course, would have made front page headlines in the Galilean Daily News: “Pontius Pilate Slaughters Ten Galileans.” Everybody in town would have been talking about it. People would have wanted to know how and why it happened. It is logical to conclude that the chatter would have been rampant. Luke does not say specifically, but apparently one of the theories floating around Galilee was that the victims were responsible for their own deaths: “They must have all been evil people. God used the Romans to punish them for their sins.”   When Jesus heard this gossipy explanation he said to the crowd,

Do you (really) think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.
(vv. 1-5)

Obviously, Jesus was not impressed by the argument that the best way to identify sinners was to see who got killed by a falling tower or by Pontius Pilate. (To paraphrase) “No, I tell you,” Jesus said, “there is no cause/effect relationship between being one of the worst sinners in Galilee and having your blood mingled with the blood of sacrificed animals, and you cannot explain the deaths of eighteen killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed by concluding those folks were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem. God does not work that way and there is no law of the natural world that holds bad folks can always be identified by the terrible things that happen to them. It just does not work that way.”

No, I tell you, it doesn’t work that way. It was wrong to conclude that a tower falling in Siloam had something to do with God’s punishment for sinfulness. It is equality wrong to conclude that a falling tower in lower Manhattan had something to do with God’s punishment for sinfulness. God does not work that way.

To say that, of course, begs the question, “If not by dropping a tower on them, how does God deal with sinful people?” That issue is important for every one of us. After all, we are all included in the category of sinful people. As Paul put it, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22b-23). The inquiring mind should want to know how God deals with our having sinned and have fallen short of God’s glory.

Jesus anticipated that turn in the conversation so he told the parable of the barren fig tree:  A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:6-9)

Notice what is happening in this story. A backyard fig tree has yet to produce figs. The owner suggests giving up and cutting the tree down. The gardener suggests another way. Give it more time and a little tender loving care. Loosen the soil and apply some fertilizer. Give it another year. If it still doesn’t produce figs, the option of cutting it down will still be available.

Rather than offering a benign smile and nod and moving to the next question, Jesus turned the focus, content, and tone of this conversation upside down and inside out. This ceased being a chat about whether or not total strangers had been killed as punishment for their sinfulness. Now it was a conversation about how God dealt with all sinners — including and, perhaps especially, the sinners in his audience.

What Jesus said is that rather than dropping towers on those who have failed to live up to God’s standards, we are given another chance. In response to our miserable failings, God offers radical grace. We experience the grace as a loosening of the hard-packed soil around our hearts. God deals with us sinners, not by dropping a tower on us, but by giving us a big dose of unconditional love. This is radical grace as another chance, a new opportunity. The Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr put it so well: “Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change... is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change.”

The tone of this conversation is now different. No longer does it feel as though dark stormy clouds of judgment are gathering. No longer is there a hot wind of hades blowing. Now there seems to be a cool gentle breeze and a bright blue sky. That is the difference Jesus makes. The true gospel is always fresh air and breathing room.  And for that radical grace of another chance, we give thanks. Amen