Gratitude and Repentance

We all know that
the word “Gospel”
means “Good News,”
but there seems to be
little good in today’s
passage from Luke’s Gospel.

The crowd tells Jesus
about the latest tragedy:
Pilate’s thugs entered the Temple,
slaughtering Jews while at worship.
To add insult,
they mingled their blood
with the sacrifices
they were making at the altar.

Jesus responds with a story
that’s not good and not even news:
A tower in Siloam collapsed,
killing 18 people.
This was an old story
but a familiar one;
after all, buildings
were always collapsing
in Jerusalem.

That old story,
another tragedy,
seems lively today,
for not a day goes by
that we don’t hear of another tragedy,
some freak of nature,
fires of uncertain cause,
sudden death,
a new virus ripping
across the world;
others tragedies are
linked to human sin and injustice—
police as perpetrators not protectors
rarely held to account;
vaccines for a new virus
unequally distributed;
a despot attacking a country
without cause.

When I look back
across all the sermons
I’ve preached over the years,
I see countless tragedies named.
I could list them, but won’t.
In your life, you’re probably
reeling from some unexpected tragedy—
a diagnosis, a betrayal, a loss,
the world spinning out of control.

In this time, in all times,
it’s normal to ask “Why?”
It makes sense to seek out
who’s at fault,
find someone to blame:
Who did this?
What did they do to deserve this?
Did God do this?
Why didn’t God prevent it?

We might get some satisfaction
if we think we know
the cause of suffering.
We might feel better,
for a moment,
if we find where
to place the blame.

Even so, the tragedies keep coming.

Jesus eschews all talk of blame
and turns to the crowd about him,
asking, “Do you think that because
these Galileans suffered in this way
they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”
“Or those eighteen who were killed
when the tower of Siloam feel on them—
do you think that they
were worse offenders
than all the others living in Jerusalem?”

Clearly, the answer is “NO”—
the victims are not to blame.
God does not cause suffering
to punish sin.
If that were the case,
we’re all in trouble.

And yet, Jesus turns to the crowd, to us,
and says, “No, I tell you;
but unless you repent,
you will all perish as they did.”
And this doesn’t feel like
Good News, either.

Jesus asks us to repent,
to look at ourselves,
at all the ways we hold ourselves
separate from God.

In the face of inexplicable suffering,
of sudden tragedy,
we want answers.
And we think that if we can find
the answer then it will all make sense,
that we can prevent future
suffering and tragedies.

But Jesus suggests
that our job isn’t
to fix the universe,
to understand the reasons why;
our job is to repent.
Another way to translate
the word for “repent”
is to “turn towards God.”
Another way to translate it
is to “change our mind or our hearts.”
Some suggest that
the Hebrew word it comes from
means, “to go home.”

After he edict to repent,
Jesus tells a parable
of a barren fig tree.
After waiting for fruit
for three years,
the owner has had it
and tells the gardener to cut it down,
but the gardener begs for more time,
promising to care for it,
nurture the soil,
lay down some manure,
so the fig tree has a shot.
After that, if it still bears no fruit,
then the owner can cut it down.

God is gracious and patient,
Christ the gardener
will nurture our soil
with his own hands,
with the manure of his life
and crucified body,
but we have been warned.
Turn to the God who
provides water for the thirsty,
a feast for those without money.
We are like the exiles in Babylon
written about in Isaiah
whom God is calling home
for a feast.

If we do that,
if we turn towards God,
change the way we think,
I regret to inform you
that tragedies will still occur,
we will still suffer,
we will die.

But we will not perish
like the slaughtered Galileans
or the unlucky ones
caught in the tower of Siloam.
The Great Litany,
which many churches use during Lent
and you can find in the Book of Common Prayer,
is a long series of petitions,
a long series of remembering
all the vagaries and risks of life,
all the ways we turn from God;
one of the petitions beseeches,
“from dying suddenly and unprepared,
Good Lord, deliver us.”

This is not a prayer that we won’t die,
that we will never suffer,
but that we should not do so unprepared.

So, perhaps the real question
of today’s Gospel is not:
“Why does suffering happen?”
Nor “Whose fault is it?”
but, “How do we prepare to live
in a world of unexplained tragedies?”

One of the best priests and preachers I know
taught me that there are only
two ways to live in this world:
with gratitude and in repentance.

Despite the tragedies that befall
the world and us,
the world is surprisingly orderly.
We have much to give thanks for.
We ask, “Why did that person die?”
but rarely ask, “Why did I awake this morning?”
Think of how your day and years unfold,
events clicking smoothly together
to ensure that daily work happens
and lovers meet.
How amazing that
art is created,
poems are written,
songs are sung,
often health scares
turn out to be nothing,
healing happens,
and we have friends
who listen and laugh and support us.
We DO know order and joy and beauty.
We see others, even ourselves,
act with generosity and courage.
Our faith gives us meaning;
the psalmist sings
of God’s steadfast love.
Our children or our parents
remind us that we matter.
For all these things and more,
we give thanks,
finding meaning and order
in our lives, in the world.
It’s NOT just all senseless tragedy. . .

The other way to live
in this world where tragedies
will erupt—due to free will,
random chance, powers and principalities—
the other way is through repentance.
Christianity didn’t create sin—
it’s been there from the start—
but in Christ we confront it,
admitting where we haven’t
born fruit,
when we’ve turned aside
from God,
but even then we can gives thanks
for a God who is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding
in steadfast love and faithfulness (psalm 86:15)
and we can have gratitude for Christ the gardener
who nurtures our roots with his life.

Gratitude and repentance are not
mere reactions, momentary responses
to a sudden event—
thanks only when something goes great,
repentance only when
we’ve really screwed up;
rather, these are habits of being,
ways of living in a world
where tyrants rule through violence,
where towers crash and fall.

For when these two habits
of gratitude and repentance
braid themselves through our lives,
having been grateful all along,
turning back to God over and over again,
recognizing that what separates
us from God
is what leads to despair,
we will not be caught unprepared
when the tower of Siloam
crashes down on us.

We will not be safe from disaster.
We will be bruised and scarred by life,
but we can have grateful and repentant hearts.

And that means that we can hear
really, truly Good News,
strangely ancient and yet ever green:
the cross of Christ,
innocent love, triumphs over
the ugliness of sin and death.
Not only triumphs over
but transforms it all
from a barren fig tree,
from that awful Friday tree
hung with terrible fruit
long ago on Calvary,
into a tree verdant with new life,
limbs outstretched,
green leaves to shade us all,
a banquet stretched out under those branches,
where all who are thirsty are quenched,
and all who are hungry are fed,
and we are home.