Repent… of Your Bad Theology!
Wisdom’s Table UCC – Lent III 2016 – Preached by Rev. Lance F. Mullins on February 28, 2016
Isa. 55:1-9; 1 Cor. 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
In today’s Gospel reading, we find ourselves faced with a question so pressing that it simply cannot wait. It pushes its way into the Gospel, pushes into our gathering, and demands to be dealt with now. We don’t know whose question it is, exactly, because whoever raises it remains unidentified in the story. It’s just “some who are present,” we’re told, anonymous members of the crowd gathered around the Teacher. We aren’t told their names or how many of them there are. But we do know that their question is pressing. It must be pressing them to the point of utter distraction, in fact, because they interrupt Jesus mid-lecture in order to pose it. Their question is about suffering, specifically suffering that is extreme and sudden. The fact that it exists – that’s their issue. How do we make sense of it? That’s the question. And they want Jesus to suspend his lesson plan and answer it, right now.
They even come armed with a case study. They report to Jesus the recent murder of some Galileans – people from Jesus’ hometown who had come to Jerusalem to make their sacrifices in the Temple. And just as they were doing so, they were without warning slaughtered, right then and there. And who gave the order? None other than Pontius Pilate. Yes that Pontius Pilate, the agent of the Empire who will soon be overseeing the crucifixion of Jesus himself. Pilate had a reputation for violence. He used it to remind the Jews he governed just who was in charge, as if anyone could forget. And surely no one could forget this tragic scene. It’s straight out of a Quinten Tarantino movie: the Galileans lying in a mutilated heap, their own blood running together with the blood of the animals they were sacrificing. The suffering was sudden, it was extreme, and it was seemingly unjustified. Surely such tragedies shouldn’t happen in a world that is created and governed by a good and loving God. Yet they do. All the time. And that’s the issue. So, tell us, Jesus. What’s the deal? We need to know, right now!
It is pressing, this question about suffering. And not just for those who confront Jesus with it in this story. No, the question is a perpetually pressing one. Throughout the ages, it’s been probed by philosophers and poets and pastors and physicians. It’s been pondered in bars and beauty shops and chat-rooms and seminary classrooms. I’ve run into more than a few people who have given up their faith because they can’t reconcile the existence of extreme suffering with their belief in a good and loving God. “How could God allow the Holocaust… the hurricanes… the heinous acts of incest and abuse and untimely deaths? How could God allow the towers to fall, the tides to surge, Syrian babies to wash up on the beaches, black boys to fall dead in the streets? How could God allow…?” Yes, this is the kind of question that keeps people awake at night. So, tell us, Jesus. What’s the deal?
Well, Jesus knows the conventional wisdom on the subject. He knows what people often do in response to tragedy. They blame the victim. “You think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans,” Jesus says. You think they got what they deserved.
Blaming the victim – it’s a classic answer to our pressing question. And, you know, it works in theory. A good and loving God wouldn’t allow innocent people to suffer random tragedy, we figure. So, the sufferers must not have been innocent! That’s it! The whole thing was their fault. It was a consequence of their failing, a punishment for their sin. Those unsuspecting Galileans must have gotten what was coming to them, and God was just doing his duty as a just God by orchestrating the proper punishment. Jesus knows this is the conventional wisdom of his day.
And God knows it’s still the conventional wisdom of ours. Oh, it might not be quite as en vogue to overtly blame the victim today. I mean, we came of age with Oprah, so we know it’s a bad thing to do! But, come on. It still happens. A lot. We’ve all heard the Pat Robertson reactions to tragedy. The AIDS epidemic, Nine/Eleven, Hurricane Katrina, fill-in-the-blank: nearly every major tragedy in my lifetime has been publicly declared by some prominent Christian to be God’s punishment on some group of offenders. It’s usually gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who get blamed. Or America, because we were once again promoting the “homosexual agenda,” (whatever that is!) But it’s not just queer folks who get blamed. After the Sandy Hook tragedy, Mike Huckabee agreed with the idea that the shooting was God’s punishment for taking prayer out of public schools. And the former head of the Southern Baptist Convention recently said that all the woes America has suffered during President Obama’s term have been God’s punishment for allowing legal abortions to take place. Yeah, we know full-well that such theologies of blame are far from extinct.
And there are subtler forms, too. From the president of Lincoln University saying that rape victims are responsible for their assault because they got themselves into unsafe situations to Geraldo Rivera saying Trayvon Martin got himself killed because he was wearing a hoodie and “dressed like a thug.” The point is always the same: those who suffer in this world do so as a consequence for their own misbehavior. And for many religious types, it’s often God who is orchestrating the punishment.
But as troubling as that may sound to most of us, it’s not like people just pull this stuff out of the air. In fact, there are biblical testimonies, like today’s reading from First Corinthians, which seem to agree with them. In it, the Apostle Paul says that God was not pleased with the Israelites, so he struck them down in the wilderness. When the men of Israel displeased God by having sex with the foreign women of Moab – zing! – God sent a plague that wiped out over twenty thousand in a single day. And when the people complained about God at Meribah – zing! – God sicced an army of poisonous snakes on ‘em. Bad deeds result in God’s punishment, so be sure to stay on the right path, Paul says, or else the next tragic headline could include your name. For Paul, the conventional wisdom about suffering seems to hold.
No, today’s Fundamentalists didn’t invent “blame the victim” theology. There are traces of it in our scripture. Perhaps there are traces of it in our own hearts, too. Some of us heard this theology preached growing up, we’ve had it used against us by authorities, we see traces of it in parts of the Bible, and we are confronted with its tidy logic, so there is a part of us that wonders: could it be true? Could it be that God is a cosmic policeman, watching for us to misstep, so that he can inflict suffering upon us for our evil deeds? Does “blame the victim” theology hold?
Well, here is how Jesus responds to that question: “No!”
No! Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you! Do you think those eighteen who died with the tower of Siloam fell were worse offenders than anyone else? No, I tell you! Unlike Paul, Jesus unequivocally challenges the conventional wisdom, saying that we cannot make the simple cause-and-effect connection between suffering and sin. God doesn’t work like that, says Jesus. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the Lord.
Yes, Jesus responds to our pressing question about suffering with a clear and unequivocal answer. Do you think that the victims in this world get what they deserve? Do you think suffering is God’s punishment for sin? “No, I tell you!”
Good news! But then Jesus goes on to tell us that we are asking the wrong question in the first place. Behind your question about suffering is a question about accountability, Jesus tell us. Whose fault is it? Who’s to blame – the victim, the system, God? But that’s the wrong question entirely, he says. The question you should be asking is not “Who’s to blame for suffering?” It is instead, “How should I respond to suffering?”
And he makes this point with one simple word: “Repent!” (That word always manages to get our attention, right?) But by “repent” he doesn’t mean live a life of personal piety and self-denial and all that other stuff often associated with good Christian values. No, when Jesus talks about repentance in this Gospel of Luke, he is always, always calling us to turn from our fearful, selfish ways to embrace his way of lavish mercy.
Turn away from your fixation on blame, he’s saying, and turn toward my way of compassion. Repent of your bad theology that blames victims and demonizes enemies and scapegoats the marginalized. Repent of your question about others’ accountability and turn instead turn toward the question about your responsibility. It’s not “Who’s to blame for suffering?” It is, “How can I respond to suffering?” That’s the right question.
Here and throughout the whole Gospel, Jesus calls us to turn from our fearful, closed-hearted preoccupation with accountability and turn with mercy toward our suffering neighbors – especially our neighbors we may be quick to blame as having brought their suffering on themselves. When tragedy strikes, don’t fretfully look for someone to blame or fearfully despair that God is out to get us. Instead, wake up, Jesus says. Remember that you are here to be a radiant witness to God’s mercy, and remember that you have only a limited amount of time to do that.
You may have noticed that Jesus never actually explains why extreme suffering exists. He tells us clearly that sudden tragedy is not God’s punishment for sin, but he doesn’t leave us with a tidy formula to explain why such suffering does exist. He leaves us not with a clear answer, but with a call to action:
Bear witness to God’s mercy while you still can, the Teacher says. Every moment,
every day be an agent of God’s mercy while there’s still time for you to do so. Repent! Or you too will perish. One day tragedy will strike you, and then it will be too late for you to live out your merciful calling.
It’s a high-stakes call to action. And we could hear it as a threat: “Respond to the world’s suffering with mercy, or else.” Maybe Jesus knows that it sometimes takes a threat for us to turn from our selfish ways toward his way of lavish mercy. And he knows how much the world desperately needs our lavish mercy.
It’s a high-stakes call to action. But with it, Jesus also leaves us this little parable. It’s a parable meant to inspire our action. But it’s also, I think, meant to inspire our trust. It’s meant to show us a glimpse of the merciful God on whose behalf we’re summoned to act.
It’s the story of a fig tree that for three years did not bear a single freakin’ fruit. It’s an utter waste of space. The owner planted it there in order to produce fruit, after all, and conventional wisdom would suggest that it’s already exceeded its grace period. By any reasonable formula, the owner has every right to chop it down and throw it out. But God apparently doesn’t operate according to such formula. No, this fruitless tree gets yet another year. Still another year to bear good fruit! It’s not too late yet, says Jesus. With the God of lavish mercy, it’s not too late for any of us to bear merciful fruit for this suffering world. It’s not too late yet.
“The Radiance of Love”
A Sermon on Luke 9:28-36
preached by the Rev. Dr. Anabel Proffitt Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016
Not long ago I was reading a copy of The Christian Century and I came across an article by Adam Thomas, in which he recounts a fifth grade science project he created, using a prism in a shoebox with a slit on it. He ruefully admits that his project couldn’t compete with the “fury of the baking soda and vinegar reactions that were erupting from the [nearby] paper maché volcanoes”[i] at the science fair. But even back then, he did celebrate his learning about how light and color work.
“We see because light breaks open when it shines on objects. Light reflects and refracts and absorbs in ways that allow us to discern shapes and movement.” [ii] After reading Thomas’ article, I was so interested that I decided to google the subject, “how we perceive light” and was directed to a web site called HowsStuffWorks.com.
There I discovered that when light enters the eye, it reaches the retina, “which is the light-sensing structure of the eye. The retina contains two types of cells, called rods and cones. Rods handle vision in low light, and cones handle color vision and detail. When light contacts these two types of cells, a series of complex chemical reactions occurs. The chemical that is formed then creates electrical impulses in the optic nerve,”[iii] which travel to the brain and give us what we call “sight.” The complexity of how light interacts with our anatomy to give us sight is truly amazing!
Back to Adam Thomas: who grew up from a fifth-grader to become a curate at an Episcopal Church in Martinsburg, West Virginia. He suggests that “God created light first because without light the rest of creation would have no definition and vibrancy. We humans see only a tiny fraction of all the light that God made, yet we insist on the presumptuous notion that only what we see exists—that only a 300-nanometer piece of the spectrum is real.”[iv]
Perhaps when Jesus went up the mountain with Peter, James and John, something beyond the normal human perception of the spectrum of light occurred. What if at the moment of the transfiguration, it’s not that Jesus changed his form or shape or hue, but that his disciples’ perception of his appearance is changed? The disciples are given the gift of seeing Jesus as God sees him—a glorious being of dazzling light. “Instead of reflecting the blues and reds and yellows of the [normally] visible spectrum, Jesus reflects God and shows himself to be luminous.”[v]
On that mountain, for just a moment, the disciples are able “to see beneath Jesus’ ordinary humanity and find shining there the very presence, the very holiness, the very glory of God. It is revelation. It is mystery, which can be neither explained nor debunked. Like true love, it is a reality too deep to measure.”[vi]
Our Old Testament lesson this morning described a similar encounter centuries before on another mountain. In Exodus, Moses came down from Sinai after talking with God and had no idea that his skin was shining. All the Israelites were afraid to come near him because of his dazzling appearance. And we know, from another part of this story, that Moses—tucked safely away in the cleft of the rock—only saw God’s back. (Exodus 33:23).
Adam Thomas’ take on this is that “Moses isn’t shining because he saw God on the mountain. Moses is shining because God saw him.”[vii]
He puts it this way: “Moses and Jesus show us that God sees us, not through the limited visual spectrum, but through the shimmering expanse of the glorious spectrum. We may be visible to one another simply because we reflect and absorb various quantities of light, but God made us to do much more; God made us to shine.”[viii] And that is how God sees us, even if we cannot see ourselves that way.
We can’t see ourselves that way because, “over the years our luminosity tends to fade.
Every inhospitable word spoken, every neighbor mistreated, and every resource hoarded layers grime over our radiance. Every hand unextended, every gift squandered and every road not taken leaves layers of apathetic dust.” Too often the world tells us that the radiant things out there are things we purchase: ‘When you wear the shiny stone or drive the shiny car, you will shine.’ When you get the promotion or ace the exam, you will shine. Too often we give over our light to the glossy accumulation of the stuff of the world and “forget that we are the ones God made to shine.”[ix] And sometimes our light is hidden under an accumulation of shame or unworthiness that prevents us from realizing our own brilliance. Yes, we “forget that we are the ones God made to shine.”
The good news is that God hasn’t forgotten. “God sees us shining despite the grime. God knows that we have buried our radiance beneath layers of stuff. God offers us the gift of transfigured eyes, in order that we might see as God sees. When we see ourselves struggling to shine, we can start scraping off the grime. With God’s help, by grace, we can become radiant again.”[x]
What if we were to engage in the spiritual discipline of seeking to see the radiance in others beneath the dusty surface of our fallen humanity? What if we were to pray, daily, for transfigured eyes to see the God-createdness in each person, to look for that which God loves in each and every person we meet?
One message we can take away from this text on the transfiguration, with its reference to Moses’ shining face, is that God created us to shine just as Moses and Elijah and Jesus shone. We have all experienced those among us whose radiance bursts from them because nothing seems to cover it up. Call them saints or luminaries. They seem to exist somewhere between the humanly visible and God-glorious spectrum. They reflect God’s light better than most, and they see God’s light in others with the strength of transfigured eyes.
I am not just talking about the Mother Theresa’s or the Gandhi’s of this world, but I am thinking of a story I read this week that reminded me of the way that God gives us glimpses of transfiguring radiance in ordinary human experiences.
It is a story told by a surgeon about a young couple, after the doctor had to perform a disfiguring surgery on the wife’s face so that she could live. As a result of the surgery, the young woman would never be able to smile on one side of her face again. The surgeon felt very bad about this, and watched with a heavy heart as the husband went into his wife’s room and saw her for the first time, a line drawing her mouth down on one side. “I think it’s kind of cute,” he said, “your crooked little smile.” The doctor said that he had to look away from these two young people, as if the light were too bright for him to bear.[xi]
And it isn’t just in this young couple’s story that transfiguration occurs—I experience it through the saints of this church—men and women whose love shines through their words and deeds, who build us up through their loving gestures. I encounter them here at our church—in our Study groups, at the women’s meetings, in conversations in the lobby and at Wisdom’s Roundtable in the fellowship hall after services—in encouraging words, in hugs, in profound questions and testimonies that say, “God loves us and I love you too.”
I come to church because, in interactions with folks like you, I catch a glimpse of myself as God sees me—a luminous being in need of a continuous scrubbing so that my radiance, too, might shine forth to touch others.
Friends, “the Biblical witness over and over again is that there is a hidden holiness which exists ‘in, with and under’ ordinary things and ordinary people. Water, wine, bread–it is these ordinary things that God has chosen to make holy for us.
A group of ordinary people gathered to sing and pray, to speak and listen, to eat and drink–an ordinary Sunday morning gathering of ordinary human beings, in the grace of God, becomes the very body of Christ, the incarnate One, in all its mystery and holiness…
If we pay attention, we might come to see that our communities are holy. We might come to know that our world is holy, that God permeates every inch of it. We might come to know that we are holy, that God dwells not in a tabernacle but in us.”[xii]
That could be for us a central task of this Lent: to learn to pay attention. To pray that the Holy Spirit “might open our eyes to the luminous holiness that lies behind the ordinary around us and in us, to invite the Spirit to show us, as it did Peter and James and John, who Jesus really is and what he means to us.” [xiii]
[i] Adam Thomas, “Living the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary,” Christian Century, Vol 27, no. 3 (February 9, 2010), p. 18.
[iv] Thomas, p. 18
[vi] Bishop Julian Gordy “Ordinary Holiness,” (http://day1.org/1713-ordinary_holiness)
[vii] Thomas, p. 18
[xi] Kate M. Matthews, “Astounding Glory/Wholly Holy” (http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_february_7_2016)
[xii] Gordy, “Ordinary Holiness”