Third Sunday in Lent
March 20, 2022
This sermon touches on the tragic death of a well-beloved member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a prominent physician in Galveston, Nancy Hughes. You can see more here.
“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?’” (Luke 13:1-2). “Or 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?” (Luke 13:3).
You can hear the anguished subtext to what Jesus is saying here. Pilate, the cruel Roman governor of Judea, mixed in human blood with the ancient religious sacrifices. Were those who suffered worse people than anybody else? And how come Pilate never faced any consequences for his hatred. And the tower of Siloam, probably forming part of the walled city defenses of Jerusalem, apparently collapsed and killed some innocent bystanders. Just normal people, going about their days. How could that happen? What does it mean? Is there no justice in the world?
These are some of the most difficult questions of human life, and we look around the world and it’s hard for our minds to comprehend the staggering statistics, the horrifying images. This sounds terrible to say, but compared to the scale of human suffering today, a little blood mingled with the sacrifices doesn’t seem like much. Eighteen killed by a collapsing tower would hardly make the news today.
The pandemic has claimed the lives of millions of people. We see whole cities being demolished. We know of refugees streaming away from horror after horror. Sometimes it seems that the world cannot bear anymore. And, I’m afraid, sometimes we can become numb to all that pain, all that grief. But on a day like today, on a week like this week, our hearts and minds turn from the general, to the very specific. As this church, our community, grapples with the loss of someone who cared for us. The very big questions, the generalized grief, has taken on a face that we knew and loved, Nancy Hughes. We run out of adjectives to describe her – a compassionate doctor, a committed wife, a loving mother, grandmother, and so much more. For her, Friday morning began like so many other mornings. Until she was claimed by thoughtless tragedy.
In the forty-eight hours since that all happened, I have felt every range of human emotion, and I would imagine that many of you have, too. Heartbreak at what we have lost. Anger that someone who do such a thing and not even stop. Denial, like maybe they got it all wrong, or it was just a bad dream. The very general horror at this broken world has become all too close, and we feel every bit of it.
As I’m certain it was for the family of those Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed in with the sacrifices. As I’m certain it was for the friends of those poor people who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Anger, that Pilate was so cruel. Anger, that they couldn’t have built a more stable tower. Denial, that maybe it wasn’t actually their brother, their mother, their friend in the rubble. Heartbreak, that those whom they loved they can see no longer. Jesus makes it clear – that those who suffered, those who died, were not at fault. They were not worse offenders or sinners than anyone else. This is the tragic and awful nature of human life. We feel those feelings – of anger, heartbreak, denial – because we love. If we didn’t love, then who cares? The very fact that we do feel all of this is a sign that we do love. The very fact that our hearts burn with anger, that our minds are confused by the thoughtless, that we feel this hole in our hearts, is because we love.
And because God has loved, and still loves us. In just a few weeks, we will go through this spectrum of human life and death all over again, played out in the drama of Holy Week. Our Lord Jesus Christ will enter Jerusalem, and the people will praise him. Love him. Rejoice that he has come to their beloved city to care for them. He will share one last meal with his disciples, though they do not know it is their last meal together. Then our Lord will become a victim, a victim of a thoughtless crime. As we gather for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, we’ll go through it all over again. Heartbreak. Anger. Denial.
But most of all love. The love of God given in our Lord Jesus Christ who stretches wide his arms upon the cross. In perfect suffering, in perfect love. In that moment, Jesus becomes one with those Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed in with the sacrifices. Jesus stands in solidarity with those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Jesus shows himself to be with those whom we love but see no longer. Jesus joins and participates in the suffering of this cruel world. Our Lord does not provide help to us by promising an escape from the tragedy of this world. No, our Lord provides comfort by embracing the world, by taking on that tragedy for himself.
Because he loves. Because on a day like today, in a week like this week, words do not add up to much. What could one say to the family and friends of those poor Galileans to make them feel better? What could one say to the community about that tower collapsing that would ease their pain? What can one say today? Very little. And maybe even this sermon is too much. But what our words cannot articulate, perhaps our minds can begin to comprehend. The love of Jesus Christ upon the cross, as we worship, give thanks, and celebrate the one who chooses not to abhor the pain of the world, but to take it on for himself. To join us in both the great tragedy and the great love that is human existence.
And while this sermon is about those Galileans, and about that eighteen that died when the tower fell on them, and it’s about our beloved sister Nancy, it’s about all of us. That our suffering, our pain, our grief has been noticed by God. God has paid attention. God has paid attention to every bit of human agony because God has been agonized, too.
I’ll end today by turning our attention to our reading from Exodus. You know, the faces change but the stories remain the same. The Israelites in Egypt are hard-pressed by a thoughtless and cruel Pharaoh. Even here, even in this old, old story we see all the same themes. There is no justice, only tragedy. The heartbreak, denial, and anger of Moses, and of God, are all over this story. Because God knows their suffering, and God has paid attention. “The Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.’” God has paid attention, God has noticed, and God chooses to love.
God has paid attention, God has noticed your tears, your heartbreak, your anger, your denial, and God has chosen to love. To stretch out his hand and deliver the Israelites from slavery, to stretch wide his arms and die with us upon the cross. To stretch out his Spirit, so that despite all the tragedy of this world, we would know the love of God.