Thoughts on the Word:
Unfortunately I didn't get to write you a sermon this week, so I have provided one on today's Gospel written by Samuel D. Zumwalt, which I sourced HERE.
I apologise for my lack of writing, and will seek to not disappoint again next week! I do hope you get something out of the sermon below though.
Sermon on Luke 13:1-9, by Samuel D. Zumwalt
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree 6 And he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?' 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
GROWING THROUGH PAIN
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We were back for the first day of classes after our seminary internship (or vicarage, as we called it back then). Old friendships were being renewed, and our first war stories from vicarage were being shared. That's when Professor Robert Werberig, an artist, poet, and pastor, walked into the classroom to teach a course entitled "Pastoral Theology." It was one of the most valuable classes future pastors would take although we didn't know it at the time. He sat closest to us on top of his desk, lighted a cigarette, inhaled and exhaled a drag, looked deeply into our eyes, and said in his native New Yorker accent: "Everything bad that has ever happened to you is a blessing!"
There was a collective gasp from among this group of upperclassmen. We were stunned, and some of us looked at each other as if to ask, "He didn't really just say that, did he?" Doubtless the next thought by each student was immediately to recall the worst thing that had ever happened to us. And you could sense this rising cloud of anger.
Professor Werberig said it again: "Everything bad that has ever happened to you is a blessing. If you were attacked by a large dog when you were a child, it was a blessing. If you were jilted and betrayed by someone you loved, it was a blessing. If you had a serious illness, it was a blessing. If you experienced the painful death of a loved one, it was a blessing." And he paused to take another drag off his cigarette. (People actually could smoke in classrooms in those days.) And one person after another was ready to explode at him with seething anger. "I'm not listening to this" was in the air.
Professor Werberig said: "The blessing is not that something terrible happened. The blessing is that because you had those terrible things happen to you, you will better be able to minister to others in their suffering and their losses!" That last sentence probably kept us from throwing him out the window to fall eleven stories to the street below, but we were not convinced that he wasn't being mean and insensitive.
During the remainder of that session, our professor began to teach us how to reflect on our lives and on our interactions with others. He led us in what could be called a Socratic dialogue in which he allowed people to offer their objections and then asked engaging questions. By the end of the class, we were not happy with Professor Werberig but he had led us through some of Paul's teaching in Romans 5 and 2nd Corinthians 4-5. My three roommates and I spent the rest of the evening talking about that class. It was a conversation that continued for the next three weeks as we reflected together on our year of internship and, of course, on the bad things that had happened in our lives.
Two years later, Professor Werberig had returned to parish ministry, and I was a clinical resident at Parkland Hospital in Dallas and his part-time pastoral assistant in a parish in Irving TX. The year after that I began to serve as pastor of an LCA mission congregation on the south side of Dallas, and Robert Werberig continued to be my mentor, confessor, and friend for many more years to come. He died two years ago, but I think of him often with fondness and with gratitude to God for Pastor Werberig. When I was 25, I wasn't ready to hear what he had to say, but I learned more about pastoral ministry from Bob Werberig than I did from most of my professors before or since.
NARCISSISM AND THE OLD ADAM OR EVE
We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We confess that every week as we begin worship. From our first parents right on down to us today, our root sin (in Luther's words) is we do not fear, love, and trust God above all else. This is our age-old rebellion. We didn't fall, as if it were an accident. We rebelled, and we still rebel.
Professor Werberig exposed this truth about his students when he challenged us to think about someone other than ourselves. We were (at least metaphorically) ready to stone him for suggesting that our own painful experiences could somehow work for good. Instead we went immediately to our own sense of loss and hurt and heartache as if ours were worse than anyone else's because, well, they were ours!
Let's think for a moment about these queries of the crowd to Jesus in Luke 13 concerning terrible events in that day's news. Roman governor Pilate had mixed the blood of Galileans with that of their sacrifices. Jesus, why did that happen? A tower fell in Siloam killing 18. Jesus, why did that happen? Notice how Jesus answers. Essentially He says this life is short, fragile, and not all there is. Therefore repent, because it could be you! You can almost hear the words of Psalm 90:12 on His lips: "So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom."
When bad things happen to strangers, we often get cold chills a little later as we think about how that could have been us. We say, "I passed through that very intersection not more than a minute before that terrible wreck." We say, "That tornado came within six blocks of my house." We say, "I know somebody that used to work with her, and she was five years younger than me!" We say, "I can't help but think how that could happen to anybody."
Now when bad things happen to us, it is entirely different. We feel the loss in a deeply personal way, because our relationships are irreplaceable. The statute of limitations on grief does not run out. How could it? We are the sum of our relationships (Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote "I am I and my circumstance"). It takes time to come to a place of acceptance about the new and not better circumstance. Our losses can, in time, become occasions for growth as empathetic and caring persons. Yet the narcissist in each of us can also become so wrapped up in these personal tragedies that we can become embittered and destructive, trying to throw God out of our world.
The old Adam or Eve in us is a born narcissist. He or she is the center of the universe, and that makes it God's responsibility to explain Himself to us. One often overhears people talking about their loss of faith because of the terrible things that happened to others or to themselves. Instead of recognizing that God is God and we are not, the old Adam or Eve builds a rather childish case for why he or she is not a believer or not a worshiper. Only a narcissist looks at her or his own tragedies and losses as if they were weightier than all those that happen or happened to others. A walk through an old cemetery can be an eye-opener for the person who is willing to become a recovering narcissist. The older the cemetery the more stories one finds of inexplicable losses. Hang out in a hospital waiting room, and you will always find people with painful stories.
Jesus' parable in Luke 13:6-9 is, of course, a judgment parable. It is, again, not an explanation of why bad things happen to people (good, bad, or otherwise). Jesus' parable challenges God's people then and now to look at their (our!) lives through God's eyes. Is God the center? Am I seeking to do His good and gracious will? Am I ready to learn from and grow through the pain in my life? Or will my end game simply be to live and to die unto myself as if this were all there is? Jesus' parable is a call to repentance, to turn from the old narcissistic life to the new God-centered life! The point of God's Word of judgment is always, in this life, to drive us out of ourselves to His mercy in Jesus Christ!
IT MAKES THINGS GROW
Manure is still a popular fertilizer even for people far removed from the farming world. Doubtless there are farm folks having a good laugh as each townie or suburbanite pays for those bags of manure at the home improvement store. Work it into the soil at the right time, and manure puts fruit and vegetables in the garden and gorgeous blooms in the flowerbed. Small wonder, then, that Jesus uses such an obvious example to teach us about how the bad things in our lives can become blessings as the Holy Spirit helps us to grow and deepen in faith, hope, and love.
God's best answer to the narcissist in me and in others is the innocent suffering and death of His beloved Son Jesus. Through His saving work on the cross, God's Son Jesus has destroyed the ultimate power of sin, death, and evil. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, "now we see through a mirror dimly but then face to face." Our capacity for grasping the Master's plan is always limited by our mortality. On this side, death always seems to be the worst thing imaginable because it cuts off lives far sooner than most of us are ready and separates us from our most treasured earthly relationships.
The great good news of Jesus Christ our Savior moves from the objective to the subjective. This Gospel gets applied to each person who is baptized when Christ's work is declared for this one! Let's be clear. Baptism is not our work. Baptism is God's gracious work of choosing us sinners for the sake of His Son Jesus. It is what Augustine called a visible Word, God's Word joined to the earthly stuff of water to declare a new child of God where there was none (John 3:5). This one is marked with Christ's holy cross and sealed with the Holy Spirit. This one has been buried and raised with Jesus to share in the life and love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This one is set apart and joined to the people of God of every time and place. As Peter says, "Once you were no people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy" (1 Peter 2:10).
So then what is our response to God's work for us and in us? Repent and believe this good news is for you! Trust the promise made to you in your Baptism. Of course, the old narcissist in me and you won't leave us alone until he or she is finally dead and buried. The old narcissist still tries to turn faith into something we do, when, in fact, faith is the trust God the Holy Spirit calls forth from us as we hear this Good News of Christ's saving death and resurrection. Jesus has lived the life none of us can live and died the innocent death none of us can die. All this, says Luther, God's Son has done that I may be His and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness (Small Catechism, 2nd Article of the Creed).
This life is short, fragile, and not all there is. That's the point of today's story and parable in Luke 13:1-9. The old narcissist in us fights going into the waters of Baptism and into the grave, because he or she doesn't want to let God be God. How stupid is that?
When the new child of God in us faces the pain and suffering of this life, he or she knows that her or his suffering has been joined to that of Christ Jesus. Our pain and suffering stinks just like manure; Christians are not masochists. But with God's help, we can grow and deepen as children of God who, in turn, become blessings to those we serve.
This is why Paul can write: "...we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us" (Romans 5:3-5).
Yes, Robert Werberig was right. I hated it then, and I still don't much like it.
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.