Sermon for 3rd Sunday in Lent - March 24 2019

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C
March 24, 2019
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

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

“O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.”[1]

It’s good news that the drought seems to have ended in California, with one of the most beautiful and extensive desert blooms in living memory.  But too much snow and rain has placed nearly half the entire state of Nebraska under water.  The south east coast of Africa – Mozambique, Zimbabwe in particular – were hit by a powerful cyclone – or hurricane – earlier this week.  There’s an old expression:  It never rains but it pours.  And for some, that rain is welcome while for others it is a disaster that will take years to recover from, if at all.

In first century Palestine, Judea as was, it seemed like the bad news never ended.  Ever since Babylon had seized Jerusalem 500-0dd years earlier, one empire or another had claimed the land promised of old to Abraham, the land promised again to those rescued from Egypt.  First Babylon, then Persia, then Greece, then Rome … a long list dating back half a millennium – and more, if one counts the Assyrians, and even more if one counts the Egyptians who enslaved the children of Israelite refugees.

Always the promise; always the problems.

Why?  One can speak of the age of empires, but how did the children of Israel think of this long chain of oppression?  Scripture, especially Deuteronomy, offers a particular theology of suffering, – that suffering is God’s justice and punishment brought upon those who do wrong.

We still hear that idea bandied about today:  A person is stopped by the police and winds up dead – it must be because he did something wrong.  People are poor because they are lazy.  A person is raped because she dressed provocatively.  Or as one Australian politician said just a few days ago:  Moslems shouldn’t have moved to New Zealand, and NZ should not have let them immigrate.[2]  This whole theology of suffering is summed up in three words:  Blame the Victim.

We run into this kind of thinking in the Book of Job, too.  All Job’s friends tell him he must have done something wrong to merit God’s punishment; but we know, as they did not, that it was the satan who afflicted him, not because Job did anything wrong, but precisely because he hadn’t.  Oh, but God allowed that to happen.

Which tells us two things:  God may not be the source of our suffering, one.  And two, God may not step in to end it, either.

Either way, God is not necessarily punishing us when we do wrong, so we’re going to need a new theology of suffering.  And we find the outlines of a new theology in today’s Gospel passage.

First, Jesus makes it clear that it was not the fault of the victims – those who were slaughtered by Romans while making the ritual sacrifice did no worse than anyone else; those who were killed when the tower at the well of Siloam fell were doing nothing worse than anyone else – in fact anyone else might be equally at risk, if the cause were bad behavior.  Or as Paul wrote, we all fall short of the glory of God.[3]

That’s the first step, or precept – they weren’t being punished for being bad; they weren’t especially bad; and we all are bad.

So there’s no call to be putting on airs, just because life has handed you all the breaks, rather than all the broken bones.

Now comes the second step.  Take that fig tree.  It hasn’t done anything wrong; it just wasn’t fruiting.  So the landlord says, uproot it.

But the gardener (and where has he been for the last 3 years?), the gardener says, let me try one more year; I’ll aerate the roots, I’ll put down some manure, and let’s see if it yields fruit next year.

The fig tree gets one more year – mercy and grace, but … the fig tree needs to respond to the treatment, or it will be cut down next time around.

We need to respond when we are on the receiving end of God’s mercy – because that mercy isn’t just about being spared from disaster with life going on just as before; it’s about being given another chance to turn back, to repent, and to start yielding fruit.  A tree that yields no fruit is not a healthy tree; it is a tree that will die, and leave no saplings behind it. 

That death, and those nonexistent saplings, are not a punishment, they are, rather, the non-fruit of non-growth.  They are the symptoms of disease.  A child who is not fed will not grow, a tree that has no access to nutrients will not thrive. 

And a spirit, a soul, that does not seek God, will not find God.  A soul that turns its back on God will not grow, will not mature, will not know God. 

The soul needs some manure – or perhaps more to the point, spiritual food, care, tenderness, air to breathe – and the soul needs to seek God, to make an effort, to respond to the mercy and grace, to learn, to work, to live with intention, and to yearn.  That’s the third step – to respond.

“O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.”

Without God, the soul will shrivel:  it will envy and condemn and hate those it sees rejoicing and thriving.  It will become covered with thorns, it will stop caring; it will be stunted and angry and sickly.

I read an item last week about how Inuit people teach their children to be kind and to control their anger.  When a young child is cross, her mother says, hit me.  Hit me as hard as you can.  And when the child does, her mother says “OW!  That really hurt!” and then she cries.  And the child learns the consequences of her own anger – it hurts others, it hurts her mom, and she doesn’t want to hurt her mom, so she learns not to strike out in anger.  She learns how to be kind; she learns other ways to deal with the things that upset her.

Our souls need to learn such things.  We learn to love not only by being loved but by loving.  We learn empathy not only by experiencing our own pain, but the pain of others.  We learn to take responsibility because we see that our actions have consequences, not just for ourselves, but for those we love. 

We learn to love God by seeing that love expressed in the world by those who love God and love neighbor.

And we learn to teach love by loving God and loving neighbor.  At the grocery, on the interstate, in public discussions, on Facebook and Twitter, in class, at the office, wherever we are.  Act in the love of God – and we need to practice that, yes, we do – I do, certainly – and we need to do it in spite of every reason we might feel to do otherwise.

Does that mean there will be no suffering in our lives?  No, indeed it will not.  Just last week, Jesus expressed deep suffering when he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I have longed to gather you as a hen gathers her chicks and shelters them under her wings, but you would not.” 

Jesus’ suffering on the cross was not unique to him alone, as we know – the Romans were not hesitant about crucifying those who defied them – but the thing about Jesus’ suffering on the cross is a sign that God will be with us when we are suffering.  God is with us when we are suffering, and God is with all those who suffer – flood victims, shooting victims, sick people, dying people … God is there.  And that’s the fourth step.

 “O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.”

God is laying down fertilizer, aerating the roots, watering the soil, embracing the lost, giving grace and mercy.  How can we not respond?


[1] Psalm 63:1.

[2]  Accessed March 18, 2019.

[3]  Romans 3:23.

  July 2020  
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