Jesus slips the political trap set for him, and he breaks the simplistic link between suffering and sin.
Yes, sin brings suffering: the harm it does to others and to you. But not all suffering comes from sin.
When Job suffered his terrible set of calamities his friends came and urged him to stop claiming his innocence before God. There had to be some secret sins he was refusing to admit! Some friends, huh!?
Jesus cut the direct causal link between suffering and sin -- these Galileans were not more guilty than others -- then delivered the clincher: But unless you repent, turn around, you will all likewise perish.
Then Jesus adds a second story to the mix: "How about the eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them -- do you think they were worse debtors than all the others in Jerusalem that day? No! [and here it comes again] but unless you repent, turn your life around, you will all likewise perish."
Some of you may be saying, If I wanted this kind of sermon I would have gone to a real Baptist church -- the kind with threats of hell, altar calls and fourteen verses of "Just as I Am."
Weíd rather Jesus comment on the atrocities or make some political judgment -- if it is in line with ours, of course. Jesus, could you at least explain the problem of evil and suffering in the world and help us understand why things like September 11 happen? But he refuses to give us what we want and says, Unless you turn your life around, you will all likewise perish.
You want me to comment on Romeís evil, or the evil of our acquiescence to it. You want a philosophical answer to the problem of evil in this world. But what about your lives? The evil which can trip you up?
We have in these two stories all three types of evil theologians have categorized: 1) personal evil - - the evil individuals do; 2) natural evil - - "Why are there snakes and earthquakes, diseases and drought?"; and 3) historical evil --evil imbedded in social institutions and historical structures which may be passed from one generation to another. "The parents eat sour grapes, and the childrenís teeth are set on edge." Think of the institution of slavery.
In our two stories, Pilateís soldiers committed personal evil, but they did not act alone but on orders from Pilate; and Pilate did not act alone but on orders from Rome. Historical evil. The tower collapsed. Was it a great wind? Was God therefore responsible? Did somebody cut corners on the construction of the tower? Were there sins of omission involved?
So we have the problem of evil in all its dimensions. We want Jesus to explain the causes, make some moral judgment and bring some meaning to these catastrophic events.
We have this need for meaning, to make sense of life. When a tragedy comes we rush to assign responsibility and so escape the inner chaos of a world without meaning. I remember a true story of a small town a where a school bus crashed, killing many of the townís young children. The community was torn apart not only by the deaths, but also by the manic need to assign blame, to determine whose fault it was.
These days weíve been deluged with meaning-makers rushing in to explain or blame, from both right and left, both religious and secular.
Falwell galloped in to blame feminists, gays, abortionists and liberal judges. Our nationís sins, particularly the sins of the left, had caused God to remove the protective hedge with which God had kept us from being attacked on our own soil for almost two-hundred years. I personally think the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had more to do with it. A chorus of preachers across the country have said the events of the past month are the judgment of God on the sins of America sent, or allowed by God to wake us up and bring us to our knees in prayer.
Does not this make God a terrorist or at least a harborer of terrorists?
Secular moralists on the left have rushed in to blame Americaís foreign policy or economic policies: The cause is our Middle Eastern policies caught between our support of Israel and our hunger for Arab oil, and so on.
We need to bring moral meaning to our lives and make moral and ethical discernment. But sometimes our moral judgments are like an auto-immune disease: A system designed to protect against disease gets overaggressive and destroys the body it is designed to protect.
So here is a call for us to cool our moral jets, to hold our horses, morally speaking, and not to rush in to make sweeping moral judgments, especially where we try to bring God into the equation -- our judgments with so much self-interest built therein.
There is so much this tragedy will begin to teach us about this world where no nation is an island; about the desperate poverty of 40 per cent of our world from whose ranks terrorists get their recruits; about Islam; about the political instability in the Middle East; and about American power and wealth which set us up to be hated.
I preached a sermon on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus a few weeks back. Helmut Gollwitzer, a German theologian, wrote a book entitled: Rich Christians and Poor Lazarus. That is how much of the world, especially the Muslim world, sees us. On September 11 Lazarus stopped reading Psalm 73 trusting God to make things right, put down his Koran urging him to trust Allah, wrapped dynamite around his body, walked into the Rich Manís House and blew himself and everyone there up. There is much to learn.
I think Jesus calls us from making sweeping moral judgments which usually end up blaming people over there, across the seas or across the political aisles, and to begin to listen to one another.
But Jesus asks us to do more today. He asks us to listen to our own lives and to the Spirit of God within us. Donít waste the pain of this moment in time. Be good stewards of this tragedy.
Life has a way of bringing us to our senses, getting us in touch with our best self, and with God. Sometimes tragedy does it. Sometimes the misery level of our lives finally becomes intolerable, and we know we must change. Sometimes it is an encounter with such stunning beauty, truth or goodness that we know we can no longer live as before. Like the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who saw the ancient sculpture of the torso of Apollo and wrote down: "You must change your life."
The poet Keats wrote in a letter that this world should not be seen, as some did, as "a vale of tears" but as a "vale of Soul-making."
Jesus turns to the crowd interested in speculating upon political conditions and upon othersí lives and says, Donít draw too quick a moral judgment. They are not dead and you alive because they were worse sinners and you are more righteous. Spared by mercy, how then will you live?
Then Jesus tells a parable often used as a parable of judgment, and he turns it into a parable of mercy.
There was this fig tree. The owner had it planted and waited three years until the time for it to bear fruit. Then he went there three more years to pick its fruit, only to find that it year after year bore no fruit. Six years, not a fig. The tree was barren, the situation hopeless. You and I might have already dug it up.
The master says to the vinedresser, "Dig it out. Why should it take up a valuable place and exhaust the ground for nothing!? Dig it out."
How many of you have considered another person a hopeless case? Given up on them. "If theyíve not changed by now, they never will!" Maybe youíve said words like that about yourself.
But God is the God of lost causes, the cultivator of barren trees; the giver of second chances, and third and fourth and fifth.
So Jesus turns the parable in an unexpected way. In most stories like this one, the tree is dug up and thrown away. But in this one the vinedresser says:
"Master, forgive it, let it be this year also. Let me dig around it, spread some manure. And if it bears fruit in the future1, well and good; and if not dig it out."
I think Jesus is saying, If youíre sitting here today, it is by the mercy of God. The time you have, the life you live: It is not under the judgment of God but under the mercy. Use it. Itís time to work the soil and spread the manure. Manure works!
By grace youíve been given this day. Spared by mercy, how then will you live?
Spared by mercy, how shall we live? By mercy, the inconceivable mercy of God.
By gratefulness. How can we not? For all weíve been given, for all God has done.
By kindness, as God is kind to us. Henry James once told his nephew, "There are three things important in life: The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; the third is to be kind."
By active good works which make life better for those around you -- not as a way of earning your salvation -- thatís already yours, by grace -- but as an expression of your salvation, and of Godís saving love to all.
The book of James speaks to the wisdom of recognizing your mortality:
To know your mortality has a way of putting things in focus. In Boswellís famous biography, Samuel Johnson is quoted as saying, "Depend on it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight it concentrates the mind wonderfully" (September 17, 1777).
So make the most of your days, be they long or short. Do some justice; love mercy, donít resent it. Walk humbly with your God.
I told you Annie Lamottís story about going to see her best friend in the hospital dying of cancer. At some point Annie chatted on and said to Pammy without thinking, "Do you think I will look fat in the dress?" Her friend said, "Annie, you donít have that kind of time."
I think thatís what todayís texts and the events of this fall has to say to us to us today.
Spared by mercy, how then to live?
1. The phrase eis to mellon can be translated "in the future" as well as "next year."