Scriptures: Isaiah 5:1-7 Psalm 46 Philippians 3:4-14 Luke 13:1-9
The 2013 movie The Purge depicted a United States in which, after an economic collapse, order was restored by means of The Purge, an annual 12-hour period in which all crime was legal and all first responders and emergency services were on orders to stand down – basically 12 hours in which everybody had a free pass to commit any mayhem that occurred to them, up to and including murder – though there were some limits on weaponry – no grenades or rocket launchers allowed. This annual tradition is credited with reducing crime and unemployment to near-zero levels, while bolstering the economy – of course, any persons killed or attacked during the Purge are seen as collateral damage, as the unavoidable price paid to maintain the greater good of a stable society. The movie follows the Sandlin family, who have prospered by selling security systems to protect their neighbors against the mayhem of The Purge – and of course their home’s security system is top of the line, state of the art. On Purge night, a wounded man comes to their door, chased by a group of thugs who want to kill him – and the family is faced with the choice of what to do? Do they protect the man or leave him to the mercies of the mob who want to kill him? They do end up protecting him, somewhat unwillingly, and are set upon by the thugs that threatened the man – and the family learns that the security systems they sold were essentially security theatre, unable to keep thugs out of their homes, only giving an illusion of safety. The movie seems to want to ask the question, what price are we willing to pay for a comfortable life? And having paid that price, are we as secure as we think we are?
In our Gospel reading – not from the lectionary – Pontius Pilate, the brutal governor of Judea, had conducted a sort of purge of his own. A number of Galileans – folks from Jesus’ neck of the woods – had gone up to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices at the Temple. Little did they know it would cost them their lives – Luke puts it elegantly, saying that Pilate had mingled their blood with their sacrifices. We’re not told why Pilate had them killed, only that it happened. The news traveled and made its way to Jesus.
His response seems odd. You’d have expected some offer of condolences, but that’s not what Luke’s gospel gives us. Jesus said, “Do you think those Galileans killed by Pilate were the worst sinners in all of Galilee?” That’s not a question that would occur to us, which might say something about the distance between our way of thinking and theirs. In Jesus’ day, the prevailing theology said that good things happened to good people, and bad things happened to bad people. If people prospered, it was a sign of God’s blessing. If people suffered, it was their own fault. Basically it was a theology of blaming the victim, kicking people when they were down, on a cosmic scale. Perhaps even the people who brought the news to Jesus thought that those killed by Pilate had only gotten what they deserved. But Jesus pushed back hard against that theology, answering his own question by saying they were essentially no worse than folks who hadn’t been killed by Pilate – presumably no better either, but certainly no worse. But then he said something chilling: “Unless you repent, the same thing will happen to you.” And then he brought up another recent tragedy, the collapse of a tower that killed eighteen people. To us, that would seem like a totally random happening, but likely there were folks who thought the tower collapsed because God was angry and needed to smite some folks that day – God carrying out his own little purge. But Jesus answered in the same way – those who were killed in the collapse of the tower were no worse than anyone else. But again, those chilling words from Jesus: unless you repent, you’ll all die as they did.
And then Jesus told an odd parable – a man planted a fig tree in the vineyard where he was raising grapes. Grape growers would tell us that this would be an odd choice – the fig tree would use up groundwater that the grape vines need, for one thing – but this is Jesus’ parable, so he gets to plant the trees where he wants. In any case, fig trees would take three years to grow to maturity and produce figs – but we’re told that this tree, despite having been there three years, was unproductive, producing no figs. The man’s gardener spoke up in defense of the tree, asking for one more year to give the tree some extra TLC – tender loving care, in the form of turning the soil and adding some organic fertilizer. Give the tree one more year, the gardener pleads, and if the tree still doesn’t produce anything, you can cut it down.
Where is Jesus going with all this? Again, the prevailing theology of the day said that good things happened to good people, and bad things happened to bad people. Jesus pushed back against both parts of this theology. On one hand, he said that those killed by Pilate or the collapse of the tower weren’t being singled out for punishment. On the other hand, he’s also saying that those who live comfortably aren’t necessarily being blessed for their faithfulness – indeed, God may just be giving them a chance to repent and change their ways, and if that doesn’t happen, God may let the ax fall for them as well.
It’s an unsettling message. I think we’ve largely gotten past the idea that bad things happen to us as punishment for past sins, which is a good thing, a healthy thing. We don’t want to kick people when they’re down. We know a lot more about what causes disease than folks did in Jesus’ day – for example, we know that people who overeat – like me – are at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other health problems…my blood glucose numbers are creeping up, as it happens - and that some occupations carry higher risks for specific illnesses than others – for example, coal miners get black lung. We can see cause and effect, but we don’t attach any moral stigma to it one way or the other, and that’s good and rational. The “misfortune as God’s punishment” theology does flare up periodically, though, when we don’t understand the cause and effect, as it did during the early years of the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when people who were already suffering horribly from AIDS were told by many in the church that their illness was God’s punishment. The theology that says “bad things happen to bad people” is just bad theology, and we can be grateful that Jesus spoke against it.
The flip side, though, is just as dangerous. If we’re living comfortably, we may think it’s because we’ve merited God’s blessing. Or at least, if we’ve lived comfortably to this point, we may think that no harm will come to us. Most of us don’t have a sense of how precarious our comfort is, don’t realize how much of our comfort may rest on the discomfort of others, and how quickly that rug of relative comfort can be pulled from under us. We may not have a sense of how reliant we are on God’s grace, and how much we are in need of repentance.
I say all this in the context of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, in which, at a country music show, nearly 60 people were killed and ten times that number injured. It goes without saying – though I’ll say it anyway – that those who were at the concert did not deserve what happened to them. The deaths and injuries were not God’s punishment on those at the concert. This should be straightforward – though it’s notable that at the Pulse nightclub shootings roughly a year earlier, a number of sick religious leaders slithered out from under their respective rocks, hissing that the folks at the Pulse nightclub deserved to die, because Pulse was a gay nightclub. Somehow at that shooting, it was a more complicated question, which said more about the poison in the hearts of some religious leaders and their followers than about the folks at the nightclub.
Proposals for change are made, of course. Gun control legislation is proposed – and immediately shot down because of the influence of the NRA and the congressmen and women they own. Gun ownership in America is off the charts, as are deaths and injury from gunfire – it’s a negative example of American exceptionalism. When it comes to guns, we’re in a class of our own, with more than one gun in America for every man, woman and child. But those guns aren’t distributed evenly – many, perhaps most, Americans don’t own a gun, while a small number of Americans own many guns – Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, owned at least a couple dozen, one of which was equipped with a bump stock to make it fully automatic. Guns are a part of American culture – where I grew up, out in Berks County, kids routinely took off school for the first day of hunting season. There are legitimate uses for some types of guns, particularly in rural areas. A rifle to hunt game – fine! An AK-47 to hunt people – maybe not so fine! And the 2nd amendment protects the right to bear arms – though if we want to be 2nd amendment absolutists, why stop at guns? If I have the money and believe in the 2nd amendment right to bear arms with no limitations, why can’t I buy a grenade, or lots of grenades? Why not a rocket launcher? How about a small nuclear weapon, just a little bitty one? Of course, you probably think that letting me have grenades or rocket launchers or nuclear weapons is a really bad idea, and so do I. And if you don’t think I should own nukes or rocket launchers or even one itsy bitsy tiny little grenade, then you’re admitting that the right to bear arms is not absolute, and if that’s true, then perhaps there should be limits to the number and kinds of guns I can own as well. Somewhere between nobody having anything more lethal than a water pistol and everybody having their own private artillery, we need to balance the right of Stephen Paddock to own dozens of guns against the right of country music fans not to get their heads blown off. More than that, while we in America are obsessed with gun rights, we need to talk about gun responsibilities. Because mature adults learn that with rights come responsibilities. And the general rule of thumb is as follows – my rights end where your nose begins. That is to say, my rights come into question when they infringe on the rights of others. Gun rights are no exception.
We need to look at gun rights and responsibilities. We also need to look at our country’s policies of care for the mentally ill. Decades ago, we shut down most of the large mental institutions – many of which were snake pits, with residents living in abusive conditions – but we didn’t replace them with anything. I remember when I lived in Spring City back in the late 1980’s and Pennhurst closed down, some former residents were left wandering the streets. Those with sufficient resources can pay to be pampered by the best our healthcare system offers. For those with more limited funds or on public assistance, underfunded clinics may offer pills and some limited counseling by harried, overworked counselors. For many, prisons, homeless shelters, and the streets are the settings of mental health care, or lack thereof. It has to be said, the vast, vast, vast, vast, vast majority of mentally ill people are nonviolent. But when guns are easier to get than medication and counseling, we shouldn’t be surprised when a small number of mentally ill persons try to end the pain within them by ending lives around them. Would better access to mental health care reduce the number of mass shootings?
These are the usual proposals that are made. But I think we need to go deeper, beyond technical fixes. Mass shootings, while horrific in themselves, are symptoms of a greater disease within our society, and while we need to treat the symptoms, we also need to get at the disease – and the disease is our society’s love of violence. Our country is addicted to violence. We’re drunk on it. We glorify violence in our entertainment, promoting it as a way to end conflict, whether it be in an old black-and-white John Wayne western or in the video games our children play. As a country we’ve bought into a lie that guns will keep us safe, which is part of a bigger lie that we can inflict violence on others without it coming back at us. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, speaking during the Vietnam era, called America “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence,” and it’s still true. King also said humanity was faced in the long run not with a choice between violence and nonviolence, but with a choice between nonviolence and nonexistence. Violence of action is fed in our polarized society by violence of thought and speech, in which we are taught by talk radio, TV commentators, and extremist websites to see those who disagree with us not only as different or misguided, but as evil. There’s a reason Jesus told his followers it wasn’t enough not to kill people, but that they also had to be on guard against anger and name-calling before they escalate to murder. And so it is in this sense that Jesus would say, with reference to the mass shootings in Las Vegas and elsewhere, the violence we spread around the world, the violence of speech and action we inflict on our neighbors, “Unless we repent, we will all die as they did.”
In effect, while we may think the premise of movie The Purge – an official 12-hour period of legalized murder each year - is far-fetched, we’re living some version of it today, not as official policy, but as unofficial reality. We’ve had large mass shootings year after year, and smaller mass murders – according to the FBI definition, shootings with four or more victims – nearly every day, though not publicized nationally. And in our minds, we’ve normalized it….we’ve come to the conclusion that this is just how life is. We say we can’t change it – though other developed countries have nothing like our rate of gun violence – again, this is American exceptionalism. It’s more accurate, I think, though impolite, to say that we as a country have decided that a large mass shooting every year and smaller mass murders nearly every day are an acceptable price to pay for maintaining the status quo – for not having to change. Can it be acceptable to people who call ourselves followers in the way of Jesus? We pray to God and ask, “Why don’t you do something to stop this?” Might God be asking us the same question.
I’ll close with this promise of God, from 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” May it be so. Amen.