God’s Abundant Love

The Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Proper 12
July 28th, 2019

The readings for this week are:
Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-19
Luke 11:1-13

Click here to access these readings.

I’ve never really been a fan of the novels of Charles Dickens, but there’s one scene from Oliver Twist that I know decently well. You might call the scene, “I want some more.” In this scene, we find Oliver, a young boy who was orphaned as a younger boy, in a workhouse. He and his fellows are treated poorly and barely fed – just three bowls of oatmeal a day. The boys know they have to do something, and so they draw straws, and thus elect Oliver, to ask the master for more food. The film versions of this scene are what I know, and in them, this small, innocent-looking boy, dressed in rags, walks up to the master, who’s usually large, well-fed, and wearing fine clothes. And Oliver asks, very simply, “Please sir, I want some more” and offers his empty bowl. And the master’s response is, “WHAT!? MORE!?” and Oliver is punished. That idea that these workhouse boys should get more food, and the very audacity of even asking for more, is simply beyond belief for these people. The word “more” just doesn’t seem to be in their vocabulary; that is, at least for anyone but themselves.

Sometimes I wonder if this scene is a bit similar to how we approach God with our own intercessions. Sometimes, I think we have an image of God – an unconscious image, but still an image – that God’s this old man with too much to do and who’s certainly too busy to answer any of our small requests. God is the ruler of Heaven and Earth, after all, and he’s got too much work to bother about us small and insignificant people down in the dust. I know that, when I really need something, my prayers fall almost into begging. “You know God, I’m sorry, I know this is selfish, I know it’s a lot, and I’m sorry that I’m not thinking too much of other people right now, but, look, I’m sorry, but would you be so kind as to just maybe, for a little bit, maybe even just a few minutes so I can catch a breath, be with me, you know, just for a little?” Have you ever prayed one of those prayers before?

Well, Abraham, in our Old Testament reading this morning, he prays differently. Here’s Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities in the Old Testament (and in our day as well) that are bywords for corruption and evil. And God is going to check up on them, to see whether or not they’re really guilty of what is said of them. And when Abraham hears this, that God’s going to look into all these rumors of sin, he’s worried. He’s worried that this will set God off, that God will see all that sin and evil and will destroy the cities right out. And so what does he do? He prays. He prays, “Please God, are you going to destroy the good along with the bad? Surely there are at least fifty people in the whole city who are good folks. So if you find even fifty people in all the bad, don’t destroy them all, okay?” And God says, “Okay, sure.”

Now, this is a good prayer, but Abraham goes further: “What about forty-five? What if you find forty-five good folks down there? Will you destroy the whole city?” And God says, “No, I won’t.” And Abraham goes further: “What about forty? Or thirty? Or twenty? And – oh, don’t be angry with me God, please don’t be angry with me, who is dust and ashes – but what about ten?” And God says, “Sure, for the sake of ten, if I can find ten people who are good, I won’t destroy it.”

Now, in the end, God’s not able to find many more but a single family that is good, and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are in fact destroyed; but look at Abraham’s prayer. His prayer is this: more God, please, more. He brings his empty bowl before a master that is stronger and mightier than he is, who he knows through experience to be stronger and mightier than he is, and who maybe is angrier and more resentful and quicker to use that might and that strength, and yet even so, he lifts that empty bowl towards that God and he asks, “Please God, I want some more.” And God doesn’t say, as the master says to Oliver Twist, “WHAT!? MORE?!” God says, “Yes!” And to Abraham’s eyes, this must have seemed a miracle.

And, in a way, it is a miracle. God is a God of abundance, and such abundance is not often found in this world. God’s love isn’t like a zero-sum game, so that he’s only got just so much love to dole out to his children. God’s love isn’t like a pizza pie, so that if Sally over there takes two slices, then the rest of us won’t have enough to go around. God’s love is endless. God’s love is powerful and deep and fathomless and, well, endless. God’s love doesn’t stop. So when we pray, God, please love me more, give me more love, send out your Holy Spirit, God will meet us there. God will be with us. We might need to be led through some trouble before we can see that love, or experience it, or be healed by it, but that love is present, that love is full, and God is at the ready to give it to us.

And all this is true, but we have to pause and step back for a moment. Sometimes prayers aren’t answered. Sometimes we pray, as Jesus prayed in the garden, that a certain cup may be taken away from us. Sometimes our beloved dies. Sometimes our illness isn’t miraculously healed. Sometimes people don’t make it home. We live in a world where death will come, eventually, for all of us, but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us. God is still present with us in the grief. God is still here, right now, in all of our troubles and in all of our sins and in all of our worry and anxiety – God’s here, with love in his hands, hands stretched out for us to take into ourselves. And that’s because that what God brings to us, that love that God brings, is more powerful than death, deeper than sin, and the miracles of miracles because it is pure and joyful Life.

So, yes, we have to pray knowing that our prayers may not be answered. And yes, we must pray knowing that all our desires are not good desires. But, even so, we are called on to pray, and to pray fervently, for all life and love and goodness, and for that life and love and goodness to be poured out onto the world in its fullness. Don’t be scared to go to your Father in Heaven and pray with a full and open heart that he opens his beating heart of love to you and to the world more fully. Because our God isn’t like the master in Oliver’s workhouse. Our God is like the grandparent who buys the grandchild another ice cream cone even though the parent said, “No, you’ve had enough.” Our God is like the ground, which, when you put a seed in it and give it some water, grows whole gardens and forests of life. Our God is like the apple tree behind our house here in Coquille, that has so many apples on it that they weigh the branches down to the ground. Our God is like a feast for Hobbits that can eat all day and even then still be hungry. Our God is like our dogs and cats and other pets, who keep on loving us and loving us and loving us no matter how tired or exhausted or worried we are. Our God is like all this and more, because God is a God of abundance, and that abundance is of Love and Life and things like Love and Life never, ever end.

So pray. Pray with a full and open heart. Sing out your praise, weep your worries, let your hopes and dreams be carried out into the world by the Holy Spirit. But whatever you do, pray it and pray it without fear. For in God is all life and all love. And in God all of our prayers may find their true home.

God is Very Near You

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10
July 14th, 2019

Today’s readings are:
Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 25:1-9
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Click here to access these readings.

            Our reading from Deuteronomy this morning reminds me of how you find good pizza in New Jersey. It’s true. Often, when you’re looking for the best food you go to the best (and that means fanciest) restaurant, right? If you want great Italian food in general, there are a lot of places in New Jersey with cloth napkins and waiters with black bow ties and where you’ll pay, at least, $20 for a plate of spaghetti. Or, when you want a good steak, you’re not going to go to a fast food restaurant and pick something off the menu; you’re going to go to a nice place on a special day like your anniversary. And you’ll get a good cut of beef.

            But if you want a good pizza, you don’t need to go far. I think the best pizza in the world is out of a place called Joe’s Pizzarea in Flemington, New Jersey. It’s a little shop in a strip mall tucked away behind a supermarket where I worked as a kid. And they have the best pizza in the world (and the best cheese-steaks). Helene, though, disagrees. She likes a place in the strip mall in her town, in Middletown NJ, also near a supermarket and of the same, tiny size. These are the guys who, when they heard that Helene’s dad had died, gave us five or six free pizzas because “Lou was such an awesome guy.” You don’t need to go into New York City to find good pizza, and you don’t have to go to a fancy restaurant. These local shops know it best.

            Our reading in Deuteronomy is saying just this same sorta thing, though here we’re not talking about pizza but about God’s love. We desire God’s love. We long for it and hope for it like a man from New Jersey desires some good pizza, or a woman from the shore longs for good seafood, or someone from the great plains dreams of long, waving fields of grass, or when you’re out on a business trip and all you want to do is sleep in your own bed. And when we are out in the world, and we wonder how to act, and we say to ourselves: should I speak up? Should I keep my mouth shut? Should I take the job? Should I move to be near my grandkids? And we lift our eyes up to God and we say: “God, what should I do? Please, give me your commandments. Send me your love, your love that I long for every day and every night.”

            And what we hear in Deuteronomy this morning is, hey, you don’t have to go to New York City to find a good piece of pizza. When you want to hear a word from God, you don’t have to go up to heaven so you can listen in on the talk of angels and God Almighty. You don’t have to go across the sea to learn from a guru on a mountaintop. For the Word is very near you: it is in your mouth and in your heart to observe. And what this means is that we have God’s word, God’s answer to our questions and our longings and our hopes, right here. And not just here in at St. James, but that God is speaking to us, individually, in each of our hearts and in each of our prayers. So be with God in our questions. Talk to God about our hopes and dreams. Long for God in thought, word, and deed, and you shall find him beside you.

Well, that’s all very nice, but, at the end of the day, is it true? Is it true that all we need to do is listen to ourselves – listen to the thoughts of our hearts and God’s own personal word to us in prayer – and with that alone, we’ll find God? Well, in a way, no, it’s not. Or, at least, it’s not the only way to find God. There’s also the church – little ‘c’ church that’s here at St. James in Coquille, little ‘c’ church again in our diocesan life, and little ‘c’ church again in the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the Anglican Communion worldwide. It’s also the big “C” Church, the universal Church that stretches across time and space. We are part of a community that lives in everywhere from Oregon to New Zealand to the northern tip of Scotland; a community that has thrived for two thousand years; and in which we’re still the Church whether we call ourselves Episcopalians, Baptists, or Catholics. And as Christians, we are called on to take part in that community. We’re called on to study the wisdom of Church tradition, to be in communion with other Christians whose practices and theologies look pretty wacky to us, but even so they’re still worshipping the same God and living and believing in the power of the Spirit (and at the end of the day, little more really matters). Part of our life in Christ is that, while we listen to the call of God to us in our own lives, our own loves, and our own hopes, while we continue to develop that personal relationship with have with God through Jesus Christ, we also open our ears to the Church (big ‘c’ or little ‘c’). For we alone are not enough.

But when we hear, and when we ourselves say, that God is very near us, we don’t mean that he’s only with us, or that he’s with us and certainly not with those guys over there. When we say that God is very near us, what we’re saying is that we can stop looking around all over the place for God and, instead, simply start loving. Don’t go to some far away country or search out some higher form of prayer – those things are good in themselves, of course, and we can learn a lot about God in other countries or from deeper forms of prayer. But God isn’t just at the end of the journey, waiting there and checking his watch because, you know, we’re really taking our time and we’re pretty late coming home. God is at the end of the journey, surely, but he’s also with us at the beginning of the journey and all throughout. God is very near us. And that nearness, and realizing that nearness and living into that nearness, that’s the point of all this. That’s the point of being a Christian. And yes, of course, realizing this nearness will lead us to do good things in the world around us and it will help us grow into more virtuous, God-loving people. But the point of living the Christian life isn’t just to do some good things and be virtuous for our own sake. It is to grow in Christ, to be open ever more fully to the breath of the Holy Spirit blowing through all of Creation. The point is to be near God, to be very near to God, and to invite and bring others into that life.

And this living, this living near to God, it does something to us. It builds us into people who are like Jesus Christ. In theological language, it makes us Sons and Daughters in the image of Jesus, the first Son of God Almighty. Like him, we will become truly human. And living such a life, we will then, like Jesus before us, go out into the world to continue his good work, be it at the county fair, at the food bank, at the barber shop downtown on Mondays, or in our normal, day-to-day interactions with the people of this world. But it all starts from living a life with God. It all begins, lives, and ends, with God.

 

The Trinity

Trinity Sunday
16 June 2019

The readings for this day are:

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Click here to access these readings.

       Let’s start this morning with a field trip in the BCP.  Could you grab your red Book of Common Prayer and turn to page 307, please.  It’s right at the bottom of the page, marked with a nice big heading “The Baptism.”  Now, this section is right smack dab in the middle of the liturgy for Baptism.  This is where the actual baptism happens.  The part in italics (called the rubrics) tell us that each candidate is presented by name, then each person is immersed or has water poured over them.  And while they are in the water, these words are spoken: [person’s name], I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

       Now, why do we do this?  Why do we, when we bring people into the Church through the Sacrament of Baptism, do so in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit?  Why not just “in the name of God”?  Why use God’s name at all?  Well, the easy answer is that Jesus told us to do this.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to go out and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  But as we do this, and do it faithfully and joyfully, we may also ask: why?  Why do we baptize in the name of the Trinity and not in some other way?

       We Christians believe that the true nature of God is found in the idea of the Trinity.  God is One, but God is also Three.  And God’s how we might be when we’re in different groups, so, even though there’s just one of us, we act differently with our families, our friends, and out in public.  And it’s not as if God is a set of three identical triplets, each that looks very much alike but, at the end of the day, are really just different people.  No, God is One and God is Three.

And if this makes your brain hurt trying to imagine how God can be both One and Three at the same time, don’t worry.  The Trinity is a very complicated, often confusing part of our faith, and many good, intelligent people have spent their whole careers trying to find different ways to explain something so beautiful.  That said, the Trinity isn’t something big and complicated like, say, the motions of the planets or the tectonic plates, that if we think about them for a long time, we’ll be able to fully understand them.  But when we look at our lives, and when we look at what is revealed to us in Scripture, when we listen with our hearts and minds and souls, we begin not just to understand that Trinity but to live it, breathe it, and walk in it.

Our readings this morning are part of this revelation.  Now, historically, the concept of the Trinity – the idea of it – was not thought up until the fourth century.  Christians in the fourth century were very much concerned with the exact nature of the relationship between Jesus and God the Father.  And one of the things produced from fourth century discussions is the Nicene Creed, which can be very technical at times with its language about “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father.”  But all of these discussions weren’t just vague philosophizing and people making up theories off the top of their heads.  No, these early Christians were drawing the understanding of the Trinity from how God had revealed himself in Scriptures – in what we call the Old and New Testaments – and in the life of Jesus Christ.

We see some of this revelation in our readings today.  We see it in our reading from Proverbs, where the Wisdom of God stands like a master worker at the founding of the world.  And this Wisdom isn’t just being wise but seems to be a person, a being, for God delights in him, and Wisdom rejoices in God and the world that was created, and humanity with it.  And in Romans, St. Paul describes God’s life as being love poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, bringing to us a peace – even in suffering – through Jesus Christ.  St. Paul doesn’t tease it all out for us, or separate all the components of God like a little kid at school lunch who takes apart each piece of his sandwich; but instead he says that the life of the Father and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are intricately intertwined.  For the language lovers of you, God is not just about nouns but about prepositions for St. Paul.  God’s about ‘through’ and ‘in’ and ‘with’ and ‘inside’, about poured into and living with and given through, so that God is revealed to be not just some bearded guy on a throne with people at his feet but a being of living, breathed life and who pulls us into that life so that we may be healed and sanctified into that relationship.

And there is, of course, Jesus himself: his words and his deeds and his very being.  Time and time again Jesus speaks, acts, or directly identifies himself with God the Father, and the Spirit together with them.  Jesus, and God, and the Holy Spirit are, in some way, revealed to be in an intricate relationship with one another.  And it was this relationship that the fourth century councils, through reading and contemplation and prayer, came together to write the creeds.

But we don’t believe only because the Bible and the Creeds tell us to do so.  The Bible and the Creeds are an authority in our lives as Christians, surely, but they themselves live and breathe in the context of our faith here in the present.  For we see, even in our own individual lives, that the God of the Bible and the God of the Creeds is still alive today, grounding us, healing us, and breathing new life into us.  We experience God the Son, God in Jesus Christ, in those times when we find healing and goodness in the most turbulent of times.  When we turn from our own darkness, when we turn from hatred or disdain or sorrow, when we are caught in that darkness and hatred and disdain and feel a steady hand turning our hearts towards light and life and goodness; that it is the life of Jesus Christ born within us doing this work. 

And in this healing, in this turning from despair and darkness, we are not only led back to a sort of status quo but are lifted higher into light.  This is the work of the Holy Spirit, who won’t let us remain in complacency, but will show us a deeper life, a fuller life, a more hopeful and giving life that is ever the promise of God.  And this life is founded on something strong, something sure, something that will never move, something that is not a “thing” but is the Creator and Guider of all Creation, a being of truth that will never stop loving us; and this being we call God the Father.  And all this work of God, the work of Jesus and of the Spirit and of the Father, all of this is to bring Creation into a fullness where there is no grief or despair, no hatred or resentment, but goodness and love for all eternity.  

We as Christians have dedicated our lives to this Trinity.  In Baptism, whether we were baptized as a child or led into the faith by others, in Baptism, we were all brought into the Church; in the Eucharist we meet Jesus and are healed with his hands of love; in the Sacraments we are nurtured into the Life that was born and is growing within us; and in our mission, our good work as the Church, we bring that Life out into the world that is so deep in hurt and sorrow.  For that Life that we have seen in Scripture, and that the Church has proclaimed for the past two thousand years, is here now in this present day, in this very room, in your very hearts, speaking to the Life that is in the hearts of those sitting around you as well.  For the life of the Church is a Trinitarian life that seeks to heal, to love, and to ground things in the source of all goodness and love, which is God, our creator, our savior, and our light in this world.

The Language of Our Salvation

Pentecost

The readings for today are:
Genesis 11:1-9
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-27

Click here to access these readings.

        If you’ve ever spent time in a foreign country, you know that something funny happens with your language.  It happened to me while I was in Japan.  And it was this: suddenly, with any warning (it seemed), I was utterly and completely illiterate.  Signs – they meant nothing to me.  Menus at restaurants, safety information that comes in furniture, my receipts, even my teaching contract; I couldn’t read a thing.  Nor could I understand anything that was said, either.  I sat in teacher’s meetings and only understood a few names.  Every week I bought food at the grocery store and only understood a “please” or “thank you.”  My students, who had about as much skill with English as I had with Japanese, tried in vain to tell me about their studies, or baseball, or themselves, or to ask about the U.S.  And I could understand, or say, a little bit.  Here I was, in a country that I had studied and loved for many years, and I couldn’t interact with it beyond, “Isn’t it sunny today.”

        Now, I always knew that I’d be basically illiterate in Japan.  I knew that my language skills (especially in speaking and listening) were pretty poor.  I know that I’d have a hard time.  But I didn’t expect it to be so frustrating.  I’m a reader by nature.  I like talking to people.  I wanted to talk to people.  I met people my own age, older folks who had lived through WWII, Buddhist monks who had such different beliefs than my own, and even fellow Christians who were about as excited to speak to me as I was to speak to them – and yet, there was that barrier between us.  There was that barrier of language – a barrier that so often connects people together but here it was like the Tower of Babel, and language kept us apart.

        And in all this frustration, there were little havens of calm and grace.  One of these times I was up in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan.  I was on vacation with a bunch of friends, and they went off skiing.  And since I’m horrible at skiing, I wandered around on my own for a bit.  Then, on the train back to Sapporo, this young Japanese guy comes up to me and says, “Hey, are you American?  Do you speak English?”  You see, this guy loved English, just about as much probably as I loved Japanese.  And he had just gotten back from studying in Australia, where he spoke this language he loved day in and day out.  And, really, he was kinda lonely for it.  He wanted to hear it again from a native, and to speak it himself. 

        We were immediately friends.  We told each other about our families, where we grew up, our dreams and excitements and hopes, everything.  In the seat in front of us was another guy, a young man from Korea who was travelling alone, and when he heard us talking and laughing, he turned around and joined in.  His English wasn’t as good as the other guy’s, but he kept on with the story-telling as best as he could.  It was great.  And, for a while, I was home.  Yeah, sure, I was fourteen time zones, 6,237 miles (I checked this) from where I was born.  I was on a train, in a country where I was completely illiterate, talking to people who I had only met just that day, but I was home.  In my language, I was home.

        Pentecost is about being home.  Well, Pentecost is about a lot of things, but one of the big things it’s about is being home.  But it’s not just about being home but about hearing home.  Because on the day of Pentecost, we remember a miracle.  And it’s not just the miracle of the tongues of fire above everyone’s head, as I have pictured on the front of your bulletins.  It’s the miracle that, suddenly, the disciples were preaching the Gospel, they were speaking of the devotion and love and hope of God, not just in one language, but in every language.  But not as if the Holy Spirit were some sort of spiritual Google Translate, where you put in the Gospel and it churns out some wacky translation that makes little sense to a native speaker.  No, the miracle here is that the lonely Parthian over there, far from home that he can taste it in his dreams, suddenly hears the tongue he grew up with; or the Egyptian hears the exact accent of Egyptian of his beloved wet-nurse.  These people hear the Gospel, the Gospel of salvation and love and hope, not in a foreign language that they barely know, or a second language they’re struggling to make sense of; but their own language, their mother tongue, the language they were raised in and in which they were taught who they were, the language they thought in, dreamed in, argued in, and hoped in.  It was in this language, so close to their hearts, that they heard the Gospel.

        And this is a miracle, I think, that we often miss: that God saw fit to say, not “Come over here, I’ve got something to tell you” but “I will come to you.”  Now, there are many things in Christianity to which we need to align ourselves.  We are to die to sin and be risen (not “raise ourselves” but “be risen”) by God into new life.  We are to remake our lives, by the Holy Spirit, according to the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church.  We are to practice the virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, justice, faith, hope, and charity.  And all of these things are not in ourselves but in God.  Just as we say in the Baptismal Covenant, we must turn, each and every day, from the powers of evil and to the goodness of the Lord.

        So are we called to live a life to Christ, but the language of this call, and it’s voice, speaks to our heart of hearts.  In the story here in Acts, on the day of Pentecost, this took the form of an actual language, but it’s much bigger than that.  God created each of us not as carbon copies of one another but as distinct individuals.  And God, in raising us up to be his own daughters and sons in the image of Jesus Christ, God does not erase who we are.  We aren’t like those old floppy disks full of corrupt information that God needs to reformat and start again.  We aren’t even like a weedy garden that God has to spend time with in the dirt, yanking out the bad and sticking in new, prettier plants.  We are God’s children, his beloved, and those good things that we love, those things we hope for and yearn for, all those things that we go to in love, these are the things through which God calls us and hopes for us as well.  There’s quite a bit of death before the resurrection, surely, and that death can sometimes feel like being nailed up on a cross, but at the end of the day what God is aiming for is not the death, not the pain and sorrow of loss, but the resurrection, the golden light of the new dawn on all of our Easter day.  And God gave us these things that we love – be they our gardens or our children and grand-children, works of great literature or whatever college football team you root for – God gave us these gifts in love to pull us up towards himself.  Just as the people on Pentecost heard the Gospel in their own tongues, erasing the destruction of Babel, so too do we hear the Gospel in the love language of our own soul, which God made.

        Today is Pentecost, and it’s the start of the season of Pentecost.  We call it Ordinary time, but it’s anything but ordinary.  For the past half-year, ever since Christmas, we’ve been hearing about and thinking about Jesus’ life, his death, and his resurrection, and about the life that he brought to us in Salvation.  But now, now in Ordinary time, we listen to God’s call to us on Pentecost to help bring that light out into the world.  And what does that look like?  Well, we’ve got six months of Ordinary time to talk about it and discuss it.  But at its core, it’s the same work of Pentecost: for just as God met us where we are, and called us through our joys and sorrows and hopes, so are we called to be present in the lives of others, to speak to them the Good News of Jesus Christ in a language they understand.  In our world, putting ourselves – our own needs and our own path – aside to sit and listen to another, then to preaching a Gospel of mercy, forgiveness, and love; that’s a rare thing in our world.  But it’s the work of the Spirit.  It’s the life of Jesus Christ that we’ve just heard about and walked through ourselves these past six months.  And it is a call from God, our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sanctifier, to love, to love, and to never stop loving.

 

God’s Love in Tragic Times

Fr. Tim’s sermon for the third week of Lent, March 24th, 2019

Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Click here to access these readings.

            Sometimes, there’s not that much difference between our times and those of Jesus.  This isn’t always the case, of course.  First century Palestine was a very different place and time than 21st century Coquille.  Not only were there no cell phones, but no phones, nor telegraphs, nor even an organized, national postal service.  Life was more focused on the family, centered around farms and small towns.  There were kings, generals, and emperors.  And this is saying nothing of differences in culture or religious worship, everything from how they married and died to how they began a meal.  Jesus was talking to a culture much different from our own, and it’s important to remember that when we try to understand what the Bible is saying.

            But the people of first century Palestine were human, and there are certain things that all humans struggle with.  And one of these common human experiences is tragedy.  What do we do when tragedy strikes?  How do we deal with our sudden grief, our anger, our sudden, arrested hopes?  How do we make sense of the world after a tragedy and, perhaps most importantly, how do we understand God in all of it?  Who is God to us now that we’ve been through such grief?

            And people in Jesus’ time, just like people today, try to make sense of tragedy and, especially, of God’s role in (or God’s absence) from grief.  We hear about a few such instances in our readings this morning, where people reflected on tragedy and asked, “Where is God in all this?”  And just as we might wonder about natural disasters and accidents like the floods in Nebraska, earthquakes in Asia, tsunami in Japan, the people in Jesus’ day were wondering just the same things, here about a building that fell on top of people, killing eighteen of them.  Such sudden accidents and disasters seem to have no reason behind them.  People were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the weather just took a nasty turn, or the earthquake came from a place, and at a time, when no one expected it. 

            And as we reflect, we might wonder, “Why did this happen?”  And there are always reasons: earthquakes come from the movement of tectonic plates; the weather in Nebraska was particularly bad this year, the tower of Siloam’s foundation was weak and old.  Asking these questions can lead us to answers that, hopefully, can prevent or lessen tragedies in the future.  But it is human nature, it seems, to ask not just “Why did this happen?” but “Why did this happen to them?”  Why did this tragedy happen to these people?  We humans want to understand everything, to make even things that are natural occurrences into things that can fit into a nice, neat, rational box.  And so we want to know, “Why them?”

            The people in Jesus’ time, and a generation later in St. Paul’s time, were asking just this question.  And their answer?  Those people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them?  The Galileans who Pilate killed?  Or those people destroyed by serpents?  They must have suffered these tragedies, people were saying, because they deserved it somehow.  They must have done something wrong, people thought, and these tragedies, they must have been some sort of cosmic backlash.  It was their sin, people decided, that had led them into disaster.

            And this line of thinking, as I said, is natural.  We humans love figuring out the reasons for things.  We don’t just want to know “how” but also “why”.  And our faith tells us that God is present in all things, working all Creation to the good.  And if this is true, the thinking goes, then it must mean that God wanted these people to die.  Tragedy occurs only to those who sin, those who “deserve” it.  And so we end up blaming the victims and blaming God.

             But Jesus rejects this way of thinking.  He challenges those who were gossiping about the guilt of those who Pontius Pilate killed, or about those who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them – Jesus challenges, and rejects, the idea that our tragedies have anything to do with our moral worth.  Just as we don’t earn our way into Heaven, but are given salvation as a free gift of grace; so too we don’t earn tragedies and disasters by our sins.  Our sins can hurt others, and hurt ourselves, and sins have a great effect on our community and society, but sins don’t necessarily cause towers to fall down or rivers to flood.

            So what, then, does Jesus ask us to do?  We are still human, we still want to know “why”, and not just so that we can prevent tragedies from happening in the future.  Humans are why to the bottom of Creation and back, and if we can’t blame ourselves or God, then what do we do in the face of these tragedies?  Jesus doesn’t say blame, but he says “repent”, which in Greek is “metanoia”, to turn, or RE-turn, to God.  This is the same turning we talked about with the baptismal covenant, where we turn from sin and doubt and hatred to love, joy, and grace in Jesus Christ.  And this is our call, always, as Christians, that when tragedy strikes, whether it is the falling of a tower or a natural disaster, or even if it is something where a person can indeed be blamed, we are to return to God and refound ourselves in his eternal love.  And this is why, on the day we read these stories from Luke’s gospel and St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church, when we read about people struggling to make sense of the world, our lectionary also has us read the story of the burning bush and how deeply founded God’s eternal covenant is with us human beings.  Our God is not just so powerful that he can move us around like little pieces on a chessboard, but our God is that great being that is the beating heart of all reality.  God, the source of all love and hope and joy and all good, true, and beautiful things, is where Jesus directs our gaze and the ground in which he firmly plants our wandering feet.

            And yet, we may still ask: sky do tragedies happen?  Why do bad things happen to good people, or, if not just good people, then people simply going about their lives, good or bad, trying so hard to be happy?  Many generations and many cultures have asked this question, and no one has come up with a perfect answer.  But what we do know is this: that Jesus cried at the grave of Lazarus, that God is present with those who are sick, or who mourn, or who grieve, and that after death Heaven shines with a radiant light that knows no sorrow.  When we face tragedy, or death, or despair, Jesus says, do not blame.  Do not seek reasons in the moral worth of others.  Turn to God, for God will not just make your sorrow or doubt disappear, but will plant it firmly in the rich soil of true reality. And there, in the light of Heaven itself, we may find healing, and reconciliation, and hope.