Blood on the Altar

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” (Luke 13: 1-3)

The great German theologian Karl Barth is reputed to have told his students to preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.  This is the pastor’s weekly challenge: to find the connection, the resonance, between biblical events, and the events of our own day; between the concerns of scripture, and our own concerns. Sometimes it can seem a bit of a stretch.

Other times, not so much.

Lately, the events of our own time seem to have more in common with biblical events than I for one would have thought possible. Take today’s gospel reading.

This week’s lectionary reading speaks of a mass killing in a place of worship. The victims were Galilean Jews, who were struck down at the Temple, even as they offered their sacrifices.

Last week, we learned of another mass killing in a place of worship. The victims were New Zealand Muslims, who were struck down at the Al Noor mosque, even as they offered their prayers.

There is a saying, that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Sometimes it’s a bit of a forced rhyme. Not this week.

There is blood on the altar this week. And with those earlier disciples, we ask why.

Not much is known about these Galilean pilgrims, killed at the altar of the Temple. Today’s brief passage from the Gospel of Luke does not tell us much about the incident, and there don’t seem to be any other surviving contemporary accounts. Luke does tell us that the violence was incited by the Roman governor, Pilate. Which is historically plausible; it would not have been the first time that Pilate put Jews to death, nor would it be the last.

Bear in mind, that Jesus and his disciples were, themselves, Galilean Jews, and that this conversation among them took place as they too were travelling to the Temple in Jerusalem. No surprise they were thinking about this previous band of Galileans who met their deaths there. Wondering, perhaps, if the same thing could happen to them.

Jesus begins, as he so often does, with a question. Do you suppose that these Galileans were cut down in this way because they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?

Let’s pause here and consider his question. What ARE the disciples thinking?

The conventional interpretation is that the disciples are, indeed, thinking this very thing. That the disciples ascribed to an ancient worldview, one that presumed that the just were always rewarded and the wicked were always punished; that victim-blaming was rampant in ancient Israel; and that Jesus was here introducing a radical new teaching, by suggesting that those who suffer are no different from us.

Well, that’s a pretty good message, to be sure. And one we still need to hear today. After all, victim-blaming is still rampant in modern society. It seems to be human nature, to find fault with the suffering; to distance ourselves from the unfortunate. We feel sympathy, sure, of course we feel sympathy for those in pain; but we also want to reassure ourselves, that it couldn’t happen to us, that it couldn’t happen here.

That’s the conventional sermon on this text, and it’s a pretty good one, but I don’t think that’s actually Jesus’ point here.

Because I just can’t imagine that the disciples were actually walking along, thinking, yeah, well, those other Galileans probably got what they deserved.  I’m guessing the disciples were laying the blame where it belonged: at Pilate’s feet.

So when Jesus asks them, do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, to have ended in this way? – I’m guessing this is really a rhetorical question, to which the disciples already knew the answer, and that they all answered: Hell, no. Pilate wouldn’t care if they were sinners or saints.

That blood on the altar? It could have been ours.

(But – could it, really? I’m just speaking for myself here now, white Protestant American that I am. Were the victims of last week’s shooting really just like me? I remember after the Charleston shooting – when a white supremacist entered an historically black church and killed nine people at a bible study – after that shooting, I remember a member of an all-white congregation telling me that she didn’t ‘feel safe’ in church anymore – and I thought, seriously?  It’s not like the Klan will be coming after you. Or me, for that matter…..  Well, let’s hold that thought. I’ll circle back around to it. Meanwhile, let’s get back to Jesus.)

Jesus asks his disciples – perhaps rhetorically, perhaps not – Do you think that these Galileans were somehow to blame for their fate? And then he answers his own question: No. No, of course not.

And I imagine the disciples nod their heads, emphatically, feeling morally superior to anyone who would suggest otherwise.

And then Jesus adds, But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Wait – what?

Jesus’ words here remind me of the kind of fear-mongering I see sometimes on Christian billboards. There used to be one on the Mass Pike that said: WHEN YOU DIE, YOU WILL SEE GOD – accompanied by a graphic of a flat-lining EKG. The message of the billboard was clear: Repent or go to hell. Seek ye the Lord while he may be found — or else.

I ask you, what kind of response is that, to a mass killing? How on earth could repentance have saved these people from death? It’s not as though Pilate cared whether they were penitent. And surely it is the murderer, not the victim, that needs to repent?

So what the hell is Jesus talking about?

Well, first off, he’s not talking about hell. At least, I don’t think so. Because he specifically says, unless you repent, you will perish in the same way as these other Galileans. In the same way . Meaning – what? At the hand of Pilate?

You see the irony here, right?

Because it’s Jesus himself, who will be the next Galilean Jew to die at Pilate’s hand. Do we imagine that Jesus suffered in this way because he was a worse sinner than other Galileans? No, of course not.

So what is he talking about, when he tells his disciples, unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way?

I never could make much sense of this verse, until now. But now there is blood on the altar again, and now maybe I can begin to hear what the disciples heard in these words – not threat, or condemnation, but urgency, and lament.

“Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” is very church-y language.  Suppose we try another translation:

“Unless we change course, the Pilates of this world will get us all.”

Reading them in the context of current events, I find that  Jesus’ words now call to my mind the words of Martin Neimöller, a pastor who became part of the German religious resistance to Hitler. Neimöller, a former U-Boat commander, was originally a supporter of the Third Reich — something he would repent for the rest of his life. It was Neimöller who spoke these now-famous words:

“First they came for the socalists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a socalist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Today’s scripture lesson is for all the Neimöllers out there — for all of us whose grief over recent events is still mingled with relief that we were not the ones targeted.

Do we imagine that the worshippers killed in Christchurch last week were somehow deserving of their fate? No, of course not. But unless we change course, unless we transform ourselves and our culture, unless we repent — this hatred and division will destroy us all.

First they came for the black churches.
Then they came for the synagogues.
Then they came for the mosques.

So if we are still feeling perfectly safe, if we have not changed course at all, perhaps it is because we are not yet standing in solidarity with those who are in danger. Our neighbors down the road at Temple Israel have been worshipping behind locked doors, ever since the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.  How have we changed our own ways, in response to these events?

There is blood on the altar, and we are all called to repent. How do we begin?

Two days ago, on the Friday following the shooting, thousands of Muslims gathered for prayer at the Al Noor mosque. Their non-Muslim neighbors gathered there too — thousands of them. The entire community literally stood behind the worshippers.

Many of the non-Muslim women in the crowd wore hijabs, headscarves. Asked why, one Christchurch woman offered this explanation:[1]

“Why am I wearing a headscarf today? Well, my primary reason was that if anybody else turns up waving a gun, I want to stand between him and anybody he might be pointing it at.

“And I don’t want him to be able to tell the difference, because there is no difference.”




Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts
March 24, 2019

[1] Christchurch resident Bell Sibly, quoted in the NYT

Image: Paper links are draped over the fence at Hagley Park near one of the mosques were more than 40 people were killed in Christchurch March 15. (S. Miller/VOA)

Revolutionary Repentance

“What then should we do?” — Luke 3:2-18

In the first chapter of Genesis, God tells the newly created humans to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.”

I think we can safely cross that one off our to-do list.

When Jesus was born, there were fewer than half a billion people on earth, and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere was less than 300 ppm – as it had been for hundreds of thousands of years. Today, there are over seven billion people on earth, and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is over 398 ppm.

Now, here is a problem our ancestors never saw coming. So what does our faith tradition have to say to those of us who live in this brave new world of overpopulation and industrialization, of climate change and environmental degradation? When we read in the headlines of 500-year droughts and raging wildfires, of melting ice-caps and vanishing species; what scriptures do we turn to? Where do we find resonance? Where do we find hope?

Thursday morning, I was among the millions of people who tuned in to watch Pope Francis as he spoke to the United States Congress. In the middle of that speech, he told the lawmakers, “I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference. I am sure.”

This is the sort of language that caused Fox commentator Greg Gutfield to describe the Pope as the most dangerous person on the planet. Dangerous, because he calls upon us to change our course. Francis has asked for nothing less than a “bold cultural revolution” to liberate both the planet, and the planet’s poor — and he talks as if he believes it could happen.

In the past year I have been struck by the fact that many of the same people who used to deny the possibility of climate change, are now saying that climate change is already here and there’s nothing we can do about it. One minute it was too soon to tell; the next minute it was too late to act. We seem to have jumped straight from complacency to resignation, without any room in between for urgency. Without any room for hope.

But here is the Pope, claiming that we not only should, but could, do something. Here is the Pope, expressing both urgency and hope.

Of course, there are some who might point out that the Pope is not an authority on climate science, any more than Donald Trump is an authority on pediatric vaccinations. But the Pope makes no claim to know the science better than the scientists. His information comes from published research, not special revelation. But his urgency, and his hope – where do they come from?

Well, I can’t speak for Francis, but let’s go looking for ourselves:

John the Baptist appears at the River Jordan, fresh from the wilderness. He wears a coat of camel’s hair, he eats locusts and wild honey,he is a nature freak if ever we saw one. He stands there, with his feet in the flowing water, and says: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

I suspect that for most of us, a call to repentance wouldn’t really qualify “good news.” In fact, public calls to repentance often produce something of a backlash. No one wants to be publicly taken to task for their errors. It makes us feel ashamed, or defensive, or both. We don’t want to hear that we are “to blame” for global warming and so we tune out the science that makes us feel guilty.

But the word, “repentance” – or rather, the Biblical word metanoia – that word does not mean, “to feel ashamed.” The Biblical word metanoia means to change. To change our hearts and minds, and to change our lives, to change direction. Or, as Pope Francis puts it: “to redirect our steps.”

A better translation might be, “revolution.”

And so it is with John the Baptist; when the people ask John, “What then shall we do?” he doesn’t tell them to fast or to do penance or say five hail Marys . Instead, he tells them: If you have two coats, share one. If you have extra food, share that. If you have power, stop using it for your own profit.

John the Baptist comes along, wearing his cruelty-free clothing, and eating his macrobiotic diet, and calls the powerful to repent. No wonder Herod decided the John was the most dangerous person in Judea. He was calling for nothing less than a “bold cultural revolution.”

“Revolution” may seem like a strong word, but the truth is that repentance is always revolutionary, that hope is always revolutionary. “For who hopes for what he already has?” So asks the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans. Such revolutionary hope, Paul believed, was not confined to the human race, but was shared by all creation:

“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

Paul may never have envisioned a world with over 7 billion people, or a climate endangered by human activity, but he understood that the redemption of creation and the redemption of the human race were inseparable. And he had hope, that such redemption was possible. A hope based not on a clear vision of the future, but on a firm grounding in the past. God had liberated Israel from Egypt; God had liberated Jesus from the grave; and just as miraculously, God had liberated Paul  from his own prejudice and hatred. If God could do all this, then surely, God might liberate creation as well.

God of creation:
Fill us with the hope of Paul,
and the urgency of John.
May we believe the good news,
and repent.

PHOTO is of street art installation by Isaac Cordal; click here for the source, and for more images of his extraordinary work (blog text is in French, but the images need no words…)

TEXT from sermon originally preached by Rev. Liza B. Knapp at Belchertown United Church of Christ, September 27, 2015.