Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 24, 2019
[sermon begins after two Bible readings]
Luke 12:54-56, 13:1-9 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
13:1 At 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.’ 6 Then 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 round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
Isaiah 55:1-11 Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
6 Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
7 let 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.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 For 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,
11 so 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.
You all may not be aware that a bomb cyclone recently blew through town. Anyone NOT in the loop on that one? We know the drill. The meteorologists start getting excited days in advance when the low pressure system starts to exhale above Colorado. Eventually many of us realize an urgent need for bread and milk and the grocery store aisles go gridlock. I can’t really blame the weather people. The weather does get exciting at the eastern feet of the Rocky Mountains. We live its wildness and can feel slightly tougher than other parts of the country because of it. But when Wednesday morning, the day of the big weather event, rolled around and the reporting was still over the top, I needed help with perspective. There was to be a funeral here in the Sanctuary on Thursday morning for a gentleman who was a three-time Purple Heart in the Korean War. His grandnephew is a Navy Seal deployed to parts unknown without security clearance and he’d arrived in town on Tuesday with special approval to attend his uncle’s funeral.
I confess that my anxiety was up about whether or not this funeral could happen and not much else. Changing channels across different news stations, Marty Coniglio was just beginning his report. He explained rapidly moving pressure systems resulting in intense wind which leads to blowing snow that causes problems even if snow amounts seem minimal. Then came what I needed to hear. And that is that we’ve experienced these before but we usually call them blizzards. And that this one would finish blowing in Metro Denver by late Wednesday as recovery and clean up began.* Ahhhh, a little perspective.
In a similar way, Jesus challenges the crowds around him about their weather forecasting abilities before laying down the bigger challenge. We hear that we’re not so different from his first century listeners when Jesus says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” He accuses them about the time and energy they spend on the weather to their lack of attention on the main thing. As Jesus is ramping up, “there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingles with their sacrifices.” They told Jesus gruesome news about Governor Pilate’s killing of these religious pilgrims. The people wondered about the killings. About the people killed. Is there a way for them to avoid the same fate? Is there a way for them to understand why they died in the way they died? Jesus gives them a Job answer. Meaning that there is no way to understand suffering as being deserved by sin. We simply can’t pin it on the sinfulness of the ones who died as if they were the reason it happened to them.
Pinning suffering on the sufferers is such a human response. Even more human is creating distance between ourselves and people who are suffering. Perhaps you’ve heard of the phenomenon called schadenfreude – the pleasure we feel at the suffering of others, the relief we feel that it wasn’t us. Schadenfreude happens a lot in competitive arenas like sports and politics. We might even say that team owners and politicians bank on schadenfreude. When the other team loses, we feel better. I heard a bit about schadenfreude on the Hidden Brain podcast during some car time last Saturday. The podcast host interviewed experts on the topic of envy, malicious envy, and schadenfreude – how it makes us feel good when people we don’t like are brought down in some way. It could be argued that some in the crowd around Jesus felt a bit of schadenfreude that the Gentile pilgrims met such a humiliating death.
My mind caught when host asked the chilling question, “How much can our pain prompt us to find pleasure and how much can this pleasure prompt us to cause pain?” Individually, the social consequences are small scale. When it comes to group behavior the consequences can be enormous. “If I feel good every time I watch a bad thing happen, maybe next time I’ll make a bad thing happen.”
Schadenfreude may turn our caring off when it comes to certain groups and community decisions we make. Schadenfreude can also be a gateway to unspeakable acts. Let’s ask the question from the crowd around Jesus into our times today. Listen to it this way:
There were some present who told him about the Muslims whose blood the shooter had mingled with their prayers.
These violent tragedies don’t happen in a vacuum but they can happen in echo chambers where groups dehumanize other groups. Before any of us go getting on our high horses, think about what person or people that you wouldn’t mind coming to harm. And might even secretly celebrate it. See…not so far-fetched.
The podcast also covered how we know that schadenfreude isn’t socially acceptable so we tend to keep it locked up inside. At the very end of the podcast, the host got down to the antidote for schadenfreude. You’ll never guess…confession. Talking out loud about the inner conflict of feeling good when others feel bad. It seems important to make the point that confession is different than gleefully celebrating someone’s downfall with like-minded people which is typically what we do watching a favorite talk show host. Confession is a clarity that something is amiss. Confession comes on the heels of repentance.
One way to think about repentance is that our perspective is changed. Very often the perspective change happens TO us. A little like our friend the fig tree in Jesus’ parable. The tree grows not one piece of fruit that the owner can claim as success. Then comes the grace of the gardener and manure in the story. Manure happens. And there is the additional grace of time. While we’re watching the weather, Jesus reminds us about the main thing, the grace of time.
A few weeks ago, Pastor Ann preached Joseph’s story from the Bible book of Genesis. His brothers sold him into slavery because they were tired of him being their father’s favorite. It’s not hard to imagine both their schadenfreude and their guilt. In the last chapter of Genesis, at the very, very end of the story, Joseph’s brothers confess their wrong to him, fall on their knees, and weep. Joseph tells his brothers that God brought good through the evil they inflicted on him.
For us, the resolution seems incomplete. We get no satisfaction through revenge. The brothers don’t pay for their crime against Joseph. Instead, just like our friend the fig tree ends up with more time from the gardener as a random grace, so did the brothers. This is the offense and the good news of grace.
When Jesus challenges us to see the time we’re in, he challenges our perspective and pushes us to repent of our part in the time. We don’t live in isolation, no matter how many ways we try to close ourselves off from each other. We live together on this tiny blue dot, utterly dependent on each other and the world that God so loves. For God’s sake, and by God’s grace, we have time to bear fruit from manure. Thanks be to God.
*The bomb cyclone is major weather that neighbors near and far are still reeling from. Floods in multiple states, not to mention around the world are devastating. Lutheran Disaster Response spends dollar for dollar given to these events because congregational mission support pays for the admin. Feel free to donate here: https://www.elca.org/Our-Work/Relief-and-Development/Lutheran-Disaster-Response/
 Luke 12:56
 Luke 13:1
 The Bible’s book of Job takes on the question of why people suffer and ultimately comes up with no satisfactory answer. We are to simply live as God’s people regardless of what’s happening around us. Not rejoicing in suffering but rather rejoicing in God’s promise to be present with us in the face of it (theology of the cross).
 Shankar Vedantam. “Feeding the Green-Eyed Monster: What Happens When Envy Turns Ugly” for Hidden Brain: A Conversation About Life’s Unseen Patterns, February 26, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/02/26/586674547/feeding-the-green-eyed-monster-what-happens-when-envy-turns-ugly?fbclid=IwAR0g35VsT3i58qLH468KN9hcvoXZ8KbNl6s2aT3ob-4wJNzdyaWK_ZpYIJs
 The Joseph novella runs from Genesis chapters 37-50.
 Genesis 50:20