Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Blame Game...

I owe a great debt to the writings of Dr. Bruce Epperly, the Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton, James Allison, and D. Mark Davis for their writings and insight.

God doesn't judge people by causing disasters... rather, I think, God looks to those of us who call ourselves by the name of Christ and judges whether or not we are worthy, in our reactions to disaster, of that Name.

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.

Seminary professor Haddon Robinson tells the story of a young woman who talked to her pastor about her sin of pride. She says, "Pastor, every Sunday I come to church and look around and think to myself that I am the prettiest girl in the church. I try to stop but I just can't. Am I horribly sinful?" Pastor looked at her and said, "No dear not sinful; just horribly mistaken.”

In our Gospel reading today, a group of people point out an act of ghastly violence, and apparently ask Jesus if it was the sin of the murdered Galileans which caused God to let Pilate do his evil, and Jesus says, in effect, “no, you’re horribly mistaken.”

The people addressing Jesus are doing what comes naturally, it seems. Every time there is a natural or man-made disaster, some TV preacher somewhere pops up and plays the blame game, blaming the disaster on the victims: 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, the list goes on and on.

And the blame game gets all too personal as well. 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!'”

Jesus looks at us in all of these situations, and when we play the blame game He says, “no, you are horribly mistaken.”

What we are looking for is theodicy. A theodicy seeks to show that it is reasonable to believe in God despite evidence of evil in the world, and offers a framework which can account for why evil exists. We want the universe to make sense, for there to be cosmic laws of cause and effect. There has to be a reason that good things happen to some people and bad things happen to others. Life should be fair!

But what Jesus seems to say here is, “no, sometimes life isn’t fair. Sometimes stuff just happens. People fall victim to bloodthirsty despots or shoddy construction, and they are guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Then he says something that is, frankly, jarring. “But.”

“…but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Is Jesus contradicting himself? “They didn’t die because they were sinners, but unless you watch it, bub, you will.” Yeah, that’s totally fair.

But Jesus isn’t addressing theodicy here, He’s talking about hypocrisy. What I would like to suggest is that Jesus is speaking to these people – and to all of us – about the tendency humankind has to look at the shortcomings and perceived moral failures of others as a way of ignoring our own spiritual needs.

This isn’t the only reference Jesus makes to this tendency. Jesus asks in another place, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”

Our tendency is to look at the world around us and react like the owner of the garden who loses patience with the fig tree and demands its destruction. God looks at the world and sees it in the same way as the gardener sees that fig tree: Just a little more work, a little more time, and let’s see what good things can happen.

To “repent” literally means to change one’s mind, to think differently after. Jesus calls us to look away from what’s wrong with others, and more than that, to abandon the idolatry of the blame game.

In the early twentieth century, The Times of London invited famous writers to answer the question: “What is wrong with the world?” In response, they got many long essays spelling out both the problems and the writer's assessment as to who was to blame. God, the Devil, the Church, the Communists, the Fascists, White people, Black people, Asians, Hispanics, the Jews, the Germans, the Italians, the Chinese, the Moslems, and the Americans.  It was women, men, the “Older Generation” and “These Young People Today.” 

In the midst of all of this, theologian and author GK Chesterton, looked at the question, “what is wrong with the world?” and wrote, simply: “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely, GK Chesterton.”

When we focus on the sinfulness, or saintliness, of another, we are distracted from our own journey with God. In this season of Lent, we are called upon to turn from fear - to faith, to turn from sin - to grace, and to turn from the world - to God. We are called on to dig around our own fig tree, thank you very much, and to fertilize it with prayer and the Word, and to bring forth fruits of good works and righteousness – again, not because by doing this maybe God will notice us and forgive us, but as a response to the fact that God already loves us, with a steadfast love that endures forever.

When we do this – when we address our fear of other groups or individuals who think, act, look, believe differently with faith that God loves them as well as us, and with the assurance that God’s steadfast love indeed endures forever; when we confront the sin we see and the sin we commit with the grace of a God whose forgiveness flows from Calvary; when we commit to seeking the Kingdom of God above all the world has to offer… it doesn’t mean that bad things stop happening. Tornadoes blow down churches as quickly as they do casinos, and the homes of the righteous are destroyed as quickly as the unrighteous. Floods don’t discriminate, nor do fires or AK-47s. Faith isn’t fire insurance. Faith is a foundation which gives us the strength to not only endure the storms of life, but to be a source of strength and guidance for others as they, too, ride out the storm.

I’m not sure I have this figured out, but it seems that, every time we expect God to respond to the sinfulness of the world with wrath – fire from heaven at best, or some kind of obvious smiting, for cryin’ out loud – God rather responds in patience and in love.

When we say things like, “God is love,” we understand that the ultimate expression of that love is the cross of Christ. Now, it is not as if God loved us by throwing Jesus to us as if we were a pack of hungry crocodiles. No, God's love for us empowered Jesus to create for us a way out –  out of our hopelessness, out of our violence, out of our death.

There is a certain kind of theological imagination which sees Jesus on the Cross, with the Father observing from above. In some versions the Father is pleased, because he is being offered a sacrifice which will wipe out our sins; in another version the Father is horrified by the cruelty which we are showing towards his Son. I think these both miss the point. The Father was present at the Cross not as a spectator, but as an active participant, a revelation of God’s self in the very dying from of Jesus, as the source of the love which overcame death and its dominion in our lives, which tore the doors off the Kingdom to make a way for us all.

God’s wrath is not senseless anger – the garden owner demanding the tree be cut down, destroyed. Towers fall, evil rulers send planes and bombs against their own people, earthquakes shake and storms blow, but these are not God’s judgment.

No, God’s judgment is love. And when we say that God’s love is steadfast and endures forever, what we are saying is that there is no limit, no expiration date, it cannot, and will not be exhausted. God doesn’t get tired of loving us, and God doesn’t get tired of loving the world – the whole world, everyone! God’s inclusiveness is beyond our comprehension: God loves the vulnerable as well as the well-heeled, the weak as well as the powerful, the sinful as well as the righteousness.  Our love is a shadow of God’s love for us.  We are limited, but God’s love elects all creation and God’s providence heals all who are broken.

God digs around the roots a bit more, fertilizes with grace and love and compassion, and waits – actively, working at all times, but patiently.

And our response when there is tragedy, when there is disaster, when there is suffering of any kind, even our own, must never be to play the blame game. No one wins that game, ever.

Rather, God calls us to be conduits of grace, facilitators of providence, reflections of that steadfast love of God that really does endure forever.


  1. As always, I am moved and encouraged. I miss talking with you John. Need some 'big brother' (in Christ) time :-)

    You are a blessing and I think of you and your ministry often. Maybe one day I can grab some local OPs and head out on a road trip to come see you!

    be well and be blessed!

  2. God's judgement is love!!! Isn't that amazing! I'm SO thankful I no longer see God as the garden owner demanding the tree be destroyed because it just pisses him off that it's not producing. I can now believe God is the loving gardener!