There’s an old joke about two campers out in the woods who startle a bear and wind up on the run with the bear in hot pursuit. One camper screams to the other one, “Do you think you really think you can run faster than a bear?” The other camper screams back, “No! – I just have to run faster than you!”
There is an element of this mentality in the questions Jesus was asked in Luke 13. “Jesus, wouldn’t you say that the awful way those Galileans died was proof of their great sinfulness?” You can almost hear the scales balancing in the heads of the people asking the questions: “They must have been awful sinners; we just need to be holier than that to get in!” The thing is, you can’t out-holify your neighbor any more than you can outrun a bear. A bear’s stomach will get full eventually, but our appetite for self-righteousness can be all-consuming.
Let us pray: Merciful God, your patience is enduring and your love is steadfast. But we know that you desire repentance. We know that we have not met your intention for our lives, and we know we cannot meet that intention without your Spirit within us. We endlessly compare ourselves with our neighbors rather than filling our lives with your word and your promises. Raise in us the desire to turn away from that which kills us in our sins, and turn us toward your life-giving mercy and your promises of redemption and peace. All this we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
In this life we are surrounded by danger. Earthquakes kill thousands in the briefest moments. Stock markets crash. Politicians posture and protect their chances of re-election, while the homeless freeze and starve on our streets and thousands of American children live without adequate medical insurance. But in the midst of all of this, we can take heart: at least we’re not as bad as Tiger Woods, right? We aren’t as ignorant as President Bush or as corrupt as the Clintons, and thank heavens we’re not socialists like our non-citizen President Obama. So long as we’re staying ahead of the game, we’ll be all right. Don’t drink, don’t smoke and always wear your seatbelt: you’ll be fine.
Are we afraid? Yes, sometimes we are very much afraid, and when we are afraid, we surround ourselves with the right kind of people: folks who have it all together, who know that if you do right, you’ll be right. And so we protect ourselves by ostracizing the wrong sorts of people and the unlucky and the sinners until we’ve created our own little kingdom where goodness thrives because we eliminate anyone or anything that shows the slightest bit of bad luck, trouble or sin. And we make our peace with this by telling ourselves that it was our neighbors’ sins that put them out of the group. We confess that our neighbors are captive to sin and cannot free themselves – but that’s not our problem.
When Jesus encountered this mentality in the gospel of Luke, he didn’t hesitate to blow it right out of the water, because it was poisoning the minds and hearts of his followers. When confronted with the dangerous confessions of a neighbor’s sin, Jesus reminded his listeners that they would indeed “get what’s coming to them,” but the only thing that was coming was death. Jesus told his listeners that there was no safety in hiding behind the terrible misfortunes of others; confessing a neighbor’s sin to mask your own sin was, and is, a terribly dangerous thing to do. Jesus wanted nothing to do with it.
One of the oldest questions we theologians have to face is the question of the “benevolent savage.” Keep in mind that in saying “we theologians,” I mean everyone in this room and everyone reading this online: if you learn and speak of God, you are indeed a theologian. So, theologians, imagine a native tribal family somewhere in the depths of darkest Africa. They’ve lived in a small village all their lives and they care for each other in the best way they are able to do. Father and mother honor and cherish their children, and the children dutifully care for their parents and grandparents when they are no longer able to care for themselves. In all their deeds they follow the law: they do not steal, they do not slander their neighbors, they remain true to their spouses, they do not kill, and so on. But they have never heard of Jesus. No one has ever come to them with the good news of Christ. And so the question is: what happens to these wonderful people when they die? No one ever gave them the gospel: is that their fault?
This is just another version of the dangerous confession of a neighbor’s sin, and it’s one of the oldest. When it came up in my Lutheran confessions class with Gerhard Forde and Jim Nestingen, they shot back with this confrontational answer: “Who are you thinking of, and what are you waiting for?” Genuine faith is not an abstract, intellectual exercise. Genuine faith is a deeply personal experience that rises out of a mingling of human interaction and divine intervention. The benevolent savage of our story doesn’t exist: what does exist is a neighbor who needs the gospel – period.
Jesus didn’t come to offer hypothetical faith. God did not become incarnate in order to confirm our prejudices about our neighbors’ problems. The Holy Spirit will not reveal the reasons behind our neighbor’s misfortune. So it’s time to stop the dangerous practice of confessing our neighbor’s sin. Jesus couldn’t have been more clear: what happens to others happens to others, but your sins will find you out. Our reading from Isaiah this morning describes the consequences of confessing our neighbor’s sin:
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
The dangerous confession of the sins of others is the spiritual equivalent of cotton candy laced with asbestos: sweet to the taste, but completely unfulfilling, and poisonous to boot. There is no way to climb to heaven on the shoulders of the sinners around you – Jesus won’t have it that way.
You almost have to pity those people who listened to Jesus teach that day on the road to Jerusalem. They wanted Jesus to say, “Nah, you guys are doing just fine – nothing like that is going to happen to you.” They came to Jesus afraid of the world around them, and they hoped proving that sinners get their just desserts would also prove that they would be protected by their own high virtue. But that’s not the way it works. Barbara Brown Taylor, a religion professor from Piedmont College and an Episcopal priest, put it this way:
“While Jesus does not honor their illusion that they can protect themselves in this way, he does seem to honor the vulnerability that their fright has opened up in them. It is not a bad thing for them to feel the full fragility of their lives. It is not a bad thing for them to count their breaths in the dark -- not if it makes them turn toward the light.”
You will not find life avoiding the dangers around you or hiding behind your neighbor's sins. Jesus says it himself: “repent, or perish.” There is no allegory in this gospel text to save us from the changes and chances of life. Accidents will happen. Planes will crash. Earthquakes will destroy buildings. Floodwaters will rage. Worst of all, people will do things to you that will cause unimaginable pain, and they won’t care how bad you hurt. Not at all. BUT. THEY. WILL. NOT. WIN.
This parable is not about your neighbor. This parable is not about avoiding accidents or how to have good luck. This parable is about you. You are the tree being prepared to bear fruit. I cannot live a life of repentance for you. You cannot live a life of repentance hiding behind the sins of others. You, and only you, can bear the burden of genuine repentance, which means real self-examination and the excruciating pain of knowing exactly who you are and what kinds of sins God will forgive.
Did you catch that last word? Forgive. That’s the hope in all this misfortune. That’s the victory that comes after this crushing defeat. You are a forgiven child of God, and no accident, no earthquake, no sin of your own or of someone else can ever take that away from you. The signs of Christian life are repentance and forgiveness, like the sides of a coin. Sometimes you will be fortunate, and sometimes you will not. Sometimes you’ll get along well with your neighbor, and sometimes you will not. But in all times, we repent, and God forgives, and life is bestowed upon us. Jesus doesn’t offer safety to his followers: he offers life, with all its uncertainties, but life filled with the joy of knowing that no matter what may happen, we can never be separated from the love of God.
When the earthquakes hit Haiti on January 12th, ELCA seminarians Ben and Renee Larson and their cousin Jon were working in a new Lutheran school, which collapsed. Renee and Jon escaped, but Ben did not. Renee and Jon
“went back to the place where they had crawled out and called again for Ben. Renee said she heard Ben's voice. He was singing, not unusual for Ben who loved music. "I told him I loved him, and that Jon and I were okay, and to keep singing," Renee said. But the singing stopped after he sang the words "God's peace to us we pray," she said. "If he was alive, he would have been calling for help desperately," Renee said. "Ben spent his last breath singing."
Do we weep for Renee Larson and her pain? Yes, in the love of God we weep for her and wish these things were not as they are. But the earthquakes were just that: earthquakes. They were not a sign. They were not a punishment. They simply came, and killed the righteous and unrighteous alike.
Earthquakes will come.
God’s peace to us we pray.
Dreams will be shattered.
God’s peace to us we pray.
We will not have all the answers.
God’s peace to us we pray.
But we have this answer: here, today, we are the ones who are forgiven, called to bear fruit in this time, in this place.
God’s peace to us we pray.
Love the Lord your God with all your soul, heart, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
God’s peace to us we pray. Amen.