Third Sunday in Lent, March 20 2022
There’s news, and then there’s gossip. Rumors have always abounded, especially in tense times of invasion, conflict, and war. Atrocities are reported but not always substantiated. We want those we consider our enemies to be monsters so that it’s easier to hate them; we are too ready to believe the worst and pass it on, to raise the temperature and generate demands for violent response. You can see this dynamic at work locally – just get involved with your local HOA and see the feuds that can develop between neighbors and damage the fabric of a community. You can see it in city and state and national politics. And you can see it globally, as national leaders call each other thug or dictator to justify answering attack with attack. We seek to dehumanize those we disagree with, to put them in a box that excludes any saving graces, and especially any inconvenient details that don’t fit our preferred narrative. But this is not the way of Jesus.
And then there are the narratives we weave about the victims of real atrocities, of abuse or rape or human trafficking or multi-generational discrimination. We face another temptation, to assign blame to the victims themselves for their suffering. The poor are poor because they don’t work hard enough. The woman murdered by her abusive partner should have left the relationship. The boy was mugged because he was in the wrong part of town. But this too is not the way of Jesus.
Scripture invites us to ponder both of these human tendencies. In the Gospel today, we heard a story about Pilate slaughtering Galilean pilgrims at the altar; but this story isn’t corroborated in any contemporary sources. Pilate was a brutal governor: he allowed the execution by crucifixion of hundreds of people including Jesus; we know that; so it’s easy to believe that he was guilty of this atrocity too. And it’s easy to see why people would tell Jesus, an identified leader, hoping that this would galvanize him into leading a rebellion against the occupiers.
But Jesus, as always, refuses to take the bait. Instead, he focuses on the people telling the story and the theology that they are likely constructing in order to make sense of the suffering. Were the victims sinners, who were being punished by God for something they or their ancestors did? We see this all over Scripture, the belief that suffering is a judgment from God that can be visited upon future generations, a harsh corrective for an individual or a people who have gone astray from God’s word. It is a theology that should have been put to rest for good by the suffering and death of Jesus, who was indisputably free of sin; but it continues to pop up as human beings crave explanation for the horrors of war, natural disasters, and systemic sin.
Human suffering is everywhere in these Scripture readings: the Israelites enslaved, the slaughtered Galilean pilgrims, the people in the wilderness who died from thirst and plague. So much suffering.
In our story from Exodus, Moses is far away from Egypt: he is beyond the wilderness, living a quiet life with his in-laws. Moses has never lived as one of the people of God: he was raised in the royal family of Egypt. As an impetuous young man with a strong sense of justice, he killed an Egyptian who was mistreating one of the Hebrew slaves, and he fled with a price on his head to this place where he found refuge – and a wife – among a people only distantly related to the Israelites.
And now, here is this wonder: a bush that burns but is not consumed, just as God’s love burns for us but is never exhausted. God calls Moses to save his people; God calls this outsider to return to the place where he is wanted for murder, to convince a people whom he barely knows to rise up and throw off their shackles. God hears the cry of the suffering and demands action. In our own time, God hears the cry of those suffering in Ukraine and Syria and everywhere around the world where one group of people oppresses another, and God calls us, bystanders living our own quiet lives, to work and pray and give for the liberation and restoration of all God’s children. Lack of qualifications is no excuse: Moses doesn’t even know Israel’s God by name, and yet he is called to lead God’s people to freedom.
I AM who I AM: It’s a baffling name for a baffling God. Why does a loving and omnipotent God allow the innocent to suffer? Why do tyrants prosper? Why does war continue? Why do we seem to be just as far from the Kingdom of God today as the ancient people of Scripture were? God is mystery and because we are not God we cannot wrap our minds around the mystery.
What we do know is that God is willing to become present on earth – in the shape of a burning bush, in the shape of a pillar of fire and cloud, in the shape of a carpenter from Nazareth – in order to call us to follow the way of love, the way of life abundant. This is the God who becomes part of our world in order to demonstrate solidarity with our humanity; the God who shows us how to care for one another, how to be generous, how to let go of judging our neighbors, how to turn away from fear and embrace the love that gives us abundant life.
Some of us struggle with the case that St. Paul presents in his first letter to the Corinthian Christians. Paul’s tone can be harsh: he is a skilled prosecutor and very eloquent in condemning the faults of others, including the ancient Jews. To our ears this passage may sound anti-Semitic, and it’s uncomfortable to read it with that perception. I share that discomfort and I do not espouse the theology of suffering being a consequence of God’s judgment; but I also remember that Paul was himself a prominent Jew, and here he is calling his own people to account. Just as he criticizes the historic failings of his people, the people of God, so we may criticize the historic failings of our people, Christians throughout the ages. We all know that the Church has plenty to repent about.
I find it striking that, although Paul was writing a full generation before the Gospel of John was written, he seems already to have adopted the theology that we see in John’s Prologue: that Christ is an eternal being, in the beginning with God, pre-existing the created order: hence, Paul’s metaphor that the rock from which the people of God drank in the desert was Christ.
The common thread of suffering runs through our readings: the people enslaved in Egypt; the people losing their way in the desert; the people looking for who to blame for their unjust suffering under occupation. And it all leads to the teaching of Jesus, who calls for his followers to repent.
What is repentance? It’s simply a change of direction. On a recent Sunday, someone told me that my sermon had caused them to shift their point of view. That was thrilling for me, because that’s what we hope for every time we preach, to help people shift their perspective and maybe their priorities, to turn by at least a few degrees.
We’ve seen a lot of little sermons on social media recently, when someone complains about the cost of gas, and someone else comments that they are grateful for the option of putting gas in their car, of having a car, of being able to drive in streets that aren’t being bombed. Repentance for me often means being reminded that my troubles are very minor compared to those of others; that I have far more to be grateful for than to whine about. And the beauty of this kind of repentance is that it will actually make me happier if I focus on the good and gracious things in my life rather than things I want but can’t have. That kind of repentance will give me energy and passion to help bring about change so that others can be equally blessed.
Jesus calls us to turn. Turn from apathy to the struggle for liberty and justice. Turn from idols and grumbling to gratitude and trust. Turn from blaming others to nourishing your own growth in Christ. Turn to the wonder that burns always before us: the inexhaustible mercy and beauty of our God, the icon of God’s love made manifest in Jesus. And the parable of the unfruitful fig tree adds a touch of urgency to this call: Just as Jesus’s time on earth is growing short, as he approaches Jerusalem, so too our time may be short. We cannot know how much more time we will be granted to become fruitful, so there is no time to waste.
As we round the corner to the second half of Lent we see the Cross in the distance and we know Holy Week is coming: there is no better time than this, to turn our lives around, to practice trusting in God’s goodness and mercy, and to reach for what Jesus offers us: life abundant, meant for all.