As part of my discipline, I read and reflect upon the weekly lectionary texts. This past week, I noticed something that surprised me. The lectionary skipped Luke 13:1-5. It reads as follows:
Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifice. He (Jesus) replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. What about those twelve people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”
I was surprised because I think that scripture speaks directly to what is happening in the United Methodist Church as well as what is happening in our country.
Change Your Hearts and Lives
As I reflect upon the continual mass shootings, the blatant racism, the hurtful rhetoric, the tension within The United Methodist Church, I hear Jesus saying, “I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”
I don’t know about you, but I find that to be a hard saying. I want Jesus to say something more comforting or at least more directly related to the issues.
- When innocent people are killed while at school, shopping, attending concerts, and on the streets.
- When racism is becoming more publicly acceptable (as if racism is something new).
- When we fight among ourselves over who is right and just.
- When our leaders who have been given the responsibility of moral righteousness are the ones spewing hurtful rhetoric and setting immoral agendas.
- When the world’s climate changes as the rainforests are destroyed and the polar ice caps melt all for economic purposes…
I want my faith to protect me. I want justice for those who are being wronged. I want Jesus to say something more than, “…unless you change your hearts and lives…”
Try a Different Question
Yet, my United Methodist Church is caught in the same dilemma. There are times I feel helpless. So, I as I reflected upon the lectionary texts, I also looked at Luke 13:1-5.
This is what I hear Jesus saying. “You are not asking the right questions. You are shocked at the wrong points. You have located your pain, dismay, and astonishment at a different place from where I am looking.”
One of my favorite hymns is “Amazing Grace.” At the center of our Wesleyan theology and as amazing we may say it is, I wonder if we really are amazed by grace. I think we express more amazement over our evil acts than at God’s mercy. We have come to the place in our religious thinking where we assume that God will be merciful; God will be kind; God will be gracious. We’re not surprised when we experience God’s kindness. What shocks us is seeing something bad take place.
By God’s Grace
That is why I say I hear Jesus saying, “You are asking the wrong questions. You are asking why these events take place. You should be asking, “By God’s grace how do I respond?” I think, you and I have become so calloused, that our hearts have become so hard, that we are no longer surprised by God’s grace but we are paralyzed to inaction because we assume God’s grace.
One of my favorite illustrations of God’s grace and the dilemma we face today in The United Methodist Church comes from R. C. Sproul. He tells the story of one of his first teaching assignments as a college professor. He was teaching a required course for 250 college freshmen: Introduction to the Old Testament.
He said, “I was uncomfortable trying to communicate with so many students at one time. I printed in advance the requirements for the course, because I’d already learned that college students were all budding Philadelphia lawyers, and I had to dot my I’s and cross my t’s to make sure that the assignments were clearly set forth. So, I gave them a published syllabus and told them what the requirements would be for the class.”
The assignments for the semester were three very small papers, book report type things. The first one was due at noon on September 30, the second one October 30, and the third on November 30. He told the class he wanted the completed papers on his desk at 12:00 noon on the appointed dates unless they were physically confined to the hospital or infirmary, or there was a death in the immediate family. If the papers where not in on time they would get an F for that assignment.
Begging for Grace
Everyone said they understand the assignment.
When September 30 came around, 225 of students brought their papers in and presented them dutifully at the proper time. Twenty-five of students in the class failed to complete the assignment. They were scared to death. Being freshmen, they were just making the transition from high school, and they were in a posture of abject humility.
They came to the Professor and said, “Professor Sproul, please don’t give us a F for this grade! Please give us a little more time. Give us one more chance. We’re so sorry.” They begged the Professor for grace.
The professor granted them an extension and said, “But don’t let it happen again. Remember the next assignment is due October 30, and I want the papers in on time.”
They said, “Absolutely. They’ll be here.”
Second Chances – Again
When October 30 came around, two hundred of the students came and put their term papers on the professor’s desk. Fifty of them assembled outside the professor’s office. They had not planned their time properly and were not prepared. So once again they pleaded, “Professor, we didn’t budget our time properly. It’s midterm. We had so many assignments all coming at the same time. It’s homecoming. Please just give us one more chance.”
The professor, a softhearted guy, said, “Okay, I’ll give you one more chance, but don’t let it happen again.” The students began to sing spontaneously, “We love you, Professor Sproul. Oh yes, we do.”
That’s Not Fair
Sproul said he was the most popular professor in the school for thirty days. Because thirty days later the third paper was due. This time 150 students came into the classroom with their papers prepared, while the other 100 came in as casual, as cavalier, as you can imagine. They didn’t have their papers, but they weren’t worried in the slightest.
The professor asked, “Hey, where are your term papers?”
They said, “Prof, don’t worry about it. We’ll have them for you in a couple of days. No sweat!”
Sproul said, at that moment, he took out his grade book and his pen and began to ask each student about his or her term paper. “Johnson, where is your term paper?”
Johnson replied, “I don’t have it, Professor.” Sproul said he wrote an F in the book.
“Greenwood, where is your paper?”
“I don’t have it, Sir.” So, Sproul put F in the book.
Suddenly several voices cried out, “That’s not fair!”
The professor asked, “What’s not fair? Johnson, did I just hear you say that’s not fair?”
Johnson, who was furious, said, “Yes, that’s not fair.”
Professor Sproul said, “Okay, I don’t ever want to be thought of as being unfair or unjust. So, it is justice that you want?”
“Okay, If I recall, you were late the last time, weren’t you?”
Okay, I’ll go back and change that grade to an F.”
The first time the students pleaded for mercy. And the professor said, “sure.” The second time, they pleaded for understanding. By the third time, not only did they begin to assume mercy, but they began to demand it. They assumed grace.
That is what we do with God. The history of our personal relationship with God is a history of grace. You and I could not live on this planet for five minutes without God’s grace. But because God is so gracious, we take it for granted.
When the world starts falling apart, when mass shootings, blatant racism, hurtful rhetoric, and all we know is coming apart at the seams, we are astonished.
We have grown accustomed to God’s grace.
The question is, “Why has God been so God to me, to us? And what are we going to do about it?” God’s grace is sufficient.