Nourish the Future

Sunday, March 20, 2022

“Your Ways Are Not My Ways”— Rev. Brent Gundlah

I have a little confession to make. One day last week, I walked into this sanctuary and sat down there in the front row hoping to enjoy a meditative moment. I know the sign says I’m not supposed to sit there but, being the rebel that I am, I did it anyway; I hope you’ll forgive me.

In the peaceful silence of that early morning, with the cloud-filtered sun shining through the windows in a particular way, my eyes were drawn to something that I hadn’t really paid much attention to before — the cross hanging from the ceiling.

I know this might sound like a strange thing for a minister to say in worship at Holladay United Church of Christ, but, if you stop and think about it, this kind of makes sense. After all, most of my time in here is spent up here praying and reading and preaching while I look out there at all of you (mostly to make sure you’re not dozing off).

As I gazed up at the cross from down in the front row that day, I ended up focusing one specific aspect of it. I’m not sure if you can see this from where you happen to be sitting, but there are two thin, clear wires extending outward in opposite directions that join the horizontal arm of the cross to the walls of the building on either side.

Now I’m no architect, but I have to figure there’s a practical reason for this contraption. More often than not, the most obvious explanation for something is the right one and, in this case, the most obvious explanation (as far as I can tell) is that someone, at some point, decided it wasn’t a great idea to have the cross up there waving to and fro during worship. I mean it’s hard enough to stay awake in here on Sunday mornings; one shouldn’t have to try to do so while also being hypnotized.

I have to tell you, though, that ever since I first noticed those wires I’ve felt inspired to go up there and cut loose the cross from the ties that bind it. Don’t worry, I’m probably not going to do it (the operative word being “probably”), but the temptation has been difficult for me to resist.

One of the things we pastors spend a lot of time doing is exploring the meaning of symbolic language. This happens most obviously and most often in our specific context as we study and interpret Bible stories, but there are symbols for us to consider absolutely everywhere.

A particular occupational hazard for we clergy-folk and religious types? Perhaps. But I really think that this is simply part of being human; we’re all just trying to find some sort of meaning in the stuff of the world around us. Isn’t that the point of pretty much every religion, really? Anyway, for some reason, this past week, I was called to consider this symbol that’s been hanging right there above my head.

And what struck most of all was that this cross — this sign of Jesus, this tangible reminder of God’s presence right here among us — is, quite literally, anchored to the reality we’ve constructed around it, to this container we’ve built to hold it.

Like I said earlier, as a practical matter of engineering, I totally get this — it would be a little unnerving to sit here in this sanctuary and watch that cross swinging back and forth, or twisting round and round as the mysterious forces of creation — gravity, wind, the motion of the earth — do their thing; but, as a theological matter I’m not so sure.

I mean, what would it be like to liberate that cross (and all that it means) from this building (and all that it means)? What would it be like for us to focus on how we move in relation to it instead of trying to control how it moves in relation to us? What would it be like to see the world from God’s perspective instead of our own? Well, in today’s gospel reading, Jesus invites us to do just that.

By all indications, there’s been some awful stuff going on in Jerusalem as of late — Pilate ordered the execution of some Galilean pilgrims who had simply been worshipping in the temple; and eighteen people were killed when a tower fell on them in Siloam. As anyone who’s actually lived in this world can tell you, bad things often happen; and evil manifests itself in a variety of ways, both natural and man-made.

Because Jesus understands humanity as well as anyone ever has, he knows the question that’s on absolutely everyone’s mind at this point, and so he answers it even though they didn’t actually ask it. That question, of course, is this: Who’s to blame for all of this?

Jesus responds to these unasked questions with other questions — isn’t it infuriating when someone does that? Did those poor Galileans suffer at Pilate’s hand because they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? And those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – were they worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?

Jesus then answers his own questions — you know, the ones that were answers to the questions that no one actually posed — with an actual answer. Were the victims of these dual tragedies somehow responsible for what befell them? Jesus responds, “No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”

Change your hearts and lives. In many versions of the Bible, including the one in the pews here, this phrase is translated in English as: “Repent.” In our day and age reading or hearing this word makes a lot of people’s flesh crawl, and I totally get that.

But we have to remember that, in Jesus’s time, the word “Repent” wasn’t weighed down by all of the cultural baggage that we’ve recently piled upon it. Way back in the first century, there weren’t overbearing evangelists screaming it at through your television set without unpacking what it means; there weren’t off-putting billboards along highways and byways ordering you to do it or face the consequences.

It’s strange how symbols (including, but certainly not limited to, words) — these things we humans use in order to point to something else, something greater — are coopted by us as the years go, their meaning drifting and shifting with time and circumstance, moving in lockstep with our priorities, until there’s a good chance that those who once believed they understood them wouldn’t even recognize them anymore.

And so what if we were to try to reclaim a word like “repent” from that guy (let’s be honest, it’s usually a guy) with the two-thousand dollar suit, the church the size of a football stadium, a billboard budget and a time-slot on Sunday morning TV?

What would it be like to liberate that word from the ties that presently bind it?

How might things be different here on earth if we were to look at the world from God’s perspective instead of from our own?

What would it really mean for us to change our hearts and lives?

I have to tell you, I really don’t think the answer is any different now than it’s ever been: Spend your time and effort looking for ways to love one another, not for reasons to blame one another.

Should leaders like Pilate (and Putin) be held to account for the harm they’ve caused? Of course they should.

Should the contractor on that Siloam tower project be punished for using shoddy building materials? Perhaps.

Were the Galileans responsible for all of the suffering that they endured? Was God punishing them for some horrible transgression? If you believe Jesus, the answer is a resounding “no.”

These are the kinds of things we humans tend to ask when things go wrong.

But the question that the “some who were present” should have be asking before all others was this: “How can we care for those who are suffering?” Because that is what God asks when things go wrong.

They should have been asking questions like:

“What can we do to tend to the needs of the victims?” or

“What can we do ease the pain of those who loved them?” or

“What can we do to make sure that nothing like this ever happens to anyone again?”

Not questions like: “Whose fault is it?” or, even worse,

“What did they do to deserve it?”

Don’t you see? The blame game is one that is played by our rules, not God’s rules. And seeking to impose our ways of thinking and being upon God is not just a case of tail wagging dog;

it’s not simply evidence of our unbridled human arrogance;

it’s not only an attempt to confine the infinite power of the divine within some finite structure that we’ve built to contain it;

its also damages our relationships with one another and with our Creator. And this is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all.

So repent.

Change your hearts and lives.

For our ways are not God’s ways.

And for this, thanks be to God.