Posts Tagged ‘justice’

“what’s wrong with the church?”

May 28, 2017

As General Assembly approaches – I find myself longing to say these things to a wider audience.

Reflections from here

Isaiah 42: 1-9  –  Matthew 5: 3-12

Preached at the meeting of Pictou Presbytery – Jan 17, 2017

I have had some interesting encounters this month.  A conference call to discuss the Justice Ministries Response to overtures on same sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons confirmed that there is real passion in the Presbyterian church for particular positions…A session meeting (last week) that revealed there are strong positions in the congregation around the nature and value of mission in the church.  Conversations with some of Heather’s friends (who just dropped in to visit the dog, apparently) about the purpose of the church.  And most significantly, I was the guest of the folks from the Pictou County centre for Sexual Health at a discussion group that they host for people who identify as LGBTQ and their allies.

It’s not a large group, but there too I found strongly held…

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Witness

November 13, 2016

“Not one stone will be left upon another…when you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified…nation will rise against nation…there will be dreadful portents…but before this, they will arrest (and ) persecute you.”

Odds are, these are the things that jump out at you when Luke 21: 5-19 was read a moment ago; nothing but the promise of destruction, disaster, hatred and betrayal – what a combination!  And it’s possible that they would have drawn your attention even if the past week hadn’t featured an American election which marked the conclusion of a campaign that made it easy to imagine that the end – of something – was  near.

The news services, and our various social networks (both the electronic and the flesh-and-blood kind) have not been shy about their assessment of recent events.  Liberals, conservatives and everything in between, have offered opinions and presumed motives and dared to prophesy; all with very little regard for fact.  “Now we’ll see some real change!’, says one.  “Not my President!” says another.  I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that both voices are wrong.

What we always fail to hear when the voices of culture cry doom is the voice of Jesus – who reminds us (in Luke’s gospel this morning and elsewhere) that troubling times bring an abundance of voices, strong with certainty, designed to carry over the din of our desperation:  “the time is near! – I am HE!”

Remember what Jesus said about those voices?  “Beware that you are not led astray…Do not go after them.”

We can convince ourselves not to follow those who make outrageous claims; The ragged street-corner preachers, or the nay-sayer who writes ten letters a week to the local paper no longer get our sympathy.  We have grown discerning in the twenty-first century.  It takes information to sway us – THIS is the information age, after all.  We are now drawn to slick media campaigns; we are ‘engaged’ (and I use that term very carefully) by public ideas that invade private spaces in a way that Walter Cronkite could never have imagined.

Some would have us think that this is progress.  We can inject our opinions into any debate we choose, and we do.  It is easy to ‘play along’, because governments, businesses, even religious organizations have discovered that the evening news is not enough; they must establish a presence across a variety of social media platforms to ensure that their ’message’ is conveyed, considered and properly controlled.  And that message?  “the time is near!”  “the enemy is everywhere!”  “we have the solution!”

Sound familiar?

It can be unsettling when the lessons chosen for a particular Sunday resonate so strongly with current events – people of otherwise good sense loose their faithful minds when this happens.  Suggestions and theories about the nearness of the end of days are trotted out for consideration.  But times like this can be instructive, if we would remember something very important: although Jesus has something to say to us, his message is not exclusive to the state of affairs in November 2016.

These moments of situational harmony (fairly frequent occurrences, if I’m honest) between ancient Scripture and modern life are signals to us that human social problems are unaffected by the passage of time – we are inclined to make the same mistakes, over and over again.  And from the perspective of those who would follow Jesus, those mistakes quite often have large social and political consequences.  And from across the ages, Jesus’ message is the same; “Don’t fall for the trap!”  “Don’t be led astray!”

That is all well and good, Jesus, but what we really want is a strategy for response to those voices of doom – those smooth-talking sources of our anxiety.  What should we DO?  How do we respond?

The answer is not what we expect.  Jesus claims that times like these – times of upheaval and uncertainty – will provide a chance for the faithful to testify to the sovereignty of God, but…don’t think about what you will say.  Don’t prepare in advance.  What kind of advice is this?  We are inundated with information; we have our opinions; surely a carefully crafted response – an impassioned speech, or a well written article – is just what is required here…

“Don’t play the game”, is what Jesus seems to be saying.  Not “preparing words” is not the same as not being prepared.  Jesus has been preparing his disciples from the beginning of their time together, not to excel in the debate, but to live according to the principles of God’s reign.  Jesus has instructed us in compassion, humility, justice and grace, and often enough, those things require our presence.  Words are what got us in to this mess.

Words that categorize and divide and injure or insult.  And when there are so many words that none can be properly heard, Jesus calls us to be present.  To stand before the barrage of words, ideas, and policies; to stand with those most affected by these frightening situations, and simply witness to the glory of God that is found in the weak and the weary – the outcast and oppressed.  “You will be hated by all because of my name”, Jesus says, but you will not be harmed; “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

This goes against the grain, doesn’t it…but it is the same strategy that Jesus will use when faced with the power of a state whose policies made prisoners of citizens – whose power was widely acknowledged – whose leaders acknowledged no rivals for their adoration.  Jesus’ witness to the power of God, the reign of God and his love for the people of God, attracted the wrath of all manner of earthly powers.  The death sentence pronounced by those whose voices seemed loudest was not the final word.  The noise of the crowds is silenced, every time, by the quiet power of the love of God; whose love promises life, abundant and eternal, in every generation.

The disciples heard the voices of doom and wanted to know; “when will this happen, Jesus?” –  but they were asking the wrong question.  It has happened – is happening – will happen.  Such is the human condition.  And in every generation – to every situation, Jesus offers the same advice;  Stand firm – be patient in faith – and do not be afraid.  God’s love will not – has not – cannot fail.

Justice

October 16, 2016

What does justice look like?  Some would answer “fairness” – others “equality”; still others will tell you that justice is blind, and by that they mean, not always fair, or equal.  If you listen to some conversations about justice, you might come to the conclusion that justice means (for certain individuals, organizations or nations) “getting what I want”…real justice is all of those things AND none of those thing.

A parable: A judge who fears neither God nor had any respect for people meets a widow demanding justice, and the stage is set for a mammoth battle of wills.  The widow is persistent, perhaps she is entitled, but the evidence is scarce; the judge is stubborn – haughty, even – yet his word has the effect of law.

As the story goes, the widow prevails because of her persistence.  She wears down this fearless, egotistical manipulator of the justice.  The problem is, his ruling in the widow’s favour is a miscarriage of justice, even as justice was understood in the day.

Listen to what the unjust judge says:

“Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, because this woman is bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by coming continually to me.”

And we make the mistake of equating God’s justice with the pattern revealed in this parable.

We know a little bit about injustice – we share stories / anecdotes about “the way the system works” – and so we approach justice of all kinds with a siege mentality.  Persistence pays.  The plaintiff is warned that time and patience will be rewarded, but the problem with patient persistence is that justice is not always served by such an approach – the playing field becomes tilted towards the loud, the powerful, and the persistent, and occasionally we are directed to this ‘biblical example’ – but Jesus parable is, according to Luke, about the need to pray and NOT LOSE HEART…something is missing between our hearing and our application of this lesson.

This lesson in persistence comes at a critical point in Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus is answering questions about the coming Kingdom – people are frightened and eager for the oppression of the present to be replaced by God’s kingdom of justice and peace.  And without revealing anything about a timeline, Jesus counsels patience, warns of suffering still to be endured, and then suggests that the kingdom will come swiftly, without fanfare.  Those who point to the signs of its coming are trying to deceive you (Luke 17: 23).  When justice comes – when the kingdom comes – the speed of God’s acting will be instant; that’s how God is…

So this suggestion that we must be persistent in prayer, and ever hopeful in our anticipation of the promised reign of God is an indictment of our attitudes; our calculating approach to justice, and all things of value, is called into question by this parable.

In our culture, persistence is usually valued.  We are often encouraged to solve our problems and satisfy our needs by simply “sticking with it” – when given the choice between “good things come to those who wait”, and “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”, it turns out we prefer grease to delayed gratification.

This appears to be the case in so many popular protest movements – all operating in a manner designed to overwhelm the target group, and bring about the desired change…as quickly as possible.  This may be an effective management/marketing strategy, but it rarely results in justice.  In many cases – as in our example from the gospel – the rights (so called) of the persistent are exchanged for the rights of the passive; the result is still out of balance.

We are guilty of imagining this imbalance in God’s justice, and so we rail at God for our case to be heard, and conclude that we are not nearly persistent enough when our prayers are not granted.  We make bargains with God, and are surprised when that strategy fails to bring us what we want.  We imagine that God can be ‘worn down’ by our efforts – that a marathon of petitioning prayer will somehow, suddenly undo centuries of our persistent inhumanity, and when it doesn’t, we accuse God of indifference or (worse), injustice.  When we use this particular parable as an excuse for our approach, we fall short of the mark – we do injustice to the Gospel.

Jesus parable is a parable of “negative comparison”.  The “unjust judge” does one thing, but God will surely grant justice to those who seek it – and, indeed justice is always part of God’s operational plan.  Divine justice is not in the satisfying humiliation of a particular enemy, but found in the love and compassion that is inherent in the way Jesus calls us to treat one another.  God’s justice is not satisfied by our grudging assent to a list of “thou shalt not” conditions but it blossoms when the commandments are observed out of love for God, neighbour and ourselves.

We need be persistent, not because God will grow weary of listening, and grant justice for God’s own convenience…rather, our persistence should come from our desire to seek God in all things.  God’s preference is to grant justice, and justice will quickly come – our persistence is easily outdistanced by the speed of God’s acting.

Our persistence should be a function of faith – we desire God’s mercy/justice because we believe in it!  The widow wants only to overwhelm the wicked judge, not for the sake of justice, but because it could be ‘negotiated’.  God’s attitudes toward justice are more gracious; more generous by far, and Jesus – in every circumstance – points us to those gracious features in the character of God.  Unlike that wicked judge, God requires neither manipulation, nor persuasion.   God is revealed by Jesus to be ready to serve – ready to usher in justice and do mercy – where ever faith may be found.

Restoration; an impossible dream?

September 6, 2015

This morning, in three different readings – from three different historical moments in the life of God’s people, we are offered the promise of the restoration of something that has been lost.  The eyes of the blind shall be opened – the ears of the deaf unstopped, says Isaiah, dreaming about the “terrible recompense” of the God – our God – who comes to save us.  The Psalmist offers similar hope – though in the form of a hymn of praise to God “who executes justice for the oppressed [and] gives food to the hungry.”  Then Mark brings Jesus back from his visit to foreign territory to the home of a deaf man, whose friends beg Jesus to “lay his hand on him.”

Now, restoration may not be on your minds this week – I expect that refugees and politics and improbable solutions to seemingly impossible problems are on your minds.  The news of the week has certainly been focused on the plight of those who are so determined to leave the hell that their own country has become, they willingly take grave chances with their safety.  They travel the open ocean on rafts; they submit themselves to unscrupulous mariners whose only goal is profit.  They abandon all they know and love because the unknown is a better risk – though a risk that is still quite capable of killing them – and the horrifying thing is that this is not a new habit; we have seen this play dozens of times – the country of origin may be different, but the results are always the same.

So if I push you to think about restoration you may decide it means “put everyone back where they belong…” or perhaps “just stop all this ridiculous fighting…”  Maybe you’d prefer more military action to ‘put an end to the terrorists’, or tighter border controls to deter the refugees.  But I must be honest with you; I’m sick of our solutions – in fact, I no longer believe that we can bring restoration on our own – we’ve lost the ability – we no longer understand that the language of peace cannot be spoken across the sound of gunfire or the rhetoric of politicians who want to “keep us safe”.

It took thousands of deaths in the current crisis to produce the one death that got our attention.  To name that boy this morning would dishonour all the others whose names have never been publicly attached to the conflict in and around Syria.  And our ‘action’ against the hateful group that has brought such unrest to the area has only made the refugee problem more urgent, so doing more in the form of swifter, stronger, more decisive ways (a.k.a. an expanded military response) is not the answer .

But restoration is on my mind today, and I find myself dreaming with Isaiah; desperate to sing with the Psalmist.  I want the restorative justice of the Almighty to roll down like thunder – to give legs to the lame and voice to the silent  – to restore, with “terrible recompense” the balance that was, in the beginning, God’s plan for creation – a balance that we have undone by our willful, sinful, selfish nature.

If faith is to play a meaningful part in finding a solution, then we need to consider what Isaiah imagined God’s justice might look like.  For he stood in this tortured region (tortured even in Isaiah’s day) and boldly proclaimed “Here is your God!”  He said this to a people without a country; to families driven from their homes by tyrants and economics; to the faithful and the doubter alike, Isaiah said that restoration will come as a result of our recognition of the glory and majesty of God

Isaiah speaks to a people who long for the end to the constant conflict in their lives.  He speaks as one who has promised the utter devastation of the land, and complete annihilation of the enemy.  But the hope he offers is Divine Hope – and the justice that is promised is, in the end, real justice.  All that has been broken will be made better than new.  All that has been laid waste will be restored to full usefulness.   All will be well, the prophet says; and means it.  Here is your God, and your God will save you.

Now if this sounds like another lesson in ‘pie in the sky’, think again.  Those who recognize the glory and majesty of God are already dealing differently with refugees than the rest of the world.  They are loading them on buses and getting them safely to the next border crossing (Hungary); they are crying with them at their loss; they are feeding them (in Germany) and welcoming them without reservation in spite of their government’s insistence that help would be limited (Iceland).  These are people of faith (and of no faith) who recognize the human need and respond with human compassion.  These people say with the same boldness “here is your God”, for they are acting (knowingly or not) out of the same generous, all-encompassing goodness that God brings to the table.  They are ‘laying  hands’ on the afflicted, not with force, but with gentle compassion.  This is part of that ‘terrible recompense’ – a phrase which is familiar to us only from Scripture, but which carries the sense of “doing a favour in response to a loss”.  It is “terrible” only because such a response ought never to have been necessary.

But thanks to our fallen nature, it is necessary.  Yet all is not lost!  Thanks be to God, we have the power to act.  We were been placed on the road to redemption at our Baptism.  That redemption is assured by Christ’s “obedience unto death” on the cross, and God’s incredible act of love that raised Christ from the dead.  Our actions can be simple; one person cannot solve a problem of this scale.  But as citizens in Europe has shown us, simple, heartfelt actions have a way of gathering strength – gaining momentum – and soon enough, minds and hearts are changed.

”Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; and the tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy.”

May it be so with us.  Amen.

I’m no prophet…

July 12, 2015

Amos was neither a prophet, nor a prophet’s son; just a shepherd and part-time tree farmer.  He would not ordinarily draw the attention of the powerful…except that he insists on speaking out.  He can’t help himself.  Amos is more than just another concerned citizen – he is an interested, engaged person who takes seriously God’s invitation to be in relationship… and who finds himself compelled to challenge the way things are in his time.

Trouble is coming – and Amos thinks he knows why.  God’s people and their neighbours have neglected justice and mercy for their own reasons.  These are empires built as testimony to human triumph – God’s part in all this has been disguised by human pride, and God will have no more of it; so says Amos, whose every speech ends with “says the Lord”(‘amar ‘adonai)

On six of Israel’s nearest neighbours, Amos pronounces doom (in the name of the Lord, of course).  Exile – disaster – destruction – fire (especially fire); the wrath of God will be unleashed (for these are wicked people, beyond God’s covenant protection).  And since Amos is a subject of Israel’s king, there was expected to be an omen against Judah as well – so that Israel might finally say; “See, I told you we were the favourite.”

Sure enough, Judah is treated like all the others – and so God will send fire, to devour the strongholds – Israel must have rejoiced…but only briefly.  The worst, it seems is saved for them.  It will be like escaping a lion and running into a bear, Amos says – try as they might, there is no escaping what will come.

Chapters 2 through 6 outline Israel’s failures – – the nation has  claimed God’s gifts as their own creation; they have acted as though the Lord depended on them, rather than the other way around.  They have ignored what the writer and Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman calls “the perfect freedom of God”  –

freedom to act (or not act) in an infinite variety of ways towards an infinite variety of people.  There is trouble coming, for Israel; for her leaders; for her people.

When we encounter Amos in this morning’s reading, he is at the point of bargaining on behalf of this wayward people.  Once again, he can’t help himself.  No one who is interested in the way the world works and who, like Amos, desires to honour God by their living and their engagement with current events, can stand apart from the consequences of judgement.  Amos’ plea for change, (or repentance in this case) is moved by his sense of justice – and his hope that God is also just – so Amos is a compassionate prophet.  Having experienced the visions God gives him, Amos responds in horror, and out of love for his people, begs God to forgive.  Twice, God relents.  The third time, however, seems to be the end of God’s mercy.

‘See, I am setting a plumb-line

in the midst of my people Israel;

I will never again pass them by;

9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,

and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,

and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’

Desolation and exile is their lot, and the king (along with his whole house) shall die.

Now this is not an unusual path for a prophet to take; indeed, this is the prophets meat and drink – but Amos doesn’t want the job (doesn’t that sound familiar…).  Instead, he claims that he had no choice but to condemn (in the name of the Lord); he can connect the dots – he has seen the powerful take their power to dangerous extremes. And as a person of integrity, as one of God’s covenant people, he cannot remain silent when confronted by the events of the day.  Amos is assured that God cares enough to warn – and to threaten – those whom God claims under the covenant.

This is a much different picture of a prophet.  Too often, we equate prophecy with wild-eyed pessimism, or violent fanaticism – though neither of these is an accurate description of the prophets we know from Scripture.

Sure, some of them carried on a little – Jeremiah was prone to dramatic public demonstrations (lying half naked at the city gates – smashing pottery); Isaiah and Ezekiel recorded graphic hallucinations (that we charitably call ‘visions’); in later years there was John the Baptizer – eating bugs, dressed in rags, preaching repentance and goading the powerful (that cost him his head…).  But we need a more broad-minded picture, for we are called – even now – to call the world’s attention to the justice and mercy and yes, even judgement of God.

In a world that is flying apart – over developed in the name of commerce, and under-achieving where equity and justice are concerned, God’s people cannot help but notice; God’s people are compelled to speak out and speak up; those who claim to follow Christ must plead and warn and beg and weep for this world ravaged by the work of our own hands.  God has promised good to all – abundant life is at the core of the gospel.  yet we have taken a world that has the ability to feed and house every person, and created a place of such inequality (economically, socially) that justice has become a foreign idea.  We must, without fear for ourselves, speak the truth to those in power.  We must speak – though we are neither prophets nor the children of prophets – because God is free to act, and God has acted in grace through Jesus – and we recognize that there are consequences to this great act of grace.

Ours should be a call to repent, but not just because we believe that ‘we are right and they are wrong’.  Amos had no training, no credentials, no standing in the circles of influence – he had only his faith, which told him that God was being ignored (or mocked, or made subservient to human desires) and his faith compelled him to speak.  The doom he proclaimed was no more than the logical outcome of having broken covenant with God.

The conclusion of Amos indicates that God is determined to maintain covenant.  Israel will be restored, but not before the whole world recognizes God is free, both to tear down AND to build up.  That promise of restoration must be part of our message if we are going to be true to the gospel of Christ.

Yes, the world is free to ignore us – and yes, a little freedom goes a long way in this day and age.  But praise God that even in times of great distress and danger, the word of truth – the spirit of God’s righteous judgement – the gospel that is entrusted to us – will always be a word of grace and peace.  Amen

a parable re-told. (Luke 18: 1-8) The Kirk, New Glasgow

October 20, 2013

A parable: A judge who fears neither God nor had any respect for people meets a widow demanding justice, and the stage is set for a mammoth battle of wills.  The widow is persistent, perhaps she is entitled, but the evidence is scarce; the judge is stubborn – haughty, even – yet his word has the effect of law.

As the story goes, the widow prevails because of her persistence.  She wears down this fearless, egotistical manipulator of the justice.  The problem is, his ruling in the widow’s favour is a miscarriage of justice, even as justice was understood in the day.

Listen to what the unjust judge says:

“Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, because this woman is bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by coming continually to me.”

And we make the mistake of equating God’s justice with the pattern revealed in this parable.

We know a little bit about injustice – we share stories / anecdotes about “the way the system works” – and so we approach justice of all kinds with a siege mentality.  Persistence pays.  The plaintiff is warned that time and patience will be rewarded, and justice is not always served by such an approach – the playing field is tilted towards the loud, the powerful, and the persistent, and occasionally we are directed to this ‘biblical example’ – but Jesus parable is, according to Luke, about the need to pray and NOT LOSE HEART…something is missing between our hearing and our application of this lesson.

This lesson in persistence comes at a critical point in Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus is answering questions about the coming Kingdom – people are frightened and eager for the oppression of the present to be replaced by God’s kingdom of justice and peace.  And without revealing anything about a timeline, Jesus counsels patience, warns of suffering still to be endured, and then suggests that the kingdom will come swiftly, without fanfare.  Those who point to the signs of its coming are trying to deceive you (Luke 17: 23).  When justice comes – when the kingdom comes – the speed of God’s acting will be instant; that’s how God is…

So this suggestion that we must be persistent in prayer, and ever hopeful in our anticipation of the promised reign of God has more to do with us.  Our calculating approach to justice, and all things of value, is called into question by this parable.

In our culture, persistence is usually valued.  We are often encouraged to solve our problems and satisfy our needs by simply “sticking with it” – when given the choice between “good things come to those who wait”, and “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”, it turns out we prefer grease to delayed gratification.

This appears to be the case in so many of our recently popular protest movements – all operating in a manner designed to overwhelm the target group, and bring about the desired change.  This may be an effective management/marketing strategy, but it rarely results in justice.  In many cases – as in our example from the gospel – the rights (so called) of the persistent are exchanged for the rights of the passive; the result is still out of balance.

++++

We are guilty of imagining this imbalance in God’s justice – the Psalms n general contribute to this in our minds – and so we rail at God for our case to be heard, and conclude that we are not nearly persistent enough when our prayers are not granted.  But when we approach Divine justice in this way, we fall short of the mark.

Jesus parable is a parable of “negative comparison” – the “unjust judge” does one thing – but God will surely grant justice to those who seek it.  We need be persistent, not because God will grow weary of listening, and grant justice for God’s own convenience…rather, our persistence should come from our desire to seek God in all things.  God’s preference is to grant justice, and justice will quickly come – our persistence is easily outdistanced by the speed of God’s acting

Our persistence should be a function of faith – we desire God’s mercy/justice because we believe in it!  The widow wants only to overwhelm the wicked judge, not for the sake of justice, but because it could be ‘negotiated’.  God’s attitudes toward justice are more gracious; more generous by far, and Jesus – in every circumstance – points us to those gracious features in the character of God.  Unlike that wicked judge, God requires neither manipulation, nor persuasion.   God is revealed by Jesus to be ready to serve – ready to usher in justice and do mercy – where ever faith may be found.

It’s not what you think…it’s better!

March 2, 2013

My purpose in this pulpit is to provoke you to questions, not to provide you with answers.

I have always believed that where preaching and teaching are concerned.

But this morning, I am going to make a liar of myself.

We will encounter the question in a moment,

but I want you know what my answer is from the beginning – nothing to hide – full disclosure.

God’s judgement does not take the form of spectacular (or violently terminal) punishment.  Ever.

Bring me your favourite Old Testament disaster stories – I will do my best to show you

that God is not acting to selectively destroy those who “have not pleased God”

Such thinking is a cheap fix for a costly problem, and I’m not buying it.

I may never change centuries of theological sleight of hand,

and I might not convince you, but you need to know  where I stand.

So, you have my answer – but what of the question?

We don’t hear the question directly in this morning’s gospel,

but the context is clear enough.

Luke offers a series of episodes: parables of watchfulness and faithfulness –

calls to strive for the kingdom of God –

and the crowds ask about current events that seem to tell them something sinister about the character of God, and the nature of good and evil, right and wrong, righteousness and sinfulness.

There is the unsettling report of their countrymen, who have been slaughtered by Pilate

(the gospel is the only place this event is mentioned –

no other ancient authority gives us an indication of what happened here).

Jesus addresses the unspoken with a question of his own:

“Do you think [that these Galileans] were worse sinners that all other Galileans?”

Do you hear this?  Do you recognize the fear in the crowd?

These were our fellow citizens – perhaps our relatives & friends.

These are people who believe (for the most part) the same things that we believe –

and they were slaughtered out of turn by this godless ruler of Galilee.

And so, the unspoken question seems to be – How could this happen? 

 

How could (our) God allow such a travesty?

Good people – bad things; this needs some explanation.

Scripture does its best to offer insight; we don’t always get it.

Bad things happen –

the rain falls on the just and the unjust

(according to Matthew’s gospel and our own experience of the way life works) –

in fact, Jesus says that accidents happen – (Towers collapse even in the ancient near east) –

and they are every bit as horrible and cruel and untimely

as the activity of oppressive tyrants in Galilee –

“they are no worse (or better, one can infer) than any other.”

Jesus is trying to nudge his audience away from the simple arithmetic of redemption and judgement, and they are not moved – not yet, at any rate.  And his summary statement doesn’t help;

“But unless you repent, you will perish just as they did.”

And how many times have we been told the answer to the eternal riddle is this:

Be good to God, and God will be good to you;

except that Jesus says nothing of the sort.

“they are no worse than any other…unless you repent, you will perish as they did.”

We’ve become convinced that this means “in a hail of heavenly judgement”,

But consider for a moment that all this hinges on one, important word.

It’s not the word you think it is – perish – that’s the word that gets our attention,

and sends us, panic-stricken, to our knees in prayer, or to the tavern in despair.

No, the word upon which all this hangs is REPENT.

The word in Greek is metanoia which refers to the changing of ones mind after the fact “an overturning of thought” – so come our classical ideas of repentance: your mind is fundamentally changed and your future path is altered because of this new position.  And what must happen to change your mind?

Well, as the church discovered very early on, fear can change peoples minds.

Fear of abandonment – fear of separation from God –

and so the church developed rituals and rites that reminded people of their need for change,

then offered them the chance to regain the right path.

But the best kind of repentance is that which causes you to first open your mind to a new opportunity, to refrain from a previous direction and take up (willingly and freely) a new direction of thought.

This is the repentance to which Jesus calls us.

Open your minds to the reality of God, he says.

Consider that your current ideas about why these Galileans were killed

(God willed it?  They had sinned?)  might be incorrect.

These were no better or worse people than yourselves –

and unless you open your minds (or have your minds opened),

you will perish as they did, with your old and inadequate ideas of God intact.

To that end Jesus closes the question with what must be my favourite parable.

The tree has not born fruit – the owner wants to make space for a more profitable venture –

But the gardener begs the owner for another year.

Let me nurture this tree, fertilize it – water and tend to it.

What have you got to lose by waiting one more year?

God, in our old assumptions, takes the role of the property owner;

Demanding productive use of the land; insisting that the planting justify the investment.

But the context for this parable suggests to me (and others) that God is not the owner,

but the patient gardener – willing the tree to flower –

waiting and watering and giving yet another season of grace,

that the garden might realize its potential.

That sounds like God to me.

How much easier would it be to serve a God we believed to be patient, nurturing and …well, nice?

This is the truly good news that Jesus brings us –

he directs our attention to the things we have misunderstood,

and tries to paint for us a truer picture of God;

one that we might desire;

in whom we may delight.

Repentance is necessary – and yes, our time is short.

We can not ignore the urgency of Jesus message,

but we are urged by grace and gratitude – not pain and suffering.

Evil does not come from God, but it has found a home among God’s people,

And God’s remedy is in repentance – a reimagining of our purpose,

our relationships (with one another and with God) –

and a re-ordering of our intentions toward both Creation and Creator.

This approach is found in the oldest of prophets and the newest – from Isaiah to Jesus

Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest

This call to repentance does not threaten –

it should not terrify –

for it is issued by God in a spirit of patient, loving grace –

and that is good news, indeed!  Amen