Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Scapegoat...

Here's the sermon! Please feel free to comment, offer constructive criticism, etc.

Isaiah 55:1-9
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.

See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.

Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.
Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play." We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Luke 13:1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him 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.'"

This is the Word of the Lord.

On the morning of September 15, 1963, a group of children were filing into the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Just outside the basement, 22 sticks of dynamite had been planted on a time-delayed fuse.
At about 11:22 am, that dynamite went off. 22 children and adults were injured, and four children, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Diane Wesley, Carole Rosamond Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins, were killed in the blast.

I learned details about the bombing some years later, of course, since I was not yet two years old at the time, and one of the strangest things I heard was a rumor that circulated in the white community about why those girls died. It was told that these four had sneaked into the bathroom of the church to smoke cigarettes, and that's why the bomb blast killed them! It's breathtaking in its audacity, isn't it? This idea that it wasn't the fault of “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, or Bobby Frank Cherry or Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr. or possibly a couple of others – the men who designed and built and planted the bomb – it was the fault of the little girls that they died!

I've talked before about well-known preachers who blame natural disasters on the victims – Pat Robertson's comments about the earthquake in Haiti, for example, or John Piper blaming a tornado in Louisville, Kentucky on the gathering of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, where they decided to allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals – but the sad fact is that most, if not all, human beings practice scapegoating in one form or another.

We want the universe to make sense, for the laws of cause and effect to apply to people we don't like or agree with... or sometimes even to ourselves.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells about her days as a hospital chaplain, when she sat with the mother of a little girl undergoing an operation for a brain tumor.

“On the day of the operation, I found her mother sitting under the fluorescent lights in the waiting room beside an ashtray full of cigarette butts. She smelled as if she had puffed every one of them, although she was not smoking when I got there. She was staring at a patch of carpet in front of her, with her eyebrows raised in that half-hypnotized look that warned me to move slowly. I sat down beside her. She came to, and after some small talk she told me just how awful it was. She even told me why it had happened.

“'It’s my punishment,' she said, 'for smoking these... cigarettes. God couldn’t get my attention any other way, so he made my baby sick.' Then she started crying so hard that what she said next came out like a siren: 'Now I’m supposed to stop, but I can’t stop. I’m going to kill my own child!'”

In our Gospel reading this morning, some of the people with Jesus mention the doubly horrifying deaths of some Galilean pilgrims, who were not only slaughtered by Pilate, but whose sacrifices were defiled by their blood. Surely something so horrifying as this was the fault not of the bloodthirsty Roman governor, but the result of some sinfulness on the part of the victims!

And isn't it interesting that Jesus really doesn't engage the question of degrees of sinfulness beyond a single-syllable “no.” He immediately puts the focus of the people's attention not on the errors and shortcomings and perceived evil of others, but where it should be: on themselves. On personal repentance.

Remember that repentance doesn't mean simply asking forgiveness, doesn't mean groveling in the dirt and thinking of yourself as lower than a worm, wearing sackcloth and ashes. Rather, repentance means “to think differently.” A change of mind, a change of the heart.

This Lenten season, I've asked the question, “should faith cost us something?” Part of the answer is that, yes, faith should cost us our preconceptions, our expectations, faith should cost us our comfort level. Faith should cost us the freedom to focus on the shortcomings of others, and should compel us to look at ourselves.

Now, I do not at all believe that our salvation, our faith journey, is works-based: we not only cannot do anything to come into relationship with Christ, without God's grace we lack even the desire to come into relationship with Christ. It isn't just that there is a gap between man's sinfulness and God's holiness that we can't bridge, it's that we just don't care that there's a gap or that there's a God or that God has provided the bridge in Christ Jesus!

That being said, it is incumbent upon us, during Lent and in every other season of the year and of life, to take to heart the reminder Paul offers us in the Epistle reading that, even when recounting the sins of the wandering children of Israel, the lesson is not what they did, but that repeated phrase “we must not. We must not.” We are called upon, in the ongoing practice of repentance, to examine ourselves for the ways in which our thoughts and practices and beliefs and our stuff compromises and impedes a closer relationship with our Creator. Through the guidance and fellowship of the Holy Spirit, we are day by day and moment by moment drawing closer to the One who loves us and died for us. That is the faith journey.

But the question comes up, doesn't it? What about those other people? What about the ones who are living wrong, doing wrong? One of the ways we might understand the parable that our Lectionary concludes the gospel reading with is this: God is not asleep. God doesn't simply ignore or dismiss the things that humankind's innate tendency toward sinfulness produces.

Jesus is, at this very moment in our Gospel narrative, headed to Jerusalem, where he will endure torture and a humiliating death so that God can provide a completed work – can do everything possible to bring sinful humanity into relationship with God. He is tilling the soil with his stripes, and fertilizing the roots with his blood. We share the Truth of the Gospel in word and in deed with everyone around us, regardless of who they are or what they are doing, even if – especially if – it makes us uncomfortable or unpopular, and we trust God to do the rest.

We trust God.

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