A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota

March 20, 2022

Luke 13:1-9

Which is worse: 

Bombing a maternity hospital or a military base?

Detonating a bomb in a church or in a prison?

Assaulting a senior citizen or a teenager?

Shooting a black person or a white person?

It’s tempting to rate sins, to put them in a hierarchy, to assign each a relative value in terms of how many people suffered or died, the degree of vulnerability of the victims, the motivation of the perpetrator, or the cultural and historical context in which the transgression took place. 

Today I want to talk about the anatomy of fear, its cause, its effects, and its relationship to the Cross, issues that are at the heart of today’s Gospel and the tragedy in Ukraine.

 Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, was known as particularly bloodthirsty, brutal and ruthless. At random, it seemed, his soldiers slaughtered a group of Galileans as they came to the temple in Jerusalem to make sacrifices – and then mixed the blood of the sacrificed animals with the blood of the Jews, profaning the holy place of worship in a particularly grotesque way. It’s as if the Charleston shooter had mixed the blood of the fallen at Bible study at Mother Emanuel Church with the Communion wine waiting on the altar. It was that unthinkable to the Jews. 

Jesus is asked if he thought the Galileans murdered by Pilate in the Temple were worse sinners than other Galileans, and also if those 18 people killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed were guiltier than those who had escaped. Is here some cause and effect at work here?

These are not surprising questions, because at this time most people assumed that suffering was correlated with, if not directly caused by, sinfulness. Sometimes, so do we.  The Presbyterian Robert Dunham says, “We still wonder what we did wrong when something bad happens. We scrutinize our behavior, our relationships, our diets, our family history, our beliefs. We hunt for some cause because then we can eliminate randomness which is the most frightening of all.”  We breathe easier when we hear this statement on the news, “It is believed that the victim knew her attacker.”

People asked Jesus about the causes of suffering because they were afraid.  Someone points out that “while Jesus does not honor the people’s illusion that they can protect themselves, he does seem to honor the vulnerability that their fright has brought up. It is not a bad thing for them to feel the fragility of their lives, not if it makes them turn toward the light. That torn place your fear opens up inside of you is a holy place. Look around while you are there.”  (2) 

Sitting with fear is difficult because it can immobilize us, stop us in our tracks and we want to get moving again, get out of that fearful state. 

Quite a while ago ago I had to visit the oncologist every three months to get the results of tests that tracked my recovery — or not. I was so anxious that I said, “Tell me–” as soon as the doc opened the door. He had to almost shout it across the office. Then when he showed me the charts and I knew I was okay, immediately I started asking him about his life: did the kids get into private school? What about his divorce? He played along because everyone likes talking about themselves. But I wanted to move on to a different topic than my condition immediately and move on from my fear. 

Yet fear can be our teacher: It reminds us of our limits and the fragility of our lives. It reminds us how deeply we love. We look at our children or one of our friends and it can scare us how much we love them, and we worry that if we lost them, it could destroy us.

Today many us have become exhausted by fear, wrung out from feeling afraid: afraid of the latest Covid statistics, afraid of getting sick, afraid of more isolation yet afraid of getting back together with people. We wonder if we have we become too comfortable alone? Too accustomed to just “tuning in” so as to eliminate the hassles of “being with”?

And now fear about COVID has morphed into fear about Ukraine and while we are afraid on a less immediate, personal level, we are devastated by the footage of what is happening to innocent people in this country. The evening news has become an endurance test.

Fear has many faces:

Fear can morph into a kind of generalized anxiety that we carry with us each day and robs us of happiness and hope.

Fear may warn of danger.

Fear can cripple us, so that we cannot even leave our home.

Fear can make us change.

In the parable Jesus shifts the topic from the causes of suffering to the need for repentance, a word which means change and amendment of life. He warns, he even threatens the crowd.

Realistically, what does it mean to repent–besides repeating a prayer on our knees on Sunday morning?

 Repentance might begin with asking ourselves some questions: Am I being stingy in my love for others? Am I withholding forgiveness for old wrongs? Do I put off looking at the big questions until a crisis comes?  Am I always setting the table for the same people? Is unwarranted fear restricting my generosity — keeping me from writing a check or making a donation or placing a call? 

Jesus goes on to tell his listeners a grim but urgent little parable with a tender, surprise ending. In the story, a gardener pleads with a landowner to give a fruitless fig tree one more year.  Space in the garden is limited and if this tree won’t produce, it must go. The gardener offers to fertilize it and cultivate it, help it along.  The fig tree is a metaphor Jesus uses for Israel. but it also could be our country, our world, or our individual lives. 

Yes, you get a second chance but there is an expiration date; the gardener agrees with the landowner that the tree can be cut down if no fruit appears on its branches in one year. Jesus points to a time limit; he reminds us of our mortality and that there is an expectation of fruitfulness for all of us. Martin Luther King called it “the fierce urgency of now.”  I think that most suffering comes from this one fact: we run out of time — to say what we meant to do, to do what we indented to, to love more than we have.  

Christianity is a religion of second chances of rebirth. If Jesus is the gardener and we are the fruitless fig tree, he fertilizes the soil around us, tending us carefully – to help us be fruitful in providing sustenance in whatever form for those around us.

I’ve had a lot of second chances: two marriages; two divorces followed by chances to rebuild a good life; two amazing children; two grandchildren; two jobs – in a school and a church; two religions — Lutheran and Episcopal – and God knows how many other second chances gracefully embedded into each and every day, month, year.

What about you? What are the second chances that have graced your life? 

We practice a religion with eternal second chances, powered by the Creator’s unending love for us, and our love for each other and for our beautiful world. The message of the Cross is that the bizarre need to punish good people because their goodness threatens the unstable forces of greed and power eventually is doomed to fail. “Today you, Ukrainians, are a symbol of invincibility,” Zelensky told his people last week. “A symbol that people in any country can become the best people on Earth at any moment.” And their plight has unleashed an unparalleled empathy a new generosity, a new unity, as people worldwide wear the blue and yellow and the national flower, the sunflower. 

Finally, a story and a postscript. The priest and writer Sam Wells tells the story of an abandoned London block with flats boarded up, debris everywhere, no grass, no trees. He writes, “For 30 years the site had been empty, since an explosion killed Mabel and Arthur, asleep in their bed in the front room downstairs. No one had ever found their bodies.  Nothing grew there until one spring a seed took root. Nobody noticed the plants for several weeks but in the end, you can’t miss a sunflower.  There it stood five or six feet tall with its heavy golden head.  Most of the local people had never seen a sunflower. Some were changed by its beauty…but most were merely bewildered; it seemed so out of place.”

He continues, “The people left the sunflower alone. They thought they’d get used to it but they couldn’t.  It showed up the drabness, the desolation around for what it was: empty ugly, dead.  One evening they went in a great crowd, and they trampled on the sunflower and danced on it, and beat the fibers of its leaves and stems and crushed its petals Then they went away in silence.  But in their dance of death, they scattered the seed over the entire site and buried some of it in the ground.  So it was that the next spring what had been a scene of desolation was covered with sunflowers and there were flowers on Mabel and Arthur’s grave at last.”

Postscript: In the Talmud — which is the rabbinic commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures– there is this: When the Israelites were cheering that they had passed through the Red Sea unarmed while the water was overing the Egyptian chariots that followed, God stilled the choirs because hie people were dying.

It’s never simple. It’s never all about categories or ratings. It’s about a Love that somehow transcends all borders. 


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