The Signs of the Times
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 20 March 2022 [Lent 3]:
Exodus 3:1-15; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; 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. [Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way [that] 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?
What do you think? Are those Ukrainians greater sinners than other Eastern Europeans? Are they worse sinners than you and me – or the Russians? Are they getting what they deserve -- or not? What about that thirteen-year-old in Texas, who was driving the pickup truck that crossed the road’s center line and hit a van head-on, killing himself, the adult passenger whose truck it was, and all nine of the van’s passengers: six of whom were members of a college golf team?
How do you make sense of this? What’s your reference point? Where do you stand with respect to facing these questions? More to the point, where is God in all this mess? These issues and their pressing weight are not new. You can hear the troubled echo of the crowd in this morning’s gospel in our own struggles to make sense of the world in which we all live.
In the face of the current headlines, what are folks like us to do? We agonize over current events; and we wonder about our God? What is a faithful person to do amidst a lingering Covid pandemic, inflation, and the devastation in Ukraine – just to name a few items? What does our faith in the God-life tell us? How do we take a stand that does not entail either an emotional knee jerk reaction or a numbed isolationist disengagement?
If we had access to the headlines of the time St. Luke refers to in this morning’s gospel, our attention would have been corralled by the barbarically gruesome actions of King Herod. This tyrannical poser massacred a crowd of pilgrims in the Temple courtyard and demonstrated his power by mixing their blood with the blood of the animal sacrifices. Why? What could possibly cause someone to do such a thing? What purpose is served by such actions? We ask the same questions in light of verifiable reports of snipers picking off people who stand in a bread line or a maternity ward being bombed.
I must admit that I am unsure how to understand Jesus’ response to the panicked and desperate crowd’s cry for guidance. In his reply to the crowd, Jesus denies the blind karma of it all and then says this: “No, these terrible things did not happen as punishment; but unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.”
[The Message: 13:5]
What? How does Jesus’ response in this morning’s gospel strike you? In what ways do the Lord’s remarks shed any light on current events then or now? What is a faithful person to do in such overwhelming situations? What does Jesus’ comment mean? How are we to absorb it? What difference does it make?
Truth to tell, I can’t remember wrestling with a sermon more than I have with this one. I was sorely tempted to preach about Moses and the burning bush because that story is about vocation, being called by God; and I know a thing or two about vocation. I could preach about Moses’ example: How he noticed the bush burning – something you and I might be too busy to see; how then Moses was at least curious enough to confront the bush; and finally how the result of his seeing and his curiosity, Moses recognized that he was standing on sacred ground and, thereby, needing to take his sandals off and kneel in humble awe. It’s sermon that I wanted to preach and that I needed to preach. We all have a burning bush inside. Will we dare to follow Moses’ example of discovery; or do we interpret such a meeting as acid indigestion?
That’s the sermon I wanted to preach, the one I am most capable of preaching; but it hasn’t worked out that way because I can’t help but hear my own voice in that gospel crowed. I am asking Jesus the desperate questions that give siege to my heart and mind. Like that gospel crowd, I am at a loss, and all I can do now is latch onto that phrase in one of the Prayer Book’s prayers that asks God to help us work through “our confusion and struggle”, that we might glean our next steps.
Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way [that] they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 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?
I know that Jesus is not encouraging us to use the faith as bunker, allowing us to hide-out until the threat blows over. I know that his admonition to “repent” somehow contains the key. Of course, it helps a great deal to remember that “repent” means “turn around”, not grovel whimpishly. Metanoia in Greek refers to a reorientation in mind and body and soul. This is to say that Jesus calls us to “turn around” in the way we think and in what we put at the center of our lives. Jesus is also warning us that we need to “turn around” physically, that we are looking at life from a distorted perspective – a perspective of fear.
Metanoia. Repent. Strive to see what God sees, and then your actions will be fruitful, helpful. I hear the truth of Jesus’ challenging reminder to deal with first things first.
Here's what I think is the crux of the matter. Especially when we are overwhelmed and confused by events and situations, we must not run away; nor must we go numb and disengage. Rather, as I said I believe that Jesus is calling us to first things first; and what is first is tending directly to our relationship with God. Far beyond the caricature of “thoughts and prayers”, Jesus calls us to take stock of our connection with God and the God-life so that we may be prepared to act in God’s Name. Without such heartfelt tending, without the discipline of sorting out our feelings, without quieting the noise that is all around us and in us, we will not be aware of how and when God wants us to do our parts.
Repent. Turn around. First things first.
Frederick Buechner makes this delicate point when he writes this:
When horrors happen, we can't use God to make them unhappen any more than we can use a flood of light to put out a fire or Psalm 23 to find our way home in the dark … All we can do is to draw close to God and to each other as best we can … and to hope that, although God may well be useless when all hell breaks loose, there is nothing that happens, not even hell, where God is not present with us and for us. [from Beyond Words]
“Repent:” Come to home. In the throes of the overwhelming action, tag up before moving forward.
In this vein, on two separate occasions this past week, I received an example of what I think Jesus is pointing to, of first things first. The example came from the contemporary musician, John Rutter. Rutter is known to many of us through his contribution to our Prayer Book worship and our hymnal. An Englishman and Anglican Christian, a YouTube video of him being interviewed about his response to the tragedy happening in Ukraine has made the rounds. In the video, Rutter stands as one of us, confessing his rawness over the war and wondering out loud what (in his personal case) a mere musician could do in the face of such death and destruction. His answer was as immediate as it was faithful: Make music, which he did.
With astounding creativity and faith, over one night Rutter composed a musical prayer for the Ukrainians. He took a well-known Ukranian prayer and composed what he simply entitled: “A Prayer for Ukraine”. It is what this faithful musician could do. Sung in the Ukrainian tongue, in words that are known to that endangered land, the prayer says:
God save Ukraine.
Give us strength, faith, and hope.
And then, Rutter did one more thing. He gathered a community. He called together singers, 300 of them, to assemble in his parish church, to sing the prayer and to record it for sharing. In the interview he gave this reason Rutter for doing all this.
I hope the meaning of the text will resonate in people's hearts and reach out to the people of Ukraine in their hour of need.
“Repent”: It is this sort of reorientation that I believe Jesus is pointing to in his response to the terror of the gospel crowd. It is a response that does not allow us to run away. It is a response that challenges us not to distance ourselves from the threat. Jesus’ does not allow us to hide in overwhelmed, despairing numbness. or in knee-jerk reactions against the foe. Rather, Jesus’ response about “repenting” points to the need for us to reconfirm our orientation with God; and in touching that life-giving rootedness, put ourselves in a place to know what is needed of us, what we can indeed do. – together – in God’s Name.
Musicians who are prepared to do so, write prayerful music. Like John Rutter, they remember the soul’s centering song and share it. Right now, as church, you and I can offer prayers, touching base with God and with one another to remember one prayer that needs always to be on our lips: namely, that we may live more nearly as we pray.
O Lord, make speed to save us.
O God, make haste to help us.