Karma or Grace

Sermon, February 28, 2016 – The Third Sunday of Lent, Year C
Exodus 3:1-15; Luke 13:1-9

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

This past week, I was reading a comment that someone had left on Facebook about the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The person said that they did not like Justice Scalia and thought that it was “karma” that he died before he got to enjoy his hunting trip. A rather petty comment, but it reminded me that karma, or at least a pop-culture version of karma, has become an increasingly popular belief in America, even among Christians. What is karma? One scholar describes it as follows:

[Karma]… claims to insure justice. According to the law of karma…we get what we deserve in every life. Our good and bad deeds produce good and bad results from lifetime to lifetime. With karma, there is supposedly no unjust suffering, because no one is innocent. All suffering is deserved on the basis of bad karma.

We sometimes think of karma as “what goes around, comes around.” If you do something mean, you will experience a negative consequence down the road. So, if you are a Supreme Court judge and make decisions that a certain Facebook commentator doesn’t like, you will die in your sleep before your hunting trip. On the flip side, karma means that if you do good things, then you will reap positive consequences down the road.

One thing I have observed about karma is that everyone believes that it is other people who will suffer negative consequences. Not themselves, just others. Does the commentator who took pleasure in Justice Scalia’s death before his hunting trip think that she will suffer a negative consequence for her mean-spirited comment? Surely not. We see karma as the universe’s way of vindicating ourselves and our selfish wants and emotions. My boss is going to get bad karma because he didn’t give me that promotion I wanted. The driver that annoyed me on the road is going to get bad karma because she displeased me with her driving habits. The judge I don’t like is going to get bad karma because he made judicial decisions that I don’t like. Others will get negative karma because they have displeased me in some way.

But me? Heh, I’m basically a good person. I don’t really lie. I only tell harmless fibs. I haven’t murdered anyone. That cashier I chewed out yesterday in the store for being too slow, well she deserved it. I haven’t committed adultery. That woman I was flirting with? That was just harmless fun, I don’t know why my wife got so upset with me. No, I’m basically a good person, and karma will reward me in the end. It’s really all about me and justifying myself.

What does God say to such thoughts? Jeremiah chapter 17, verse 9. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” 1 John chapter 1, verse 8. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” We are deluded if we think that we are in line for good karma.

Jesus takes on the idea of karma in our Gospel passage.

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.”

The belief in karma is part of the human condition. The people in the ancient near east would not have called it karma, but they did hold deeply to the belief that if something bad happened to you, it was because you had deserved it. Jesus is referring to two incidents which were apparently news stories in his day. The first involved some Galileans who had gone to the Temple to offer sacrifices to God and were apparently killed by the authorities – perhaps as a result of an overzealous response to a potential riot. We don’t really know. In another incident, people died in a building collapse. In both instances, it doesn’t appear that the people did anything obvious to cause their own deaths, but the people were ready to blame them anyway.

Jesus asks the crowd “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” and “do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Jesus is challenging their belief in karma. Flip what Jesus is saying and you get “do you think that you are more worthy then the people that died?”

Then Jesus takes it a step further. After asking the rhetorical questions whether the people thought that those who died brought their deaths on themselves through karma, Jesus emphatically says “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish”. In other words, we are all guilty and we are all deserving of bad karma. If we think that karma is going to be the instrument of our petty revenge on those we don’t like, but which will protect us, we are deluding ourselves.

I don’t usually think that celebrities have very much to contribute to theological or philosophical discussions, but U2’s lead singer Bono had some great things to say about karma and Jesus Christ. In an interview he said

It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma. You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics…every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff…. I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep [trouble]. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.

Bono is spot on here. The reality is that each one of us is deserving of bad karma. If karma is our judge, as so many believe, we are in deep trouble. We are seriously delusional if we think that the people we don’t like will get bad karma, but that we and our friends will somehow get off scot free.

What then is our hope? Jesus tells us to repent, and that we must do. Indeed, it is all we can do. But we can also see hope in our Old Testament reading where Moses encountered God. Remember that Moses had escaped from Egypt where his people, the Israelites, were enslaved by the Egyptians. God chose Moses to save the Israelites and bring them out of captivity – to save them from their bad karma.

There is much to the story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush, but I want to focus on how God reveals who he is to Moses, because God tells us a lot about himself in how he reveals his identity. It is very important to understand that in ancient culture, knowing somebody’s name was very important as it was thought to give you power over them. And so, by knowing the name of your god, you could invoke that name and seek to manipulate this god through spells, curses, offerings, idols and what not. And so, with that in mind, let’s see how God names himself.

The first way that he identifies himself to Moses is by saying “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” God tells Moses that he is the same God who has been with the Israelites from the beginning. God isn’t giving his name, but rather telling Moses about who he is in relation to the people. He is the God who has always been with his people.

Later, Moses asked God his name in the following interchange.

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

When asked for his name, God says “I am who I am.” In the ancient Hebrew, this could also be read as “I will be who I will be.” Do you see what God is doing here? He is saying to Moses “no, I am not giving you a name by which you can manipulate me. I am who I am. I will be who I will be. Your one choice here is to trust me.”

Humanity’s idea of karma is a way to avoid trusting in God and repenting. It is humanity’s way of trying to control God, by declaring that everyone else is due their punishment, but that we are worthy of good karma for ourselves. It’s us trying to substitute our own ideas of right and wrong for God’s view.

Jesus makes it clear that we don’t get to do that. If we are truthful, we can only admit that we are all due bad karma. We can’t think that we can substitute our own judgments for God’s and escape our fate that way. We can’t manipulate God.

Our only hope is to repent. To lay hold of God’s promises to us that he is the God of our fathers and mothers. He is who he is, and he will be who he will be. He has shown us that he is the God who rescues his people. He rescued his people from the flood, from slavery in Egypt, from exile, and, most important of all, from sin and death through the death of his son, Jesus Christ. He is who he is. He will be who he will be. He is and he will be our rescuer and our redeemer. We can only repent and throw ourselves on his mercy confident that he will keep his promises.

And that is what Lent, the season of penitence is about. This is the season where we repent and throw ourselves on the mercy of God. And when Good Friday and Easter come, we celebrate that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Let us pray.

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

One thought on “Karma or Grace”

  1. Hello James, I found your blog because your sister-in-law Petra posted your sermon on Karma and Grace. I really appreciated it. I also appreciated your reference to the Rangers of the North. I’m a fan of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien and more, but had forgotten the part about the Rangers, of whom Aragorn, of course, was one. I like the image that we can be such Rangers, just like watchers on the walls.
    Blessings on your ministry. I would be interested in hearing from you.
    P. S. I’m Herman Proper and taught Charles at Fraser Valley Christian High between 1976-1978.

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