NB: The text for this sermon was chosen in late April. The music for the service was selected more than two weeks ago. The bulletin was printed on Thursday. The sermon was written and then rewritten on Sunday morning. It is amazing how God works to prepare us for such times.
Overnight, there was a shooting in an Orlando nightclub. It’s now being reported as the worst shooting in US history – 50 people killed, more than 50 people injured. This was an all ages place where LGBTQ people were welcome. And it was Latin Night. The club was full of queer people and their straight friends. It was that kind of place. A place where just about anyone could be found hanging out together, dancing together – celebrating life with so much joy and some said, the best latin music in the area. That is, until the wee hours of this morning… when somebody walked in with an assault weapon.
By 7AM when I first saw the news, there were already people blogging and tweeting and face booking about it saying terrible things like:
- “Those people” deserve god’s wrath…”
- “The sin of those people caused them to be in the wrong place.”
- “Bad things happen to people who refuse to repent.”
- Or as the Lieutenant Governor of Texas posted on his Twitter account: “Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”
In other words – those gay people deserve what they get.
I want to be very clear about three things this morning:
- LGBTQ people are not a secondary category, whose “Lifestyle” is somehow tolerated by God – somehow seen as less than God’s image. LGBTQ people are just as much a part of the beauty and fullness of God’s creation, just as much created in God’s image as a straight woman or man. There is no question about that.
- The random use of divine wrath on individuals or groups is not how God works. Let me say it again. This is not how God works. The God we worship and serve does not pour out random acts of violence on randomly selected individuals or groups based on arbitrarily assigned categories of so-called sin that have been established by laws, politics, social constructs or anything else that humans have determined or defined.
- God is concerned about repentance. Make no mistake. The Hebrew scriptures are full of stories about the importance of turning toward God – about turning away from anything and everything that distracts God’s people from God’s purposes. Let’s make sure we get this part exactly right: Repentance is not about God’s retribution because we didn’t seeking forgiveness, or demonstrate that we’re sorry about something we did wrong. Repentance is about making sure that we have God’s mission in view; that we live God’s vision with our hands and feet; that we keep God’s work of righteousness and justice and peace in the center of our lives.
The Hebrew word for repentance is “shuv” – to turn around. But it doesn’t mean that we are supposed to just to randomly turn around. Repentance always represents a turning around toward something – toward God’s thing. It is what we need to do in order to orient ourselves toward what God is actively doing: justice for the poor, freedom for the prisoners, food for the hungry, shelter for those without homes.
Let’s be clear: Repentance is not about sending a gunman into a nightclub.
Repentance is an essential part of what it is to be God’s people. And at this point in the whole story of Jesus and the disciples, it makes sense that Jesus would want to his followers to think about, to talk about what repentance means – what it means to keep turning around toward God. He sees in them a constant battle to stay focused and has already watched them, heard them drift off, wandering willy-nilly, with an almost constant habit of turning here and there with the distractions of home, safety and comfort. At this point Jesus is saying:
We’re going to Jerusalem and we’re gonna cause some trouble. We must stay focused.
And while as much as Jesus wants to be clear about the need for repentance, it’s equally important to him to make sure his followers understand something else, too: tragedy has nothing to do with divine punishment. It has nothing to do with neither the presence nor the absence of repentance. Tragedies happen. Towers in Siloam fall on people. It doesn’t matter if you repented or not, the tower is going to fall and people will get hurt.
When Jesus says, “unless you repent you will all perish,” he isn’t setting up the promise that the godless will be struck by lightning. Or have their lives destroyed by a natural disaster. Or be gunned down in a nightclub. Jesus is just trying to point out that the need for repentance is something that both random victims and survivors need. It’s something we all need to be doing to make sure our focus is where it should be. On God’s justice. On God’s righteousness. On God’s shalom.
Here in the United States we claim a culture of mercy. We talk about it a lot. We SAY we should care for people in need. We have even linked certain portions of our Constitution to that self-understanding. We SAY we should forgive and forget. We SAY that this is the land of the free and the home where courageous people can make their way. This is woven into the fabric of what we say it is to be a USAmerican. Yet sadly, the kind of mercy we tend to offer is always limited, always contingent on whether or not a checklist of requirements has been met. What does it mean to be a citizen? What does it mean to be a productive participant in our society? There is a checklist and unfortunately, the items on that list have typically been determined by people with privilege – the privilege of whiteness, the privilege of maleness, the privilege of heteronormative lifestyle, the privilege of economic power.
It’s not unlike the world of the Pharisees, the world that Jesus was constantly critiquing – the world away from which he constantly tried to turn his disciples. In that kind of world, God’s justice is always connected to God’s wrath. In that kind of world, there is always punishment for those who don’t toe the line. There are always consequences for those who can’t live the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” way of thinking. In that kind of world – a world of privilege, there will always be some people who are unclean and unworthy.
Our word for today, our fruit of the Spirit for today is forbearance. But in the world I’ve just described, there is no forbearance. There is no room for grace, no willingness to recognize the beauty and diversity of all God’s people. No willingness to be in relationship, no desire to keep working toward a time when equity and peace are the norm and violence is an aberration.
The truth is, God isn’t like an absentminded grandfather who simply turns a blind eye when the grandkids misbehave. But neither is God a violent judge who is only interested in retribution. If those are the only two options presented to the world, it’s no wonder people want nothing to do with religion. It seems that like Jesus’ disciples, we could do a better job of paying attention. There is a powerful counter-narrative that we can boldly and clearly proclaim to make sure that people know that God’s way of behaving toward us isn’t about making sure retributive judgement happens. Jesus gave us the words to use:
You have heard it said – An eye for an eye, but I tell you, love your enemy. Do good to those who hurt you.
God’s way of dealing with God’s people, God’s forbearance, is rooted in the truth that God sees more fully than we do – God knows more fully than we ever can – God always has the end in view and that end always includes the healing for everyone, justice for everyone and reconciliation for everyone.
That’s why we need this parable of the fig tree. It’s too tempting to rest on our prosperity-based assumptions about God’s blessing. The truth is that life is fragile. Babies are born too early. Husbands lie in comas. Young adults celebrating life are shot. Life is fragile and today, we feel the urgency of that. And even in the midst of our grief, we need to hear Jesus as he calls our attention away from all the “why?” questions, to remind those of us who have survived the hazards of the universe, that we cannot, we should not mistake our good fortune as evidence of God’s special blessing.
We cannot assume that because we are straight, or because we are white, or because we are rich, or because we have a house or because we have lunch provided for us or because we were not in the wrong place at the wrong time that somehow it’s because God blessed us. Likewise, like that fig tree, just because we have not yet been cut down, we can’t presume that we are bearing good fruit.
It’s a tough word to hear – a tough word to live. And it’s what we must examine for ourselves in the shadows of tragedies like the shooting in Orlando. We have to ask ourselves what role God is calling us to play: What fruit are we going to produce in this moment? How do we get involved in offering healing and hope? How do we sit with those who are afraid or grieving?
At the same time, we also must face the harder and darker questions about the role we have played in the past. What fruit have we been part of producing that allowed for moments like this to happen in the first place? Where have we failed to engage homophobic attitudes in friends and family members? How many times have we turned a blind eye when gun control measures come before our councils, our legislators, our Congress? These questions hang heavy over us, like the ax of the owner of the orchard.
Thank God for the gardener. That gardener helps us see that like the fig tree, instead of death, we have received God’s forbearance.We have been given the opportunity to live in new ways. In this sanctuary, we are not the victims of a tragedy this day. The ax has not come to the root of our tree this day. We have another day to live. Another day to work. Another day to be in conversation and in solidarity with people who are victims, with people who are suffering, with people who are suffering. Because if we’re to know anything about grace, we need to know that the free gift of grace is not ours to hold, but ours to share. God has given us each, in this place, on this day, one more day, one more chance. That fertilizer is even now being dug into the roots of our lives. What will our fruit be tomorrow?