Sermon of the Week
The Wrong Answer: Scapegoats
Keywords: Electric Eel, Dolphin Splash, Customer Service, Repentance, Grace, Fig Tree in the Vineyard, Scapegoats.
Just a week or so ago, our family was in San Diego on a spring break vacation.
We had a delightful time:
The zoo is just glorious.
Some of you who golf asked me about Torrey Pines,
which we went to,
but not to check out the links.
We hiked some of the trails at the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve,
sat on the beach and threw some stones into the Pacific.
We went to Sea World, because it is the best amusement park in San Diego.
To be fair, it is the ONLY amusement park in San Diego,
But it was nice enough:
We saw the Orka whale and the dolphin shows.
We avoided the “splash zone” seats
Because apparently when they say “splash zone,”
they mean it. And much of the show, apparently, is designed
to give the trainers joy as they instruct the dolphins to flip upside down
and use their tail fins to absolutely drench the audience.
We did other things, too.
Took in the penguins.
Rode the roller coasters.
They have this newer roller coaster called the Electric Eel.
You’re only on it for 45 seconds, but they’re a rather hectic 45 seconds.
The ride pushes you forward maybe 30 feet,
then pulls you backward through the loading platform and behind it maybe 30 feet,
then launches you at 60 miles an hour through the course
which goes way up 150 feet into the air, with a couple of inversions that go so slow
that I worried just a little bit about staying in my harness.
The kids loved it. We rode it twice.
I think it was that inversion that they particularly liked,
the corkscrew track that turns the car we were riding upside down,
before going into a drop and spin and,
just a few seconds later, the end of the ride.
These rides remind me that I’m not as young as I used to be.
But I’ve felt that way before, even when I was quite a bit younger,
mainly on the spinning rides that my kids have always loved.
There’s a merry-go-round at Oak Park Mall,
I think it is still there, though we’ve not been for ages.
We used to go and wait in line just to ride the spinners
which were these little cars that feel
like you were sitting in a round booth at a restaurant
with a small round disk in the middle where the table would be,
and when the merry-go-round started
you’d grab the round disk and start pulling on it,
and the little booth you were in started spinning
faster and faster and faster and faster
and soon our kids were laughing and giggling and having the greatest time
and I kept mummering under my breath “I can do this. I can do this.
Oh, Lord. I’m not as young as I used to be.”
Those things inspire a lot of prayer, I’m sure of it.
Maybe some of you can relate.
The disorientation from the spinning can be a cause of thrill and excitement,
to be sure,
but we need things more calm, more measured, in our daily lives.
We’re not built to withstand all that for too long.
I noticed lately that I’m feeling that unease of the world spinning
at other times, and other places.
I don’t need to be on a ride to feel it.
Maybe you can relate to that as well.
This week I had experienced a version of that sort of thing
That has stuck with me.
I was at the library, working at a table,
trying to do some reading and research for this sermon, actually.
I was in a common room, with tables along the walls
and some computer stations in the middle.
But it’s a library. You expect it to be fairly tranquil, and quiet.
It was neither busy nor empty. Just a bunch of people doing their thing.
They lady on the table in front of me was doing the crossword.
A few students were working on what I think was organic chemistry a few seats over.
Well, someone at one of the computers started talking,
loud enough to be disruptive, actually,
certainly loud enough for the dozen or so of us in the room
to be part of her conversation.
It was not a public conversation.
She was calling the support department for her medical insurance company,
and she had been trying to fill out a survey on their website for a half an hour.
So she said. Many times.
The survey was for someone in her family.
I had my headphones on, trying really hard to tune her out
so I missed that detail, even as I heard almost everything else.
It was that sort of conversation.
The website for the medical survey wasn’t working for her, apparently.
But it was important for her family member’s care,
and so she was trying to get some help.
Man was she angry.
How can I help you?
I don’t need help. You need help, with your stupid website that doesn’t work.
Sorry you’re having a problem. What can I do to fix it?
She said she’d been on hold forever.
Forwarded to five or six different numbers.
No one able to help. She was clearly frustrated.
She said so, and, to be honest, she was rude about it.
Now, I’ve been upset and on hold and tossed from agent to agent before
And I may have lost my temper.
I’m not trying to portray myself as a saint when describing all of this.
God forgive me if I was like this, though.
She was more than upset.
She was degrading. Insulting.
Made snide remarks about the helper’s intelligence and abilities and intentions.
It was hard to listen to, if I’m honest.
It was as if someone was putting into actual spoken words
the comment section of a controversial facebook post.
That went on for a while, until she found the right person,
and started doing the survey over the phone, which we all heard, too:
S-M-I-T-H. The last name is smith, she would say.
Never, no never.
The answer is zero.
Three or four times a week.
We listened to her do this for maybe 3 or 4 minutes.
Then here’s the amazing thing:
She finished the survey. It was done.
And it was as if it had never happened.
She said her goodbyes
and, somehow, she was right as rain.
Ok. I’m so glad to have all that done. is what she said:
So, where are you all located? Arizona?
Is that right?
Well, I think You and I should go out on a date,
Now that you know everything about me….
What kind of disorientation is that
to go from spewing invective one second
to acting like you’re best friends the next?
It left my stomach churning a bit,
Just like the Electric Eel at Sea World.
If you’re the sort who adds various groups of people to your daily prayers
from time to time,
say one tonight for the millions of people who work in customer service.
I have been sitting with this all week
thinking about what it must be like adopting such a confrontational posture,
looking for who to blame, seeking out the weak link, the scapegoat.
Just FUMING when things aren’t going right.
I have some empathy for it, actually
because I know that some people turn to this
when they’re particularly disoriented and vulnerable and hurting themselves.
We human beings are meaning making creatures,
and when things fall apart, and the center doesn’t hold,
our best natures don’t often shine through,
and we can find ourselves looking for someone who is at fault
who we can point the finger at and say:
Those people. If we only held them to account,
everything would be fixed…
Any look at the headlines,
any review of our common life these past several years
will highlight how powerful this emotion is, in our day and age,
whether its people in customer support, or our political opponents,
or, hey, “build that wall and crime will fall,”
to quote a bumper sticker I saw the other day.
This is a powerful human impulse,
one that is on full display today,
but one that isn’t new to this particular era.
Our reading from Luke this morning comes at a particularly important time
in Jesus’s ministry.
He’s turned his sights on Jerusalem, as Landon pointed out last week,
and he’s moving that way with focus.
And along the way, he continues to heal and to teach and to engage
people from all sorts of life,
and particularly those who are hurting and searching and yearning
people whose center has not held.
Jesus has empathy for them,
but is challenging them, calling them to repent.
That word REPENT is a challenge to our modern ears, I think.
It reminds us of the evangelist on the street corner,
shouting into a bullhorn.
Sometimes I tire of how key words in our tradition have been taken over.
The word repent means to have a change of mind
a shift of heart that re-orients onto God,
a new and lasting focus to what we’re doing.
In today’s reading,
the people are bringing their unease-with-everything to Jesus,
and they’re searching for answers.
Why do bad things happen?
Why did Herod brutally attack our friends in Galilee?
Is it because they deserved it, Jesus?
The natural disaster that brought down the tower in Siloam,
What happened? Who is at fault?
One popular answer was that the fault lies with the victims.
They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
They were doing something they shouldn’t have.
Follow the rules and you won’t get hurt.
Don’t rock the boat and you won’t get wet.
Sit in the wrong section of sea world and, well,
expect dolphin juice to soak your shirt.
On a deeper level, this is how some people thought God was acting,
pulling the strings behind calamity and heartache.
Why else would hardship fall on them?
They probably got on God’s bad side….
But Jesus began his sermon that morning by reminding his followers
that death and vulnerability are an inevitable part of life,
rather than some sort of punishment for sin.
“Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them —
do you think that they were worse offenders
than all the others living in Jerusalem?
“No,” Jesus said. “That’s not how it works. That’s not who God is…”
Vulnerability is not an easy reality to accept.
We would prefer to think that we can protect ourselves from ill fortune by being good.
Yet we know that even the most wise and decent people
can suffer from chance or injustice.
We can therefore never assume that our goodness protects us from misfortune,
or, worse yet, that someone else’s badness condemns them to misfortune.
We cannot point to our own good luck as proof that God applauds us.
We cannot point to someone else’s bad luck
as proof that they are somehow a worse sinner than the rest of us,
or that they must have done something to deserve
whatever crisis they are struggling with.
Jesus then reminded his audience to worry about their OWN sins,
not other people’s.
“Unless you repent,” he said, “you will all perish just as they did.”
Jesus then told this strange little parable:
“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?’
The gardener 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.’”
We are not as fruitful as we should be.
Sometimes we’re impatient. Irrational. Accusatory.
Yet God in Christ nurtures us, granting us
second, third, fourth, and fifth chances, endless possibilities to bear fruit.
What a strange God we have.
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard,” says the parable.
What on earth is a fig tree doing in the middle of a vineyard?
The master in our parable must make his living growing grapes, not figs,
or else we’d be dealing with an orchard of fig trees
rather than a single fig tree in the middle of a bunch of grapes.
According to Episcopalian scholar Robert Farrar Capon,
“the master has planted the fig tree
more out of personal delight
than out of entrepreneurial practicality.…
Jesus seems to be saying that the world is more
God’s hobby than [God’s] business,
that it exists more for pleasure than for profit.
God’s attitude toward the world, therefore,
involves favor from the start;
grace is not something God drags in later on just to patch up messes.
Unnecessary, spontaneous delight is the very root
of [God’s] relationship with the world.”[i]
According to Capon:
Grace, delight, love is the very root of God’s relationship with the world.
What role is that fig tree playing there, in that vineyard?
Nothing. Not a darn thing.
Keep this image in mind.
The fig tree is not doing something bad.
It is not out robbing banks, cheating on its spouse,
abusing its kids, embezzling the pension funds,
or overindulging in drugs and alcohol.
The fig tree isn’t doing ANYTHING.
The fig tree is a bump on a log, a couch potato in the master’s garden,
using up the natural resources of the soil without giving anything in return.
It would be pretty easy to blame that fig tree,
to want to root it out and assume that things would be so much better
in that vineyard.
“Let it alone,” says the gardener.
The Greek word for “let it alone” is “afiemi,” and “afiemi” also means “forgive.”
“Forgive this tree its inertness, its ineptitude,” says the gardener.
“I’ll dig around its roots, put manure around its trunk,
and maybe then we’ll see.”
God’s response to an unresponsive fig tree is…to PILE on the grace
to SEE what happens.
Are there limits to grace? Sure.
If the tree still fails to bear fruit in a year, then it will be cut down.
But I wouldn’t make too much of this part of the story.
Jesus did not tell the parable of the fig tree
in order to emphasize future punishment.
Jesus was instead emphasizing the OUTRAGEOUS abundance
of God’s present grace.
When push comes to shove, God piles on the grace.
A focus on God’s grace
reminds us to stop looking for scapegoats
and to start working for reconciliation in the world.
I’ve been asking myself, this week:
Who are the people who are causing stress and strain in my life?
How can I pile on the grace for them?
Who is it that is our culture is calling the outsider, the problem,
the one we have to get rid of?
How can I have empathy for them?
Who are the people who are hurting, lashing out, seeking answers:
how can I love them, even as I seek to protect those who are harmed?
This week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand
seemed to offer us a public demonstration of these values
when she sought to respond to the horrific terror attacks on
two New Zealand mosques that killed 50 people.
She donned a head covering, she went to their community,
she asked how she could help, and she stood in solidarity with them.
Following their lead, scores of Jews and Christians across that country,
stood vigil, affirming that the answer wasn’t pointing the finger at one another,
but recognizing that we are all in this together.
Affirming, to use Christian language, that we are all made in God’s image,
and that God calls us to help the least of these, our brothers and sisters,
because in doing that, we are helping Christ himself.
To people who were looking for God in that terrorist tragedy in New Zealand,
just like that massacre by Herod or that fallen tower so many years ago,
God is there in the solidarity of a people for the hurting and the crestfallen.
God is there in the affirmation that Grace can heal hearts,
and change minds,
and lead to a more peaceful community.
I think that’s what God is doing in New Zealand this morning.
I think that’s what God is doing everywhere this morning,
if we open our eyes to look for it.
resist our impulse to lash out when things seem so disrupted in our lives,
but instead learn from our God who counsels grace.
Maybe a life of Grace will help stop things from spinning so much
So that we can calm down,
and get back to tending to God’s vineyard
and, maybe, the new figs from that stubborn fig tree.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] Robert Farrar Capon, Parables of Grace (Eerdmans, 1990)
First image from https://pixabay.com/photos/sea-world-dolphins-water-marine-2356263/