Sermon:  “People & Prophets”

7 March 2010

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Third Sunday of Lent
March 7, 2010

“People & Prophets”

Isaiah 55:6-13
1 Corinthians 10:12-13
Luke 13:1-9

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our minds and hearts here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

When my Aunt Zella was diagnosed with lung cancer, you know the first question everyone had to ask her?  Yes. “Did you smoke?”  “No,” she’d have to say, over and over. “No, I never smoked.  And I never drank alcohol, and I ate right, and I exercised every day.”  She was lifelong military, in the Public Health Service, and she was one of the healthiest 90-year-olds anyone knew.  And still, it happened – cancer.

People always have to try to make sense out of suffering – it’s human nature – but unfortunately, that often leads to people attributing tragedy to God’s punishment.  It makes sense.  I mean, it’s hard to avoid the wrath of God in the Bible – even Jesus seems to take a harsh tone in this passage from Luke, when he says, not once but twice, “unless you repent, you will all perish.”[1] And we still affirm belief in God’s judgment in our UCC Statement of Faith, in the passage we’ve highlighted in your bulletins today:

You judge people and nations by your righteous will
declared through prophets and apostles.

Besides that, Lent is the church season when we take time to look at how we might have fallen short of God’s “righteous will” for us.  We wonder how God might judge us.  So I want to start with what Jesus has to say to the people and prophets of his day, here in our Gospel text from Luke, about God’s ways.  He uses two of the top news stories of his day – Pilate’s massacre of those Galileans whose blood was mingled with their sacrifices and the collapse of the Tower of Siloam – to help his people make sense of their suffering. 

We have no independent sources to confirm that these events happened just as Luke tells it – but Jesus using them to teach means they must’ve been good topics for theological debate at the time.  We do know from the historian Josephus that in the 10-year reign of Pontius Pilate, between the years 26 and 36, there were no less than 32 riots among the Jewish people – many to protest Pilate’s attempts to take money from the Temple treasury for public works projects, like a new Jerusalem water system.  And Pilate was notorious for sending his “plainclothes” storm troopers into the crowds to randomly beat and stab protesters to death.[2]  So just as in our world today, there was injustice, civic unrest, and police brutality.  There were also tragic building collapses, like this tower that fell and crushed 18 people.  We don’t know if that happened in a great earthquake or just in a construction accident.  The point was that people then, like people today, try very hard to make sense of tragedy – often using theology.  But Jesus warns us about how dangerous it can be when we claim to speak for God like that.

God’s judgment is too often abused as a political weapon.  Most recently, the world cringed in horror as one of the loudest and most confident TV prophets of our times – Pat Robertson – tried to explain away the tragic Port-Au-Prince earthquake as God’s judgment on the Haitian people.[3]  Even his own Christian Broadcasting Network had to apologize for his insensitivity.  But remember how he did the same thing back when Hurricane Katrina struck?  He managed to insinuate in a September 2005 broadcast of The 700 Club that God might’ve sent that storm and flood to punish our nation for legalizing abortion.  And after 9/11, Robertson agreed with the late Jerry Falwell’s claim that the ACLU, abortionists, feminists, gays, and the People For the American Way were responsible for the fall of the Twin Towers.[4]  The Kansas hate group that’s coming to town next Saturday to protest “The Laramie Project,” a play about the lynching of gay college student, takes its theology from the same angry playbook.

Even today’s comforting scripture lesson from First Corinthians can be abused: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength,” Paul says, to comfort Christians who were being persecuted for their faith.  I’ve visited people who were suffering or terminally ill, even domestic violence victims, who’ve complained that some form of that quote was dumped on them as a kind of Hallmark card platitude of comfort, as in “the good Lord never gives us more than we can bear.”  We shouldn’t leave out the last part of the sentence, that “with the testing [God] will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” 

Jesus doesn’t pretend to have a simple answer when bad things happen.  He always takes a stand against the simplistic theology of the Pharisees in his day – their belief that God rewards good people with good things and punishes bad people with bad things.  This was just one strand of Hebrew theology, just as it remains only one strand of Christian theology.  It’s always been much easier for rich and successful and healthy people to endorse that belief.  The Good News that Jesus preached to the blind, the lame, the poor, and the outcast still offers comfort to people today who suffer. Jesus promises that God’s loving presence is offered to all – not just to all who deserve it.  Jesus calls even to us sinners to walk with him through “the valley of the shadow of death,” in the awful mystery of evil and suffering, to a table of grace set with a banquet of love in the midst of our enemies.  True prophets point God’s people to hope and not hatred.

So let’s look at what Jesus has to say in Luke 13, in his “Parable of the Fig Tree.”  The parable expresses what God, as the master gardener, must feel sometimes about people of faith who talk and pray more than we do or produce.  How frustrated God must be when churches provide a lot of pretty shade and shelter for members without bearing much fruit to feed the hungry or minister to the sick.  God doesn’t want us to ask, “What did THEY do to deserve their suffering (as Pat Robertson did) but instead, “How can we bear witness to God’s love in the world, with the fruits of our labors?”

One way churches continue to bear fruit is through our offerings – whether in our everyday pledges that support the ongoing mission of the church or through special offerings like the more than $1,000 we have sent to Haiti so far.  Let us hope that this disaster, as well as the latest earthquake in Chile, inspires us all to give more generously than ever not only to our church (because we try to give at least 10 percent of our pledges to mission outside our own congregation) but also to next Sunday’s One Great Hour of Sharing offering. That will help to fund our outreach in future disasters – just as the money we gave in March 2009 got to Haiti immediately after this January quake.  

We can give thanks that, through Christ’s church, prophets and apostles continue to call us to bear fruit for the nurture of the world.  Just as the great prophet Isaiah said, as he offered hopeful images of springtime, with its fertile new growth, to his people amid the manure of their years of slavery and exile in Babylon:  “13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”  Like the people who lived in the times of Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul, we are still called to be people of remembrance and prophets who plant seeds of hope, because the world needs us to disrupt its complacency and reach out to those who are suffering, in Christ’s name. 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


[1] Luke 13:3, 5

[2] Edward R. Markquart, in his “Sermons from Seattle”

[3] On January 14th, The Huffington Post reported, “Televangelist Pat Robertson said that earthquake-ravaged Haiti has been ‘cursed’ by a ‘pact to the devil.’ ‘Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it,’ he said on Christian Broadcasting Network's The 700 Club.  ‘They were under the heel of the French.  You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.”  True story.  And so, the devil said, “OK, it's a deal.” Robertson said that ‘ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other’ and he contrasted Haiti with its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, saying ‘The Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty.’”  (Reported by Danny Shea, in “Pat Robertson: Haiti Cursed by ‘Pact with the Devil,’” for The Huffington Post, Jan 14, 2010)

[4] Michael Rowe, “The Never-Ending Horror of Pat Robertson,” in The Huffington Post, Jan 13, 2010


Isaiah 55:6-13

6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

1 Corinthians 10:12-13

12So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.


Luke 13:1-9

13At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 6Then he told this parable:

“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”


The United Church of Christ Statement of Faith*

We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit, God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God, and to your deeds we testify:

You call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image,
and set before each one the ways of life and death.

You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.

You judge people and nations by your righteous will
declared through prophets and apostles.

In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior,
you have come to us and shared our common lot,
conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.

You bestow upon us your Holy Spirit,
creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ,
binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.

You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
to be your servants in the service of others,
to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil,
to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table,
to join him in his passion and victory.

You promise to all who trust you forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, your presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in your realm which has no end.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you.  Amen.

* The United Church of Christ Statement of Faith was adopted in 1959 by General Synod – not as a binding creed or test of faith, serving as a doctrinal requirement for membership in the church, but rather as testimony to be shared in worship.  This doxological Statement of Faith was authorized by the Executive Council in 1981.


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