Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia
To listen to the sermon click here.
Can I tell you something? I love photos of people – of your baby, your grandchild, your wedding, your best friend’s wedding, your great-grandparents on your mother’s side. I love them all. Seriously, I am one of those people who wants to see your wedding album in its entirety. I have, for example, seen Mike and Barb Evans’ wedding album and I asked them if I could. Would I like to see yours? Yes, I would thank you very much.
Now, if I love pictures of humans, I also love pictures of animals—cute pictures of toads in top hats, baby giraffes – puppies, kittens. If I am a bit down, just show me a picture of a cute animal and, suddenly, the world seems a bit brighter. I am one of those folks that will NEVER get sick of seeing the pictures you post of your pets. Because, while they are not human, pets are part of our family too and I really feel that. Perhaps it is because I am as they might say, a “woman of a certain age” who has no children of her own (can I tell you how blessed I feel that I to get to work here with the children and youth of Epiphany) but I have no child – I have a chihuahua AND as you might imagine my chihuahua has taken on a more significant role in my life than might be otherwise “normal”—whatever that might mean. So, I won’t get sick of your photos AND I might want to share photos of Phineas the dog the way others might show pictures of their children or grandchildren…. Hey, do you want to see a picture of him? Isn’t he cute… .
So, as you can tell, I really love pictures. But this last Thanksgiving when Jeremy and I flew back to New York to visit our family and friends, as much as I love animal photos, I was a little disturbed by some I saw in the airport publicity campaign. As we made our way through the airport to change planes, I observed huge signs and banners that caught my attention because of their wonderful photographic images of pets. They proclaimed from every vantage point throughout the terminal, “Save them All.” Save them all—an admirable sentiment, indeed, but, as fantastic as the images of pets were, I felt a profound sense of discomfort – and of sadness. Because while we cosset our little Phineas with organic food and do whatever it takes to get the little dog to eat his heart and liver medication – while we indeed saved him (and paid handsomely to do so) from horrific conditions—well, I cannot recall ever seeing a single ad in my life in which we used that short phrase, “Save them all” to refer, unequivocally, to our human family. Even though that is the mission of Jesus. Jesus died to Save them All – to Save Us All.
But it seems hard for we humans to close this gap between the stated mission of Jesus and how we live our lives. I don’t know why this is really. We as human beings are more alike than different. We really need one another; as a species we are what they call “necessarily gregarious.” But maybe because there is so much that is beyond our control—there is so much that we do not understand and that we cannot comprehend, when we seek to make sense of it all, seek to address why bad things happen to people so much like us or why we are more fortunate than others, we make distinctions between ourselves and our fellow human beings. Maybe we hope to convince ourselves on one hand that the terrible thing that has happened to someone one else cannot happen to us because they are “not like us.” Or maybe we want to try to justify our own abundance and success by differentiating ourselves from them. “Save them All” Well, that does not speak to our distinctions. That speaks to our unity.
That is what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel. When Jesus’ followers tell him about the Galileans killed by Pilate, what they were asking was why were the Galileans killed and defiled as they worshipped. They were clearly asking, “Why” – the question that we all seem to ask when terrible things happen. But that is not the question that Jesus answers. Instead he answers the deeper question that lies behind this one – Why did God let this happen. And deeper still, doesn’t God care? We call these questions theodicy – why does God allow evil things to happen in the world? Human beings have been asking this question for time immemorial and it comes from a dark place deep down inside us all, that wonders, that questions these situations because we are afraid and afraid that they could happen to us too. When we find ourselves in difficult times we ask, What did I do? Could I have done something differently? Why is this happening to me? What did I do wrong? What justifies this suffering? The issue of theodicy will never go away. But, be that as it may, Jesus clearly states that God does not punish as the Kingdoms of the world do. He tells his followers that the Galileans who were killed by Pilate and the 18 who were killed by the collapse of the Tower of Siloam, had done nothing to cause this calamity. In fact, those who died were no worse and no better than they were. Their suffering was not due to a punishment by God.
Jesus goes on to say, if they can learn anything from the terrible loss of lives, it is that they should take the opportunity to change their own lives now. They should repent –return to relationship with God. Because here is the thing— that fear that underlies their questions, their plans to try to avoid their own misfortune it will not save them. The only one who can save them is God. And, while their, while our, estrangement from God can whisper otherwise, that is exactly what God wants to do. God wants to SAVE THEM ALL. God wants to SAVE US ALL.
It is not for nothing that the God of Moses is referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God of Israel has and always will be defined by God’s relationship to us. God made human beings out of love. God cares for us and feels our pain. YHWH tells Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.” While you will sometimes hear folks talking about the “God of the Old Testament” as a vengeful God, a careful reading of the text shows this is not the case. God hears us and is always on the side of love, freedom and goodness. God’s judgement is not based on retribution. God’s justice believes in the possibility of every human being to change – to be rehabilitated—and to return to right relationship with God and with one another. Because we humans seem to struggle with this seemingly simple idea, Jesus tells us a parable of the fig tree. He tells of a gardener who intercedes on behalf of a fig tree that had not produced fruit for three years. While the garden’s owner wishes to just cut the tree down because it does not productive and therefore, to his mind, is a waste of good soil, the gardener wishes to actively work on the tree’s behalf because he loves the tree – not just the figs. So, the gardener will work the soil around it. The gardener will fertilize it so that it might yet bear fruit. The gardener loves this fig tree and works to save it even when everyone else has written it off as worthless.
As we journey towards Easter, we find ourselves in this gospel – which follows Jesus’ direction to his followers in Luke 12:57 to judge for themselves what is right in our dealings with one another—especially in terms of disputes or difficulties. He says, “Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison.I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” The judgement of the Kingdom of the World’s is harsh, indeed. It is only God who wishes to SAVE US ALL. It is God alone who judges with the law of love—granting reprieve after reprieve in God’s belief in us. And, if we listen to our hearts, we not only know this is true, we also know that we are called, as followers of Christ, to do the same.
That is why my conscience was pricked when I read that banner SAVE THEM ALL. It was not that I disagreed with the desire to save our pets. But I couldn’t help but wonder what this desire might look like if we applied it to all of God’s human children. What if we lived in a world where we had big banners in the airport that urged us to care for and save every human being? And how would our world be changed if we sought to deal with one another the way God deals with us? What if we treated one another and cared for one another in the way that the gardener cared for the fig tree? What if we believed in one another and our inherent value as children of God? What if we sought to build up the Kingdom of God with its love justice?
One of the beautiful things about photos is that they record our lives. They capture moments in time and give us the ability to recall and recollect what was going on then. Barb and Mike, admittedly a lovely looking couple all those years ago, are very different people today than they were the day that they were married—they have grown and changed into the even more wonderful people we know today. And Phineas, well, since he has come into our lives he has learned to walk on a lease. He has been potty-trained. He has learned to play and “snozzle” as Jeremy calls it. And he has modelled for Christina Shires at Smallish Studio. All of these changes came through the gift of time. If we were to stop our stories with a snapshot, we would not be able to see the whole story or give the fig tree time to bear delicious fruit. When we ask why God allows so much in the world to go quote/unquote unanswered, we might be forgetting that God never gives up on any one of us. While we are mortal creatures who will live, suffer and die, God never stops believing that we can change for the better. God never grows tired of seeing us – our babies, our children, our grandchildren and God always sees in us that child of God we were made to be. God wants nothing more than to see us grow more and more into that person. God is the gardener that seeks to help us—each and every one of us, in whatever way possible, to do just that.