a sermon on Luke 13:1-9
preached on February 28, 2016, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
It seems that most every generation experiences some sort of tragedy that makes us aware of the fragility of life. For some people here, I suspect this moment was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. For an earlier generation, this moment might have been the attack on Pearl Harbor. For another, later generation, it might have been the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11. For my generation, though, it was the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
By that time, launches of the space shuttle were becoming more routine, as had been hoped, but that launch was special for many because it included the first teacher-astronaut, who was scheduled to present a live lesson from space to schools across the country. That teacher never made it to space—she and her six fellow astronauts were killed 73 seconds after launch in a massive explosion. I was in first grade at the time, and while we were not watching the launch on TV at school, I vividly remember hearing about the disaster in the van on my way from school to my after-school program.
It was a strangely important moment in my life. I don’t recall having much interest in space exploration before that time, but I know that afterward I started to pay much more attention to such things, and some of my favorite family and school trips throughout my younger years were to space-themed spots. But even more than this, I think it was the first moment that I realized that something bad could happen in the world. While I don’t recall being particularly traumatized, I certainly left that moment of my life recognizing that something was different—and that my view of the world would never be the same.
Our reading from the gospel of Luke this morning recounts Jesus’ response to two of these sorts of tragic moments in New Testament times. First, some people in the crowd told Jesus about some Galileans who had been killed in the temple by Pilate, then had their blood mingled with the sacrifices that they had brought with them. Then, Jesus himself brought up another incident in which the tower of Siloam had fallen on a crowd and killed eighteen people. Both of these horrible incidents provoked Jesus to ask if the crowd thought that these terrible disasters were caused by the sinfulness of the persons who had been killed.
This sort of mindset was pretty common in Jesus’ time—although plenty of people today offer similar explanations for bad things, too. Blaming the sinfulness of the victim when bad things happen is deeply rooted in some parts of the Bible, but Jesus was not comfortable with such a simple answer to this longstanding human conundrum. Rather than blaming the victim, he insisted that the victims’ sinfulness was not to blame for their deaths in these moments, yet he also refused to make this a moment of comfort for those who would listen to him. While these people did not die because of their sinfulness, Jesus still told the crowd that their actions mattered. After recounting each of these incidents, Jesus offered the same words to the crowd: “Unless you repent, you will perish just as they did.” This had to be a stark realization. As one commentator puts it, “The arbitrary cases of tragic death, while not owing to any particular wrongdoing by the victims, should alert all to the necessary destructive consequences of universal human sinfulness.” (F. Scott Spencer, “Exegetical Perspective on Luke 13:1-9,” Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Volume 2, p. 29)
But Jesus did not let this strange realization stand on its own—as he did so frequently, he offered them even deeper meaning for it by sharing a parable about God’s approach to repentance. In the parable, a man approaches his gardener after finding a fig tree empty of fruit for a third consecutive year. The man is ready to have the tree cut down, assuming that it is doing nothing more than wasting space in the ground. The gardener, though, is not quite ready to do this. He knows that this tree may still bear fruit again if it is only given the attention and care that it needs, so he suggests that they turn the soil over around it and add some manure to it, then give it another season to start bearing fruit again before cutting it down. In telling this parable, Jesus seemed to make it clear that the need for repentance is always balanced with an extra dose of mercy, that the connection between sinfulness and suffering is best seen not at the individual level but rather through a much larger lens, that the bad things that happen to us are clearly not a direct result of our sinfulness along the way and yet we need to change those things, too.
As much as Jesus tried to shift the crowd’s understanding of the impact of sinfulness on the tragedies of our world, so much of this mindset carries over to our world today. After every tragedy, some televangelist or street preacher or other similar eccentric will inevitably place the blame for this terrible event on some group of sinful people. But even beyond this, people closer in to these difficult situations get sucked in to a mindset that their errors make them personally responsible for such horrors.
In the recent looks back at the 30th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster I mentioned earlier, NPR interviewed engineer Bob Ebeling, who worked for a NASA contractor at the time of the disaster. Ebeling and several of his colleagues had told NASA back in 1986 that it would not be safe to launch the shuttle that day, that the cold temperatures the night before the launch would render the o-ring seals in the rocket boosters ineffective and allow flammable gases to escape, resulting in a massive explosion, but higher-level management at their company and at NASA overruled their advice. On the day of the launch, they watched the launch and subsequent explosion unfold from their offices in Utah, and they immediately knew what an investigation would soon reveal about the cause of this disaster.
For 30 years, Ebeling felt deep pain and guilt for not doing more to stop the launch of Challenger. He told NPR last month, “I think that was one of the mistakes that God made. He shouldn’t have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me? You picked a loser.’” The record of this story is clear, though: Ebeling could not have stopped the launch himself. His superiors and NASA managers heard these warnings from the engineers’ lips, then ignored their safety recommendations. Still Ebeling carried guilt and grief over his role in this disaster—not all that unlike what was being expressed around Jesus about the victims of these tragedies in New Testament times.
Thankfully for Bob Ebeling, though, the anniversary of this terrible incident brought an outpouring of support for him. He had retired soon after the Challenger disaster and suffered from deep depression from this memory over the last 30 years, caught up in guilt and grief that he could have done more to prevent the death of those seven astronauts. When his current situation came to light, though, people started to reach out with words of support, insisting that his long-held feelings of guilt were misplaced and that he should not blame himself for this tragedy as he had.
He was only somewhat comforted, though. He appreciated these good, well-meaning words but insisted that he needed to hear something from NASA or his employer before he could shift his mindset. Soon he received a call from his boss at the time, a letter from a former NASA official who had argued with him at the time, and an official statement from the press spokesperson for the current NASA administrator. All of them insisted that Ebeling had spoken up with courage and done everything that he could to protect the safety of the astronauts, and his guilt and grief began to ease. NASA had changed dramatically in the 30 years since Challenger, and their recognition that problems could not be blamed on any one person and yet needed a real and systemic fix was an important reminder of the importance of the kind of change that repentance requires.
So often, repentance is not so much some sort of personally-focused cataloging of individual moral missteps but rather a deeper accounting of the ways in which we prop up systems and structures that get in the way of God’s intentions for the world. Bob Ebeling’s story reminds us that blame is an incredibly potent weapon, that Jesus’ insistence that sinfulness has consequences that may be far beyond our control sometimes doesn’t sink in very well in our lives, that systemic change comes only from the real examination not of personal flaws but rather of our participation in injustice.
So as we live in a world filled with plenty of tragedy and just as much sinfulness, may God guide us to this kind of repentance not so that we can insulate ourselves from the next disaster or overcome our guilt from the last one but so that we can be ready for God’s completion of the transformation of our world begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.