Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
I don’t suppose it was really a surprise when, on January 12th, the day that a 7.0 earthquake devastated the island nation of Haiti, televangelist Pat Robertson issued a statement that suggested the earthquake was a result of a deal that Haitians had made some 200 years ago with the devil. This indeed was not a surprise for those of us who keep track of such pronouncements by people like Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell. They issued a joint statement after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans that it was God’s judgment on that city because the residents allowed the abomination of homosexuality to be celebrated in their midst.
Pat’s God is indeed quite vengeful, but I dare say that Pat’s devil has better aim, for Hurricane Katrina did very little damage to the French Quarter in New Orleans, instead hundreds of poor black residents were drowned or rendered homeless. Pat’s devil, on the other hand, scored a direct hit on Haiti’s capitol, Port-au-Prince and killed over 200,000 Haitians.
As much as Pat’s words increase in us a sense of outrage, today’s readings may make us wonder if Pat isn’t onto something, at least based on a superficial reading of these texts. In the lesson from I Corinthians, Paul recounts a time when God struck down the Children of Israel, in one case 23,000 in one day, because they displeased him. Paul suggests this should serve as a warning to us. “Let that be a lesson to you!”
The crowd in today’s Gospel lesson had death on their minds as well. One point of gossip was about that group of Galilean rebels who had staged an uprising against the Roman authorities. When the uprising was put down and the rebels captured, Pontius Pilate mingled their blood with the blood of the sacrificial animals in a moment of ultimate sacrilege. Pilate was making them an example. And then Jesus cites the accidental deaths caused by a tower collapse in Siloam. Everybody was talking about it. Was it a “sign from God” that these people were more sinful than everyone else? Was this God’s judgment on them? Jesus would have none of it. In a statement that might seem to contradict Paul’s assertion that God had caused the deaths of the unrighteous, Jesus turns the tables. Do you think these who died were more sinful than you? Did they deserve it? No more than you do!
And then comes this brief parable about a landowner, a gardener and a fig tree. The fig tree has failed to produce for three years and the landowner is ready to cut it down. It’s a waste of soil! The gardener, however, steps in and pleads with the landowner to delay this drastic step – let the gardener tend to for one more year, adding manure, and so forth, and see if it might not bring forth fruit. It doesn’t take much theological education to see the objects of Jesus’ parable. The fig tree is Israel, who has not been following God’s way, and God is ready to judge them for not bearing fruit. Jesus intercedes and asks God to give them one more chance to repent.
Jesus is amazed that the public seems so obsessed with the deaths of these relatively few people when judgment is coming for the whole nation. The audience of Luke’s Gospel knew what had happened to Israel since Jesus’ time. Within many of their lifetimes, in the year 70, the Romans destroyed the temple, and the Jewish people were scattered. The Jewish nation for all intents and purposes ceased to exist. Unless you repent, Jesus warns in his parable, which no doubt sounded like prophecy to Luke’s original audience, a fate as bad as that which befell these two groups was waiting for you.
Jesus was in their midst, the messiah had come, calling them back to God and God’s way, to treat the poor with justice, to bring about God’s kingdom. Actions have consequences. They had a chance to receive him, a last chance, if the words of his parable were to ring true. Time is running out!
Welcome to Lent, people of God! No doubt this is heavy stuff! These are not pleasant readings! How much longer til Easter? Is there any good news here?
I hear good news in the lesson from Exodus. We get caught up in the special effects of the burning bush and this moment of career discernment for Moses, but don’t miss this line from the mouth of God, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. Indeed I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them and to bring them to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey. The cry of the Israelites has come to me.” This is a God of mercy, a God who hears the cries of the oppressed. It is the cries of the people that drive God to act in the story from Exodus. God is not distant and unmoved by suffering. God’s hand is moved, not in destruction, but with compassion and mercy. It is this same mercy that made the gardener dirty his hands in Jesus’ parable. The fig tree is given a last chance, but the gardener does not stand back and simply hope for the best. This compassionate gardener dirties his hands in an effort to bring new life.
But wait, is this the same God who Paul says struck thousands of people dead for disobedience, and yet we hear of God being merciful and compassionate? Is God being two-faced?
These dead Paul mentions were the very same Israelites who had been miraculously liberated from Egypt. They drank water God brought forth from a rock in the desert. They ate manna and quail that God sent them in the wilderness. And yet, God held them accountable for their rebellious actions, just like he had Pharaoh. Being God’s chosen people, it seems, does not give you a “get out of hell free” card. The sheer ingratitude of these particular Israelites must have been shocking to ancient audiences who heard their story, more so than it probably sounds to us. Benefiting from God’s mercy and provision should engender greater loyalty, not rebellion. These individuals, just like those worshiping the Golden Calf, were in rebellion against this merciful God, and their choices had consequences. In this case, their choices lead to death. Yes, actions have consequences, and rebellion against God even more so.
Now folks like Pat would read in this passage in I Corinthians a key – the grievous sins listed are idolatry, sexual immorality, putting Christ to the test, and complaining. Of course Pat and his like hear only the first two sins when this list is read – idolatry and sexual immorality. These are the sins that make for sensational TV on his 700 Club. They show some footage of a gay couple holding hands or claim that all Haitians worship the devil. “Ain’t it awful,” Pat can crow, “God will judge them!” And the money rolls in. What about putting Christ to the test, Pat? What about complaining? I don’t recall seeing footage on his show of anyone that God had struck down for complaining…
I would suggest to you this morning that sin is indeed behind the death and destruction in Haiti, but not the sin that Pat is thinking of. For him, the earthquake was caused by sin, ostensibly devil worship. Pat’s God flips a switch and an earthquake destroys the country. In my mind it was not the earthquake, but the destruction and death that were caused by sin. This was not sin by the innocent Haitians who died, but the sin of a corrupt government who built substandard housing, the sin of foreign powers, including our own country, who acted in collusion with these corrupt regimes who cared nothing for their own people. Actions have consequences. This is the sin that brought so much death in Haiti.
Chile just experienced a much stronger earthquake with far less damage and far fewer fatalities. Chile is a wealthy nation in comparison with Haiti. If there is any message we should hear from this disaster is that God’s way is our only refuge, in this case justice for the poor. If the poorest people of Haiti had been given decent housing, many lives could have been saved. If the levy system in New Orleans had been maintained instead of being neglected by corrupt government officials, the 9th Ward might not have flooded. Innocent blood is on the hands of these corrupt governments, and that must wake us all up!
Death stings. This is one of the harsh reminders set before us during the season of Lent. Death comes for us all. We are dust and to dust we shall return. These are sober readings indeed. But what is the message from Paul and from Jesus when we see death’s hand strike people down? Turn back to God.
Are you looking for sinners to blame, Pat? Blame the powerful and the corrupt, not the victims. Even before the dust settled in Haiti, Pat provided his interpretation. Are you looking for a message to preach to the people of Haiti? Well Pat, then call on the government to repent! God’s people, the poorest of the poor are suffering at the hand of their oppressors. God has seen their suffering. God has heard their cry, and as we have seen, God does not stand by, unmoved by their cries. God’s hand will move.
And where do I see God’s hand in this disaster? I see God’s hand extended as a hand of mercy in the overwhelming response of compassion and charity that the entire world has shown to these people, the poorest of the poor. Pat saw God in the quake. I see God in the aftermath.
People of the world, we need God. We need God’s justice and God’s mercy. We need to follow God’s way and not our own! God has heard the cry of the people of Haiti, and God’s hands are reaching out. We are God’s hands, and these are not hands balled up in angry, destructive fists, but rather hands tending a withered fig tree, spreading manure, encouraging life to grow. We are God’s hands, binding up wounds, feeding the hungry, removing rubble, writing checks. God’s hands are not violent hands, but rather hands of mercy, stretching out to the suffering but reaching out to the rebellious and the evil as well, warning them that their actions have consequences. When we sin, people often die. God’s hands are calling us to change our ways, to turn around and follow God’s way. Only in it can we find refuge. As the Psalmist says, “You O God have been my helper, and under the shadow of your wings I will rejoice.” Amen.