Destination Phillipians 2: 1-12; Luke 19:28-44

Phillipians 2 Christ encourages you, and his love comforts you. God’s Spirit unites you, and you are concerned for others. 2 Now make me completely happy! Live in harmony by showing love for each other. Be united in what you think, as if you were only one person. 3 Don’t be jealous or proud, but be humble and consider others more important than yourselves. 4 Care about them as much as you care about yourselves 5 and think the same way that Christ Jesus thought:

6  Christ was truly God.
But he did not try to remain
    equal with God.

7  Instead he gave up everything
    and became a slave,
when he became
    like one of us.

8  Christ was humble.
He obeyed God
and even died
    on a cross.

9  Then God gave Christ
    the highest place
and honored his name
    above all others.

10  So at the name of Jesus
    everyone will bow down,
those in heaven, on earth,
    and under the earth.

11  And to the glory
    of God the Father
everyone will openly agree,
    “Jesus Christ is Lord!”

12 My dear friends, you always obeyed when I was with you. Now that I am away, you should obey even more. So work with fear and trembling to discover what it really means to be saved. 13 God is working in you to make you willing and able to obey him.

Luke 19: 28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 

35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,

“Blessed is the king
    who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
    and glory in the highest heaven!”

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”


What is the difference between a parade and a procession?  That is the first thing we need to figure out when we try to reconstruct Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

A parade is organized, planned, scheduled.  A procession can be planned and scheduled.   

So what is the difference?  As the director of DeWitt’s Fourth of July parade, I can tell you that a parade is about showing off and celebrating. A procession is about getting from one place to another.

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was not scheduled. It was not organized.  Jesus was not showing off.  If he had been, he’d have found something besides a donkey to ride into town.  A chariot would have been the choice of some of his contemporaries. In fact, there was a procession entering from the opposite side of town, at the same time, a procession of Roman soldiers and dignitaries.  People watching that were getting a bigger bang for their buck with all the imposing chariots and the beautiful horses draped in metal and leather.  And the soldiers themselves would have been dressed uniformly, much better than Jesus and his followers.  

So, if a procession has a beginning point and ending point, what were those points for Jesus.  Exactly when did this procession start?  On a morning a few days before Jesus execution? Or did it start earlier?

I propose that it started at Creation.  Jesus, as part of the Trinity, as God the Son, was present at Creation.  Jesus was present when sin came into the world.  The minute sin became an option for humans, Jesus was on a mission.  God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus.  So that procession began before time. It continued, through eons, through the years of God’s people turning to God, turning from God, returning, rejecting, forgetting, returning.  

And when the time was right, or when we humans were in so much hurt and chaos and misery, when we humans were so lost and careless and a danger to ourselves, Jesus arrived, not in a parade with angels riding on silver-white horses, but in the form of a tiny baby.  He did not arrive int the middle of a governmental body but in the middle of a family, just like you and I did. 

We are in a procession, not a parade. We do not show off.  We follow.

We are able to follow because our sins have been erased.  There is no barrier to our participation except our own sinful will. Jesus has lifted that barrier so that we can love like Jesus loves.

 2 Christ encourages you, and his love comforts you. God’s Spirit unites you, and you are concerned for others. Now make me completely happy! Live in harmony by showing love for each other.  

Because we are freed from sin, we are freed to love each other. We are freed to be a part of the procession of Jesus Christ our Savior. 

Live in harmony!  What a beautiful concept!  Harmony does not just happen.  Living in harmony has to be intentional.  

Harmony is something we long for.  How do I know?  Because everyone I know complains about the lack of harmony.    

Our inability to reconcile is a symptom of our fear. It is a symptom of the very thing against which Paul warns us.  Don’t be jealous or proud. Jealousy makes us unstable; when we are unstable, we are afraid of losing our balance, our possessions, our safety.  Pride makes us a threat to the neighbor who is jealous.

But be humble and consider others more important than yourselves. True humility is measured, not by low self-evaluation, but by active concern for others.

This does not mean that you should think less of yourself.  Paul does not mean that you lower your self-esteem. You are encouraged, instead, to raise the esteem of your neighbor in your own eyes.

  Paul admonishes us to always see everyone as deserving of our esteem, not because of their talents or their social connections or their personalities, but because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

In our broken world, we often learn the hard way who is important and who is not.  In Jesus’ world, in the world God created, everyone is important. Is this pandemic teaching us the lesson Paul was trying to teach to the Phillipians?

Christ was truly God.
But he did not try to remain
    equal with God.
Instead he gave up everything
    and became a slave,
when he became
    like one of us.

He became like one of us.  So let us, as we continue this procession, become like Him. Through His death and resurrection, we are freed to follow Him with humility, with joy, with anticipation. We are released from jealousy and pride to care for each other, for all the others.

I still stumble into sin—I can wrap myself in the chains of disapproval and judgement at the mere mention of an event or a person. But Jesus takes care of that. Jesus forgives me.  Jesus pins a note to my back—”this one is forgiven”—and lets me join the procession once more.

So, dear friends, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, as we process through Holy Week, as we look forward to a different way to celebrate Easter, let us walk in humility, not because we are ashamed, not because we want to show off our Jesus-side, not because we want to hide, but because we are walking with Jesus, not admiring Him from afar, but walking right next to him, emulating what he does.  

As you walk, invite the bystanders, the onlookers to join in the procession 

This is our destination on this Palm Sunday, during this Holy Week, on every Sunday, on every day God has given us. We are headed toward the day when we will all bow down, with all the saints, declaring “Jesus Christ is Lord!” Amen.

Scapegoats Luke 18:31-19:10

31 Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. 33 After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” 34 But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

35 As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” 42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” 43 Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”


Three miracles. #1 TBA  in another week or so

#2 a blind man can see  

#3 a selfish, unhappy man can find joy in sharing.

Three ways of seeing. #1  Not “getting it.”

#2 physically impaired 

#3 self-centered

Three ways of being  

#1 Carrying the Gospel to the known world—eventually

#2 Giving God the glory for the healing power of Jesus.

#3 Repenting, not just apologizing. 

Three roadblocks #1 intellectual understanding

#2 bindness

#3 reputation 

Or we could see this as the story of 3 scapegoats

#1 the disciples

#2 the blind man

#3 Zacchaeus 

We know the term scapegoat well enough—it’s the person who gets the blame when we don’t want to accept the blame for ourselves.  Do you know the origin?  

In the ancient days of the temple in Jerusalem, on the high holiday of Yom Kippur, the priest would symbolically lay the sins of all the people on the head of a goat and the goat would be chased into the wilderness, carrying, symbolically, the sins of the people away from them. In other words, whatever sins anyone had committed were now on the goat, not on them.

How are the disciples scapegoats in this story?  It doesn’t fit the context. 

Let’s define the blind man as scapegoat first. Let the blind man stand for all who have lost sight or strength or opportunity. Let the blind man stand for the people who need us, need our resources.  This is a stretch, but to fit my formula, let me stretch the metaphor this way: Do we ever complain about those who can’t care for themselves? Do we blame them for needing what is ours as a society—our property, our food, our healthcare?  Do we blame them instead of the people who legislate to make themselves wealthier?  

Zacchaeus falls into the same category. He represents all that is wrong about Roman oppression and< because he takes something that is very precious to everyone—their money, they blame him for the taking of their money, not the Roman government.  Scapegoating is often just intellectual laziness.  

Back to the disciples: how can they be scapegoats in this text? Remember, I used to teach Creative Writing, so anything can happen.  🙂

For the third time (in Luke’s gospel) Jesus predicted his arrest, trial, death and resurrection to the disciples.

 31 Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. 33 After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” 

The disciples didn’t understand, couldn’t believe that Jesus could be serious.  Why would Jesus, kind, gentle, healing, loving, perfect Jesus be handed over to the Gentiles, the Roman authorities?  Why would anyone mock Jesus? How could anyone insult Jesus? And spit on a person who hurt no one? Flogging?  Out of the question! That was for criminals. Kill him? Why? Rise again? But that wasn’t possible. Was Jesus losing his mind?  Hallucinating? 

How could they not question Jesus, ask him to explain, be more careful about protecting him?  The gospels sometimes make the disciples look clueless, ignorant, dumb, stupid. The writer of the Gospel of Mark is especially hard on the disciples.

14 Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” 16 They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” 17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.”

And Jesus said, “Duh!” 

Maybe this example applies only to me.  Maybe you’ve never struggled to understand the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Maybe you’ve never struggled to understand why God would send his only Son to redeem all of us from our sinfulness by such a torturous method.   Maybe you’ve never said, “Nobody’s perfect!” How are the disciples scapegoats, then?  For me, it is this: The disciples were with Jesus every day for three years.  They heard him teach and preach over and over and over. And they didn’t understand.  How am I, two millennia later, supposed to understand why my professors try to teach me? How am I supposed to be able to explain why God sent Jesus to live a mundane life among peasants?  How am I supposed to be able to explain why Jesus had to die, not a natural death, but an excruciating death?  And how am I supposed to understand how Jesus could defeat death? What does that even mean, to defeat death?

How do I use the disciples as scapegoats? If they couldn’t understand what Jesus was talking about, how could I possibly understand?

Here’s the funny thing: I don’t need to be a scholar to follow Jesus.  I don’t need to be a genius to understand what Jesus did for me. I don’t need to be any smarter than the next guy to be a Christian.  What do I need?

Faith. I only need to know that God loved me and every other person so much that God found a way to forgive my sins and welcome me into the Kingdom, today and forever.  My faith assures me that Jesus died so that, no matter how many times I fail and blame someone else, no matter how often or how badly or ignorantly I cause pain to someone else, I am saved, through His death and resurrection.  

Thanks be to God that Jesus walked that road to Jerusalem, plagued by dense disciples, harassed by the authorities of his own nation and faith tradition, and used as a scapegoat by Pontius Pilate.  Thanks be to God that we the beloved children of a God who loves us beyond comprehension.  Amen.

Who is Lost? Luke 15

15 Tax collectors and sinners were all crowding around to listen to Jesus. So the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law of Moses started grumbling, “This man is friendly with sinners. He even eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this story:

If any of you has a hundred sheep, and one of them gets lost, what will you do? Won’t you leave the ninety-nine in the field and go look for the lost sheep until you find it? And when you find it, you will be so glad that you will put it on your shoulder and carry it home. Then you will call in your friends and neighbors and say, “Let’s celebrate! I’ve found my lost sheep.”

Jesus said, “In the same way there is more happiness in heaven because of one sinner who turns to God than over ninety-nine good people who don’t need to.”

Jesus told the people another story:

What will a woman do if she has ten silver coins and loses one of them? Won’t she light a lamp, sweep the floor, and look carefully until she finds it? Then she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, “Let’s celebrate! I’ve found the coin I lost.”

10 Jesus said, “In the same way God’s angels are happy when even one person turns to him.”

11 Jesus also told them another story:

Once a man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, “Give me my share of the property.” So the father divided his property between his two sons.

13 Not long after that, the younger son packed up everything he owned and left for a foreign country, where he wasted all his money in wild living. 14 He had spent everything, when a bad famine spread through that whole land. Soon he had nothing to eat.

15 He went to work for a man in that country, and the man sent him out to take care of his pigs. 16 He would have been glad to eat what the pigs were eating, but no one gave him a thing.

17 Finally, he came to his senses and said, “My father’s workers have plenty to eat, and here I am, starving to death! 18 I will go to my father and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against God in heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer good enough to be called your son. Treat me like one of your workers.’”

20 The younger son got up and started back to his father. But when he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt sorry for him. He ran to his son and hugged and kissed him.

21 The son said, “Father, I have sinned against God in heaven and against you. I am no longer good enough to be called your son.”

22 But his father said to the servants, “Hurry and bring the best clothes and put them on him. Give him a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 Get the best calf and prepare it, so we can eat and celebrate. 24 This son of mine was dead, but has now come back to life. He was lost and has now been found.” And they began to celebrate.

25 The older son had been out in the field. But when he came near the house, he heard the music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants over and asked, “What’s going on here?”

27 The servant answered, “Your brother has come home safe and sound, and your father ordered us to kill the best calf.” 28 The older brother got so angry that he would not even go into the house.

His father came out and begged him to go in. 29 But he said to his father, “For years I have worked for you like a slave and have always obeyed you. But you have never even given me a little goat, so that I could give a dinner for my friends. 30 This other son of yours wasted your money on prostitutes. And now that he has come home, you ordered the best calf to be killed for a feast.”

31 His father replied, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we should be glad and celebrate! Your brother was dead, but he is now alive. He was lost and has now been found.”


Who is lost?  These are three feel-good parables with a happy ending. All the lost are found at the end of the story.  How happy we are for those owners and for the lost items.  We’re happy for the sheep, who would probably have met a violent death in the jaws of wolves.  We’re happy for the woman, who is just a bit more financially secure. We’re happy that the boy is welcomed home and restored to a loving, rather than angry, father.  

Why are we able to feel good for the lost who are found?  

I worry that my good feelings are based on pity.  I always want to cheer for the underdog, but why is an underdog an underdog? Because the underdog is less than me. The underdog is, in my blurry observation, lacking something.  The sheep and the son both lacked good sense.  Do I cheer for the under dog because I feel sorry for them? 

Full confession:  We have watched Wheel of Fortune every night for dozens of years.  Back in the early days, all the contestants were white.  I didn’t notice that until a black contestant appeared on the show. Never more than one at a time. Always two white people and one black person.  I always, in my heart, cheered for the black person to win.  Why? Because I saw the black person as an underdog, as underprivileged, as lacking in something. So in some crazy ESP way, I tried to help the black person win.  I wasn’t cheering for the person because of their character or clever repartee or intelligence.  I was cheering out of pity. Pity that was illogical and underserved.  

Let’s establish some definitions here. To lose  is a verb.  It’s past participle is lost.  I lose my marbles. I lost my marbles.  The noun form of lose is loser.  To be lost therefore, is to be a loser.  Your team lost the game; you are the losers.  Your boss reduced your hours at work; you’re the loser.  We also use loser as a general insult to put people down.  So, to lose, to have lost, to be lost, is to be something bad, something wrong, something, at the minimum, to be pitied or avoided. 

Yet who does Jesus go after?  Time after time, story after story, parable after parable, the loser comes out ahead.  The leper, the demon-possessed, the bleeding woman, the crippled child—all healed by Jesus after everyone else has given up on them.

Who are the lost in the year 2021?  We identify ourselves based on who we believe or convince ourselves we are not; we are not them

Pope Francis took a huge step in weakening the barrier between Muslims  and Christians when he visited Iraq this week.  Iraq has not been a safe place for Christians in recent years, which is ironic, because so much Christian history took place in ancient Iraq.

See if you recognize the names of these Iraqi cities.

Ur is located in southeastern Iraq.  What is Ur famous for?  The Lord said to Abram, “I brought you here from Ur in Chaldea, and I gave you this land.” Genesis 15:7

Babylon is located about 25 miles south of Baghdad.  During Jehoiakim’s rule, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia invaded and took control of Judah. 2 Kings 24:1

Nineveh was located on the outskirts of modern-day Mosul.  Once again the Lord told Jonah to go to that great city of Nineveh and preach his message of doom. Jonah obeyed the Lord and went to Nineveh. The city was so big that it took three days just to walk through it. Jonah 3:1-3

Some of the earliest Christian communities were established in Iraq, known as Mesopotamia at the time. 

The most important message that Pope Francis delivered was the reminder that Iraq is the home of the three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  He chose to lift up how the three faiths are united, not divided.  This is significant, because the number of Christians in Iraq has shrunk. Before the Gulf War in 1991, one million Christians lived and worshipped in Iraq.  According to the newscast on Saturday, only 200,000 remain.  

It’s interesting that some Christians in our country claim to be persecuted, but I don’t recall hearing of any who had to flee for their lives from this country because they worshiped Jesus. 

I think it is fair to say that Pope Francis went to Iraq to minister to the lost. 

We give up on losers.  Whom have you given up on?  Who in our society is left for dead, figuratively speaking? There is a Bible verse that is quoted to support giving up on the losers. 

You will always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me. Matthew 26:11

Does that mean that people living in poverty are a hopeless cause?

Hardly. Six times before that in Matthew, Jesus assumes that his followers care for the poor: 

When you give to the poor, don’t blow a loud horn. That’s what show-offs do in the meeting places and on the street corners, because they are always looking for praise. I can assure you that they already have their reward. Matthew 6:2

When you give to the poor, don’t let anyone know about it. Matthew 6:3

The blind are now able to see, and the lame can walk. People with leprosy are being healed, and the deaf can hear. The dead are raised to life, and the poor are hearing the good news. Matthew 11:5

Jesus replied, “If you want to be perfect, go sell everything you own! Give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come and be my follower.” Matthew 19:21
We could have sold this perfume for a lot of money and given it to the poor.”Matthew 26:9

That brings me back to how we see the poor, the lost.  Our church, along with several other churches in the North Scott School District maintains a food pantry.  It is supplied and staffed by all of the area churches—which is pretty remarkable, seeing that we represent a variety of denominations.  In some communities, denominations do not cooperate with each other, but in ours, the cooperation is unquestioned.  

Still, it takes courage to come to the pantry. You have to endure some paperwork.  I’ve never had to show a driver’s license to buy groceries. I’ve never had to tell the cashier how many people live in my household.  I know there are good reasons for the rules, and they help us to keep track of how we operate.  It’s good business. But, so often, after the shopper walks out the door, I hear comments from the other church ladies (it’s always women that volunteer at the food pantry, never men; go figure) that basically criticizes our clients for needing food.  Even though that is WHY WE EXIST. Assumptions are made about how they cook, clean house, care for their children, all based on the fact that they have to shop under our eagle eye.  Does anybody watch how you fill up your grocery cart? Yes, I know we need rules, but why do we have to have rules that insult people?  Our customers are treated as if 1) they don’t know how to make a grocery list. 2) don’t know how to feed their families, and 3) would take too much food if we didn’t limit them.  They are treated as the losers, as the lost, as the less-than.

And yet, if Jesus is looking into your heart, into my heart, who is the loser? The one who bears false witness?  What does it mean to be lost to Jesus?  Jesus came to save——drum roll———-sinners!  That’s me. Every time I judge, every time I automatically assume someone else is lacking what I have, is lacking good judgement, is lacking in generosity, is lacking my genetics, every time I see someone else, even with sympathy or pity, I am the loser, the sinner. I am casting aside the person who is, just like me, EXACTLY like me, made in God’s image by God.  I am slandering the person who, EXACTLY like me, has been blessed by God’s mercy to be forgiven and raised again from the dead to spend eternity with God the Creator, Savior, and Comforter. Will I be surprised at who is already in heaven, ready to welcome me?  Will I be surprised who sits next to me in the heavenly choir?  

Suffering Luke 13: 1-9

13 About this same time Jesus was told that Pilate had given orders for some people from Galilee to be killed while they were offering sacrifices. Jesus replied:

Do you think that these people were worse sinners than everyone else in Galilee just because of what happened to them? Not at all! But you can be sure that if you don’t turn back to God, every one of you will also be killed. What about those eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Do you think they were worse than everyone else in Jerusalem? Not at all! But you can be sure that if you don’t turn back to God, every one of you will also die.

Jesus then told them this story:

A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. One day he went out to pick some figs, but he didn’t find any. So he said to the gardener, “For three years I have come looking for figs on this tree, and I haven’t found any yet. Chop it down! Why should it take up space?”

The gardener answered, “Master, leave it for another year. I’ll dig around it and put some manure on it to make it grow. Maybe it will have figs on it next year. If it doesn’t, you can have it cut down.”  Contemporary English Version


Why? Why did half a million people have to die from a simple virus?  Why did Texans have to live without heat and water for so long?  Why did Tiger Wood’s car go off the road?  Why were there so many forest fires last summer?  Why are people still trying to recover from the derecho?  Why can’t health insurance be cheaper?  Why do we have to pay taxes?  Why did that fourteen year old boy have to be shot?  Why do policeman have to be afraid of people of color? Why do people of color have to be afraid of policeman?

All of those questions have logical answers, multiple answers, but the larger question is “Why do people have to suffer?”  Why do people have to be in danger, why do people have to get sick, why do people have to have bad things happen?  Why can’t the world be nicer? 

That’s the kind of question Jesus was asking the crowd. Why did Pilate massacre a bunch of people who were offering sacrifices?  They weren’t breaking the law. Why did 18 people have to die when that tower collapsed?  They were just living their ordinary lives. Jesus makes a point that too many Christians can’t seem to understand: suffering is not punishment. 

God does not send bullets or viruses or fires or winds or high prices or low wages.  God does not inspire fear.  

Suffering is not a punishment for sin; nonetheless, suffering is often the consequence of sin. In my observation, that sin is often selfishness.Why did half a million people die from COVID-19? First, there was virus; second there was little effort to initially contain it, and eventually, the silly, individualistic selfishness of refusing to change habits to protect others. In Texas, the selfishness of not wanting to spend money to update the power grid left thousands of people in very uncomfortable living conditions.  Sin!

The death of fourteen-year-old boy is the consequence of hate and conflict.  Sin!

The continued suffering from the derecho is in part from unkept promises on the part of some insurance companies and some contractors. Sin!

One of the easiest ways to cause suffering is to ostracize people who are  different.  Growing up, I “learned” that Catholics were bad people, or at least questionable.  I also learned that other groups were, if not bad, at least not nearly as good or decent or smart as the people I knew.  Sin!

I’ve had a chance to learn differently and to repent of my groundless prejudices.  Let me give you an example

I am part of a group of people who serve our neighbor down the road, Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat Center.  (My goal is for us to meet there someday, when it is safe.) As a member of the Advisory Committee for the Prairie, I am learning about the entity that owns the Prairie, the Congregation of the Sisters of Humility.  As I listened to one of the sisters explain the history of their order, I realized that people all over the world owe much to the various orders of dedicated Catholic women.

 If every denomination had nuns as dedicated and successful as the Catholics have among their various orders, there would be no hunger or poverty or homelessness.  

The work that just this one group of women living in Davenport has done as far as housing homeless people (veterans, single mothers, the elderly) in the Quad-Cities is comprehensive, brilliant, well-managed and well-organized.  They also minister to immigrant workers in Ottumwa on a huge scale.  

They minister to the people who, like the slaughtered Galileans and the people crushed under the tower of Siloam, have little control over what happens to them. Many of my friends like to say that the homeless and hungry are victims of their own poor choices. My observation is that they have no good options presented to them in the first place.

The second part of our text today is the story of the fruitless fig tree.  Three years and no figs!  What should the gardener do? Chop it down?  No! Give it extra attention.  

Isn’t that what the church does? We give extra attention to those who are prevented from meeting the expectations of the community, the county, the neighbors. And what happens?  Something good. We don’t always see the fruit that is born because of our extra attention, but we keep trying, with extra attention, with food banks and all the other ways we try to help.  

I’m rambling, so ramble with me as I switch to another subject: why worshipping in the church building is important.

We have been worshipping by mail, email, and ZOOM for almost a year—can you believe it!?!?!   But there are people missing—-our community is fragmented.  

Being in each other’s presence for worship and fellowship is important to our sense of belonging.  At the same time, because we care for each other, we have protected each other by staying apart.  But when we get back together, we will find renewed energy and incentive to once again act as a group of people, not as individuals.

Being in worship together gives us the courage to say out loud in the presence of others what we believe. Together we confess, repent, thank, ask and praise. It is easier to speak the truth of sin and mercy in a group and it is strengthening to have others speak truth with us.  How many of us would have the courage to say these words out loud anywhere else, standing alone, even in our own homes?  It is important that we say these words out loud with witnesses. In worship, we hold each other accountable.  Like the fig tree, we don’t always bear fruit, but with the loving attention of the people around us, we can say out loud what we believe, repent, and produce. 

Our faith cannot be a secret from the world.  Our faith has to be proclaimed to the world. When the doors are open, the lights on, and the bell rings, we are proclaiming to the world that Christ is present and that we want the world to know that we can be expected to act differently, to talk differently, to plan differently than the secular society in which we live. 

We have no control over weather, little control over the decisions made by powerful people behind closed doors, but we have control over our own reaction to the suffering in the world. 

We know that God does not cause suffering, that God does not cause hurricanes or blizzards, that God does not cause disease to spread. We know that God does not cause selfishness, conflict, segregation.

We do know that God suffers with us. God sent Jesus to discover what it is like to suffer. Jesus became human and walked among the suffering, the sick, the miserable, the sinful, the angry, the broken-hearted and learned for himself what it is to feel helpless and despondent. The other side of the coin is that Jesus saw the only answer was love and Jesus taught us how to love. Our wisest theologians and philosophers have found no greater solution than love.  Jesus’s love went all the way to destroy the sins of hate and greed and envy: he conquered death for us by conquering his own death. 

During this season of Lent, let us be mindful of repentance, mindful of changing our selfish ways, mindful of loving all of God’s creation.  Amen.