A month ago, on the thirtieth anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger tragedy, National Public Radio shared the story of Bob Ebeling, an engineer for NASA contractor Morton Thiokol who, along with his colleagues, tried to stop the launch of the Challenger because of the cold weather. Despite seemingly doing all he could to persuade NASA to delay the launch, Ebeling carried a great burden of guilt as a result of the tragedy, thinking he could have done more to prevent it.
NPR reported that “Ebeling retired soon after Challenger. He suffered deep depression and has never been able to lift the burden of guilt. In 1986, as he watched that haunting image again on a television screen, he said, ‘I could have done more. I should have done more.’” A religious person, Ebeling wondered why God had involved him in the process. “‘I think that was one of the mistakes that God made,’ Ebeling said. ‘He shouldn’t have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me. You picked a loser.’” Thirty years after the tragedy, Ebeling still carried a burden of guilt.
Moved by Ebeling’s burden, many who heard the story wrote letters to Ebeling, seeking to console him and assure him he did all he could. Yet the letters alone didn’t free him of his guilt. It was only after hearing from his old boss and other NASA higher-ups did Ebeling’s guilt begin to ease. His daughter noticed a real change, his heart no longer as heavy. Ebeling said of those who wrote to him, “Thank you. You helped bring my worrisome mind to ease. You have to have an end to everything.” His daughter called such a change of heart a miracle, brought about by the love and grace of the many people who had written.
Is tragedy punishment from God?
Ebeling’s is a tragic story with a happy ending. It’s comforting to know that his heart has been lifted, but it’s also discouraging to think about the burden he had carried for thirty long years. And worse, Ebeling felt that it was a guilt he had deserved, seemingly a punishment by God for his failure to do more. This tendency to blame oneself when things go bad is not unique to Ebeling. We tend to think that, as one commentator says, “if there is a demonstrable effect, there is an explainable cause. The desire to comfort by explanation is part of who we are as human beings.” Another author writes that “A common strategy in the face of disappointment, struggle, and other uncomfortable feelings is to try and pinpoint what we did wrong to create the situation.” Certainly this was true of Ebeling. Unfortunately, as this story illustrates, Christianity often affirms this idea that tragedies in life are a punishment from God for our wrongdoing. Many pastors have taught that tragedy and suffering is punishment for our sin. Even if this is not always the case, I’m not sure that’s any more comforting. Trying to guess which bad things are punishment from God only seems like more chastisement.
The past several weeks have been rather difficult for myself and my family. We’ve had two household appliances go out, we’ve had to change our daughter’s preschool, we’ve had to put our dog down, and we’ve had some medical issues ultimately leading to an emergency surgery for my wife and week off work unpaid. Thinking about it the other day I realized we’re in the wilderness right now. Lent might have officially started on Ash Wednesday, but for us it started about three weeks earlier. It has caused my wife and I to wonder “Are we out of God’s will?” “Are we doing something God doesn’t want us to do?” “Is God trying to teach us a lesson?” Perhaps many of us have felt this way at one time or another. Corinna and I were brought up in Christian circles that taught us that God is a God of requirements and rewards. Stay right with God and everything will work out in the end, but get off track and God will start beating you over the head. Though deep down Corinna and I don’t believe this anymore, it’s sometimes easy to revert back to the things we heard growing up; that God tries to change us by punishing us.
Jesus severs the connection between tragedy and punishment
Unfortunately, this way of thinking is not unique to the religious communities of my youth. That suffering is a punishment for sin was commonly expressed in the Old Testament. This same kind of thinking was common during the time of Jesus. The assumption was that those who experienced pain and affliction were being punished by God, either for their own sins or for those of their ancestors. In the book of John, upon encountering a blind man, the disciples asked Jesus whose sin caused this man’s blindness, his or his parents? In our passage from Luke, some were apparently suggesting that victims of violence and tragedy were being punished because of their sin. Here Jesus clearly rejects that view.  A person’s righteousness or lack thereof has nothing to do with any evil that may happen to a person. Jesus said these victims were no guiltier than the people he was speaking with then and there. But God doesn’t send tragedies to punish us for our sins.
Jesus did make it clear that everyone needed to repent, or to change their heart, rather than continue down the path leading to their own destruction. As the saying goes, if we play with fire, we’re going to get burned; actions have consequences. There are ways of living that are not conducive to physical or spiritual health. We can’t continually make poor decisions and assume we will avoid the consequences of our actions. A person who drinks too much then gets behind the wheel to drive shouldn’t be surprised when she is charged with a DUI. A person robs a store shouldn’t be surprised when he is arrested for burglary. A businessman who cheats people out of millions of dollars shouldn’t be surprised when he is held accountable for that money. Jesus wanted to be clear that we often follow a road leading to ruin when there is a better way.
But Jesus is also pretty clear that God isn’t bashing people over the head in punishment.  As one writer says, “if God was in the business of meting out judgment and curses in relation to our sins, there probably would not be anyone left on the planet.” But sometimes we can confuse the tragedy we face due to the mistakes of others as punishment from God. The victim of the DUI car crash isn’t being punished by God. Nor is the store owner saddled with thousands of dollars of losses after a robbery. Nor is the retired couple who lost all their money due to a dishonest investment manager. And worse, sometimes, bad things just happen; sometimes a heater stops working, sometimes a refrigerator stops cooling, sometimes a dog’s cancer just comes back, and sometimes our bodies don’t always work perfectly. Jesus illustrated that God seeks to help us find a better way not by punishment or senseless tragedy but by love and grace.
God’s grace reveals a better way
Jesus told a parable about a fig tree planted in a garden three years that still wasn’t producing fruit. The owner asked the gardener to rip it out since it was only taking up valuable space. But the gardener asked for a reprieve. “How about I dig around it and fertilize it some more,” he suggested. “Let’s give it once more chance” he said. Three years should have been long enough for a fig tree to be productive. The logical action would be to rip out the unproductive tree and replace it with a tree that would produce. Rather, in Jesus’ parable, the worker does something that doesn’t make sense under the circumstances, the worker decides to give the tree another year and add some fertilizer to its roots. In this parable Jesus reveals the picture of a God of extravagant mercy, a God that operates on second chances.
There are many wonderful non-profits whose mission is to provide a second chance to ex-convicts. One aptly-named organization is the Second Chance Project, a project of Dave’s Killer Bread, a bakery in Oregon that seeks to provide employment opportunities to people with a criminal background. “Everyone is capable of greatness” reads the banner on the project website, which shares stories of people given a second chance through the bakery. One story highlighted is that of Ashley, a young woman who struggled with drugs and addiction. After getting out of rehab, her criminal history made finding work tough, until Dave’s Killer Bread gave her a second chance. She said that “They saw my work ethic, how hard I worked… It really gave me the confidence to start learning something new and start to accomplish my goals slowly but surely. I’m attending college. I went back and got my GED after I started working here and I got it with honors. That was a really great feeling.” Ashley was headed down a road of ruin, but shown grace and given a second chance, Ashley has thrived.
God is all about Second Chances
This is who God is. This is how God operates. Jesus reveals a gracious and loving God, not a God of vengeance and punishment. God comes to us in love and kindness, seeking to offer us a better way. God is a gracious and reaches out in love and compassion, giving second, third, even fourth chances—always holding out hope, always offering us grace, always presenting a better way. As the Psalmist wrote long ago, God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. A God who is good to all, and has compassion on all creation.
God seeks to help us find a better way through love and grace, not by tragedy and suffering. God is not the author of evil, nor does God allow bad things to happen in our lives to teach us a lesson. If anything, God acts in love and grace, trying to shield and protect us from the consequences of our own actions and the actions of others. God doesn’t want anyone to suffer. God reaches out to us in love and grace, ready to give us a second chance, ready to give us a third chance, ready to give us a fourth chance. God comes to us in love and kindness seeking to offer us a better way. May we accept God’s love and grace and follow that better way!
 Howard Berkes, “Your Letters Helped Challenger Shuttle Engineer Shed 30 Years Of Guilt,” NPR.org
<http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/02/25/466555217/your-letters-helped-challenger-shuttle-engineer-shed-30-years-of-guilt> (accessed February 26, 2016).
 Howard Berkes, “30 Years After Explosion, Challenger Engineer Still Blames Himself,” NPR.org <http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/01/28/464744781/30-years-after-disaster-challenger-engineer-still-blames-himself> (accessed February 26, 2016).
 Michael B. Curry, “Homiletical Perspective: Luke 13:1-9,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 2:9
 Ingrid Mathiue, “The Illusion of Control: Moving from fear to facing the dragon,” Psychology Today.com <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/emotional-sobriety/201208/the-illusion-control> (accessed February 25, 2016).
 Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, “Theological Perspective: Luke 13:1-9,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 2:92.
 Leslie J. Hoppe, “Exegetical Perspective: Luke 13:1-9,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 2:95.
 David Lose, “When Bad Things Happen,” WorkingPreacher.org <http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2461> (accessed February 26, 2016).
 Michael B. Curry, “Homiletical Perspective: Luke 13:1-9,” 2:9
 Jane Anne Ferguson, ”Second Chances: Year C, Lent 3,” Sermon-Stories.com <http://sermon-stories.com/blog/> (accessed February 25, 2016).
 Psalm 145:8-9