L. William Countryman
March 14, 2004
Third Sunday in Lent
Psalm 103:1-11; Exod. 3:1-15; 1 Cor. 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
There’s a certain broadly human hankering after certainty. At least, I suspect I’m not the only one to experience it. For me, it takes forms such as “I’d really like to know that this sermon is going to be ready on time” or “I’d really like to know how the current conflicts are going to turn out in the Episcopal Church” or “I’d really like to know where my health is headed” or “I’d really like to be sure that I’m doing the right thing.” Your selection of questions may be a bit different. But most of us really would like to know a few things. It would make life simpler—we think.
I’m guessing that that was the spirit in which those people in this morning’s gospel brought to Jesus the story of what Pontius Pilate did to a little group of pilgrims from Galilee on their way to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple. He slaughtered them all—the people and the animals both. That was Pilate’s standard operating procedure. However he may be portrayed in the movies, he was not a nice man. No doubt he justified it on the grounds that they looked like terrorists. Who knows? They may even have been.
But what interested the people who brought the story to Jesus was how to make sense of it, how to get some certainty out of it. What’s going on here? Where is God in this story? Were those people really bad? Is that why it happened to them? It would be nice to think they were really bad. Then the rest of us could look around at our relative prosperity and security and think, “Well, I guess I’m at least better than those people were.” But Jesus’ response, as we just heard, was something on the order of “You think those people were worse than you? Think again!”
Well, that wasn’t really quite the kind of certainty we had in mind. We’d really rather be assured that things are going to go well. Jesus seems to be saying that the one thing I can be sure of is that I’m not perfect—probably not even all that good. He doesn’t quite say that I can confidently expect disaster. But he doesn’t give me a lot of reassurance. The one clear message here is “You need to repent.”
At least, that’s the way most of our English translations put it. I always think this is a really inadequate translation of the Greek word metanoeite. “Repent” sounds like a matter of breast-beating and saying how bad we are (whether we really quite believe it or not) and how sorry we are (whether we really quite are or not). What Jesus tells us to do here is really something much more unsettling. Metanoeite means “Get a new mind. Get converted. Do a real turn-around. See things from a new perspective.”
Repentance sounds a little easier, doesn’t it? You kind of knew where you were, what to say, what you were supposed to feel (whether you quite succeeded or not). And you could kind of get into it: “Okay, let’s see here, if I give up chocolate, that should make me pretty miserable. Of course, I’ll be a little crabby, which will give me some additional stuff to repent of. Yes, I can get this thing organized and do it right. I’ll be so sick of Lent by the time it’s over! That’ll certainly count for something.” Oops! No, it’s more difficult than that. How do I go about getting a new mind, getting converted, doing a real turn-around, seeing things from a new perspective?
Well, I suppose we can’t really do that for ourselves. It’s like asking you to step outside your skin. I see things from my familiar perspective because that’s where I am. Maybe next year, when I’m in a slightly different place, I’ll see things differently. But short of being in two places at one time, how can a person just shift perspectives? The answer, I suppose, is that you can’t.
In my own experience, it isn’t I who change my perspective, but somebody or something else. It may be one of you. (It certainly has been before.) It may be words in a book, words overheard, music, art, the particular light of an early morning walk, maybe even God. Is there any way to make that happen? No. So what’s the good of this work we do during Lent?
Maybe Lent is really just a way of putting yourself in the path of the experience. You know, if you want to get struck by lightning, stand on a hilltop in a thunder storm. I don’t recommend that in the literal sense, as it will almost certainly be fatal—or worse. But Lent is a little like that. If you want to be surprised with a new take on the world, put yourself in the way of it. Don’t avoid the things that might change your life. Pay attention to them.
Think of Moses at the burning bush. Why does he turn aside? Well, for one thing, he was probably bored—out there all day with those stupid goats. A few years of that and you could predict ninety-nine percent of everything that would happen on any given day. (Well, there was the occasional lion. And then you were glad to go back to being bored—for a week or two.) So Moses sees a bush on fire. Where did that come from? Not a daily event in the ancient desert; there were no people driving by flicking lighted cigarettes out of car windows. He goes to look, and, yes, it does seem to be on fire, but it’s not getting burned up. Then a voice speaks to him out of the burning bush. Either he’s crazy or he’s in the presence of a god. And, of course, he’s in no position to tell which.
Then it gets worse. The voice from the bush says, “I’m concerned about my people—they’re being treated badly in Egypt. And so I’ve come down to bring them out of there. And you’re going to do all the work.” Moses, sensibly enough, replies, “Oh I think you have the wrong person. I’m completely inadequate to the task.” “No,” says God, “you’re just the person I want. And just to reassure you, I’ll give you a sign to prove it. After you’ve done the job and brought the people out, you’ll worship me right here on this holy mountain. How’s that for a deal?”
Moses, I’m afraid, wasn’t terribly impressed. Nor would you or I be. “After you’ve taken immense risks and done the impossible, you’ll get the sign!” No thank you. And yet, Moses realizes that he has no easy way out. This particular conversion had already started years ago when he found out somewhat belatedly in his life that he was one of those oppressed people himself. His first effort to do something revolutionary about it was to kill an Egyptian overseer, and that’s what landed him in exile, herding goats in the desert of Midian.
Still, Moses tries to argue his way out of it. “They won’t listen to me. Why would they? I don’t even know who you are. What name am I supposed to give them?” “I am who I am,” says God, “Tell them I AM sent you.” “That’s a name?” thinks Moses. “Oh, and by the way,” says God, “I’m the god of your ancestors.” “Yeah, right.” But Moses is hooked.
You have to feel sorry for Moses. And yet not. However difficult the task ahead may be, God has chosen well. Moses enters on his real life at this point. He is converted, turned around. Oh, it’s not totally new, of course. He is still the same Israelite raised as an Egyptian prince, turned failed revolutionary and now in exile. Now, herding goats is a perfectly respectable way of earning a living. Most of us have done it, figuratively or literally, at one point or another in our lives. For some of us, it may even be our true vocation; I really appreciate those folk up the coast who make such nice chevre. But it wasn’t for Moses.
So Moses’s conversion wasn’t primarily a matter of turning him from goatherd into revolutionary. It was a matter of discovering that the concerns he already had about slavery and freedom weren’t just his concerns; they were God’s concerns, too. God was willing to get involved and wanted Moses to be involved again. It was really God’s project of liberation, and God invited Moses to become a part of it.
Now, you may be sitting there thinking, “So this is what the preacher wants for us this Lent? He wants us to go stand in the middle of the freeway and get hit by a truck? A divine truck, to be sure, but still a truck.” Well, yes—and no. I’m not suggesting you ought to have Moses’s conversion. I’m only suggesting that you put yourself in the way of your own. Expect to encounter God in surprising ways this season. Expect to have your mind changed in some respect. Expect to find that you have a new lease on life as a result—not a certainty, but an astonishing new reservoir of engagement and energy for living in the midst of uncertainty.
Our goodness, the tidiness of our life, the correctness of our beliefs—none of this will protect us in this world. Disasters happen. Towers fall on people. The violent inflict suffering. People get caught up in destructive events. No certainty can insulate yourself against all that. So get converted instead. Get a new mind. Discover some part of God’s grace at work in you and with you to create a new world. And then see what happens.