Sermon by The Rev. Patrick J. Wingo, March 24, 2019

Sermon by The Rev. Patrick J. Wingo, March 24, 2019

Thank you for tuning into Ascensioncast. We hope you enjoy listening to this and our other podcasts. You can find more information at www.knoxvilleascension.org or by emailing info@knoxvilleascension.org. Old Testament Reading: Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lordappeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”

The Gospel: Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

Sermon Text Sermon for Lent 3C – CAK The Rev Patrick J Wingo Since it is Lent, today’s Old Testament and Gospel lessons of course present to us different ways of understanding how God sees us in our suffering and our sin. In Exodus, in the famous story of God’s call to Moses from the burning bush, we hear God say this to Moses: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” And in the gospel reading from Luke we hear Jesus respond to some people who told him about a horrible massacre in which Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, not only quelled an unruly mass of Jews with his soldiers, but then put their blood on the Jew’s sacrifices, thereby desecrating their worship. He added that  eighteen people who died in a construction accident were no worse sinners than anyone else living in Jerusalem. These are very Lenten readings, because they continue the Ash Wednesday theme of confronting our mortality. Lent reminds us of our fragile human condition and that we are all in need of repentance. The Ash Wednesday refrain still echoes—“remember that you are dust.” Remember indeed. Remember that towers can fall, and that bad things can happen to good people, like those Galileans that Pilate killed and abused. Remember that there are still places in the world where people live in situations like God’s people did five thousand years ago in Egypt—as slaves under the control of a crazy despot, in terrible conditions, with virtually no hope. Remember that suffering knows no bounds. A hard lesson, even in Lent. In our readings Jesus also reiterates that we do not suffer because of our sin. God is not the initiator of pain, God does not bring suffering upon us because we are sinners, but God is always faithful and merciful. I have heard people say over the years that Lent should be a time to renew a healthy fear of God, and those phrases in the gospel reading might back that up: “Unless you repent,” Jesus said, “you will all perish.” But Lent is not a time to become fearful of God, nor is Lent simply a season of weighing our lives so that God’s accounting ledger will be in balance and we won’t have to pay up. For some reason that crude understanding of God tends to continue to be acceptable in some places—perhaps some people need that; for others, my suspicion is that it gets in the way of a growing and deepening faith. When we sin, the punishment is found in the way that sin makes us less than who God made us to be. Repentance is simply turning toward God, toward God’s hope for us. When we suffer it is not God who brings the suffering, but instead God suffers with us, just as Jesus suffered as we do and suffered for us on the cross. God does not punish us for our human fragility. God is a God of love, of second chances, God has made us in God’s own image and calls us to live toward that image every day. The problem of human suffering is called ‘theodicy.’ It has been around as long as people have believed in God, as long as we have asked “why?” And there have been attempts to explain it as long as people gave thought to it, going back to the book of Job in the Old Testament, but certainly earlier than that. Why? Why did something bad happen to me? Why do people have to die? Why would a loving God allow evil in the world? Why? The attempts to answer those questions fill up volumes. Many of them come from the point of view that God is the great judge in the sky, or the sneaky puppet-master pulling all the strings. For me, and maybe for you, those answers seem pretty hollow. There are some well thought-out answers out there, but intellectual explanations don’t do much good when awful events bring about a crisis of faith. Of course there are some easy answers, and I guess some people need those. But if we have to believe that God causes bad things to happen in our lives because we don’t pray enough, or because we sinned, or because we don’t have faith, then we are more likely to be angry with God than to love God. No, God suffers when we suffer, God weeps when we weep, God carries us through the roughest times in our lives. And God gives us a break when our fragility makes us stumble or miss the mark on our journey through life. All the while God is calling us to be the best of who God made us to be. It makes sense that Jesus would tell his followers that God didn’t punish those Galileans or those construction workers at the tower because of their sin, and then tell the parable of the fig tree. That parable shows the great lengths to which God goes to give us every opportunity to make the most of our lives. The landowner’s request to cut down the fig tree wasn’t unreasonable. If you own a vineyard you don’t want plants just taking up space—you want fruit. But the patience of the gardener reflects the patience of God—who always hopes that we will repent, who always hopes that we will see the light of the gospel, who always hopes that, given a little more time, a little more fertilizer and care toward our spiritual lives, we will turn our lives toward Christ. Jesus’ listeners were people of the soil; they would have realized immediately how patient God is even in the face of fruitlessness. As the Old Testament reading reminds us, God knows our sufferings and responds to us in them, so much so that God delivered the Israelites out of slavery and into the land flowing with milk and honey. And Jesus emphasized that God does not punish us for our sin. But what are we to do when we cannot get past the pain? Elie Wiesel, the Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor, wrote a play called The Trial Of God, in which God is called as the defendant because of how God’s children suffer. Here’s how one writer sums up the play: “The trial lasted several nights. Witnesses were heard, evidence was gathered, conclusions were drawn, all of which issued finally in a unanimous verdict: the Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, was found guilty of crimes against creation and humankind. And then, after what Wiesel describes as an “infinity of silence”, the Talmudic scholar looked at the sky and said “It’s time for evening prayers”, and the members of the tribunal recited Maariv, the evening service.” We need somewhere to go with our grief, our pain, and our anger at the way things are. Maybe it’s even important for us to put God on trial, and in our own way pronounce guilt, and maybe we do that in our hearts more than we even realize. And I’m sure that God can certainly take it when we do so. But we also need to go beyond the blame to a deeper place, where we experience the mercy of God in the midst of pain, into the prayers said in darkness, into the prayers we cannot say, when our community must say them for us. Here’s how Barbara Brown Taylor writes about our Gospel lesson: “Jesus touches the panic they have inside of them about all the things that are happening around them. They are terrified of those things—for good reason. They have searched their hearts for any bait that might bring disaster sniffing their way. They have lain awake at night making lists of their mistakes. 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.” It’s a dark world we live in. Why make it any darker than it already is by believing in a wrath-filled God? The biblical story records our human frailty, fragility and stupidity, all the while also recording God’s faithfulness, love, and desire for us to live in a way that God created us to live. Can we turn toward God in our suffering, can we give ourselves another chance, can we allow God to turn the manure that may have piled up in our lives into fertilizer? If God is always full of compassion and mercy, if God is always willing to turn away from our sins and turn toward us, why can’t we turn toward God? Why, indeed?