Exodus 3: 1-15; Psalm 63: 1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13: 1-9
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
I am going to offer a spoiler alert before I even start this sermon. This is a political sermon. For those of you who told me that politics doesn’t belong in the pulpit, you are probably not going to like this sermon very much. But at least you have been warned. I cannot preach today without acknowledging, from this pulpit, the ruthless and horrific loss of life at the hands of a white supremacist at both the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Center in Christ Church, New Zealand.
In the wake of tragedies like this, that seem to become more and more common in our common life together, many find themselves wondering why God would allow something so awful, such as what happened in New Zealand, occur.
The dilemma of how God is supposedly good and powerful, and yet evil perseveres, is known in theological studies as theodicy. The word theodicy comes from two Greek words: Theo meaning God and diké which means judgment or trial. Three common responses to the problem of evil that theodicy offers are as follows: Response #1: God is not all powerful. God is limited in some ways, and there are some things God cannot do in an orderly universe. God is powerless to prevent an airplane from crashing in Ethiopia, or a cyclone from striking Mozambique. Response #2 on the problem of evil, is that evil can sometimes be good for you. This reason presumes that things are not truly evil but a disguised form of good. For example, suffering can be a challenge to faith, a hidden growth experience, a spiritual test. Suffering can draw us closer to God. Response #3 on why God permits evil is that evil and suffering are a mystery. These matters cannot be understood by our limited human minds. Just as there are some colors on the color spectrum our eyes cannot see, so to are we unable to really see the big picture.
None of these explanations are very satisfactory, especially for a parent who has just lost a child or for an innocent bystander gunned down in a synagogue, mosque, or church. These questions of evil and suffering which we struggle to answer today, were also addressed to Jesus. That’s what the Gospel reading today is essentially about. How does Jesus respond to this question? Let’s take a look and see. As the Gospel opens, Jesus is teaching in a crowd, and one of the people in the crowd mentions to Jesus an incident that occurred involving Pontius Pilate. Pilate was a Roman official, he was a governor, and he tolerated no rebellion. One day Galilean citizens, whom Pilate believed to be in opposition to Rome, came to the temple in Jerusalem to present an animal sacrifice at the temple, which involved the shedding of the animal’s blood. Enraged at their audacity to enter into the very seat of his power, Pilate ordered the execution of the Galilean visitors, in the temple courtyard. In this horrific act, the blood of the victims was mingled with that of the sacrificial animals.
Jesus asks “do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” He answers his own question, saying “I tell you, no.” In other words, what I understand Jesus to be saying, is that as tragic as this was, God is not responsible for causing tragedy. God is not a detached observer of our suffering, but on the contrary God is immersed in the suffering with us, sharing every step of our deepest and most painful grief. That is the point of the cross.
When confronted with tragedy we naturally want to ask, “why did it happen?” There is a better to question that should be asking in wake of a tragedy and it is not “why did it happen?” but “What are we going to make of it?” Jesus doesn’t offer an answer in the Gospel today about why bad things happen to innocent people. He does however, tell us what we should do in response. He says, very clearly, that we all need to repent. To repent literally means to return to God. What does repentance look like? I will offer two examples.
The first model of repentance I look to, and am inspired by, is the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand. Following the terrorist attacks on the mosques in her country, Prime Minister Ardern donned a headscarf, and joined in Muslim prayers outside the Al Noor Mosque. She then promised reform on New Zealand’s gun policy, and in less than one week, following the attack, she delivered on her promise, announcing a ban on all military-style semiautomatic weapons, all high-capacity ammunition magazines and all parts that allow weapons to be modified into the kinds of guns used in last week’s attack.
Prime Minister Ardern’s courageous response and act of repentance at both the mosque, and in the decisions made in her parliament, recall the words the prophet Isaiah said many years ago: “And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
New Zealand stands as an example to me of what prayerful and political repentance looks like. Meanwhile, we struggle here in the United States with this. After multiple shootings in churches, synagogues, mosques, night clubs, schools, all we get from our politicians, both republicans and democrats, are thoughts and prayers, with very little action. About as far as we have moved in this country on this issue is by posting signs outside our places of worship that basically say “please don’t bring a gun into church.” As a country, we have failed to repent. And I am bracing myself for the next shooting, wherever it will be – a school, church, movie theater, and for the candlelight vigil that will follow, the usual offerings of thoughts and prayers offered by political officials, and capped of with minimal to zero legislative change, zero meaningful repentance.
Lent is a season of repentance. Jesus calls all of us to repent. We cannot truly live unless we repent, and the church’s job is to help you with this. If you are carrying around something that is bothering you, that is causing you pain and you want to get rid of it, you can give it to God, today, and not have to hold onto it anymore. That’s the beauty of repentance. If you feel that you need to share your confession with another person in private, just ask me, and I will hear your confession. I will not share what you say with anyone. God offers forgiveness to the repentant with mercy upon mercy upon mercy. AMEN.