Sunday, March 3, 2013

Beyond Karma

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian

Sometimes the Bible seems to give us cold comfort. We expect to be able to take solace in the words of Jesus, but every now and then we get a reading to which the appropriate response may not be “Thanks be to God,” but instead, “Thanks be to God?” We can’t quite see how it’s Good News. And apparently there wasn’t a lot of good news in the paper on the day that Jesus received his latest challenge, not from priests and scribes trying to trip him up, but instead from a situation ripped from the headlines. “Did you hear about the massacre? Pontius Pilate had a group of Galileans killed while they were offering their appointed sacrifices, and their blood mingled with the blood of the sacrificial animals. So, Jesus … what do you have to say about that? These people couldn’t have deserved this punishment … could they?”

Thanks, Radiohead!
One feature of Jewish theology was that God sends violence and strife as punishment for people’s sins. Importantly, it was set within a deeper understanding that God’s punishment is never permanent, and that God will deliver the people once their sentence is served. When the Hebrews cried out as slaves in Egypt, God delivered them through the Red Sea, gave them the Mosaic Law, and brought them into the Promised Land. When they forgot about God and began worshiping idols, God used foreign invaders, the Assyrians and the Babylonians, as tools of punishment. Then, once the Israelites had been punished long enough, God used the Persian king as a tool of deliverance, restoring religious freedom to the Jews and allowing them to rebuild their temple. It might be hard today for us to believe that through plagues and famines and revolutions, God is working out higher purposes on the world stage. But this was the belief of the Jews in Jesus’ time, and the Bible can very easily support that view.

What happens, exactly?
Oh yeah ...
But there is also another view that runs throughout the Bible, and I could put it less delicately than to call it the “stuff happens” view. We are all subject to the seemingly random forces of the universe, and they don’t always go in our favor. The Book of Job is a great example. It seems to be an early attempt to debunk some Jewish version of karma, that “what goes around comes around.” It’s not a comforting book, exactly, but it does end by promising that no matter how little we understand of what’s happening to us, God is ultimately good and can be trusted. I’ve met many Christians, too, who claim to believe in some form of karma, that whatever wrongs we do in this life are judged and punished in the afterlife, so that everybody comes out even. And here, too, the Bible is prepared to assure us that all our wrongs are ultimately judged before Christ. Isn’t it true that we will reap what we sow?

But Jesus sides with the “stuff happens” idea. He tells us in no uncertain terms that the people Pilate massacred did not die as punishment for their sins. He also refers to another story: apparently, a tower has fallen and killed eighteen people. Does this mean they were worse sinners than all those who weren’t killed? Of course not. God just doesn’t work this way. Those who survive a plane crash don’t deserve to stay alive any more than those who died deserve death. Pain and suffering can and do happen to all of us, in different ways, to different degrees, at different times. And Jesus reassures us that God works independently of these sad, unpredictable occurrences.

If I'm one of those who get zapped,
is it still for my spiritual growth?
But that can be frightening, because it may seem sometimes as if God is not actually in control. I think that’s why, despite Jesus’ words, the idea of karma has persisted in our tradition to the present day. In our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul blames sexual immorality for the deaths of 23,000 people in one episode in the 25th chapter of the Book of Numbers. It’s an atrocious story, and you can read it for yourself when you get home, but the idea is that God mows down large numbers of innocent people to serve as a warning to those who remain! And throughout the history of the Church, leaders as prominent as Basil the Great and John Calvin have taught that plagues and famines and revolutions are God’s will, arranged for our learning and spiritual growth.

Not that I would be so uncharitable
as to name names ...
Yet if we follow this train of thought to its logical conclusion, we hear Christians telling us that the Newtown shootings, Hurricane Katrina, and 9-11 were examples of God’s judgment on America. Not only are these comments offensive, but they don’t match up with the words of Jesus today. Jesus offers hope, a different lens through which to view suffering and tragedy.

That is, he seems to offer hope at first. But then even Jesus calls us up short: “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” What?!? Can we not even trust Jesus to help us out of this mess? If these people who died in such awful ways didn’t do so because of their sin, why would we?

Well, let’s think for a minute. Would we really prefer things to work out such that people always get what they deserve? What might that look like? Worse yet, what would become of us? And when you look at it this way, it doesn’t matter as much who dies, how they die, when they die, or even why they die. Everybody dies. That’s not an act of God’s judgment. It’s just the way the world works. Tragedy happens, and it is very sad. But it’s not an occasion for wondering what they did to deserve it. Jesus says, “You will all die … unless you repent.”

Why did Google give me so many
disturbing images like this,
but nothing good for "Nothing separates
us from the love of God"?
“Unless you repent” … hang on a minute. Does this mean there’s a chance we won’t die? And of what are we supposed to be repenting? Well, Jesus has successfully changed the subject. We’ve moved beyond karma, and no longer are we dwelling on somebody else’s sins. Instead, we’re faced with repenting of our own sins, and that means we’re in a much healthier—and potentially fruitful—place.

First off, we might draw a distinction between “sins” and “sin.” “Sins” are the individual acts of wrong that we’re all guilty of every single day. It is good and right to notice these, bring them to God, and ask for forgiveness. After all, we do so with each other. If I accidentally step on your foot, I should say I’m sorry. I should also say I’m sorry if I wrong you intentionally. To apologize for our misdeeds, to each other and to God, is the first step toward reestablishing our relationship. This is how we deal with plural “sins.”

Don't give up on love and faith.
After all, will God fail?
But the singular “sin” is a state of being, a situation in which we feel as if we are separated from God. The first thing to say about “sin” as a condition is that it’s only real from one perspective: our own extremely limited one. When our baptismal covenant refers to “sinful desires that draw you from the love of God,” that’s only half true. In actuality, nothing separates us from the love of God, as Paul famously remarks elsewhere. God has got hold of us, and God is not going to let go … ever. A tower could fall on us, or we could be guilty of all sorts of horrible sins, but our state of sin is no barrier to God’s forgiveness. That is, unless we refuse to believe God’s forgiveness exists. And that is a possibility from our own perspective. If we get stuck in our guilty feelings, we may fool ourselves into thinking forgiveness is something we can earn. Then, when forgiveness is offered to us absolutely free and with no catch, we might refuse to accept it, as we heard colorfully illustrated in Terri’s sermon a few weeks ago. “I don’t deserve this gift. Really, God, you shouldn’t have.” God shouldn’t have? Do we get to decide that? Look, here’s the gift, take it!

One of my favorite expressions goes like this: Justice means getting what we deserve. Mercy means not getting what we deserve. Grace means getting what we don’t deserve.

Grown by you, me and Jesus ...
ripe and very tasty, indeed.
I think the kind of repentance Jesus is talking about is the graceful kind, in which we turn to God and say, “I’m sorry I didn’t trust you. Let’s try this again.” When we repent of our lack of faith, that in itself is an act of faith! It shows that we care about our relationship with God and that we are tending our own fig tree. And Jesus is tending our fig tree as well, digging around the roots, adding compost, and checking on our growth every day. He teaches us that kindness and patience are far more important than strict understandings of justice. Jesus has a green thumb, and he is doing everything he can to help us bear good fruit, sweet, luscious figs that will feed all the people around us. And that fruit is very good news. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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