Sunday, February 28, 2016
I recently had a talk with a man who considers himself an agnostic. His reasoning is that he cannot and will not believe in a God who allows such horrible things to happen to children, to the world at large, to people far and near. And of course, as with all really good conversations, the best argument I have in opposition didn't occur to me until well after we'd finished talking.
Contrary to popular belief, God's not Santa Claus. He's not keeping track of who's naughty and nice in some book so that presents and coal are properly distributed to the people on Earth. And if you're going to blame God for every bad deed that happens to people, conversely, you have to credit him for every good act that happens to people.
In our Old Testament reading, we note what God says to Moses: "I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows." It doesn't sound like He arranged for them to live in sorrow and subjugation to the Egyptians. It sounds more like He watches His creation and what they do to one another, and knows their sorrows, because how could any parent be happy that their children are miserable? And at this point, He steps in, to put His people back onto the path He laid for them by making Moses a leader.
As our New Testament reading points out, He gave them experiences in common, binding them together as a people. The journey they took, the food they ate, water they drank, the metaphorical baptism they all experienced upon escaping the Egyptians – God provided all of these to them to strengthen them as a people, to give bonds on which they could rely in times of temptation. Even to today, we reaffirm those gifts, just as they were reaffirmed by Christ.
During Lent, we address the uncomfortable aspect of our often "feel-good" religion: we look at our sins, and we look at our reactions to sins, our attempts to explain them, to hide them from sight, and the really hard part – to truly repent of them and change our ways. Saying we're sorry but doing nothing different doesn't actually indicate repenting; it represents lip service, and means nothing.
Each week, in our confession of sin, we confess that we have sinned, by what we have done, and by what we have failed to do. I was talking with my son about this sermon, and he pointed out that in each case, we often do the exact same thing that Christ talked about in the Gospel lesson – well, yes, we've sinned, but look at these horrible people over here and how heinous their sins are. Why, by comparison, we're nearly faultless. And Christ points out, no, we're not. Not only have we sinned, but we have failed to act in defense of the defenseless. We have failed to protect others, not only from those who would persecute them, but in allowing that persecution to continue. All too often, we fail to act for a variety of reasons – the problem's too big, there's no way for me to make a difference, let someone else handle it, or the general response – why does God allow this to happen? I think in many instances, it's the basic fear that if we did something, we'd have to actually address our own sins, and that's what Lent reminds us to do.
Sometimes, it's looking at the totality of the task involved that makes us hesitate to even begin. As someone once advised on how to eat an elephant, the wise reply was, get out your knife and fork, and begin, one bite at a time.
There's a story about some missionaries to Indians in the Amazonian region of Ecuador, particularly the Huaorani tribe. This tribe was exceedingly savage, killing anyone who wasn't part of their tribe with spears and knives, and sometimes killing just because they could, like people who annoyed them, including their own children. The missionaries were saddened by the lives of people who hadn't been touched by the word of God. They were, however, warned away by other missionaries and people who had experience with trying to deal with the tribe, advising them not to even try, for they would surely die in the effort. The missionaries began making regular flights over Huaorani settlements in September 1955, dropping gifts, which were accepted and reciprocated. They were able to communicate with a few members of the tribe on several occasions. After several months of exchanging gifts, on January 3, 1956, the missionaries established a camp at "Palm Beach", a sandbar along the Curaray River, a few kilometers from Huaorani settlements. They finally felt that they were ready to meet with the rest of the tribe as a whole. Their efforts came to an end on January 8, 1956, when all five—Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian—were attacked and speared by a group of Huaorani warriors. The five missionaries had guns with them in their camp, but they did not use them to save their own lives. They were trying to teach about a peaceful and beneficent God. To shoot their attackers would mean the Huaorani would not have the opportunity to hear about Christ. So they chose to let themselves be killed, to be an example of Christian love, and let the tribe have another chance to hear the word of God. Several years after the death of the men, the widow of Jim Elliot, Elisabeth, and the sister of Nate Saint, Rachel, returned to Ecuador as missionaries with the Summer Institute of Linguistics to live among the Huaorani. This eventually led to the conversion of many, including some of those involved in the killing. While largely eliminating tribal violence, their efforts exposed the tribe to increased influence from the outside. Which, of course, led to both good and bad results.
Five men didn't just agree with other missionaries and the advice to leave the tribe to their savagery. They did something about it. And their deaths ended up having meaning to the Huaorani, because they showed trust in God and faced their deaths with faith and courage, rather than fear.
The parable of the fig tree in Luke, as opposed to how it is told in Mark and Matthew, is giving us one last chance to truly repent. Now, while spreading manure may not seem like a particularly desirable change for people – if we do look at the allegorical meaning, we realize that we need to change the situation somehow – to do something different, to nourish our roots, feed our souls, and nurture the faith that allows us to face our sins, repent of them and move forward. We have time to make a difference. We still have time before the final judgment comes. But since we don't have knowledge of just how much time that is, we need to do it now.