Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

There’s a simple song we sing on Sunday mornings when the Gospel reading is introduced:

We are turning, Lord, to hear you; you are merciful and kind –

slow to anger, rich in blessing, and with love to us inclined.

In his Christmas Eve sermon, Pastor Chris Nelson wondered about the randomness of life. Why is it that some people suffer? How is it that God is involved in our world? It’s the age-old question, “If God is in control, and God is a benevolent God, why do bad things happen to good people?” We want to believe in a moral universe where logical consequences are the rule of the land, where evil people are punished and righteous people are rewarded. When bad things happen to someone else, especially far away, it’s tempting to say, well, they must have done something to deserve it.

It’s the very dilemma posed in today’s reading from Luke. Some people come to Jesus and say, Did you hear what Pilate did?! He mixed the blood of Galilean Jews with the blood of their sacrifices! Pilate, the ruthless Roman governor who oversaw Galilee, desecrated his people’s sacred practices and killed them.

Jesus took their cue and asked, Do you think these people suffered because their sins were worse than anyone else’s? No, I tell, he said, but turn back to God and live, or you will experience the same thing.

And what about the 18 people who were killed when a tower collapsed on them? Jesus continues. Do you think it was because God was angry at them? No, I tell you, but turn back to God and live, or you will experience the same thing.

Turn back to God.

We are turning, Lord, to hear you; you are merciful and kind –

slow to anger, rich in blessing, and with love to us inclined.

Metanoia. It’s the word that gets translated repentance. We might think that to repent is to make a commitment not to do bad things anymore. But in the Bible, repentance is a change of orientation. It means to turn back. It’s a journey back to God. Showing mercy to others is a journey back to God because God is merciful with us.

Father Greg Boyle is a Jesuit priest who serves Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles. Father Greg grew on the west side of L.A., but for the past three decades, he has lived and worked on the east side in a parish nestled between two large public housing projects. Los Angeles is the gang capital of the world, and this Latino neighborhood is the gang capital of L.A.

In 1992, Father Greg founded what became Homeboy Industries – a jobs program and gang rehabilitation center for people who have just been released from prison. Homeboy started out as a bakery, and now it includes multiple businesses. Gang members come there to learn job skills, and then they get propelled to do the next thing. It’s a place of second chances. They seek to be a community of unconditional love. And it’s even a place where gang members, or homies as they’re called, have a chance to work alongside their enemies.

Over the years, Father Greg has worked with thousands of gang members. He celebrates mass at 25 juvenile detention centers and prisons. He has baptized more than a thousand gang members, and at the time he wrote his book Tattoos on the Heart, he had buried 168 people who had lost their lives through gang violence.

He has collected a plethora of real life stories that serve as parables in his preaching and public speaking – stories that point to God and God’s ongoing activity in our lives. He wrote them down in a book, partly in order to put a human face on the gang member, but also to recognize the universal story that we all share of broken lives and daunting struggles. And here’s the thing, the challenge we have in reading or hearing these stories is to change the lurking suspicion we have that some lives matter less than others lives, that some people somehow deserve to suffer more.

In a chapter called, “Water, Oil, Flame,” he talks about baptism. When gang members get locked up, he says, they sometimes get around to doing things their parents didn’t arrange for them, like baptism. For a homie, “the moment of baptism can be an awakening, like the clearing of a new path.” He or she makes a declaration that life will look different from now on.

On a Saturday in 1996, Father Greg was scheduled to baptize a young man named George at a juvenile detention hall called Camp Munz. George had been thinking about being baptized for a while, but he was also earning his GED, and he wanted to celebrate both milestones on the same day.

George was 17 years old, and he had a 19-year-old brother named Cisco. Father Greg knew both of them; both were gang members. In the previous nine months, however, he had especially watched George evolve from a hardened posturing man to a thoughtful, measured person who was aware of his gifts and talents in ways that hadn’t been possible when he lived with the pressure and unreasonable demands of his gang life.

The night before George’s baptism, it so happened his brother Cisco was walking home when gunshots rang out. Rivals opened fire, and Cisco was hit, and he died immediately. Father Greg was called to the scene. He couldn’t sleep that night, and he thought about cancelling worship at Camp Munz the next day so he could be with Cisco’s family, but then he remembered that George was planning to be baptized.

When he arrived at Camp Munz, George was waiting for him. George held up his newly acquired GED certificate and waved it as he bounded toward Father Greg and beamed with pride. Father Greg tried to muster enthusiasm to match that of George.

At the beginning of mass, in a dining hall filled with people, Father Greg asked, “What is your name?” “George Martinez,” was the response. “And what do you ask of God’s church?” “Baptism,” George replied. Father Greg outlined the tenets of faith and the commitment to live as if this is true. “Do you clearly understand what you are doing?” he asked, and George took a deep breath and said, “Yes, I do.”

Father Greg poured water over George’s head – in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – it was the most difficult baptism he had ever experienced because he knew what would come next.

Afterward, Father Greg and George went outside and walked toward the ballpark. Father Greg put his arm around George and whispered, “George, your brother Cisco was killed last night.” The air left George’s body, and his sigh became a sob. They landed on a bench, and George buried his face in his hands. He sobbed quietly as his body rocked gently back and forth. The conversation was all too familiar to Father Greg; he had been there many times before, but there was something noticeably different this time. Where there had always been flailing and rage and promises to avenge, that was missing in George’s response. It was as if the commitment George had just made in his baptism had taken hold, and “his grief was pure and true and it resembled the heartbreak of God.”

Why do bad things especially happen to some people? We can hear the echoes Jesus’ conversation with the crowd. Do you think this person suffers because God is angry with him or because his sin is any worse than others? No, I tell you, Jesus says. But turn to God and live.

Father Greg writes, “In the monastic tradition, the highest form of sanctity is to live in hell and not lose hope. George clings to his hope and his faith and his GED certificate and chooses to march, resilient, into his future….Sometimes resilience arrives in the moment you discover your own unshakeable goodness….And when that happens, we begin to foster a tenderness for our own human predicament. A spacious and undefended heart finds room for everything you are and (then) carves space for everybody else.”

We are turning, Lord, to hear you; you are merciful and kind –

slow to anger, rich in blessing, and with love to us inclined.

Jesus tells a parable about a man who had a fig tree in his garden. For three years, he came looking for fruit, and he found none. He said to the gardener, “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” But the gardener said, “Oh, why not give it one more year. Let me dig around it and fertilize it. Maybe it will produce fruit next year. Let’s give it another chance.”

Jesus’ words harken back to John the Baptist. John also talked about bearing the fruit of repentance and taking the ax to trees that don’t produce. The crowds were moved by John and asked, “What should we do?” and John replied, “If you have two coats, share with someone who has none, and do the same with food. When you collect money for your work, do so with justice. Don’t obtain riches by bullying or swindling.” In other words, turn from self-centered living to serving others and living in God’s shalom.

So many people suffer today. It’s not because they deserve it or because God loves them any less than anyone else. When we turn back to God, we turn to the needs of our neighbor, as well.

Jesus calls us to follow him. He came to us with the Gospel of mercy and forgiveness and love. And he calls us to obedience, as well, to follow him, to discover that in dying to self we find new life, a life that extends God’s mercy to others. That changes us from self-centered orientation, that dies to self, and lives to serve.

In the face of all that is difficult and unfair and real in the world, Jesus says, turn back to God.

In the face of all that is painful and senseless and too much to bear in our own lives, Jesus says, you are my precious child. I will never leave you. Follow me. Be merciful to others.

In spite of all the ways that we fall short, we have an advocate.…there is a gardener who says, “Let’s give this one another chance.” Let’s pour all the mercy and love and grace on this one. That love, my friend, is God’s love for you.

May we be warmed and drawn to love and serve our neighbor in return. Amen.