Sermon from July 18: Reframing, Rethinking, Repenting

Reframing, Rethinking, Repenting
Pentecost VIII; July 18, 2021
Luke 13:1-17

Sometimes a question begins to resolve itself when you change the way you ask it. I have heard that called “Reframing;” I think the person who coined that term was thinking of the way a picture changes appearance when you put it in a different frame. Likewise, the problem looks different if you change the way you think about it, or you change the way you ask the question.

Consider the classic line, “Stuff happens.” No, that isn’t the line, but even I’m not going to say it in church. Okay, let’s go with “It happens.” Now, what do different religious traditions do with that line?

Taoism: It happens.
Hinduism: It happened before.
Buddhism: It is only the illusion of it happening.
Zen: What is the sound of it happening?
Islam: It happens because it is the will of Allah.
Jehovah’s Witnesses: Knock, knock. It happens.
Atheism: It doesn’t exist.
Agnosticism: Maybe it happens, and maybe it doesn’t.
Calvinism: It won’t happen if I work harder.
Catholicism: It happens because I deserve it.
Televangelism: Send money or it will happen to you.
Judaism: Why is it always happening to us?[1]

“It happens” pretty much summarizes Jesus’ reaction to the news about some Galileans receiving horrible treatment from Pontius Pilate, the Roman Military Governor. Pilate was known for his brutal suppression of dissent, so if some Galileans had come to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and used the opportunity to also stage a political protest, then Pilate responded by sending troops to attack them while they were sacrificing. Given the common assumption that bad things happen to those who deserve it, Jesus seizes on the opportunity to reframe the question. Do you think they were worse sinners than those who did not protest against the Romans (or who at least did not get caught)? And then he pulls up a different example: when the tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen people, was that because those eighteen were worse sinners than the ones who were spared?

Well, it’s easy enough to answer, “No, we know better than that,” but I don’t think we do. We easily fall into the group that says that if it happens, it’s because you deserve it. If you don’t resist the police, you won’t get shot. If you don’t break the law, the government will leave you alone. We won’t go so far as to say that those who were killed in the collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida were worse sinners than those who were spared, and so we easily accept Jesus’ evaluation of the collapse of the Tower of Siloam. Many of us do, however, find it harder to accept that innocent people do go to jail, that people who put their hands up and submit do get killed by the police, that peaceful Galileans would be attacked by Roman troops. It happens.

Jesus isn’t content to leave the question alone, however. He doesn’t give simply a “No” answer, but reframes the question and makes it a warning to repent. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Well, the reality is that we will all perish, whether we repent or not. But I suspect Jesus is speaking of a larger matter: how will you live until you perish? Will your life count for anything? Will you allow yourself to be happy? Will you commit yourself to eternity?

“Repent.” It means more than we usually allow it to mean. It does mean, for a start, that when you do something to someone, you apologize and promise to do better. The eighth and ninth steps of the Twelve-Step program embody this sense of repentance: the acknowledgment of wrongs done, the willingness to make amends, and the attempt to make amends without causing any further injury. That is repentance. But repentance means to change your way of thinking, as well. Some of us need to repent of thinking that we’re the center of the universe and everyone needs to accommodate to us. Others of us need to repent of thinking that someone else is the center of the universe and we cannot live without them. Maybe you need to repent of thinking you can eat or drink or drug or shop your way into happiness. Lord, I don’t know what you need to repent of, and if you don’t know either then it’s time to start taking self-inventory.

Now Jesus follows up his warning to repent with a parable about repentance and an enacted parable about reframing. I don’t think you need an explanation of the parable, but I will recap it for you. A fig tree was not producing fruit as expected, and the owner told his gardener to get rid of it. The gardener urged the owner to give the tree another year. “I’ll put manure around it, and care for it, and perhaps next year it will bear fruit. If not, then we’ll cut it down.” Well, if the Church is the fig tree and God is the owner then I guess the minister is the gardener and preaching is the manure. Sounds right. No, it’s a parable, not an allegory, but yes the lesson is that God is patient and will wait for our repentance, but the day will come that we had better either produce fruit or get chopped down.

I’ve spoken to you before of enacted parables, and the healing of the bent-over woman is one of those. Yes, Jesus really healed her, but he turned the healing into an object lesson by reframing the question. The question as presented was, “Is it legal for a healer to work on the Sabbath day?” But Jesus reframed the question to, “Is not the Sabbath the perfect day to set someone free?” This too, I claim, is repentance: to reframe a question in such a way as to find an answer that reflects the love and grace of God. Jesus is particularly skilled at reframing questions in this way, and I think it is because he didn’t see problems and legal questions, he saw people. While the leader of the synagogue saw an issue of the Law, Jesus saw a woman, a daughter of Abraham, who was enslaved by her disability. And since the Sabbath is a weekly celebration of the freedom to be human in the sight of God, a break from being simply a producing and consuming machine, then the Sabbath is the perfect day to set her free.

The Presbyterian poet Thomas John Carlisle imagined this event from the woman’s point of view. Here is his poem, “Resurrection.”

He called me woman
in the same honorable way
he would address his mother.
The name
took on a radiant meaning
as I rose
from my constricted past,
my years bent over
with crush and crunch
of my unliftable
burdens and desperations.

When he named me daughter –
daughter of Abraham –
I felt the glory
and I knew
that nothing could ever
hold me down again.[2]

One of the men, slightly older than me, in my WW group recently said that he was working to get healthier because he had decided to live, not merely coast to the end. Not everything is in our control; after all, “It” happens. You won’t prevent the tower of Siloam from falling on you by working harder; if the Roman Military Governor sends troops against you that doesn’t mean you deserve it more than others do. It happens. But our gracious God is willing to give us time to reframe, rethink, repent. Perhaps the manure of my preaching will help you. I pray so. At any event, I pray that we, Presbyterian Church of the Master, will see not problems, but people; not legal questions, but children of Abraham. And that we and they will say with the Bent-over Woman that nothing can ever hold us down again.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] I don’t know where that originated, but I’ve seen it going around on the Internet for some years. I took these off a tee-shirt.

[2] Thomas John Carlisle, Beginning with Mary: Women of the Gospels in Portrait (William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), p. 34.