Severity and Grace
Yesterday was a Spirit-filled day for many of us here at Christ Church. In the morning, we celebrated our sister, Elizabeth Henry-McKeever, as she was ordained a deacon. Then a few hours later, we celebrated the life and mourned the loss of our brother Gus Fulk. It was a long day, and for me, and many of you, I’m sure, the immense joy of ordination and the powerful grief of burial tugged at me, back and forth, all day long. Towards the end of the day, I shared with a friend that I felt tired and scattered and exhilarated all at the same time, to which she very wisely replied, “sure, it’s Lent.”
As several of us learned yesterday, it can be difficult to hold two very different truths at the same time. But paradox is an essential quality of the Gospel message, one that is emphasized in Lent, as well as in the Gospel of the Luke, and during lectionary year C, both together! Today’s Gospel passage is harsh, and full disclosure: I wrestled with it all week, until finally, yesterday, the Spirit broke through and the significance of paradox became a little clearer.
We find the disciples saddened and distressed, gathered together to ask Christ why unthinkable tragedies happen to innocent people. They are haunted by recent news and and fearful for their own lives and for those they love. Perhaps you are reminded of the devastating massacre of 50 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand 10 days ago. The disciples are also reeling after many of their fellow Galileans were killed by Pontius Pilate during their worship. The similarities between the two scenes are striking.
Like so many of us in recent days, the disciples are baffled as to how something so beastly could happen in their very midst. They beg Jesus for answers. Why did this happen? Was it a punishment from God? Did those people deserve what happened to them? There are Christian traditions in the world today that would tell you tragedies like these are indeed God’s judgement for sin. Publicly, we might be quick to disagree. After all, our tradition preaches a Gospel of love and acceptance.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, often when we hear about tragedies in the news, we do look for evidence that we are different from the victims, that they must have done something, or made some choice that we haven’t made, to bring about their fate. And we don’t do this because we’re hateful or malicious, but because the alternative, the idea that those poor people are no different from us, means that we could be next.
I suspect this is what the disciples had in their minds when they approached Jesus about the tragedy in Galilee. Surely those people must have been awful, right Jesus? Surely nothing like that could ever happen to us? And Jesus, ever the model of pastoral skills and non-anxious presence, replies swiftly and firmly, God was not punishing those people for their sins and this could absolutely happen to you, so you ought to repent. Talk about a Lenten Gospel message.
But then Jesus switches gears and tells the parable of a fig tree, barren for three years, given the grace of one more chance. In the same breath Jesus warns us “repent or perish” and also gently reminds us of God’s faithful patience. Frustratingly, when we and the disciples ask Jesus, “which is it, will God keep giving us chances or is time running out for us change our ways?” Jesus answers, “yes.” Just like our liturgical whirlwind yesterday, our lectionary today leaves us wondering, what are we to make of severity and grace side by side like this? I think that just as my wise friend suggested yesterday evening, the answer is in our Lenten call to repentance.
Every year on Ash Wednesday, priests everywhere invite the Church to observe a Holy Lent by repenting. For most of us, that means giving something up, adding something to our routine, or practicing a new way of life for 40 days. Sometimes, we discover that we love this new way of life and keep up with the practice after Lent has ended. But often, the season of Lent looks a lot like the beginning of the calendar year, full of resolutions and determination that loose steam an fizzle out.
This is not a sign of our weakness or lack of motivation, but simply an example of the fact that repentance, the practice of turning away from the cares of the world and towards the Kingdom of God, is just that: a practice. It’s not a one time act, an annual act, or even a seasonal act. According to Luke, it is our biggest responsibility towards bringing about the Kingdom, and it quite literally takes our entire lives. However, as tragedies like massacres in houses of worship painfully remind us, our lives are short. Of course God gives us endless opportunities to become a repentant people, but we simply don’t have forever to do it.
As Jesus tried to explain to his disciples, this paradox of grace and severity provides us with a sense of urgency, urgency that our broken and sinful world desperately needs. If you’re stewing over why bad things happen to good people, Jesus says to the disciples and to us, if you’re worrying about how to prevent the inevitable from happening to you, then you’re not using that precious time doing your part to usher in the Kingdom of God.
It is Good News, perhaps the best news, that when tragedy strikes, we can absolutely expect God’s grace to come right along with it. But when we are caught between joy and sorrow, fear and hope, when we feel pulled in two different directions, it can be easy to fall into a rut, trying to make sense of the paradox. I know I certainly got stuck there in my sermon prep earlier this week. I am grateful for Elizabeth and for Gus and for the opportunity to hold both of them in prayer and see both of them embraced by the Holy Spirit. And I am grateful for the Lenten reminder that in the midst of it all, the call for me to repent rings clear and true and urgent. Amen.