Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen!
Our text for today is primarily from the Old Testament reading out of Ezekiel 33, with a focus on verses 10-11, 14 and 16: “10…Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’ 11Say to them, ‘As I live’, declares the Lord GOD, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die…?’…14Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die’, yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right,…16None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him…he shall surely live.”
Sarah was rich. She had inherited $20M. Plus she had an additional income of $1,000 a day. That’s a lot of money any day, but it was immense in the late 1800s.
Sarah was well known. She was the belle of New Haven, Connecticut. No social event was complete without her presence. No one hosted a party without inviting her.
Sarah was powerful. Her name and money would open almost any door in America. Colleges wanted her donations. Politicians clamored for her support. Organizations sought her endorsement.
Sarah was rich. Well-known. Powerful. And miserable. Her only daughter had died at 5 weeks of age. Then her husband had passed away. She was left alone with her name, her money, her memories … and her guilt.
It was her guilt that caused her to move west. A passion for penance drove her to San Jose, California. Her yesterdays imprisoned her todays, and she yearned for freedom. She bought an 8-room farmhouse plus 160 adjoining acres. She hired 16 carpenters and put them to work. For the next 38 years, craftsmen labored every day, 24 hours a day, to build a mansion.
Observers were intrigued by the project. Sarah’s instructions were more than eccentric … they were eerie. The design had a macabre touch. Each window was to have 13 panes, each wall 13 panels, each closet 13 hooks, and each chandelier 13 globes. The floor plan was ghoulish. Corridors snaked randomly, some leading nowhere. One door opened to a blank wall, another to a 50-foot drop. One set of stairs led to a ceiling that had no door. Trap doors. Secret passageways. Tunnels. This was no retirement home for Sarah’s future; it was a castle for her past. The making of this mysterious mansion only ended when Sarah died. The completed estate sprawled over 6 acres and had 6 kitchens, 13 bathrooms, 40 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 52 skylights, 467 doors, 10,000 windows, 160 rooms, and a bell tower.
Why did Sarah want such a castle? According to the legends surrounding her, she felt that her family was cursed, and she sought out spiritualists to determine what she should do. A Boston medium, believed to be a psychic, allegedly told her that her family was indeed cursed. The medium is claimed to have told Sarah that if construction on the house ever stopped, she would join her husband and infant daughter.
So, who was Sarah? She was Sarah Winchester, heiress of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. She had been led to believe she was being haunted by the spirits of all the people who had been killed by the Winchester rifle, and she should move west to build a house for herself and the spirits.
The people of Israel were not so different than Sarah Winchester. No, they weren’t being haunted and tormented by “spirits”. However, they were being haunted and tormented by the effects of sin. Israel had a problem. God was calling them to turn from their sinful ways and live. So what’s the problem? Many of them thought they were doing what was righteous and just. And yet, God was disciplining them anyway. Many of them thought God was punishing them for the sins of their ancestors. How then could God say He was just in doing so? Many of them thought it was unfair that those who had not been doing what was righteous and just, who had been wicked, were being shown mercy and grace by God when they turned back.
This is similar to our Gospel reading from Luke 13 we read a short time ago. The people of Jesus’ day thought much the same way as ancient Israel did. The crowd around Jesus was wondering whether those who had been killed by Pilate while making sacrifices in the temple were greater sinners than the others who were not killed. Jesus flat out rejects this conclusion. In fact, to further make His point, He brings up another incident, the Tower of Siloam. These two events, while tragic, are not specific punishments for the sins of those who died. We cannot make such conclusions unless there is proof. For example, a person drinks too much and then gets behind the wheel of their car. In their drunken state, they swerve across the middle of the road and hit an oncoming car. Everyone involved dies. Now, the person who was drunk died as a result of their sinful drunkenness. The person who died in the other car, however, did not die as a direct punishment for a sin they had committed.
We are often no different ourselves from ancient Israel or the crowd following Jesus. We are not punished for the sins of our ancestors even though we may perpetuate their sins. Even though we like to point out the sins of others and cry out how they are impacting us, we are not punished for others sins. Rather we are responsible for and punished for our own sins. And when we finally realize this, it often leads us to despair. We cry out much like Israel and say, “Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?” (Ezekiel 33:10b).
How then do we live? Very often, we live a life similar to Sarah Winchester. We may not actually build a mansion, but we often build walls and rooms in our lives, in our minds, and in our hearts. Walls and rooms in which to hide in and hide from our sins that haunt and torment us. We attempt to build dead-ends and trap doors and hallways that lead nowhere; to run from and store away our sins of greed and lust and lying and stealing and hate and idolatry. Like Sarah, we become a prisoner of our own making and design. Like Sarah, when we come face-to-face with the consequences of sin, we stoically resign ourselves to rotting away. Because of sin, our own sin, we will one day die – the righteous and as well as the unrighteous die. As Jesus tells the crowd as recorded in Luke 13:2-3, “Do you think that [those who died] were worse sinners than all the other[s], because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, do not despair! Hear God’s Gospel to Israel and to you! From Ezekiel 33, “11Say to them, ‘As I live’, declares the Lord GOD, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die…?’…14Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die’, yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right,…16None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him…he shall surely live.”
God desires all to turn back from their wicked ways and live. He delays His righteous judgment for our benefit. If He were to judge as when He should have, when we first sinned, we would all be condemned. Jesus alludes to this as well with His parable of the fig tree in Luke 13:6-9. The vinedresser [Jesus] intercedes to gain yet another period of time when the tree might receive nourishment from an outside source. The outside source is the Holy Spirit and Jesus Himself. However, God’s judgment does come, and when it does, it falls on Christ at Calvary. Jesus receives God’s judgment, but we receive God’s mercy through Jesus’ death and resurrection, through His body and His blood. Only this Gospel, enlivened by the power of the Holy Spirit, can bring forth the fruits of repentance. It is this Gospel that gives us the power to turn from our wicked ways and live.
Ezekiel called ancient Israel to repentance and reveals God’s merciful delay. Jesus calls for repentance and reveals God’s merciful forbearance. The Holy Spirit calls us to repentance and reveals God’s merciful patience. As St. Peter writes in his second letter, 3:9, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance”. But a delay in judgment is no cause to put off repentance. The time to repent is now. Anyone who does not repent will perish (Luke 13:5).
And when we turn back, when we repent, through the power of Christ’s Cross and our faith made alive by the Holy Spirit, “None of the sins that [we have] committed shall be remembered against [us]…[and we] shall surely live” (Ezekiel 33:16). As the prophet Micah said, “[God] will have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities underfoot. [He] will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). Therefore, we are to repent often so as to keep in bearing the fruit of repentance (Luke 13:6-9), knowing that God is faithful and will not let you get tempted beyond your ability (1 Corinthians 10:13). He has provided tangible means through Baptism and Holy Communion to forgive, renew and strengthen us.
The Gospel of the forgiveness of sins through the blood of Jesus Christ is for anyone and everyone. We now carry on the calling of Ezekiel and the Apostles: to proclaim the Gospel of God’s mercy found in Jesus and to prayerfully intercede for those who are perishing. This Gospel offers comfort and hope even when God’s justice and righteousness remains hidden in a world of sin, suffering and death. The forgiveness of sins is present in the risen One, who remains present in His Church through the proclaiming of His Word and the administration of the Sacraments. It is here that the despairing and suffering Christian meets the suffering Christ, and sees in Christ’s sufferings their own comfort, their peace, their redemption, their righteousness, their justice, and their life everlasting. He is the One who tears down the walls and rooms we build to hide our sin and hide from our sin. It is Christ through faith empowered by the Holy Spirit who turns us from our wicked ways back to God the Father, so that we “shall surely live”.
Now may the peace that passes all human understanding, keep your hearts in minds in Christ Jesus, Amen!