Monday, 8 March 2010

7th March 2010 The Revd. David L. Danners' sermon at All Angels by the Sea, Longboat Key FL.


All Angels by the Sea, Longboat Key, FL is my "second parish".  I was there yesterday when their Rector preached this good sermon.  It is published with his permission.  jmp

Lent 3C 2010 (Luke 13:1-9)
            Why do bad things happen to good people? That is a question all of us ask, and have for centuries as evidenced by today’s Gospel. We hear today how some listeners of Jesus asked him about the Galileans who had been killed by Pilate while they were offering sacrifices in the Temple. Were they greater sinners than others that they should suffer so? And what about those 18 innocent people who were killed by the collapse of that tower in Siloam. Was it because of their sin? Of course we could add the hundreds killed in Chile and the hundreds of thousands in Haiti.
            In one form or another, Jesus was repeatedly asked to comment on the problem of evil and disaster so prevalent in this world. Time and time again Jesus condemned the notion that human tragedy is punishment for sin. I find it mindboggling therefore that a Biblical fundamentalist like Pat Robertson could say that the devastating earthquake in Haiti resulted from a pact with the Devil made by Haitian slaves 200 years ago in their efforts to drive out their French oppressors.  What person in their right mind listens to this man!!! No, Jesus stated the realities of life very clearly in the Sermon on the Mount when he declared once and for all: "God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and the unjust alike."
            In other words, God does not reward us according to our virtues, or punish us for our transgressions. At least not in this world. There are some things that just happen as a consequence of the physical laws of nature such as earthquakes and tsunamis, and some things which happen because of poor human judgment, greed, or stupidity such as accidents caused by drunk drivers. People are often injured or killed simply because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, not because they told a lie or cheated on their income tax return. There are many things in life, including many terrible things, which we just cannot control.
            Yet we desperately struggle to control them, do we not? This is what superstition is all about. We carry around a rabbit’s foot, hang up a horseshoe, or consult a horoscope in order to control some small area of life that is unknowable and uncontrollable. I am reminded of that classic tune by the Goldcoast Singers with the memorable lyrics, “I don’t care if it rains or freezes as long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus ridin’ on the dashboard of my car”.  Who knows, maybe putting a plastic Jesus in your car – or perhaps a St. Christopher medal which is much less tacky – will help, or at least we think it can’t hurt. Sometimes, however, our reasoning borders on the absurd.  Some of you may recall when, some years ago, an Aloha Airlines jet experienced a major decompression in flight, ripping off a large portion of the plane’s roof. One flight attendant was sucked out to her death.  As soon as the mangled jet landed, another flight attendant on that same plane booked a reservation home on the next available plane. A news reporter asked her if she wasn’t nervous flying again so soon after this harrowing experience. Her answer was that she felt her number had already been called once and she didn’t feel it could be called again so soon.
            Such reasoning gets very complicated. The fact is when we attempt to control our fate by the use of a charm, ritual, horoscope or whatever,  this is superstition plain and simple. Many superstitions are utterly harmless, and most of us recognize them to be so. Who among us has not gone to a Chinese restaurant and laughed at the characteristics associated with our astrological sign printed on the placemat. I suppose you could say superstitions are even occasionally helpful if they bolster our confidence. But if we use them as a substitute for trust in God, they can be destructive, and in fact border on idolatry.  We need to understand the clear difference between superstition and authentic Christian faith.   Superstition seeks to manipulate some part of our lives which is beyond our personal control. Authentic Christian faith, on the other hand, is not an attempt to use God, but rather a willingness to surrender control of our lives to God.
            Stop and analyze your prayers sometime. Do we not pray for rain when it helps our garden, and sun when we want to get our grandchildren out of the house, regardless of what may be good for others? We whisper, “Lord, let me win just this once” as we purchase a lottery ticket. We constantly seek to advise God as to what we believe is best for us, rather than trusting that our loving and compassionate God will give us what we truly need.  Indeed, our prayers bare remarkable resemblance to the three wishes uttered to the proverbial genie. I say this not as an act of criticism, but in recognition of what I do all the time.  It is tough to pray, “Not my will, but thine be done” and truly mean it.
            But here is another key point—one we too often overlook: Jesus did not want his listeners to get bogged down in trying to figure out what is, and will remain, a mystery – why bad things happen. Instead Jesus wants us to understand our responsibility for making good things happen. To put it plainly, Jesus does not want us to concern ourselves with those things in life which we cannot control. Rather we need to accept them and instead concern ourselves with those things which we can control. I am reminded of what is often called The Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.  Many people sit around and moan about what life has done to them and how they have been dealt a rotten hand.  Jesus says to us, however, that on the Day of Judgment we will not be asked what life has done to us, but rather what we have done with life!
            In our Gospel for today, Jesus speaks of a fig tree, saying that a tree which does not bear good fruit will be cut down. A second and third chance may be given, maybe more, but there will come a time of reckoning because ultimately we are responsible for bearing fruit, for making a difference in this world, for taking responsibility for that part of life which we can control. We are not to be superstitious, trying to win victory on the wings of fate. Rather, we are to be soldiers of the Cross battering down the gates of hell.
            In his writing and lectures Charles Colson often points to the great disparity between professions of faith and actual performance. Although the numbers vary slightly from one poll to another, something like 92% of all Americans profess belief in God, 50 % belong to an organized faith community, and 25% describe themselves as “Born again Christians”. Why then, asks Colson, do these Christians not have a greater impact upon our society?  "The answer," suggests Colson, "is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor martyred by the Nazis, labeled as cheap grace: the perception that Christianity offers only a flood of blessings, the rights of the Kingdom without responsibilities to the King." Cheap grace! Religion without a price, without a cost, without the cross!
            H.G. Wells once wrote an essay on that tribe of people he called the "goodness sakers." These are the folks who see something that needs doing, or who see some social evil, or detect some moral shortcoming, but then they stand there, wringing their hands, saying, "For goodness sakes, why doesn’t someone do something about this?" It is WE who have been called to do something. We cannot answer the question why there is hunger in the world, but we can do our part to see that some of the hungry are fed. We can’t answer the question why sometimes healthy adults with families are struck down in the prime of life, but we can be there to bring them comfort and support. We cannot solve all the world’s problems but we must do what we can. I once heard a humorous example along this line. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, a storm trooper stepped into a subway car and tripped headlong over the umbrella of an elderly woman sitting next to the door. After picking himself up, the bruised Nazi launched into a tirade of abuse, then embarrassed bolted from the car at the next station. When he was gone, the passengers burst into spontaneous applause for the frail old woman. "I know it isn’t much," she said, graciously accepting the compliments, "but he is the sixth one I brought down today."
            We constantly ask God to solve the world’s problems, but you know what?  God is asking us to do the same thing. We need the spirit that Winston Churchill embodied so memorably in a letter which he wrote to President Roosevelt, prior to America’s entry into the war, "Send us the tools and we will do the job." That ought to be our approach to prayer. Rather than praying for peace in the world, we need to pray that God would make us peacemakers. Do you attempt to use God or are you willing to be used by Him? Are you like Winston Churchill or like James R. Bailey, a former Superintendent of the Fort Worth, Texas, public schools? Meeting one day with a Parent Teachers’ Association, Bailey sought to communicate openness and accessibility. He told the audience he would be pleased to speak with them any hour of the day or night. "In fact," he said, "here’s the number to call..." and proceeded to recite it. There was a sudden outcry from Assistant Superintendent Joe Ross. "Hey!" Ross shouted, "That’s my number you’re giving out!" Bailey was having some fun with his assistant superintendent, but isn’t it true that if God needs something done, we really hope that He will call someone else – anyone but us. And yet we are all in this together, my friend.
            A sailor was leaning on the deck rail when his buddy stuck his head up through a nearby hatch. "The ship is sinking!" his buddy cried.  The sailor shrugged. "So what? It’s not my ship." I’m certain that he learned in a few moments that it was indeed his ship. We are all in this together. Sadly, many church members are not comfortable with the concept of mutual accountability. We are content to let others pay the bills and do the work. Maybe cheap grace has about done us in. Maybe we need to go back and read why Jesus said a day will come when sheep will be separated from goats, weeds will be tossed into the furnace, and fruitless fig trees will be cut down.
            Today’s brief Gospel challenges us to ponder again the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people, and to consider our response. Do we respond in faith and trust, or fall back on superstition? Do we attempt to use God, or do we allow God to use us?  And with so many persons in this land who claim to be followers of Jesus, why do we not see more evidence of God’s kingdom coming to pass on this earth?  Could it just be because so many of us are out searching for four leaf covers rather than taking up a cross and following Jesus?


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