Below is a sermon Fred Craddock preached the Sunday, September 16, 2001. He preached to a crowded congregation who witnessed violent terrorism on live television on Tuesday the 11th and in the following five days saw and experienced chaos and fear; hate and love in their fullest sense; bravery, blood-giving and price gouging. His sermon appears in The Collected Sermons of Fred Craddock (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 165-69. The text for the sermon is Luke 13:1-9.
Luke 13:1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
Some of you will notice that I have departed from the planned text and subject. Although you see a residue of the former order of worship in the bulletin and on the cover of the bulletin, it seemed wise to change. It means, therefore, that I will be walking in the sermon outside the area of my knowledge and expertise, but the members here are accustomed to that. In fact, if I only talked about matters in which I was an expert, I would be silent every week.
But I have the good example of Jesus in this regard. He was on his way to Jerusalem and he was teaching the people. Yet he met an audience that was not paying attention because they were preoccupied with two tragedies. They were in shock; they were angry, there were grieving. They felt helpless; they wanted revenge for the actions of Pilate, the governor of Judea, the Roman appointee, ten years the master of their lives in that little land. Pilate had, provoked or unprovoked, we do not know, taken the occasion when there were some worshipers in the temple, some pilgrims from Galilee, while they were at their prayers and offering the sacrifice, to send his soldiers to kill them in the act of worship. While kneeling in prayer, there were slaughtered. By that one act, he not only ended a number of lives; he changed forever many more.
The Tower of Siloam had fallen. We don’t know a lot about this tower; we do know towers were built primarily of stone and were part of fortification and security. They were built into the walls around fortified cities. Strategic military places had towers, as did other areas needing protection. It might have been, I’m only guessing, that the pool of Siloam, a spring with a reservoir, was so strategically valuable for the residents or for any attacking army that a tower was built at Siloam to guard, to protect.
Whether someone tinkered with the tower and loosened some stones or whether it fell through faulty construction or old age, we don’t know, but one day the tower fell. How many people were hurt? We do not know. When they removed the rubble, they found eighteen bodies. The people before Jesus had questions. Following any tragedy that seems absolutely indiscriminate in its nature and unbelievable in its size, people have questions, just as we do. The obvious one, already addressed by Teri, “What can we do?” Pray, give, give blood, encourage support, help the families, volunteer for common labor in removal of rubble, anything that can be done to help. That’s what we can do.
We have questions about appropriateness. What is the appropriate thing to do?
“Shall we go ahead with the festival?
“Are we going ahead with the birthday party?”
“Can we go out and play?”
“No, no, no.”
“Can we go to the movies?”
“Well, I don’t think that would be appropriate.”
“Can we go swimming?”
“Well, what about the wedding Charles and Ethel are going to have next week? Are they going to have it?”
“Well, the family will have to decide.”
This seems to be a small matter, but it is not a small matter because most of the time we give attention to what is appropriate and inappropriate. No one wants to seem unfeeling, unsympathetic. That is not an unimportant question.
And there is the question of justice. In our case, we know there are people whose task it is to exercise expertise in the locating of criminals and bring justice in the case of crime, horrendous crime included. Americans trust that those who have that task will carry it out with patience and precision, not indiscriminately. Surely we have grown past the point, matured past the point, when we flail and use our power across the world without discrimination. Surely we have passed that. It makes you ache to hear already of the graffiti on the doors of garages because the people there are from the Near East. It makes you sick to hear that in Australia a school bus of Muslim children was attacked. Why?
“Well, we’re supporting America.”
It makes you sick to see the flames of a Lebanese church burning. Why? It’s a Christian group!
“But they are Lebanese and we are supporting our country.”
Please, haven’t we learned?
In World War I, when we went to war against the Germans, people who lived in this country who were of German descent and had lived in this country as a family for generations and generations, suddenly, because their name was Schnauzer or Klein or Rauschenbusch, eggs on the porch, screen cut, crosses burned in the yard.
“What did we do?”
“Your name is Rauschenbusch.”
We’ve grown past that; that was World War I.
In World War II, we hadn’t quite learned. We put in compounds Japanese Americans, many of whom, had sons who were serving in the American military fighting the Japanese.
Surely we have matured past “blast them all,” haven’t we?
The people in Jesus’ audience had another question and so do we. Why these? Why these victims? What did they do? They didn’t even know what was going on. They had nothing to do with it. They are somebody’s wife, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, trying to do their work and suddenly gone.
And they looked at Jesus, the Son of God, and they said, “Why these? Why were these Galileans who, in the hour of worship while they were helpless, their backs turned, slaughtered by a cruel, cruel, man who stopped the temple worship, stopped all traffic, closed all the shops and sat grinning at the world?” That’s exactly what he wanted. Why these particular ones? “Well, Jesus is the Son of God and he has answers; we’ll ask Jesus.”
“Jesus, why these?”
And he didn’t give an answer. You would expect him to talk a little bit about the will of God. A lot of people I’ve talked to already talk about the will of God. I find so many people saying it so easily, but Jesus very seldom. He struggled with it in hours of prayer, and yet others say with certainty, “The will of God.” He did not say any of that. In fact, he gave an answer that was not an answer. You know, sometimes the words of Jesus are the most unwelcome words you can get. You just want to close the Bible and get on with your business. There’s nothing there that’s going to really help us to do the job. “So what do you say, Jesus?”
“And Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all perish.”
“What? We’re the victims here! What did we do? We didn’t do anything! We’re not guilty. What do you mean repent? Repent of what?”
I don’t know. I’ll be personal; you can take it for what it’s worth. Sometimes I need to repent of feelings of moral superiority. Crises and tragedies tend to make two groups out of the whole universe. The good ones and the bad ones, and we’re the good ones. There is no question about the moral excellence of American people in crises. What has been given in money and blood and work is just unbelievable. But then I notice that the governor of New York has to call out more National Guard because people are going into damaged buildings and stealing computers and telephones and money. Who are these thieves? They’re Americans; just as American as you and I. I must repent of any feeling of moral superiority.
I noticed that they’re warning us not about fake charities. Somebody is setting up fake charities, using this terrible tragedy as an occasion to make a lot of money. Who’s doing this? Americans, brothers and sisters of those who labor 24 hours without rest to help somebody they don’t even know. I noticed the mayor in New York said, “We’re watching you, those of you guilty of price gouging, charging two prices now for a rental car, charging two prices for gasoline.” Who are the people making money off this? My fellow Americans.
I have to watch feelings of moral superiority.
A man said to me as Nattie and I were coming back Tuesday evening from Kentucky. We had stopped at a rest stop and a man said to me, “You know, this terrorist stuff really sucks.” I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “I was supposed to start my vacation this weekend.”
He looked American to me.
Brothers and sisters, think, be humble, all America united except some of us who are making a buck off this.
“Repent,” Jesus said. What a strange thing to say. I know in my case I am spending a lot of time raising the question, “Why do people in other countries of the world hate us so? Why do they hate us?” It’s not enough to say, “Oh, they envy our way of life. They envy our horses and cars, so, so, so.” But why hate us so? Is there some unevenness in the way we treat other people in the world? Blessing these with great favor, sending guns and places and billions in help and over there, not even acknowledging they exist. This one gets the latest jet; that one gets to throw rocks. I don’t know. I’m spending a lot of time asking myself by what standard does this country treat people with favored or unfavored status. It may have nothing to do with anything but I just wonder why?
I know this much, that the most dangerous people in the world are the hopeless people. What is there to lose?
Something I’ve repented of and I’m kind of embarrassed about this, I’m repenting of the extent to which I have allowed the movie screen and the television screen to tell me what world I live in. We all know it is a fact that what you see tends to be the world you live in. You know the story of the Chinese emperor who saw some men leading an ox down the street, going to the temple where the ox would be slaughtered in the ceremony. The emperor was so moved seeing that ox taken down the street to be killed, he said to his aides, “Go out there and release the ox. Give them a sheep.” Later, someone asked the emperor, “Do you like an ox better than you like a sheep?” He said, “Well no, not necessarily. It’s just that I saw the ox.”
What you see affects you so much.
Two cases against a railroad, same railroad; two families brought suit against the railroad over an intersection that was not well-marked and was very dangerous. In the one family, a son, teenaged son was killed at that place by the train. From another family, a son, one leg cut off by the train. Both went to court. The family who son was killed, asking for several million dollars, got nothing. The family whose son had a leg removed got several million dollars. That does not seem fair. Killed, and nothing? Lost a leg, millions. Well, this is the way it works. The family that had a son who lost the leg wheeled him into the courtroom every day in front of the jury. The other family’s son was out of sight in the graveyard.
What we see so creates our world that I forget sometimes that even the news is put on by people who are doing that to make money. News now is show business and yet I fail to remember that is what it is and so I allow myself to think that’s the way the world is. And yet, what do they not show me? This crisis has reminded me that they have not shown me pictures of two million Congolese, dead, starved, diseased, beaten, shot. Two million!
Where are the pictures?
Three million, over three million, Cambodians killed. Long afterwards, when the bulldozers were piling up human skulls, “What is that?” Americans asked. “The skulls of the killed.” “How gross.” Three million!
No cameras there, no cameras there.
That didn’t become a part of my consciousness, my groaning, my aching, my praying because they were showing me other things. The American people, I’m sorry to say, have had more camera time on the belly button of Britney Spears than on the dying poor of the world. Is that right or is that wrong? I don’t blame them; they’re in business to make money. I blame myself. To be so deluded that I let these cameras create my world. A Christian has another camera, a camera of the mind and heart.
There was a man who planted a fig tree. It was time for harvest; it had grown enough to bear fruit. And so, he went out with his gardener, but there was no fruit. And the man who owned it said, “Look, I’ve been looking for fruit for three years. There’s no fruit; cut it down!” And the gardener said, “Please sir. Will you let me dig around it? Will you let me fertilize it? And then, after a year, if there’s no fruit, we’ll cut it down.” And the owner said, “Okay.” In other words, the grace, the patience, the love, the waiting of God is still with us. We still have the grace of God with us and God said, “I’ll wait on them. They’re at Cherry Log. I’ll wait on them–at least another year.”
I am amazed at the grace and patience of God.