Sunday, March 20, 2022
Third Sunday in Lent, Year C
Prayer of the Day
Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Help us to hear your word and obey it, and bring your saving love to fruition in our lives, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 55:1-9 Everyone who thirsts, come to the water; seek the Lord
1 Corinthians 10:1-13 Israel, baptized in cloud and seas, ate the same spiritual food as Christians
Luke 13:1-9 Unless you repent, you will perish: parable of the fig tree
Title: Repenting of the Blame Game
It’s the blame game. One of the first games we learn to play. You remember it from early days of childhood. “It was his fault.” “She started it.” “They made me do it.” Of course, Flip Wilson took a very adult approach and turned it into an industry with “The Devil Made Me Do It.” Politicians are so good at passing along blame and avoiding accepting responsibility that they are given nicknames like The Teflon President. Others are considered novel because they put a sign on their desk that goes against blame culture telling everyone that the buck stops there. Others are so masterful at casting blame that they can even put the blame for an unprovoked war on the very people being attacked. Current Ukrainian situation a case in point.
It’s the blame game. And it doesn’t just seem to be around us from our individual beginnings or a game of the modern era. It seems like it has been around from the beginning of creation. Doesn’t Adam blame Eve and Eve blame the snake? If rebellion against God is our original sin, perhaps refusing to take responsibility for our actions is the close cousin. Or maybe it’s the sibling. We want all the power and control, but then once we think we are taking over the reins, we blame anyone and everyone when we screw things up, when we act out of ignorance, when we abuse the power we insist on possessing, when our foolishness causes ourselves or others pain and suffering.
The Blame Game. We are so good at, so well versed in its language, so automatic with playing it, so addicted to it, that we even drag God into it time and time again. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he blames the Hebrews’ disobedience for all the hardships that they experience in the wilderness as they made their way from slavery to the promised land. The people in Jesus day blame what they perceive as the punishing hand of God for the deadly tragedies that are commented on in the recorded conversation with Jesus in today’s reading from Luke’s gospel. Those Galileans slaughtered by Pilate, those poor folks who were in the wrong place at the wrong time when the tower fell over. Couldn’t have been because Pilate was a tyrant representing oppressive Rome. Couldn’t have been because of poor workmanship or earthquake damage. No, let’s blame it on God and the victims by judging that they deserved it. We see this time and time again in Jesus’ interactions. Was it the blindman’s parents or himself who sinned such that God struck him blind? (In the Blame Game, do you get extra points for a Double Blame – blame the victim and blame God for their victimhood.) We are good at this blame game, aren’t we?
And it continues today. Remember Pat Robertson blaming the people of Haiti for the devasting earthquake in 2010. It must have been divine punishment, he said. Same thing was done at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. “God, is punishing those gay people.” More double blame. I guess you could consider it an extension of that original rebellion, of wanting to displace God. We judge for God, we speak for God, we punish for God.
So how does Jesus – God incarnate – handle this question? This great, age-old theological challenge. Best to go to the source, right? Are the victims to be blamed for deserving punishment and is God to be blamed for doling out punishment with a harsh hand? The crowd wants to know. We want to know. We are all pressing Jesus to answer. “Do you think they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” He asks them and us. And then he is quite clear with his answer. NO! All Galileans are sinners. All people are sinners. No one is any better or any worse. No one is to blame. Not them. Not God. This just happened, sad as it was. Very clear answer, thanks Jesus. But then he seems to cloud that clear answer with his next statement. Clouds it so that as we have seen and continue to see, people are still blaming God for brutal punishments today. After that clear NO – don’t blame God or the victims – Jesus says: but unless you repent, you will perish as they did.
Wait a minute, Jesus, you just said don’t blame the victims for suffering this fate because they weren’t any more sinful than the rest of us, and don’t blame God that it happened. But now it sounds like you are saying that if we don’t clean up our lives, we will be punished as they supposedly weren’t, because you just said they weren’t punished. Oh, Jesus, what are you trying to tell us here? You are confusing the rules of the Blame Game.
Okay before we go any further, we have to stop here and take a minute to look at a word, a very important word for understanding this seemingly contradictory statement of Jesus. The word is: Repent. If you are like me, you hear this word and you immediately think, ask for forgiveness, admit your wrongs, promise to change your evil ways. Especially hearing it in this season of Lent. But if we go back to the original text, this word Repent is more about rehabilitating your thinking than your ways. It means to change your mind, as in change your point of view.
With this in mind, look again what Jesus is asking, what he is inviting his listeners to do. Unless you repent – change how you think – you will all perish just as they did – as in perish blaming themselves and blaming God. Repent, Jesus says, change your view of God – or you will all perish into a life that is filled with fear and trembling convinced that God is out to get you and punish you. Convinced that God is somehow pleased to see you squashed like a bug. Blaming God for all that is wrong in your life and in the world.
Jesus came with the call to repent – to change our thinking, and then presented (through word and deed) an image of a God whose mercy and love is beyond our understanding.
God through Isaiah reminds us that though our world punishes, God’s ways are not our ways and God thoughts are not our thoughts. God does not play the blame game. Just because we might think punishment through disease and disaster sounds like an effective way to get us into line, a method that we might use if we were God. (There we are again, back to our rebellion in the garden, wanting to replace God with ourselves.) God in Jesus Christ does not come teaching or living this image of God.
In fact, we are so steeped in this punishing God image, the one on whom we can keep heaping blame upon blame for what we see as punishment; that perhaps like me, when you hear the second part of today’s reading and listen to Jesus tell the story of the vineyard owner, the gardener, and the fruitless tree, you immediately think God is the vineyard owner and Jesus is the gardener, and anyone of us might be the fruitless tree. But Jesus never says that. Perhaps it is just a story that encourages us all to show patience. To not blame victims or God, not inflict punishment or place blame for hardship, not be shamed when bad things happened to us. But instead work at cultivating and growing the fruit of hope that is ours in the God who shows themself in the person of Jesus – the healer, not the Impaler; the provider, not the withholder; the executed, not the executioner. The one who even from the cross does not blame the guilty, but rather forgives.
Through Isaiah, God says to us who play the blame game:
let them return to me, that I may have mercy on them, and I will abundantly pardon.
8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,
And repenting – giving up our old blame game thinking, with new hearts and minds made new through the work of the Holy Spirit, we can respond with the psalmist back to God:
7For you have been my helper, and under the shadow of your wings I will rejoice.
8My whole being clings to you; your right hand holds me fast.
The Rev. Mark Erson,