On Where We Turn in Troubled Times
March 20, 2022
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Today’s sermon is titled On Where We Turn in Troubled Times.
Lately, I have been missing Walter Cronkite. For twenty years, from 1962 to 1982, we could count on him every night to bring us the news. This past week I looked up some of the more memorable footage from troubled times when Walter Cronkite would calmly bring us the news. The oldest footage was, of course, black and white and it featured Cronkite sitting in the CBS newsroom. It was there that he delivered the news to the nation of JFK’s assassination in 1963. Cronkite guided us through the tumultuous years of the Vietnam war, the assadsination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Watergate, Three-Mile Island nuclear power plant leak, and the Iran Hostage Crisis. We could always depend on him to give it to us straight. Remember, he ended each broadcast with his signature sign-off: “That’s the way it is.” *
Walter Cronkite is credited with the first televised opinion piece when he, single handedly, turned the tide of public opinion regarding the Vietnam War. After returning from two months of reporting from Vietnam, Cronkite issued the following statement on the CBS evening news, “It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out would be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy.”** After hearing the broadcast, President Lyndon B. Johnson replied, “If I have lost Cronkite, I have lost middle America.” Three days later he announced he would not run for re-election.
Our nation turned to Walter Cronkite in troubled times, especially; we came to depend on him to speak to us as one human being to another. Of course he influenced public opinion. In our scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke today, we find our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, turning the tide of public opinion, too.
The story we are offered today is not found elsewhere, but the author of Luke deemed it important enough to include, so it warrants our attention. Jesus was preaching to the crowds, urging them to pay attention to the times and what was happening before their very eyes. He was urging them to live into the law, to settle and make peace amongst themselves. I quote here from the passage that precedes our reading, Jesus says, “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? When you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, handed over to the officer, and thrown into prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” (Luke 12: 57-59).
At that point, the people challenge Jesus to make sense of a horrific event, an event we would categorize as a war crime. Years before, the local leader of the occupying Roman forces, Pilate, wanted to build an aqueduct from the pools of Solomon to the city of Jerusalem. The aqueduct would be guarded and the availability of water would be controlled by the Romans. The scriptures refer to the tower of Siloam that fell and killed 18 people. That tower was one of the guard towers along the aqueduct. The project was very expensive, so Pilate made a deal with the Temple priests to use money from the Temple treasury to help pay for it. The people caught wind of it and a group of Galileans, known for being outspoken, came to the temple to protest, and were ambushed by Roman soldiers dressed in disguise, right there in their sacred house of worship.
The people are challenging Jesus and his advice that they should make an effort to settle their differences outside the courts. They are saying, “What about the grave injustices we have suffered? Those Romans attacked us in our own temple! This is not something we can settle by ourselves, but where can we find justice? We are living in an occupied territory under a foreign power that would cut us down in our own temple! If we are not safe in our own temple, where could we ever be safe?”
Like any good teacher, Jesus reigns them in. First he questions them, “Do you think those that were killed in the temple or those crushed under the tower were more sinful than you?” Here Jesus challenges the traditional belief that catastrophes are the result of transgressions and misdeeds. Jesus says, “No!” and the word used there is ouchi and it is an emphatic expression, meant to dispel any and all doubt. Those Galileans in the temple and those workers crushed under the tower in no way deserved what happened to them.
Jesus calls their attention back to what is his primary concern: turning the hearts and minds of his people back to God. It was the same concern of many prophets before Jesus, as expressed in the words from the prophet Isaiah we heard today, “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.” Jesus has one message for them. It is not the battle cry that the people want to hear. It is not the denunciation of the Romans and the temple priests that bend to their demands. It is not the guarantee that he will use his God-given powers to overthrow the occupying Roman forces and restore power to the Hebrew leaders. No. Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish.”
That word “repent” is problematic here because of the translation. In Hebrew, the word is שוב, (shuv) which means “to return, to go back, to go home.” This word was translated into the Greek for the writing of Luke and the Greek word used was metanoeo (me-ta-no-wow). In there we see the root meta that we know means change, as in metamorphosis.
Jesus says, “Unless you change, you will all perish.” Jesus sees where this is headed but it is unclear to me as to whom he is directing his ominous message. Is it to the people? Is he urging them to not rise up against the Roman forces? Or is he speaking to those in positions of power? For the Hebrew community, the only political positions of power they hold are the Temple priesthood, and the Sanhedrin Council, but there are divisions within, as we clearly saw with temple funds being used for construction of the aqueduct that would then be guarded and controlled by the Romans. Perhaps Jesus is calling for those who are in positions of leadership to use their influence to protect the people they are supposed to be serving. “Unless you change, you will all perish,” Jesus says. Soon Jesus will be the focal point of the conflict and he will give his life to prove that there is a force far greater and stronger than political power and might.
We are seeing that same force right now in the people of Ukraine who are laying their lives on the line to fight for their freedom and for their right to self-govern. The force of their convictions are far greater than that within the Russian soldiers who are following the orders to fulfill one man’s vision of “more.” The Ukrainians may be outnumbered but they have the power of their convictions fueling their resistance.
In closing, I lift up Jesus’s call for change, for turning, for returning. We do not have Walter Cronkite to guide us through these troubling times, but we have the teachings of Christ, turning our attention always back to God and reminding us that in all we are called to face, even death itself, the holy presence of God is with us. So be it. Amen.
God of our hearts, we come as we are this morning. Your promises of acceptance and love seem, at times, impossibly generous; help us to accept them, Lord, and help us to settle, if only for brief moments, into a place of security and knowing that we are children of a most wondrous God. When we doubt and fear, turn our minds in trust. When we dwell on hardship, turn our minds to giving thanks for our many blessings. And when we struggle to hold weight of the many problems in our world, strengthen us to hold them long enough for our hearts to open a little more, and for our inner vision to focus on a way we can be of service to our brothers and sisters. Remind us, Holy One, that one smile can offer welcome, one hug can offer abundant love, and one prayer can send ripples that have unimaginable effects. If ever we are at a loss for words, bring these words of Jesus to our lips: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the prophet Isaiah:
“May you go out in joy and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”