Does God Punish People?
Well, you may have seen this week that an archbishop in the Catholic Church, who was a former Vatican official, came out and said that the war in Ukraine is happening because the country has embraced the LGBTQ community.
Now, it shouldn't really surprise us because whenever there's some tragedy in the world – war and earthquake, a hurricane – we always hear these religious leaders come forward. And they say it's because of God's wrath and anger are on us for things like homosexuality and abortion.
So for example, you may remember that the Reverend Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and a former spiritual adviser to President Trump after Hurricane Katrina, came forward and said that the city of New Orleans was wiped out because God was so angry at the city's long reputation of sin and debauchery. And you may remember after the 9/11 attacks, that Reverend Jerry Falwell said that the World Trade Center was hit because of New York City's embrace of feminists and abortionists, and even the ACLU. And then there's the Reverend Pat Robertson, whose 700 Club TV show reaches millions of people around the world each day. When the hurricane in Haiti happened back in 2010, he said that Haiti was destroyed because they're a country that worships Satan.
Now, again, this may all seem really ridiculous, and we can laugh at it. But it actually isn't very funny. Because these pastors are very popular, and they reach so many people. They reach more people than I will ever reach in my lifetime. And they are spreading the message that when we have tragedies in our world – hurricanes, earthquakes, school shootings, diseases – that it's because God is angry with us. And God is punishing us for our supposed sins.
Now, this is not anything new. Two thousand years ago, the religious leaders of Jesus's day believed the same thing. And they told people, ‘Well, if you have leprosy, it means you or your ancestors sinned. God's punishing you.’ That's really what they believed and what they taught.
And so in today's Gospel reading for the Third Sunday in Lent, Jesus is trying to tell the people that the people who were slaughtered in the temple, and the people who died from the Tower of Siloam’s collapse, didn't do anything wrong. As we see that people come to Jesus and they talk about all the Galileans who were slaughtered in the temple. Now, we don't know anything about this event. Other than this one passage from Luke's Gospel, historians can find no record of this supposed slaughter. But it must have just happened. And it was on people's minds. A group of Galileans had come to the temple to give their offerings and sacrifices to God. And there they were slaughtered by Pontius Pilate’s, men. So the people come to Jesus and they say, ‘Why did these Galileans die? What did they do wrong? Why was God punishing them?’ And Jesus is saying, ‘No, they didn't do anything wrong. God wasn't punishing them.’
And then Jesus gives them another example. He talks about the collapse of the Tower of Siloam. I was explaining last week how walls were built around Jerusalem. Well, one of the stones on one of those walls fell and tragically killed 18 people. And Jesus says, as we just heard, ‘Do you think any of those people are any better or worse than anyone else in Jerusalem?’ No. Jesus is saying to the people, tragedies happen in life. They're random. They're not God's punishment upon people for their wrongdoings. That's what Jesus was trying to communicate here. And so my question for you is, what do you believe? Do you believe God punishes people for their sins? Do you believe in your life when bad things have happened to you, it's because of bad things that you said or thought or did that God's punishing you for them?
Well, you know, I used to believe that, but I don't anymore. I know for sure that God is love, and that God's love is unconditional, which means it's not based on any conditions. It doesn't matter what I think, or say, or do. God still loves me unconditionally. And God is a God of second chances. God doesn't give up on us.
That's why, after giving these two examples, Jesus tells that beautiful parable of the barren fig tree. What a beautiful story. The fig tree’s still alive. But for three years, it hasn't given any fruit. The owner wants to cut it down. It's useless. But the gardener says no, let me let me give it some more time. Let me do what I can do with it.
And that fig tree? That's us.
Maybe you have not been bearing spiritual fruits, maybe you haven't really been living your purpose. God doesn't give up on you. The master gardener is continuing to do its work in you. You my friends were planted here on purpose for a purpose. And your purpose is to bear God's fruit.
The 13th century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, said, “Just as apple seeds grow into apple trees, and pear seeds go into pear trees. God seeds grow into God.” He said that in the 13th century. God's seed, God's DNA is within you. That's why Jesus said the kingdom of God is within you. God makes its dwelling place within you. Your purpose for being is to water and nurture those seeds, so that you can bear the fruits of the Spirit into the world. Our purpose for being is to grow those seeds. And that is why I've been telling you that this season of Lent is a time for us to go within. And what we're doing during the season of Lent in prayer and meditation is we're watering those seeds. We're watering them with the presence and power, the light and the life. We are removing any rocks and weeds that are getting in place of the growth of those seeds. Those rocks and weeds are our negative thoughts. They're our resentments, our grudges, our thoughts of lack and limitation, our fears and our doubts.
In prayer and meditation, we're getting rid of those things, or as we say, in the season of Lent, we're letting go of them. We're fasting from them for the season of Lent. And we are nurturing those seeds.
Now Jesus says here twice in today's Gospel, repent or perish. And I know that that may sound like these televangelists and megachurch pastors, but Jesus is not talking about punishment here. Jesus is saying repentance, the word repent. It literally means turn your mind around. Turn your thinking around. It comes from a Greek word metanoia. In the Bible, that means ‘have a change of heart.’
Jesus is telling the people turn your minds and hearts around and do it now. The reason there's a sense of urgency in his voice is because he's saying our life is short. Our time here is short. And we don't know when tragedy is going to befall us. Like those people who were slaughtered, like those people who were killed in the Siloam tower. We don't know how much time we have left. So start living your purpose now.
If you're not bearing fruit, start now.
And that's where we are today in the season of spring. That is why the church decided to to celebrate Lent and Easter around the spring Easter Equinox, which is today.
I told you at the beginning of Lent, none of us know for sure exactly when Jesus died and was resurrected, but the church decided to do it around the spring equinox. Because it's symbolic.
We're coming from winter into spring, from death into new life. So this is a time for us to really go within each and every day, to nurture those seeds so that we can experience new growth and new life.
Now we're in the third Sunday in Lent. And you may say, ‘Pastor Sal, I have to admit, I really haven't been doing much during Lent. I haven't been praying and meditating each day, I haven't given anything up.’
Guess what, God still loves you. God hasn't given up on you. Be gentle with yourself, take heart. You know, there's still 28 days until Easter. That's almost the whole month. Find time each and every day to do some spiritual spring cleaning, and some spiritual planting. So the spiritual spring cleaning, you know, in spring, we do spring cleaning. Get rid of those thoughts and beliefs that are no longer serving you. Get rid of those, fast from those, and do some spiritual planting. Go within to that place within you where those seeds are, so that you can nurture their growth.
A seed needs to go into the darkness of the soil. And it needs in the darkness to die from being a seed so that it can grow into a plant. And that doesn't happen overnight. It's a process.
So the 40 days of Lent symbolizes a time for us to go into the darkness, to die to being a seed so that we can grow and become those fruits of the Spirit which God created us to be. And so my friends, may you in the 28 days between now and Easter, find time to do that so that this Easter season, you may experience new growth and new life.
God loves you. And so do I.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
By Rev. Ed Townley
Today’s Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Lent is known as “The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree.” In it, the owner of a vineyard comes to a fig tree looking for fruit, but finds none. The owner then says to the gardener, “For three long years, I've been trying to find figs on this fig tree, and I'm fed up! Cut this sorry tree down! It's just taking up space!"
The gardener replies, “Lord, let it alone for one more year. I’ll dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
With this parable, Jesus is trying to get us to consider how we might be like the fig tree. God, the vineyard owner, wants us to bear the fruits of the Spirit, for that’s what we were “planted” in human form to do. So, if God is the vineyard owner and we are the fig tree in the parable, then Jesus must be the gardener, the one who replies, "Lord, turn this fig tree over to me for awhile. Let me see what I can do with it.”
Jesus, the gardener, offers us hope. He is willing to be patient with us a while longer, to give us another year to grow, to nurture us with teachings and with demonstrations of Truth. The creative Power of God is eager to flow through us, empowering us and transforming our lives, but if we do not allow that to happen, we will be “cut down.” It’s not a judgment or a punishment. It just means that if we are not "bearing fruit" by allowing the Spirit to grow in us and through us, then we are spiritually useless. If we are not willing to assume our spiritual responsibilities — to allow our lives to bear fruits of love, abundance, compassion — then we will be passed by. The Good News is that Jesus doesn’t give up on us. He continues to till the soil of our being, nurturing us, and waiting patiently for us to grow and bear the fruits of his labor.
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