March 24, 2019, Choosing Life in a Death Dealing World (Luke 13:1-9) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000126
On March 15th, we were all stunned, along with the whole world, as we began to hear news reports about a shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand. A man with a gun entered a mosque during a prayer service. First he walked into the room where the men were praying, and began shooting people, and then he went into the room where the women were praying and shot a number of people in that room. And then he drove about three miles to another mosque and shot more people there. You’ve all heard about it, I’m sure, over and over again, on the TV and radio and in the papers. Fifty people died on that day.
And along with giving the horrifying details of the events of that day, the number of dead and wounded, the arrests, the description of the weapons that were used, over and above all the facts, the big question everyone was trying to answer was “Why?” Why did a human being do such an inhuman thing? Why did he choose these particular people as his victims? Why did it happen?
In chapter 13 of Luke’s gospel some people come to Jesus with a news report of a horrifying event very similar to the shooting in Christchurch. Apparently there had been a feast in Jerusalem, where sacrifices were being offered in the Temple. People were assembled to offer prayers to God on that day. And Pilate had sent his soldiers into the Temple, and they murdered a group of men from Galilee. We don’t know exactly when this happened. We don’t know how many died. And most of all, we don’t know why Pilate had them killed, so many deaths that the blood flowed in the Temple together with the blood of the sheep and oxen that had been sacrificed. But “Why?” Why did it happen? Why did those men suffer such a terrible death? That was the question these people had for Jesus as they brought the terrible news to him.
And Jesus asked them a question, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered such a terrible death, it means they were worse sinners than your ordinary, run-of-the-mill Galilean?” And then Jesus brought up another recent disaster from the local news. “What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam collapsed on them? Do you think they were unusually wicked people, as compared to other people living in Jerusalem?”
He asked those questions, because it is a universal human reaction to assume, somewhere, deep down, that if such a terrible thing happens there must have been a reason. They must have done something wrong. We might be truly sorry for the victims. But at the same time, somewhere deep down we think someone was getting what was coming to him. Because these things don’t just happen, do they?
We certainly could see that kind of thinking in action after the shooting in New Zealand. After people had begun to recover from the shock of what happened, the media and the general public jumped into figuring out the “Why”. It was pointed out that most of the worshipers assembled on that day were fairly recent immigrants to New Zealand. It was pointed out that because of the large number of immigrants, the percentage of Muslims in the population had jumped up suddenly. It was pointed out that these mosques were peaceful – which was a subtle way of pointing out that not all Muslims are peaceful, because we all know about ISIS and Al Qaeda. And everyone knows the terrible things they have done.
No sane person would come right out and say that the men and women and children of the mosques deserved to be murdered. And our hearts sincerely grieved as we saw the pictures of the survivors, weeping, comforting one another, some of them covered in blood. But many, many good and compassionate people, I would guess, have been tempted to think that there must be a reason behind these senseless deaths, that there had to be more going on than just the slaughter of innocent victims.
Sorting out our motivations is a very murky and confusing process, and we are hard pressed to get to the bottom of our own hearts. I think the truth is that God is the only one who can do that. Fortunately, Jesus cut through all the soul-searching and all the figuring-out and all the finger-pointing. “Do you think those poor people somehow deserved the terrible things that happened to them? Of course they didn’t,” he told them. And then, as he so often does, Jesus added something very unsettling. “I’ll tell you one thing, if you don’t repent your end will be the same as theirs.”
Jesus always had a way of turning people’s questions around so that people who thought they were asking about somebody else’s problem suddenly found they were looking in a mirror. And he often did that with a story. When a lawyer asked Jesus to tell him which people he had to count as his neighbors, Jesus told him a story about being a neighbor. When a Pharisee wondered if Jesus knew that the woman sitting at his feet and weeping had a pretty bad reputation, Jesus told him a little story about love and gratitude. So, the same thing here, when these people came to tell Jesus about a terrible thing that had happened to those Galileans – asking why it happened to them – Jesus told them a story about paying attention to their own living instead of trying to pass judgment on the deaths of others.
There was a man, he said, who planted a fig tree in his garden, and he watched it grow: one year, and two years. And finally in the summer of the third year he came to see that tree, his mouth watering for those sweet, juicy figs. But that summer came and went and there still wasn’t a single fig on that tree. So the man told his gardener, “Go ahead and chop that thing down. It’s not worth the space it’s taking up in my garden.” But the gardener had been taking care of that tree, and he wasn’t ready to give up on it. “Give me another year,” he begged. “Let me loosen up the soil around its roots. Let me give it a good feeding of manure. See if it doesn’t bear fruit next year after all.”
When Jesus says we need to “repent” we tend to think he want us to be sorry for something, he wants us to feel regret or remorse. And that is what the English word “repentance” means. But the word Jesus uses is “metanoia” which doesn’t mean feeling sorry. It means having a change of mind, thinking in a new way. It is what Paul tells us to do in Romans, when he says, “Don’t be conformed, don’t let your mind be shaped, by the thinking of the world. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” So to repent, as Jesus means it, means to be transformed in our thinking and understanding. And Jesus told the story of the fig tree to help transform the way we think.
Repent first of all, Jesus was telling them, from passing judgment. Don’t be so quick to cut down that tree. The suffering of your brother or sister isn’t a punishment because he or she is more sinful than everybody else; suffering is what comes of living in a broken world. Suffering happens to everyone. Death comes to everyone, one way or another, sooner or later.
Sayyad Milne was one of the 50 people who died in the Al Noor Mosque on March 15th. He was 14 years old. He liked strawberry Nutella waffles. He loved playing soccer. He had dreams of playing professional soccer some day. There was no reason for Sayyad’s death; he didn’t deserve for his life to be cut so very short; there was no logic to it, except that he lived in a broken world where someone was so filled with hate that he did what was unreasonable, unthinkable.
God doesn’t desire anyone’s death as payback for sin. He forgives our sin. He works and watches eagerly and patiently for signs of life, just like the gardener who dug and fertilized and cared for the fig tree. John the Baptist used the same image when he preached to the crowds who came to be baptized. “Produce fruit in keeping with your repentance,” he warned them. “You came out here to turn away from your sin. Now live like you’ve turned away.”
After the shooting in Christchurch, the members of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh raised thousands of dollars to aid the families and friends of the victims of the shooting in New Zealand. They understood the suffering of those people, because a few months ago they were victims of a shooting themselves, an act of hatred that took the lives of eleven of their members. And so they did what they could to give life where there had been so much death already. After the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, members of the Islamic Cultural Center of Quebec City had traveled to Pittsburgh to offer support and sympathy. They understood the suffering of the people in Pittsburgh, because in January 2017, a gunman had broken in and killed six of their members. None of those people were Christians. They were Jews and Muslims, people with a centuries-old tradition of animosity and violence. But they chose life over death. They chose compassion over judgment. They lived out the good and perfect will of God. They bore good fruit.
Hatred and fear and judgment deal out death. But life produces more life. That’s what fruit is all about. The fruit of a plant is that part of the plant that bears the seed from which more life can grow. It’s really easy to become overwhelmed by hearing about all these deaths – so much suffering, so much hatred, so much loss. We can become bitter. We can become afraid. We can keep asking “Why?” We can look around for someone to pin the blame on. Or we can repent, Jesus-style – we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Instead of judging one another, we can look at each other with compassion. Instead of giving up on life, we can be givers of life, God’s fruitful people: not in our own strength, but as we are cultivated and nurtured by the Master Gardener, who said, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”