Fr. Andrew Armond – Third Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2022
I had the chance last week to talk with the eleventh graders at TST a bit about the War in Ukraine, and specifically about how they’re feeling about it, whether they are anxious, nervous, confused, or even apathetic–all of which would be valid responses for 16 and 17 year olds to have. My main advice to them, for now, is to pay attention, but not too much. I think it’s important that they know what’s going on, but it is also easier than ever for them, and for us, to become completely consumed with the news, to the point that it becomes damaging to our own psyches.
Which made me think: was I paying attention my junior year in high school? Did I know that the Rwandan genocide was happening, that Sarajevo was under siege? Maybe in the back of my consciousness, somewhere, I knew about these things–though I didn’t have access to a completely media- and news-saturated internet at all times of day and night.
I did know about Kurt Cobain, and OJ Simpson. And I did know about the Oklahoma City bombing in April of 1995, in which 168 people, including 19 children, were killed. I’m not sure that I fully processed that event until years later, when we lived in Oklahoma and I visited the memorial for the first time. Many of you have been, no doubt, and seen the 168 empty chairs, including the 19 smaller chairs representing the children. It’s a beautiful, respectful, and tragic memorial.
And so, just as after that event, we want to know why it happened–who was responsible, what was the reason–just as we would talk to our friends and loved ones to process it, Jesus’s friends and followers ask him about an event in the news.
Apparently Pilate had taken it upon himself, for whatever reason, to kill Galileans–poor Jewish people, like Jesus–who had been worshiping at the Temple in Jerusalem. Not only that, but apparently, he killed them while they were worshiping, in the midst of their sacrifices.
We don’t know precisely what sorts of questions the people asked Jesus, but we can imagine them, because they are the exact same sorts of questions we might ask after something like the OKC bombing, or the war in Ukraine. How did this happen? Why did this happen? How could God allow this to happen? Who is responsible?
I certainly don’t have the answers to these questions, but what’s more important is to observe how Jesus responds when confronted with the news of tragic events.
He doesn’t minimize their impact. He doesn’t pretend that these aren’t horrific events.
He does not blame the victims, challenging the popular wisdom of his day (and perhaps ours, as well, though we would prefer not to admit it) by reassuring his listeners that it was not because these were bad people that they suffered this terrible fate.
Neither does he get involved in the political calculus of Pilate’s abuse of authority. He knows that Pilate can be a harsh and vindictive governor, and so he chooses not to speak out against him in a public way at this time.
But perhaps most importantly, Jesus resists any temptation to draw neat, simple, rational lines of causation. He doesn’t say “yeah, those Galileans shouldn’t have been challenging Pilate’s authority like that.” He doesn’t say, “yeah, those people shouldn’t have been out on that windy day. I could have told you that tower was close to falling.”
Jesus gives a simple and straightforward “No.” These events weren’t anyone’s “fault,” he says, followed by a reminder that all of us are mortal.
A Lenten message, to be sure: all of us will, at some point, meet our maker. All of us should be ready for that day by living lives of gratitude, thanksgiving, and ongoing repentance.
After all, we cannot easily separate Jesus’s reaction to the crowd’s questions about tragedy from the previous chapter, in which he preached that we should be like the flowers of the field, not worrying about our daily provisions, seeking the Kingdom of God, and allowing God to give us the abundant life that is promised to us.
For Jesus, the two attitudes go hand in hand: it is no contradiction to say, on the one hand, that we should not worry, and on the other, that we should live lives of repentance so that we are ready to die. And even so, the parable of the fruitless fig tree suggests that God is patient with us, desiring our good above all else, and is willing to forebear with us as we struggle to produce the fruit of the Kingdom.
All of us are in need of the repentance that makes for intimacy with God.
And this is the substance of Jesus’s teaching regarding the extent of human tragedy: it is a reality of this present world in which we find ourselves; but it is a mistake to assume that tragedy correlates with the sin of those caught in its grasp.
And likewise: it is a mistake to assume that power, wealth, and status correlate with righteousness. We simply cannot read the world in those terms, interpreting the signs of sin and righteousness as tragedies or blessings. Doing so is a temptation, in fact, that only sows confusion about who God is and how God chooses to act in the world.
Jesus says to leave those kinds of speculations alone and to repent. And the call to repentance is a call to intimacy. It is a call to the nearness that we experience when we make the effort to draw nearer to God daily in times of quiet prayer, to simply rest in God’s presence, to connect with God.
1300 years ago, Isaac the Syrian was born in modern-day Qatar. Later he was made the Bishop of Ninevah, the same Ninevah to which Jonah had reluctantly been called as a prophet, the same Ninevah that repented of its wicked ways, leading Jonah into a deep depression because God had forgiven them and not wiped the enemy out as promised. It seems only fitting that Isaac’s wisdom could teach us something about repentance.
For Isaac, repentance is absolutely a gift, a pure gift of God, a second baptism that allows us continually to be near to God, to one who created us and loved us into being. Isaac called repentance a “medicine” given to us by God, a medicine that we can take every day that renews our minds and spirits and reminds us of God’s immense and never-failing love for us.
Repentance, for Isaac, involves three steps that are all involved in the same action: standing before God, regretting the sins of the past, and looking forward to a future in which we avoid those sins.
One of his prayers asks God to “rig together my impulses for the ship of repentance so that in it I may exult as I travel over the world’s sea until I reach the haven of your hope.”
Ultimately, the availability of God and God’s willingness to forgive are manifestations of the joy of God’s love, as Isaac found so many years ago and as one modern commentator observes today: “the Christian outlook on repentance arcs toward joy,” he says, “and it finds grace experienced within the awful precariousness and strange beauty of our fleeting existence.”
It is telling that saints like Isaac the Syrian, and the 14th-century English mystic Julian of Norwich, wrote and ministered within the context of difficult and tragic events themselves, and yet, in both cases, they had a profound vision of God’s Love, and of the reconciliation of the entire Creation to the Creator.
As Julian writes in the midst of the Black Death, she can still say “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”; and Isaac can say “in love did God bring the world into existence; in love is he going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state; and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.” Or as Jesus says in the twelfth chapter of Luke: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Pray, trust, hope, and repent. Jesus knows us and lives with us in the midst of our joys and successes as well as our failures and tragedies. He wants to be near us. He is near us. Do not be afraid, for all manner of things shall be well. In the mystery of God’s Love, our lives and the entire Cosmos are moving toward redemption. AMEN.