Living in the Delay
A Sermon by the Rev. Susan Wyper
March 24, 2019
If you ever wondered whether Jesus preached as seminary teaches one to do, with a Bible in one hand and a New York Times in the other, today’s passage from Luke will convince you he absolutely did. That is, he absolutely would have, if newspapers and printed Bibles been available in his day.
This morning’s gospel lesson can be laid right up against the headlines of this week’s world news. The Galileans slaughtered by Pilate while offering sacrifice in Jerusalem find their prospective echo in the New Zealanders shot down by a lone gunman inside Al Noor Mosque in Christ Church. “Do you think that because these New Zealanders suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other New Zealanders?” Jesus asks today. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
And of those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Today Jesus would ask, and of those eight killed when a three-story building housing a school in Nigeria fell on them? Or of those 242 in Mozambique, 259 in Zimbabwe and 56 in Malawi killed by the Cyclone Idai, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Africa? “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Jesus is very present with us today because we stand in the same position as his followers of 2000 years ago. But just as Jesus chose not to answer the great Why? that rippled below that ancient conversation, the why of why does God allow such tragedies? Jesus doesn’t answer it for us today either. We will forever, until we no longer see through a glass darkly, struggle with the issue of theodicy, of how to reconcile God’s divine goodness and providence with the existence of evil.
But what Jesus does tell his ancient audience that was new to them, and what by God’s grace most of us now understand, is that suffering is not God’s punishment for sin. Suffering and misfortune can, of course, be of our own making – sin after all does have consequence – but often it is simply bad luck. Sometimes stuff just happens.
Rather than address the insoluble “Why?” Jesus takes his New York Times moment, takes the cares and concerns his people carry and redirects them, turns them, turns us so that we and they might all see things in a new way. I love the line from the Exodus account of Moses’s encounter with God. Moses says “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” “I must turn aside to see this.” I must repent, I must turn myself, I must change my angle of address so I that can see rightly.
Jesus suggests an urgency to this repentance, to this turning aside to see. Do not delay, he tells us. Time’s awasting.
In general the idea of delay is seen in a negative light. Imagine an airline attendant announces that your flight to Florida will be delayed; you can hear the audible groan from those sitting at the gate. A pregnant woman hits 42 weeks without a baby and each extra day is agony. A delay of game penalty moves a football team out of field goal range and cost them valuable points.
But delay can open possibility too. That same delayed departure out of New York might allow someone arriving with a close connection to slip onto the plane before the gangplank is pulled. A snow delay on a winter morn might allow a stressed out high school student a few more minutes of needed sleep or study.
In her book Becoming, former first lady Michelle Obama has a wonderful passage about how in her young married life, frustrated by dinners that got cold and bedtimes disrupted, she had to learn that a report of “on my way” or “almost home” from her husband was “not a geo-locator but rather a state of mind.” It was an “indication of Barack’s eagerness to be home that did nothing to signify when he would actually arrive.” This shift in her way of seeing things helped soften the perpetual delay of his arrival. And she and the girls took a new tack. They made their schedule and kept to it. “We didn’t wait for Dad,” she writes. “It was his job now to catch up with us.”
The audience for Luke’s gospel is living in a season of delay, a delay that we live in still but that we notice less acutely: the delay of Jesus’ return. Those early followers of Jesus thought that Jesus’ return would be imminent, and when it wasn’t the delay was keenly felt. Part of what the early writers tried to do was help folks live in that delay.
I think these days most people are not expecting Jesus’ return to be tomorrow or the next day or even next year, though we profess our belief that he will one day come every time we proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. The season of Lent, and our Lenten lections give us an opportunity to feel more keenly the delay the early Christians felt, and to consider our own readiness for Christ’s return.
It’s a season for us to turn aside to consider this great truth. Life is precious. Life is fragile. Life is a gift given to us by God, and not of our own making. There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. God made us every one and together we are one body in Christ. When one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts and when one part rejoices, the whole body rejoices. Today’s spiritual question is how do you want to live in this season of delay? Can you turn it to good?
I was impressed by the swiftness of New Zealand’s response in passing new gun laws that immediately restricted “All military-style weapons, all semi-automatic weapons and all devices that allow a firearm to generate semi-automatic, automatic or close to automatic gunfire.” That is a national act of repentance, of turning from one way of seeing to another, of using the season of delay to dig around New Zealand’s national fig tree and put manure on it, to use the language of today’s parable. To encourage new growth, new life. Resurrection.
I shared in Pathways a couple Sundays ago that I never liked the first line of Mary Oliver’s popular poem Wild Geese which begins, “You do not have to be good.” I believe it’s a true statement, one does not have to be good, but good is what I want to try to be, so it was a bit of a stumbling block for me. Oliver’s second line though, “you do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.” Now that’s a line I like! And I think Jesus would like it too. Because what Jesus calls us to when he calls us to repent is not to scraped knees and sore backs, it is to the abundant life that comes with a life oriented toward Him. Repentance needn’t be miserable, it ought be joyful, freeing, life-giving.
In our collect this morning we prayed, “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” That’s an ecclesiastical synopsis of the first step of every 12 step program. However, we do have the power to choose to let God work on us, and Lent work on us, and this season of delay work on us. We have the choice to allow ourselves to be opened up to new ways of seeing, new perspectives on old issues, new responses to chronic problems. Those are the fruits of repentance. That is the wisdom of the wilderness.
So this morning, over coffee, read your New York Times or your Wall Street Journal through the lens of your Biblical faith, faith in a God who was and is and is to come, a God who made the world and called it good, then turn aside to look at the bush that is blazing but not consumed, hear God say to you, Take off your shoes, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Please tend it well, until my return.