I don’t mean to be a downer. Really, I don’t.
But just open the newspaper,
turn on the television,
glance at your twitter feed,
pull up your favorite news website any given week
and it probably bears some bad news for you.
It seems like the narrative is the same,
and only the locations change.
Earthquakes and Tsunamis—
all of them wrecking havoc and altering lives.
Such are the stories that make the headlines,
because that’s what sells papers, perhaps,
but if our eyes are open even a little bit
we also might become aware of the less heralded
but no less dramatic or consequential
tragedies of our day
like the roughly 20,000 people who died this past Wednesday of hunger
many of them children
roughly the same number who died on Tuesday, and Thursday
and every other day too, every day of the year
according to the United Nations.
The difficult part is so much tragedy is all too real.
Millions around the world don’t have access to safe drinking water.
Or all the shootings.
This week close to here, at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas.
In every one of these situations,
families and loved ones grieved…in every one.
And at some level,
every one of those grieving people probably asked the same question
It just doesn’t seem fair.
Why would God let such a thing happen?
What had anyone done to deserve such tragedy?
In Jesus’ day, there was no question about fairness.
The assumption just was there that disease and violence
suffering and death bore a direct correlation with human sinfulness:
the greater the sin, the more likely the misfortune.
We call this Just Deserts: you get what you deserve.
And, whether we like it or not,
if we’re honest, we still often think this way.
We might not be as bold as Pat Robertson
who has been known to say that this hurricane struck that nation
or that earthquake hit this people
because they weren’t quite good enough.
We might agree: what utter nonsense.
But even so, Calamity strikes, and we wonder what we did wrong.
We scrutinize our behavior,
We hunt for some cause to try to explain the effect
Because then maybe we can change what we are doing
and stop or prevent whatever has gone wrong.
So, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes:
What this tells us is that we are less interested in truth than consequences.
What we crave, above all, is control over the chaos of our lives.”
We look for reasons, because we long for control.
It was no different in Jesus’ time.
People longed, they LONGED, to understand and control misfortune.
So the crowds asked Jesus about some Galileans slain by Pilate.
Galileans—good and faithful people, most likely
devoted to God, following God, yearning for God
nonetheless struck down by the Roman state.
Remember, Jesus himself was from the region of Galilee
so these were his home town people asking about Jesus’ own.
Historically speaking, we don’t know anything about the murders in Galilee
other than what Luke says,
but we do know that Pilate was a ruler not kind to the Jews.
So the Galileans want answers.
“Why, Jesus, why did these murders happen? Why to these people?” they ask.
And the logic at the time
was that their misfortune must somehow be tied to their sin. To Just Deserts.
That’s how people explained the world in those days.
They weren’t good enough.
They weren’t faithful enough.
They didn’t pray enough.
How dare they. What did they do, Jesus.
Tell us! What did they do?
We’ll do something different, and we won’t suffer like they did.
But, Jesus knew otherwise.
Jesus had been teaching those gathered around him
and had just finished several stories about judgment
and about the coming kingdom
and about the need for people to repent and get on board.
And the people were thinking about the recent tragedies
they read about in the Jerusalem Times
and so they asked Jesus the logical question
what did these people do wrong.
Tell us, Jesus, so we can avoid their suffering.
Tell us, Jesus, so we can do better!
And here’s what he taught them:
Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
No, I tell you.
Well, there you go.
There is no clearer statement from Jesus in all of scripture.
“No,” said Jesus. They did not.
And to press his point, he used another example from current events.
You know those eighteen people who were killed last month
when that tower in Siloam fell on them?
Do you think they were worse sinners than anyone one else
walking by that tower before it fell down? No, I tell you.
No. They weren’t. They were just people. Walking by a tower. That fell.
This Jesus, who taught in parables without clear endings
This Jesus, so often full of unanswered questions
Jesus wanted to make THESE answers to THIS question quite clear.
No, God does not punish us by throwing tragedy upon us.
God doesn’t play it like that. God isn’t the cause of suffering. Period.
But there’s a caveat. Jesus was not done.
Jesus seems to stress that death is always close
and not necessarily controllable or explicable.
Death happens, he says.
It can happen when you’re praying
It can happen when you’re standing under a wall.
It can catch you by surprise.
And although you might INTEND to order your life as a good and faithful person
although you might INTEND to repent of your failings at the end of your life
what’s to say you’ll have the time to do so?
Were these tragic events a result of sin — No, I tell you,
Jesus said, surely not, but then he went on to say:
No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Hmm. What gives?
Maybe Jesus is up to his old tricks after all
–dodging answers, making life complicated.
No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
But I’m not sure that’s Jesus’ point.
Scholars point out that Jesus wasn’t really trying to comfort the crowd,
but that he was trying to challenge them to focus on how to live their lives
in a world where we cannot avoid suffering or tragedy or heartache.
No, Jesus says, No you don’t suffer because of sin, but…
That’s not the answer, Jesus says, but you’re not off the hook.
Repent. Repent or you will perish.
Repent, all of you, repent.
I confess to be confused sometimes about what exactly Jesus is asking us to do here.
We have this image of repentance as an urgent confessing
and rejecting of sinfulness, and it IS that,
but maybe there’s more to it, something more basic,
more in touch with our own rootedness
in this culture of fear and anxiety and worry.
Jesus was regularly calling on us to REPENT
but Jesus was also regularly calling on us to NOT FEAR
to stop this obsession with the horrors of the world
that causes us to worry MORE about THAT
-than about the beauty and opportunity all around us
-the love in our lives
-the care of our friends
-the joy of eating a well cooked meal
-the satisfaction of a beautiful sunset
-or the smile on a newborn infant
-or the warmth of an act of justice
setting people right
-or the forgiveness that leads to reconciliation.
Repent. Do not fear.
What if repentance is so much more than just a focus on our sinfulness?
What if repentance is an opening up,
a way to be set free from all this anxiety and worry
to new life in Christ?
I don’t know about you, but I really want that!
When we’re struck by the suffering of life,
sometimes all we can see is that suffering and pain and heartache.
I spent almost a decade of my life on doctoral work
driven by these questions of life’s calamities:
why do bad things happen to good people?
why did the Challenger space shuttle have to explode
(no, not the scientific answer about the O-Rings
and the cold weather
by the WHY questions. Why, God? Why?)
why did that tree limb fall on my friend’s car
why did she lose that child?
why did he get his heart broken?
why do the innocent suffer?
It can get to be so heavy, this fear.
I understand why we want to control our lives, to protect ourselves and those we love.
It took a while, but I finally learned something.
Jesus doesn’t quite answer, because there is no easy answer.
Some things we can control a little. Other things we cannot.
Suffering is a part of life in a fallen world.
The winds form hurricanes and tornados
not because God wills them to
or because existence is inherently malevolent
but because that’s what winds do.
The earth cracks,
not to punish human sin
but because of pressures in the tectonic plates.
People die of cancer,
not because they are evil,
but because they are mortal, and the human body is imperfect.
And yes, human sinfulness can be a factor in many tragedies
though it is more often the sin of the perpetrators than the victims:
Pilate kills the Galileans because he is trying to show his power.
Maybe the tower of Siloam fell because of shoddy construction
or inferior materials.
Some tragedies are random
Others could have been prevented.
Maybe one form of repentance is to see how human beings
contribute to the brokenness of the world.
The story of the fig tree reminds us that God is often more merciful
and patient than we deserve.
But even without answers to why people suffer,
the truth of our faith persists:
we can trust that God is holding us, no matter what
that we belong to God, no matter what
and that God grieves over human suffering.
We take comfort in the fact that
God understands our suffering, since God’s very self became human
and suffered along side us.
And even so, we see time and time again that
God loves us and helps inspire us
to work against suffering
and to help piece other people’s lives back together too.
I think one of the most important things that ever happened to me
happened at the first funeral I remember
when my mom took hold of my hand.
I was weeping.
I remember that. I was weeping.
And my mom reached over, and she took my hand.
And she just held it, and waited
and allowed me some time before I turned and wept in her shoulder.
And then later, after that,
I remember: I ran around on the church lawn
in my Sunday slacks and my ruffled shirt
and I laughed and laughed in the sun.
There was suffering. For sure.
But there was joy. There was possibility. There was RESURRECTION.
Matt Skinner writes,
“[Jesus] does not promise freedom from calamity,
but urges his hearers against false self-assurances.
If life’s fragility demands urgency, that urgency shows that life itself
has carved out OPPORTUNITY for us to seize God’s graciousness”.
Repentance is OPPORTUNITY.
In the urgency of tragedy, Jesus says “repent.”
But what does “repent” actually mean?
Repentance, by its basic definition, means to “turn around.”
The word in Greek literally means to turn your mind.
And so, in the early church,
before adults were baptized
they would literally turn their bodies as they made their baptismal vows.
They would renounce the ways of evil by facing toward the west
(the direction of darkness and despair, apparently)
and then they would turn east (toward the sun),
to confess their faith in Jesus Christ.
Repentance as a changed mind, as a willingness to adopt a new perspective.
Repentance is OPPORTUNITY to live in God’s world
free from FEAR and free to enjoy the GOODNESS of life
and to LOVE others when sadness falls.
A willingness to stop being afraid
and to trust that God is working to make all things new
and that we can help God do that
Lynn Japinga once wrote:
“Given that there are no answers to the problem of suffering,
perhaps that’s the best we can do.
Stop trying to answer or explain.
Sit in silence.
Care for the children.
Scrub out the mold.
Weep. Embrace. Listen.”
I have been looking this week, in this hurting world of ours,
for examples of people doing just that.
Maybe one is from the hurting community in Hesston, Kansas.
There was a poignant story in the paper this weekend
about how the predominantly Mennonite community is wrestling with
reconciling the shooting there this week
with their doctrine of pacifism and responding to violence with love:
“We’re not blind to the fact that there is a lot of violence in our world.
We’re not naive to say or expect that it will go away
just because we want it to.
But I think a lot of us are shocked that it happened here,”
said Clayton Gladish, a pastor at Hesston Mennonite Church
Michele Hershberger, who lives in town, said:
“If you live in fear,
you live in a prison of your own making
and we don’t want that in Hesston.
You create more angry people when you live in fear.
The best security we can have against armed angry men
is to disarm them with our love.”
What do you think?
Maybe Repentance is all about TRUSTING God
to take all this hurt and this fear and yes sin in our world
and to reshape it into something life giving and beautiful.
Maybe Repentance is living a life less concerned with controlling
all of the failures of my life,
and instead is more about leaning into the joys that surround us
and helping those with pain and hurt and hunger
find an end to them.
Maybe Repentance isn’t something to run away from.
It sounds quite beautiful, actually.
My prayer is that we find repentant lives
giving to God our worries, that we might see
the new Kingdom alive all around us.
May it be so.
 From her sermon Life-Giving Fear in Home by Another Away (Rowman & Littefield, 1999) p 70
 From a story found on Workingpreacher.org
 From her “Theological Perspective” essay on Luke 13:1-9 in Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, Eds. Feasting on the Gospels: A Feasting on the Word Commentary Luke, Volume 2, Chapters 12-24 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 30
 Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/news/nation-world/national/article62955872.html#storylink=cpy