preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
28, 2016; 3 Epiphany, Year C
Revised Common Lectionary
At that very time 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."
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
At a time when it was illegal in Egypt to raise a male
Hebrew child, there was a baby born to a Hebrew mother. In desperation she
placed the child into a handmade basket and floated it into the reeds on the
bank of the river. A princess found the child and raised him as a prince in the
Pharaoh's palace, giving him the Egyptian name Moses.
One day, after he had grown up, Moses saw an Egyptian boss
beating a Hebrew worker. Moses looked around and saw that they were alone. He
killed the Egyptian and hid the body in the sand. The next day he learned that
his act wasn't a secret, so he fled from Egypt into Midian, in the northwest
desert of today's Saudi Arabia. There he married, had children, and worked for
Time passed. One day, while keeping his father-in-law's flocks,
Moses stopped to gaze upon a bush that appeared to be on fire, yet not
consumed. That encounter with the mystery of God convinced him that God sees
our misery; God sees all human misery; that God hears the cry of the oppressed;
God hears the cry of all who suffer. And God acts.
So the murderer accepted God's call through an encounter
with a burning bush. Moses returned to Egypt, on fire yet not consumed. His was
a call from an ineffable God, with an untranslatable Name: I am who I am. I will be who I will be. I am
becoming who I will become. I am. The God of Moses, who is utterly
mysterious and free. No one can tame or pigeonhole this God.
But subsequent generations have tried to tame this God. One
of the most enduring attempts to pigeonhole and tame God is the theological
notion that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked. There is the further implication —that those
who suffer have somehow brought on their misery and deserve their fate. That
doctrine is central to many of the biblical books: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges,
Samuel, Kings, many of the Psalms, and especially Proverbs.
In contrast, the biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes
speak in stark protest to the simplistic notion that if you do good, you will
be rewarded, and if you do bad, you will be punished. Job and Ecclesiastes challenged
the simplistic notion that the successful deserve their success and those who
suffer somehow have brought on their fate.
In today's Gospel reading we see Jesus standing firmly in
the camp with Job and Ecclesiastes. What about the Galileans whom Pilate
executed so their blood mingled with their offerings of sacrifice in the
Temple? What about the eighteen who were crushed when the tower fell on them?
The Bible says they must have done something to deserve their fate, right?
"No!" cries Jesus. "But unless you repent…" – change your
mind, change your opinions, change the way you are thinking!
Jesus refused to victimize the victims.
It has been an enlightening experience to become engaged in
our prison ministry and to hear the stories of many of the women there. We've
learned about what happens to the human brain and body when we experience early
childhood trauma. There are so many children born into communities where their
parents have no access to fresh fruits and vegetables because the only stores
are convenience markets that serve mostly junk food. Places with substandard
housing and schools, void of beautiful parks and trails, haunted by violence,
crime and drugs. Where children are likely to experience abuse—physical,
psychological, emotional, spiritual and sexual abuse—during the vulnerable time
when their brains and bodies are developing. And when these children of ours fail
to thrive, when they see drug dealing or demeaning sexual transactions as their
only path to security, when they act violently as the only way they know to
solve problems, we tend to blame them. Like the Gospel conversation we say,
"they are worse offenders than all the others living in the city,"
and we send them to prison.
Jesus answers the problem with a parable about a fig tree.
Give the tree the same chance as the other trees in the garden. Dig a trench
around it and put rich manure on it. Invest in the children's communities—the
infrastructure and public schools; access to healthy food and affordable health
care and good jobs. Listen to their cries and facilitate their exodus from
bondage into freedom.
People want to do their best. It is innate in us. Every
human being is made in the image and likeness of God and the divine Spirit in
us energizes us to try our best. I am convinced that nearly every person is
doing the best they can, given the limitations of their history and
experiences, their capacities and resources. If we could understand fully the
heart and mind of others, I think it would change the way we think of them and
open our hearts to compassion.
Some time ago I visited with an older man living in an
extended family arrangement of three generations. He was frustrated with his
son-in-law, who was unemployed and spent most of his time in front of video
screens. The son-in-law often yelled at the kids, which angered my friend. But
the younger adolescent son seemed particularly fond of his dad and the older son,
now at adulthood, wouldn't think of leaving home because he felt nurtured
there. My friend said of his son-in-law, "He's worthless. He contributes
nothing and only mooches on the rest of us. I don't like him, and he doesn't
like me. For the most part, we just don't speak." But whenever my friend would
bring up her husband's deficiencies to his daughter, she always cut off the
conversation immediately. "If he goes, I go."
On an intuition, I asked my friend what he knew about his
son-in-law's childhood. Horrible, he said. The boy's mother was injured during
her birth and was never normal. His father left when he was about five, and
there was a string of unhealthy men in and out of the home thereafter. Drugs,
sex, violence, noise. The boy was abused also. Neglect was relief. That's how
he was raised.
So, I suggested, look what he has accomplished. He is a
faithful and loved husband. No drugs. Other than the occasional raised voice,
no violence—no raised fist. No abuse. When compared with what he learned—how he
was taught to be a man, taught to be in a family—he has made an exponential
jump. Yes, in many ways he's not a good father/husband/son-in-law, but what
evolutionary progress he has achieved from what he inherited.
So I suggested to my friend, whenever he starts to bug you,
think of that little boy. You can empathize with that little boy growing up in a
chaotic, abusive home. If you can empathize with the child, maybe you can let
the man off the hook. And if you can let him off the hook, you will free
yourself from the choking resentments and angers that diminish your life.
Jesus, what about the worthless man who won't work and sits
in front of a screen all day? Do you think he is a worse offender than the others?
No, I tell you; but unless you repent, change your opinions, change the way you
It's the kind of direction you get from a mysterious, free
God who will not be pigeonholed.
The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.
For information about St. Paul's Episcopal Church and its life and
mission, please contact us at
P.O. Box 1190, Fayetteville, AR 72702, or call 479/442-7373
More sermon texts are posted on our web site: www.stpaulsfay.org
Click the “Video Online”
button to watch full services and sermons live-streamed or archived