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The Third Sunday in Lent
March 3, 2013
The Gospel: Luke 13:1-9
Sermon: "Superstition Ain't the Way!"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
There were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
Superstition Ain't the Way!
Why do bad things happen to good people? It is a question all of us ask from time to time. For our Fundamentalist kindred in the church, the answer is, as always, black and white: those good people, or their ancestors, must have done something bad to deserve it. That was the Rev. Pat Robertson’s explanation for the devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti awhile back, if you’ll remember. “Their ancestors were in league with the Devil”, he divined, “and God’s judgment has been visited on each generation since”, according to how he reads God’s law. I didn’t hear what the Northeast did to deserve Super-storm Sandy last year, exactly.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, some of Jesus’ listeners ask him this same question. They bring up a recent news story about some Galileans who had been cruelly offered as human sacrifices by Pilate. Were they greater sinners than others in Galilee that they should suffer so? A tower had fallen in Siloam and crushed eighteen by-standers. Was it because of their sin?
Jesus had already dealt with this question when confronted with a man who had been born blind. His disciples wanted to know if it was his parent’s sin or his own that was responsible for his condition. Please note, if you haven’t already, that Jesus consistently condemned the notion that all human tragedy is punishment for sin. In the Sermon on the Mount he established this sacred principle once and for all: “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”
In other words, it is in the nature of our imperfect world, that good and bad circumstances visit both good and bad people. We are forced to conclude that there are some things in this world that just happen as a consequence of the nature of creation. Good people die just as bad people die, because, in this life, literally, that’s life! Rather than being angry with God that this world isn’t perfect, we should remember that we wouldn’t even be human beings capable of asking the questions if this world weren’t exactly as it is; we, as we are, would never have happened.
No, the issue for the Christian is not whether bad things, like good things, will happen to us, but how we will come through them relying on God’s strength and grace.
There are three things to draw from this teaching of Jesus this morning, and the first is this: trying to control that which is beyond our control leads to superstition. Some things in life we cannot control. But we want to control them. This is what superstition is all about. We might carry around a rabbit’s foot or hang a horseshoe or consult a horoscope in order to control our circumstances. Maybe something good will happen to us. At least, maybe the bad will be warded off. Or maybe we’ll adopt some fatalistic attitude, “When your number is up, it’s up!” Sometimes our efforts border on the absurd.
It reminds me of the man who was nearly panic-stricken on his first flight. The pilot came back personally to calm him down. “Are you a religious man?” the pilot asked. “Yes,” the man replied. “Don’t you believe that when your time is up, you’ll go and not until then?” the pilot asked. “Yes,” the man replied. “Then what are you nervous about?” the pilot asked. The man said grimly, “I’m afraid your time will come before mine.”
Such reasoning gets very complicated at times. When we attempt to control our lives by the use of a charm or a ritual or trust in fate or the stars or whatever, this is superstition. Some superstitions are relatively harmless. Like that Bud Lite commercial with the fans doing their good-luck rituals: you know, “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.” Sometimes, if they give us confidence, they can be helpful. But if we use them as a substitute for trusting God, they can be destructive.
That leads us to our second point: faith is not superstition. Superstition is an attempt to manipulate that part of our lives that is beyond our personal control. Authentic Christian faith is not an attempt to use God as a rabbit’s foot to ward off life’s unpleasant realities. Christian faith at its best is a willingness to surrender the realities of our lives to God; to trust that God will enable us to rise to meet the challenge of each new circumstance as it comes; to surrender the desire to escape life, and to trust in God’s strength to live life come rain or come shine.
Analyze your prayers sometime. Many of us use our prayers to manipulate God. We want him to adjust the weather to our liking, or to change our boss’s attitude, or help us win the lottery. We seek to advise God as to what we think is best for us. Rather than trusting that he will give us all things needful for the journey as it comes, we seek to guide him away from any pitfalls, to control him, to use him.
Do you believe that God knows what’s best for your life? Do you believe that God’s will is for your best good? Or do you secretly try to manipulate God to work things out the way you see best? Don’t misunderstand: God wants us to share our desires with him, God wants us to work in conversation about what we see ahead and want we want. It’s not only ok, but it’s expected and encouraged that we should tell God what we want; but it is the spiritually mature Christian who also sincerely adds, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Jesus did not want his interrogators to get bogged down with this question about why bad things happen. He wanted them to understand their need to trust God. We are not to become fixated and stalled out upon those things in life that we cannot control. Rather we are to trust in God’s strength to come through them, and focus on those things that we can control.
This leads to the third point: Authentic Christian faith calls for action. Some people sit around and speak sadly about what life has done to them. Jesus says to them and to us that the issue is not what life has done to us, but what we will do with life! Jesus used the parable of the fig tree and said that if it does not bear fruit, cut it down. He was saying to them and to us that we are responsible for bearing fruit, for making a difference, for taking responsibility for that part of life that we can control. We are not to be superstitious, trying to escape the world’s ills. We are to be bearers of the Cross, healing those ills.
H.G. Wells once wrote an essay on that tribe of people he called the “goodness sakers.” These are the folk who see something that needs doing, or see some social evil, or detect some moral shortcoming, and they stand around and wring their hands, and say, “For goodness sakes, why doesn’t someone do something about this?”
It is we who have been called to do something. We cannot escape the hunger in the world, but we can do our part to see that the hungry are fed. We cannot wish a ban on misfortune, but we can be there to bring comfort and to supply both material and emotional support. That is our calling. We cannot escape the world’s problems, but we can do what we can. I heard about a humorous example along this line.
During the Nazi occupation of Paris, a husky Gestapo storm trooper stepped into a subway car. Suddenly, he tripped headlong over the umbrella of a little old lady sitting next to the door. After picking himself up, the bruised Nazi launched into a tirade of abuse, then bolted from the car at the next station. When he was gone, the passengers burst into spontaneous applause for the little old woman. “I know it isn’t much,” she said, graciously accepting the compliments, “but he’s the sixth one I’ve brought down today.”
We all have our part to play, I guess. Do you see the point, though? We are constantly asking God to solve the world’s problems. He is asking us to do the same thing, as he directs and empowers us. That is to be our approach to prayer. Rather than just praying for peace in the world, we are to pray that God would make us peacemakers. Rather than simply asking God to solve everyone’s problems, we are to pray that God empower us to help those who need our assistance.
Is your faith mere superstition or is it authentic Christian faith? Do you attempt to use God to escape life, or are you willing to receive God’s strength to meet life? In your prayers, ask God for the strength and the wisdom and the courage, the tools, to take on whatever comes. That is authentic faith!