Another Chance

Scripture:  Luke 13:1-9

The contiguous United States is over 3 million square miles big.  The distance from the furthest Eastern point on the east coast to the furthest western point on the west coast is 2,800 miles.  All of this is to say that the United States is really big with a lot of different biomes and complex weather patterns.  This means that inevitably areas in the United States are going to be impacted by adverse weather.  It is kind of unavoidable, but despite that it seems every time there is a tornado, flood, hurricane, or some other sort of disaster televangelists materialize out of the woodwork to proclaim the disaster is God’s judgement.   With a lot of self-righteousness they proclaim that the disaster and all of the suffering it has caused is God’s way of punishing something that they happen to disagree with.  This cycle seems to happen like clockwork, something bad happens, and within a day it seems some talking head claiming religious authority will say it is God’s judgement.  I think that these people making these claims need to be careful with what they claim God is judging, because the date does not correlate their claims.   In an academic paper data analysist Aiden Bissell-Siders compiled the data and discovered that there is no statistical correlation between storm damage and the behavior that tends to be claimed as what the weather was sent as a judgement against.   However, his analysis did find that areas that have a higher percentage of people employed by a church there was a stronger correlation with storm damage.  This is likely because the Southern United States is just more likely to suffer weather related disasters and this is also the area of the country with the highest concentration of churches.  Yet, the pundits who are quick to declare God’s judgement have never pointed this odd little correlation that places with more churches suffer more disasters in the United States.

To be extremely clear, when a disaster happens I believe that as a Christian our first response should be to say “how can I help” not to point fingers and say that you did this.  I personally do not get the impulse to see something terrible happen and then blame it on the people who are suffering from the incident.   Yet, it must be an impulse that a lot of people have because with every disaster there are people quick to blame the victims and ascribe divine judgement.   This happens to this very day, but this morning’s scripture illustrates that this is not a new phenomenon.  This morning’s scripture shows that back in the time of Jesus people were equally as quick to blame victims and ascribe divine judgment.  This morning’s scripture is not quite as well-known as a lot of the stories of Jesus, but if we take our savior’s teaching to heart I think we can learn how to be more patient and more loving.

This morning’s scripture is perhaps less known because it is only found in the gospel of Luke.  The parable Jesus tells here is one of 18 parables that only appear in Luke’s gospel.  We also get a report of current events.  First there is a report of something awful that Pontius Pilate did.  Unfortunately, there are no other surviving sources outside this scripture that record this incident, but it does fit with what other source record about Pontius Pilate.   The Jewish historian Josephus wrote about this time, and he records multiple times when Pilate clashed with the Jewish people.  Josephus records incidents where Pilate’s actions led to bloodshed, and Josephus also reports times when Pilate was disrespectful of Jewish religious tradition.  So it is not outside the question that Pilate would have Galileans executed for some violation of Roman law, and then as a way to disrespect them and show Roman superiority mix their blood with the blood of sacrifices they had come to Jerusalem to make.

There are a lot of details we are missing from this story that we would love to have such as what these people did to be sentenced to death in the first place.  Another missing detail, is why this information was shared with Jesus.   Did they want to rouse Jesus against the Roman oppressors or did they just want his hot take on a current event?  Jesus’ answer does seem to imply that one of the take-aways that some people got from this tragedy, is that somehow the Galileans mistreated by Pilate somehow deserved it.  It seems people were quick to believe that these people as well as a group who recently died when a tower collapsed were somehow on the receiving end of God’s divine judgement.   Jesus shuts down this victim blaming right away, but honestly what he says at first is not initially all that comforting.  In talking about the people the tower fell on Jesus says in verses 4 and 5, “Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will perish.”

There is really no way around it.  Jesus is plaining stating that the people who suffered the tragedies mentioned in the scripture were not more deserving of God’s judgement than anyone else, because we are ALL deserving of God’s judgement.  I mean I guess that is fair, but it is a little harsh.   Or it would be harsh if Jesus had stopped right there.  Thankfully he did not, but instead told a parable about a fig tree.  In the story the owner of the vineyard was ready to tear out a tree after three years.  It typically takes a fig tree three to five years to start bearing fruit.  So while it is was within the realm of possibility that it could have fruit by the third year, it does seem a little harsh to end it because it did not go as fast as the owner wanted it to.  The wise gardener not only convinces the owner to give the tree more time, but the gardener commits to giving the tree special care and extra attention so that it has the best possible chance of bearing fruit.

Jesus begins with a statement of God’s judgement but ends with a parable of God’s mercy.   These are two viewpoints found throughout the Bible.  The bible declares time and time again that God will judge the earth and that God is a gracious and merciful God.  These are not mutually exclusive but are both true.  God is a God of justice and God is a God of mercy.  The parable Jesus tells is consistent with the rest of scripture, God is quick to choose mercy.  God is a God of justice, but the beautiful truth professed by all of scripture is that God would rather forgive us than condemn us.    God is prone to act like the gardener in the parable, to be patient with us, and to give us special care when we need it.   If that is how God treats us, then that is how we should treat others.  God gives us more second chances than we rightfully deserve, so in the same way we should be willing to allow others another chance.

One of the key ways that we do this is by having empathy for others.  Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.  Unfortunately, this is a lot harder for us that perhaps it sometimes should be.  It seems that often our initial reactions are wired against empathy.  The fact that victim blaming is so common is an example of this.  Behavioral scientists who have looked into the phenomenon point out that often victim blaming is a defensive mechanism.  The fact that bad things happen to good people, and that sometimes people can be a victim due to no fault of their own, makes some people extremely uncomfortable.   Being confronted with this potential emotional and mental discomfort, triggers a knee jerk reaction to blame the victim.  Because if the victim shares responsibility, then it means the person doing the blaming is less likely to be a victim in the future.  Even if we are not aware of it, victim blaming is often fear reaction, and this reaction makes it harder for us to empathize with the victim.

Fortunately, Jesus gave us a great way to remember to put empathy first when he stated that one of the great commandments is to love our neighbor as ourselves.  If empathy is the ability to share the feelings of others, which is exactly what we do when we love others as we love ourselves.  In this morning’s scripture Jesus reminds us that one of the reasons why we should have empathy for other people, is that we are all in the same boat.  We all stand on the wrong side of justice with God, we all need forgiveness, and we all need mercy.   Instead of seeking to assign blame to ease our own fears, we should instead lead with love.  We should never be the people to say “but what were they wearing?” but instead we should be the first to say “I am sorry that happened to you.”

Instead of holding people’s short comings and faults against them, instead of reminding people of the times they tried and failed before, we should be the constant encourages who are full of patience and give people the extra support that they need.  This is exactly what the gardener does in the story, it is exactly what God does for us, and it is exactly how we can represent God’s love in this world.

We should be people who give others another chance because God is a God of second chances.  The story of Johnny Lee Clary illustrates this.   Clary grew up in a racist environment in the 1960’s and he fully embraced the white supremacy.  This led him to connect with like-minded individuals and he rose the ranks to become a leader in the Ku Klux Klan.  He regularly would verbally and sometimes physically assault people of color, always counting on the systemic racism of the era to protect him from consequences, and it did.  Clary became even bolder and once set fire to a pre-dominantly black church.  Even though Clary was not shy about claiming responsibility, he was never prosecuted for that crime.  A little later, Clary actually the met the pastor of that church Rev. Wade Watts.  Watts was a vocal advocate for racial equality.  Clary expected to Watts to show him complete disdain, but the pastor did the opposite.  He showed Clary kindness, compassion, and love.  This was the first time that Clary had considered that his racist ideals were in the wrong.

Over the next decade Clary experienced more downs than ups, and it eventually culminated in him having a come to Jesus moment, seeking forgiveness of his sins, and seeking to live a redeemed life.  Clary renounced his racist ways and left that part of his life behind.  Clary sought to make amends and seek forgiveness of those he had wronged and those he had hated just because of their skin color.   He called Rev. Wade Watts to apologize for the fire and his actions years later.  Not only did Rev Watts forgive him, but he invited Clary to come and speak at the very church he had attacked.  Clary began to preach more regularly.  He preached love, he preached equality, and he took a firm stance for anti-racism. Over time and living out a life based in love and repentance, Clary found himself as a recognized evangelist and elder in the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African American denomination.  The former racist became a leader in the type of church that he had previously set fire to.

The Rev. Wade Watts could have written Johnny Lee Clary off as just another racist redneck, but he did not.  He extended grace and mercy and gave Clary a second chance.  Because he did it allowed the Holy Spirit to slowly change Clary’s life so that his life eventually bore fruit for the kingdom of God.  Being willing to give someone another chance is not a blank check for them to repeat their past activity.  We can forgive and still insist on accountability.  We can be merciful but still have healthy boundaries.  In the end though we should be slow to judge, even slower to ascribe God’s judgement upon someone, and we should be quick to give people another chance.

In this morning’s scripture Jesus talks about a couple of events that happened so long ago, that history has all but forgotten about them.  Despite that this morning’s scripture still feels incredibly relevant to today.  May we not fall into the same way of thinking that Jesus confronts at the beginning of this scripture.  Instead of defensively trying to guard our personal comfort, may we instead seek to be empathic towards others.  May we treat others the way we want God to treat us.  May we be patient, may we treat others with special care, and may we give people another chance.  In doing so, we will be faithfully following the example of God Almighty, a God of second chances.


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