Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin TN + Third Sunday in Lent + February 28, 2016
“There but for the grace of God go I.” That’s one of those phrases most of us have picked up somewhere or other along the way, and we’ve long forgotten who said it first.
The oldest story about that phrase gives credit to John Bradford, a Protestant reformer in England during the violent religious upheavals of the 1500s. He served as chaplain to King Edward VI — the Protestant son of Henry VIII — and then he was burned at the stake during the Catholic backlash of Queen Mary’s reign. But even before his martyrdom he was known as “Holy Bradford” — not mockingly, but because of his reputation as a remarkably unselfish and humble man.
The story goes that whenever Holy Bradford saw criminals being led to their execution, he would exclaim, “But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford.” In other words: that could so easily have been my fate; I’m standing here not because I’m a better person by nature than they are, but because of God’s grace — because of forces beyond my sin or morality.
This is close to the message Jesus communicated to the crowds in today’s gospel reading. Some of the people brought him news: Pilate ordered the death of some Galileans who were in Jerusalem, offering sacrifices at the Temple. Jesus responded, “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.” In other words: But by the grace of God, there go you.
His response seems harsh, but it makes a little more sense in context. Before these people brought him the news, Jesus had been teaching and telling stories with a common theme: Be ready. Expect the Kingdom of God. Live and work like the Kingdom is about to knock down your door.
He told one parable about a servant who is left in charge of the property while his master is away. The servant thinks, “Well, I’ve got some time before the master comes back,” and he starts acting like the king of the place. The tyrannical king. This guy beats the other servants, gorges himself on the food, gets drunk on the wine. But then the master comes back sooner than he’d been expected — and the servant is in big trouble (Lk. 12:41-48). At the end of the parable, Jesus spoke another of our now-common phrases: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”
Then Jesus gets on the crowd listening to him: Why is it that you can look at a cloudy sky and figure out that it’s going to rain, but you can’t figure out what’s going on in this time? And why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right, instead of waiting for a judge to punish you (Lk. 12:54-59)?
The author of this Gospel linked these teachings directly to the scene in our gospel reading for today. He wrote, “At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans” who’d been killed by Pilate.
Why did they pick that moment to tell Jesus about the tragedy? Based on Jesus’s reaction to them, it seems like they were saying that the Galileans got what was coming to them. Were the messengers trying to prove that they were on the same page as Jesus? “Oh, we can see what’s going on in this time. God’s judgement is here; just look at those sinners who got punished in Jerusalem!” Were they thinking, “Oh, I see what you mean, Jesus. Those Galileans got punished, just like that bad servant in your story”?
But they didn’t get it. Jesus’s point had been that we must each be ready, we must each live like the kingdom is here. But these guys deflected the message: they weren’t taking in Jesus’s words and thinking about how they could live differently; they were saying, “Hey Jesus, those are the guys you’re talking about, right?”
But Jesus defended the victims of the tragedy. “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.” You’re not that different than those Galileans cut down by Pilate’s viciousness; you’re not that different than the 18 people who died when that tower fell in Jerusalem. But by the grace of God, there go you, too.
When we see tragedy befall others, we often tell ourselves that it couldn’t happen to us; we’re different. It’s a way of protecting ourselves. Even if the tragedy is so horribly random as being in the wrong place at the wrong time: underneath a tower that collapses; on a street corner in Kalamazoo when someone drives by with a gun. We’ll do mental gymnastics to try and make up a reason why this would happen to that person, but not to us. It helps us feel safe.
I always remember the time I took a group of college students to New Orleans for a mission trip. We were staying in the Lower Ninth Ward, freaking out a little about the size of the bugs in our sleeping area. One young woman said, “I reminded myself that God wouldn’t let a bug hurt me.” I was unnerved by that statement, since we sat in a building that had once held water up to its ceiling, in a neighborhood where houses were still spray-painted with the number of bodies that had been found inside. Did we have a special status in God’s eyes compared with the people living there when the levy broke? No: but by the grace of God, there go I.
When the tragedy is more obviously human-made, we even more frequently tell ourselves it couldn’t happen to us. When a pattern of racism or sexism emerges, the majority of people find ways to explain that each individual in that pattern somehow deserves it. When there is a report of a rape, there is always a contingent of people explaining how the victim did something to encourage it, or to let it happen. In the U.S. there is a common attitude that if a person is poor it has to be because they’re lazy.
Even when a person did do something to cause their fate, can we really think of ourselves as so very different? The guys I meet in jail definitely did something to land themselves there. But when I hear their stories, I can’t help but wonder: “If I had grown up in a neighborhood where I had to watch my back for shootings; if all the people around me were addicted or dealing; if my own father had pushed me in front of a moving car…if I’d been born into your life, would I have been so different?” I know some heroic people are able to climb out of such horrible situations with more righteousness; I’m just not so sure I would be one of them. But by the grace of God, there go I.
If each individual is totally to blame for their suffering, than that means we have enough control over our lives to protect ourselves. But today’s gospel reading reminds us of what we all already know: life is much more chaotic and fragile than that. Bad news can come at any time. Accidents happen. Sickness happens. Housing markets crash. People hate one another and hurt one another for stupid reasons. And we all struggle with sin. But by the grace of God there go all of us.
But Jesus said more to the bearers of bad news than, “Be thankful; that could have been you.” He says, “Repent.” He says, “Change your ways.”
One of the problems with thinking that “they got what they deserve” and “It didn’t happen to me, because I’m different,” is: that response doesn’t demand anything of me. In that way of thinking, the world is as it should be. Nothing needs to change. Certainly I don’t need to change.
But one of the fundamental messages of Christianity is that the world is not as it should be. The world is broken and tangled up in its own sin. And each of us is part of that tangled mess.
The “good news” side of that message is this: There is some suffering we can work against; some sin we can turn away from, some goodness we can build up.
One of Jesus’ main messages to the crowd that had gathered around him was: don’t wait till you hear death’s knock on your door. Don’t wait till you see the Son of Man coming on the clouds to judge what’s right and what’s wrong. Start untangling yourself from that mess of sin now. Start living in God’s Kingdom now.
Our gospel reading ends with a parable: the landowner wants to cut down a fruitless tree; the gardener wants to work at it for one more year. I don’t think Jesus is saying: “God wants to you down for your lack of good works, but I’m trying to buy you some time.” That doesn’t fit with what Jesus said, just a little while before: Do not worry; God cares for you. “Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it is your fathers good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:22-32).
I think what that parable is getting at is: if we take the hard, nihilistic but not unreasonable view of life: we’re all waiting for the ax to fall, one way or another. But now, we have time. Now, we have a gardener caring for us. We are being fertilized with the good news of the gospel, with God’s love and mercy, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with all the material blessings we receive. Now is the time to repent; now is the time to bear fruit. Now is the time to live like God’s kingdom is already here.
 “John Bradford,” Wikipedia. www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bradford. Accessed 2.29.2016. The earliest extant mention of Bradford’s use of the phrase is in Edward Bickersteth’s A Treatise on Prayer (1822).