What Goes Around, Goes Around - Sermon on Luke 13:1-9

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You've heard it said that Karma's a b****. But that just sounds like a misinterpretation of what karma actually is. Do bad things happen because of bad things we do? Or is that just a simplistic way of looking at the world, rather than facing the scary truth that bad things happen for no reason at all? There is a meaning to life, regardless.

Please listen to the sermon rather than read it.  The delivered sermon is often considerably different than the sermon notes which are included for convenience below.  

Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley. 

February 28, 2016 - Third Sunday in Lent

"Lament for Jerusalem".  Text is from Luke 13:1-9


Jesus is dealing here with a very tricky theological question that still continues to plague Christians of today. Because when bad things happen, we have to find some meaning behind the bad things that are happening, because when we don't have a reason for bad things to happen to people, because we're so in love with phrases like, "what goes around comes around," And "That Karma, isn't she a... big bad blessed itch ?" Well, I'll allow you to fill in the next word. It's a lot easier to think that disaster strikes because people have been doing something wrong rather than accepting that bad things happen without precedence, without meaning, that sometimes bad things happen to people who are good.  

And what we find with the attitudes of many people today, who would wish to attribute a cosmic cause and effect we find especially true in 1st century Israel, with these individuals who seek to find answers from Jesus by looking for answers to a question as to why certain people, Galileans, the second class children of Israel had been executed and defiled by Pontius Pilate.

We don't have any historical precedent that explains who these Galileans killed and desecrated by Pilate were, only that Pilate was a ruthless governor who took pleasure in violent response to the people he and the Roman Empire were ruling.  And for the second disaster that Jesus responds with, these 18 people crushed in a tower collapse, we don't have any scholarly mention of that horrible event, , but Siloam was in fact important place in Jerusalem, and the event rings true, and we assume not only was it something that Jesus's audience would have been familiar with but even Luke's readers, some few decades later. 

Tema Nezahat Gokyigit Park 1060584 nymphaeaBut Jesus is not only arguing against the fact that these horrible things that happened to people were any fault of their own, he's making very clear that there is no fault. Bad things happen to people in the world. That these kinds of things, or even worse can happen to any one of us at any time. These poor victims of those disasters, they were no better or worse than the people who he is with, and that under the yoke of the old law, that each and every one of his listeners would be sure to perish while they continued in their own ways. 

But after making that declaration against them, he continues with a parable. Now, we have a lot of interesting passages involving figs all throughout the bible. We read about a similar fig tree in Matthew and Mark that doesn't produce fruit, a tree that is soundly rebuked by Jesus to disaster to this sorry tree. This one, however, is placed in parable. And rather than be immediately destroyed by its owner, this tree has a measure of hope attached to it. The gardener, who continues to see the value in it, has decided that he wants to give it an opportunity, and in a year's time if the tree bears fruit, then it is surely saved. 

The parable ends there. We don't know if the tree produces fruit, we don't know even if the landowner even takes the gardener up on his suggestion, but we can certainly hold out hope that what we may be seeing expressed is the love that this gardener has for the tree, and why have they not been taking this kind of care before for this tree?  

Interpretations of this parable are wide and varied, but coming so close on the heels of a moment Jesus teaches about repentance and the Law, one can live in the hope that this tree which has not produced any good, can be nurtured into good health and be the fruitful creation that the gardener desires it to be through his love. I think it would be easy to think, in that respect, that the tree does, in fact thrive because of the gardener's care and goes on to produce many fruit.

This notion that awful things happen to people because of a vengeful God can have disastrous effect. I find it atrocious and disgusting to imagine that anyone actually think that the millions of people who were murdered by the Nazi regime somehow deserved their fate due to divine retribution, but Christian history is filled long and far with anti-Semitic conviction, and while it was not easy for the church to turn a blind eye to the goings-on, there was a notion in some quarters that the Jews had at least some part to play. Even some of the victims in the 2009 teleplay "God on Trial", based on an apocryphal story in which prisoners from Auschwitz decide to try God in absentia, considered the possibility that they were utterly forgotten by God from their own misdeeds, as unbelievable as that sounds. But when you base your worldview on divine retribution, one must find justificaworltion for every atrocity. 

And I remembered back in the 1980s during the start of the AIDS crisis. A health pandemic killing homosexual men and intravenous drug addicts? Well, to some people, that was so obviously God's will upon sinful and depraved people it might as well have been underlined in red by His divine hand. Thirty years later we see things a little bit differently and yet we once in a while hear individuals calling suggesting disaster strikes because of the evilness of the people in those places when it is simply that tornadoes and hurricanes are caused by the arbitrariness of the weather, earthquakes happen in generally obvious places because of the strain on the crust and more recently because of human desire to suck natural gas from it in large quantities, buildings fall because of the folly of humankind's imperfection and greed and sometimes because of evil - but not that of the victims. 

If we have decided to tell ourselves that the things that happen to people are because of a lack of righteousness, then we do indeed find ourselves in the midst of a judgment we are not expecting. Because you have to then wander about those go about their way in the world actively doing harm to others, actively taking advantage of others, who have no apparent ill consequences. What about billionaires that fund political candidates that have no conviction other than to do the bidding of their masters; conservative when it comes to individual social rights such as fair worker pay and advancements for underprivileged yet very liberal when it comes to government corporate welfare and the giving out of contracts for building and defense.  

It is the reason people look at those proponents of a so-called prosperity gospel; the Joel Osteens of the world and say, well, it works because it is working for them! But the reason why they are so wealthy is because they have made this case so well that others send them money without thought to their own needs, money that would be better suited to helping the less fortunate. 

But the very simple fact is that Jesus rescues us from that very sort of arbitrariness we can find in our lives. Jesus rescues us from the belief that cancer is caused by evil thoughts and that automotive accidents happen because of some unrepentant sin that got misplaced somewhere in our past. And Karma 's a big cultural appropriation, that we misinterpret as some kind of that will happen to our enemies by means of divine retribution. That word is actually poetic justice, and it occurs in literature, but real life is much more random. 

And that unproductive fig tree? When we find ourselves caught up knee deep in smelly dung as an expression might go, it may not actually be a curse, some kind of retribution for past misdeeds, but a means to grow and bear more fruit, because God's grace is immeasurable.

The good news is that everything does not happen for a reason. Thank God for that.  What goes around... well it goes around. Jesus the gardener looks on the church's lack of bearing fruit and tells it that it still has potential, it just needs care and maintenance. And God's Holy Spirit is here, with us, to see that we grow and thrive despite the seeming meaningless of events around us, because meaning comes from the eternal grace we have in our lives, and our faith in the unconditional love that our savior, Christ Jesus, brings to us and enriches us and helps us to be better servants of God's will in the world around us, knowing that we are ultimately saved, whole and loved, united with God's will, and free from the arbitrariness of the world today. 

Amen.

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This page contains a single entry by Cary Bass-Deschenes published on February 28, 2016 3:01 PM.

Lament for Jerusalem - Sermon on Luke 13:31-35 was the previous entry in this blog.

The Two Sons - Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 is the next entry in this blog.

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