February 28, 2015
William G. Carter
Did you hear what happened to that little girl named Jessica? She was a third grader at an elementary school, and a terrible thing happened to her. On a Wednesday morning, she was sitting in class, nibbling on the tip of her pencil. The end came off in her mouth, got stuck in her throat, and nobody could get it out. She choked and died. It was a tragic thing to happen. And when we find our voices, the first question we want to ask is "Why? Why did it happen?"
Did you hear about that bright young man named Michael? He was skiing in Colorado one New Year's Eve. He and his buddies were throwing a football around while on skies, on the slopes, without a helmet or protective gear. The ski patrol told him to knock it off, but he ignored them. One wrong turn, he smashed into a tree. It was a tragic way to die. One minute Michael was alive, full of life. The next minute, he was gone. You hear about a tragedy like that -- there's no other word to describe it -- it's a tragedy -- and you ask yourself, "Why did it happen?"
Did you hear what Pontius Pilate did? Some Galileans went down to the city for worship. Obviously they went to present an offering at one of the religious festivals. Excitement was high. The city was charged with religious enthusiasm. And while they joyfully presented their offering in Jerusalem, at the very temple where God meets his people, Pontius Pilate had them slaughtered. You hear about a tragedy like that, and what can you say? Most words get stuck in your mouth. But in the midst of the rage, the anguish, the confusion, about the only word you can say is "Why?" Why did something like that happen?
In the story we heard today, Jesus does not answer that question. If anything, he seems to echo it. They tell him about what Pontius Pilate did to those worshipers, and he tells them a story right back. "Well," he says, "did you hear about the tower of Siloam? It was an impressive structure, and people came from all over to see it. One day, without warning, it tumbled down and killed eighteen people." And then he looked them in the eye, because he knew what they were wondering. "Why?" Why did something like that happen? It's the first theological question that everybody asks.
Like I said, Jesus doesn't answer that question. But he does deal with one answer to that question, namely, that bad things happen to people because God is punishing them. Did Jessica choke because she was a sinner? Did that tower in Siloam fall as an act of punishment? Absolutely not. Jesus says, "No!" Twice in this text, Jesus debunks any notions of causality ("it happened because they were bad") and comparative sinfulness ("it happened because they were worse than others").
In his time, there was a stream of popular theology that said bad things happen to sinners. Of course, at some level, all of us hope that is still the case. We want people to get what they deserve; at least, I do. And then I hear Jesus say in the Gospel of Luke, that God is good and loving to everybody. “God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked,” he says (6:35). That’s not how a lot of people would run the world. Sinners ought to be punished -- isn't that right? -- as long as I'm not one of them.
Like it or not, Jesus doesn't talk about punishment very much. And he won't let us ever think that tragedies happen because God is punishing us. The two tragedies mentioned in this text are not mentioned in the history books, yet neither is surprising. People like Pontius Pilate climbed through the political ranks by being mean, which you may have noticed is still going on. Buildings occasionally fall down, with or without the help of an earthquake. Bad things occur, regardless of how good or evil anybody happens to be. You could be a pious Galilean at worship (13:1) or an innocent person who stands under the wrong tower at the wrong time (13:4). You could be a victim of a capricious despot or a victim of bad engineering. To paraphrase the bumper sticker, it happens. Just tune in the evening news. The names change, the stories stay the same.
But why do these things happen? Because we are being punished for our sins? Jesus says, "No!" There is not always a logical link between what we do (or what we leave undone) and what happens to us. We don't always get punished for our sins. But these things do happen because of sin. That is, not because of our individual sins, but because of sin as a force in the world.
As Jesus reminds us, we are finite creatures who cannot complete our lives by our own efforts. The classic word that sums up this human incompleteness is the word "sin." Some of us think of "sin" to signify something we do that is wrong. It means that, but it means more than that. Sin is also a human condition. It feeds on us like an addiction, and we can never completely shake ourselves free. In this sense, we confess our sin (singular), which is expressed in our sins (plural).
Today we can think of sin as a tragedy. As an act of chaos in the midst of order. As a glitch in the best-laid plans. Not only as something wrong, but something that can't help but go wrong. Sometimes it happens, or it conspires to happen; and there's nothing any of us can do to fix it.
Did you hear about Korean Airlines flight KE007? That's the plane which was shot down over Russia some years ago. KE007 was a regular commercial flight from New York to Seoul. It drifted into Soviet airspace and was shot down by a Russian fighter plane. 269 people died. At the time, the Soviets charged that the plane was a decoy and was actually on an espionage mission. The United States, for its part, claimed that the Russians were simply covering up the cold-blooded murder of nearly three hundred lives.
What happened? Well, KE007 was no spy plane, but a plane under the command of a sleepy crew. They were going strictly by the book in navigating their plane. But there were a couple of problems on the ground. An auto-pilot switch was left too long in the "on" position. Nobody in the cockpit noticed an amber warning light they did not notice. It was an improbable collection of circumstance and errors which allowed the plane to stray off course.
As for the Soviets, they had been monitoring the activities of an American surveillance plane. Nothing illegal or dangerous, but something to keep a watchful eye on. That plane faded from the radar scope only to be replaced by the mysterious blip from KE007. Unlike the other plane, KE007 wasn't behaving like a military aircraft, but they were already thinking from a military framework. A fighter pilot, Major Gennady Osipovich, was sent up in an SU-15 to get a closer look.
It was a moonless and dark night, but even in the gloom, Osipovich could see the navigation lights of the Korean airliner. It should have been a clue that this was not a spy flight. Osipovich's superiors were also hesitant. But finally, when the airliner did not respond to signals or warnings, they decided themselves to go by their rule book; they gave the order to shoot it down.
In other words, both the crew of the airliner and the Soviet military were going by the book. Both were trapped in systems not of their own making, which would bring them, through no design or intention of their own, to fatal and tragic crossroads. Today, Gennady Osipovich is a potato farmer; he still cannot bring himself to accept the fact that he destroyed a commercial airliner and its passengers. In fact, he was not originally scheduled to be on duty at all that fateful night. He had volunteered for the night shift so that earlier that day he could give a talk on peace at his children's school.
What happened? Sin happened; the intentions of God were short-circuited by people who thought they were doing the right things, yet fell victim to their own limitations. That's how it is, in a world like this. Welfare programs go awry, therapies end up harming instead of helping, bureaucracies stifle instead of support. People go by the book - even the Good Book - and other people, innocent people, suffer and die. Who is culpable? No one, every one, both at the same time, caught in the web of sin's tragedy.
Jesus said, "Tragedy is not God's punishment." Everything we know about God from the Gospels is that God himself remains faithful and steadfast in the midst of human brokenness. I can tell you from the perspective of my own life that this is true. God stands close at hand, in spite of human cruelty, regardless of human frailty. When tragedy strikes, awful as it can be, let that be a reminder of our weakness, and let it point us to God, from whose love we shall never be separated.
Did you hear about the bloodthirsty Pilate? Or the tower that fell? Or the shooting down of KE007? Or the nine year old girl who choked on a pencil eraser? Yes, of course, we've heard about these things. Jesus uses these teachable moments to invite us to shake ourselves loose from any complicity in human tragedy, to make reparations and offer help as we're able, and to hold on tighter to the God whose own Son was a victim of human tragedy.
"Repent." That's the word Jesus uses. That is what God requires of us. Repentance means a lot of things. It might mean a coming-home, or it might mean a going-deeper. Maybe it means we have to change some of our attitudes and actions so that we don't get further ensnared in sin, or maybe it drives us to rethink settled opinions about how we thought about other people, their mistakes, and their problems. As somebody said after his brother’s death, "It forced me to re-evaluate my life. I have a whole new appreciation of how fragile all of us are.”
When trouble come, listen to the offer Jesus makes: Repent. Stay close to God. And if you aren't close, get close. Repent while the time is ripe. Let go of insisting on answers to "why?" Choose instead to draw nearer to God, from whose love nothing shall ever separate us.
Luke Timothy Johnson notes that Jesus responds to the report of these deaths "in classic prophetic style: they are turned to warning examples for his listeners." As he continues,
The prophet's point is that death itself, with the judgment of God, is always so close. It can happen when engaged in ritual. It can happen standing under a wall. And when it happens so suddenly, there is no time to repent. Rabbi Eliezer had declared that a person should repent the day before death. But his disciples said that a person could die any day, therefore all of life should be one of repentance. The repentance called for by the prophet Jesus, of course, is not simply turning from sin but an acceptance of the visitation of God in the proclamation of God's kingdom.
Here's the Good News that Luke offers: in Jesus Christ, God requires - and makes possible - a total recasting of our lives. We can join this affirmation only if we have "come down where we ought to be." We participate only as the words of Luke's gospel poke a hole in our balloons of expertise, management, and control. We repent when we give up trying to fix things that we can never fix, and instead turn to Christ, in whom, the scriptures say, "all things hold together." I do not know what personal tragedies you are carrying this morning. But I do know that the time is ripe to return to God, and to rely on his strength to get you through them. That's repentance.
The time is ripe. No wonder, then, after twice saying, in effect, "Repent, or else you'll perish too," Luke's Jesus spins a story about a fruitless fig tree. "Don't cut it down yet," says the assistant to the farm owner. "Give it one more chance to bear some fruit." For those who have ears to hear, there's a message that comes out of the parable: time is running out; yet there is still time. It’s time to come home to God.
(c)William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Thomas G. Long, "Learning to Speak of Sin," Preaching as a Theological Task: World, Gospel, Scripture, ed. Thomas G. Long and Edward Farley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996) 99-100.
 Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina: Luke (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991) 213.