Suffering Sin

A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Year C – 3 March 2013

John Edward Miller, Rector


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.’”Luke 13:1-9


  The Collect

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


The subject of sin (and its consequences) is prominent during Lent. This is a penitential season – a time of reckoning with our limitations, our temptations, our misguided choices, and (sometimes) our miserable mistakes. Lent is like an extended Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, except that Christ is one who does the atoning work, not us. His is the sufficient sacrifice that heals the rifts that we create and the wounds that we inflict.  So, in Lent, it is meet and right that we spend forty days and forty nights contemplating the frailty of our mortal nature. But it is even more important that we ponder our Lord’s willingness to suffer sin for our sake.

To think on these things is not to dwell in defeatism and negativity. It is to take the blinders off and to focus on grace – the magnanimous measure of God’s love, which can pull us out of the pits that we dig for ourselves. Without it we cannot escape; sin excavates bunkers too deep for us to crawl out of. And God knows, “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” It is by grace that we are saved through faith.

It’s the “through faith” part that we always need to hear. It means that God’s extended hand must be grasped. Even divine help is not self-fulfilling; it takes trust to see it, and courage to collaborate with it. Grace does its work when we accept it.

And what does that look like? It looks like stopping in our tracks, wheeling around, and going toward God rather than away from him. Acceptance of that sort is called “repentance.” Our gospel text today speaks of the necessity of repenting, even as Jesus is suffering sin.

Have you ever asked, “What did I do to deserve this?” or have you ever heard someone say, “You get what you deserve in this life”? Most of us have because the theology supporting such statements is more than two and a half millennia old. And that’s just in its Hebrew context; many cultures and religions have viewed reality through a lens of cause and effect. Call it karma or fatalism, this perspective is worldwide. But it takes on a biblical life of its own in the book of Deuteronmony.

For the Deuteronomist, the status of a human life is determined by one’s choices. The standard against which a choice is measured is the Law of God, the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” that govern righteous behavior. Deuteronomy assumes free will, the ability to make one’s own choice among competing options. Ignorance of the Law is no excuse; the person of faith is charged with knowing and keeping the commandments of the Law. Deuteronomy makes it clear that our choices have consequences – outcomes that are directly correlated with the quality of our choices. Specifically, it says that obeying the Law is a good choice, while disobeying it is a bad choice – an evidence of sin. Good choices bring blessing, and bad choices cause a curse to cripple a life.

According to Deuteronomy, it’s that simple. Or should I say, simplistic? Deuteronomic thinking is either-or thinking. It’s neat and clear. People who live by it are certain that they know the score. They think that minding their p’s and q’s is the key to success and happiness; they work hard to keep their record clean because they fear that a black mark will bring reversal of fortune, or even disaster. That’s why, when unpleasant things happen, they wonder whether they have done something wrong enough to bring on bad times. Further, as a corollary to this black and white view, they regard people who are diseased, broken, or bereft, as people under a curse. Many onlookers suspect that the unfortunate have tempted fate, and deserve the punishment they have gotten. They search for a logical reason to explain why people suffer. Otherwise, it appears that the universe is random, pure chance. And that is a frightening prospect – one that unacceptable to an open-and-shut point of view.

The question is, Does reality proceed according to this paradigm? Does the evidence support the Deuteronomic theory? Are there no accidents – things that just “happen”? Or does everything have a cause that we can discern, and then avoid like the plague?

The Book of Job went toe-to-toe with the Deuteronomist, insisting that there are no easy answers to the question of human suffering. And so did Ecclesiastes, with his existentialist interpretation of life’s ambiguities. Jesus, too, joined issue in the ongoing debate. In John’s gospel account, when his disciples encountered the man born blind, they asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”[1] They thought that the afflicted fellow was living proof of God’s judgment, and were looking for confirmation of their belief. Jesus’ response came as a surprise. It was a direct challenge to Deuteronomic thinking. He said, “It was not this man who sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” His bold rebuttal supported the dignity and integrity of all who suffer, but are subtly blamed for being victims of conditions beyond their control.

In today’s text from Luke, we hear him attack the inadequacy of legalism once again. This time, Jesus is speaking to the people about the need for repentance when he gets word about an atrocity that has occurred in Galilee. Someone tells him about the murder of worshippers by the soldiers of Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea. Apparently, Pilate (who was no stranger to brutality, and who would later preside over the crucifixion of Jesus) had ordered the slaying of Galileans making their ritual sacrifices. Again, the popular assumption was that they brought this tragedy on themselves. The report stirred Jesus to protest. He said, “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.” Then he punctuated his point by citing another disaster that was being muttered about in Jerusalem. Jesus asked, “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.”   

In other words, there is no simple correlation between suffering and sin. Everyone is in the same boat; we all sin and fall short of God’s glory. We all need to repent, not just the ones who suffer.

Deuteronomy has been challenged by the best; however, its hold on our mentality persists. It hasn’t gone away, because life is difficult, and hard to understand. As Rabbi Kushner has famously said, “People like to think that there’s someone driving the bus.” When we consider the complexity of existence, we wince. For many it is far easier to trade one’s integrity for a modicum of certainty than to stare doubt in the face.

On November 1, 1755 – All Saints’ Day – a massive earthquake struck Lisbon, Portugal, causing over 60,000 deaths. Because it was a major feast day of the Church calendar, most of the citizens of Lisbon were dutifully attending mass when the quake hit the city. Thousands of the deaths occurred when the church structures collapsed, crushing the faithful as they prayed.

This awful incident became an infamous theological test case for the suitability of Deuteronomic thinking. Were Lisbon’s victims annihilated for their corporate sins? Was the Church guilty of some great transgression, causing God to shatter the institution as a warning to all who would dare to flaunt the Law? Despite what you might reply to those questions, we can be assured that there were, and still are, people who blamed the victims, saying that the punishment of God was just. This, they said, was not a geological accident; it happened for a reason – namely, it was a planned execution, a holocaust for the sake of divine justice.

That may strike us as unscientific, unenlightened thinking, if not pure nonsense. However, it is not without parallel in today’s world.  Forty-eight hours after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a pair of famous televangelists felt the need for crystal clarity, even as the dust and smoke from the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania were still aloft. A pastor of a mega church in Piedmont Virginia was being interviewed by the founder of a Tidewater-based Christian cable channel. Transcripts and tapes record the remarks of the two men, verifying a blog summary of the interview, which said:  

 Both men spoke harshly of the terrorists and clearly blamed them for the attacks.  

 During a discussion about whether this crisis might bring revival to America, [the pastor] said God may have allowed what the nation deserved because of moral decay and said Americans should have an attitude of repentance before God and asking for God’s protection.  He specifically listed the ACLU, abortionists, feminists, gays, and the People for the American way as sharing in the blame.  [The interviewer] responded with agreement.[2]

 Reaction to this post-9/11 interview was strong and swift. The cable channel founder issued a statement on his website repudiating the position that the pastor had taken against particular groups. Meanwhile the pastor released an apology for his observations, indicating that after further consideration, he believed that the terrorists alone were responsible for the tragedy.

However, despite the attempts to disarm these explosive comments, their content went viral on the Internet. Malicious rumors abounded, and frightened people searched for scapegoats to explain the crisis and the reason why thousands of innocent victims died. In the interview, the pastor had said that, “what we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be miniscule if, in fact, if in fact God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.”[3] His presumption is that “the curtain” of God’s protection of this nation is a conditional defense, based on obedience to biblical Law as the evangelist saw it. And because certain groups seemed to him to fly in the face of the Law, the innocent were permitted to suffer for the sin of the nation – the ‘sin’ of allowing such groups to exist.

That’s stuff that witch-hunts are made of, and ethnic cleansings, and purges, and pogroms, and holocausts. At the very least, it is what prompted the Puritans to their fastidious disassociation with identifiable sinners of their day, and the so-called good people to segregate and discriminate to keep those deemed undesirable out of schools, away from public lunch counters, and outside the clubs and the neighborhoods of the few in our time.

The attempt to possess certainty, and to maintain control, comes at a very high price. Its start-up cost is self-deception and denial of what one is doing, and the long-run cost is the partitioning of society, the loss of civility, and the betrayal of our Lord’s command to love one another as he has loved us. And sad to say, all of this pretentious effort amounts to nothing. In the last analysis, the best we can say is that each one of us is “a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of  thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming.”[4]

Those words, said to commend a Christian at his burial, are spare but comforting. Whether a life has been lived by keeping or breaking the rules, and whether it has gone smoothly or tragically, the final word is redemption – redemption of all that has transpired, and made our life what it is in the sight of God. In God’s eyes we are beloved, forever. The good news is that grace – the undeserved mercy of God, paid for us by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – is our hope and strength, a very present help in times of trouble and utter delight.

Like the fig tree in Jesus’ parable, we produce fruit not on our own, but by the gifts of nurture that enable us to be productive. Even though it is true that finally “there is no health in us,”[5] God’s judges us with love, rather than with Law. Trusting this truth, we are bold to pray,

 But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, spare thou those who confess their faults, restore thou those who are penitent, according to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord; and grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.[6]

 As we approach Holy Week and Easter, let us stop what we’re doing, pause in the midst of all our busy-ness, and remember the one who offered himself as our atonement. Then let us turn around and run toward the outstretched arms of the loving Father who accepts us, his prodigal children, in spite of ourselves.  His embrace is what makes us whole. Amen.


 [4] The Commendation from the Burial of the Dead, Rite I, the Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 483.

[5] This phrase is taken from “A General Confession” in the service of Morning Prayer of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.  It was composed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the1549 English prayer book.

[6] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 42.