Two posts in two days! This is shocking!
What this actually is a sermon from two weeks ago that I neglected to post. So here, Internet! Late sermon!
March 3, 2013
Lent 3, Year C
Luke 13: 1-9
I saw a cartoon this week: in the night sky shines the bat signal at one corner, and a cross at the other. On the roof below stands the police chief with Batman, and a bemused looking priest. Below the panel, it reads:
“Alright, guys, the Joker has escaped from jail again. Batman, you know what you’re supposed to do. Fr. Conroy, you’re here because I want you to explain to me how a loving God lets this happen to me!”
It’s good for a laugh, but frequently, religious leaders of all persuasions are called upon, whether by flashing the “Pastor Symbol” in the sky, or just a simple phone call, to answer this question.
Some tragedy hits, big or small. A earthquake strikes, or you stub your toe. A massacre claims the lives of almost thirty people or a terminal diagnosis claims the life of one. And the question rises again: Why?
So it’s comforting, in a way, to see even Jesus hit with this eternal question. The crowd comes to him and wants him to weigh in on the events of the day– the hot-button issues that everyone’s talking about.
Pilate– yup, that Pilate, who will become even more important in a few weeks– has just made the gossip rounds again by ordering that some Jewish rebels be crucified, and that their blood be mixed with the sacrifices in the Temple.
Nowadays, we tend to get stuck on the part where he’s executing the rebels, but for a community as devout as Jesus’, this would have been a huge insult to the whole country. To mix human blood with the blood of animals renders the whole operation unclean, REALLY unclean, unworthy of God, and to add in the fact that an occupying, pagan power is making you do it just rubs salt in the wound. Pilate might as well have spit in the face of the whole Temple establishment, and every Faithful Jewish person in the country.
Which is why the crowd wants the nice young rabbi’s opinion of how God could let such a terrible thing happen. Because the thought that such a terrible act of violation and violence could happen to them, to their country, and to their fellow countrymen just hit way too close to home.
So, to get around this scary closeness, this massive sense of violation, the crowd follows some reasoning that is still popular today: those people must have done something to deserve it.
They must have been asking for it, somehow! And so God was punishing them! That must have been it. God hasn’t abandoned us to the power of Rome, and there’s absolutely no way that something so horrible could happen to anyone that I know or like– because those people must have deserved it.
Jesus cuts this line of thought off right at the knees. “Do you think that those Galileans were worse sinners than anyone else? No, but if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did.”
At first, This doesn’t sound particularly comforting. Ok, those who died at the hands of Pilate, and in the tower collapse weren’t any worse than the rest of the world…but on the other hand, the rest of the world is doomed too?
But Jesus follows it up with this story of the fig tree and the gardener. The fig tree is similarly in trouble. It isn’t producing figs like it should, it’s just sitting there, and the owner of the garden is losing patience, wants to cut it down. But the gardener intercedes– Give it one more year. I’ll tend to the tree more closely, fertilize it, help the roots a bit. Chances are, that’s what it needs to start producing. Don’t cut it down just yet. Give it another chance.
There’s no ending to this parable, and I’m inclined to think that is on purpose. We don’t know the owner’s response, or what happens with the fig tree in the end.
Because the point Jesus is going for is that very ambiguity, and he turns it back to us. Sin and brokeness are constants in our world, Jesus argues. They have always been here. They plague us. Our human propensity to abuse each other, to hurt one another, to inflict pain and suffering on the people around us and on God’s creation, isn’t isolated to one unfortunate group or another. It’s not something we can separate ourselves from. And that is what causes so much hurt for us all.
So the question is: what are we going to do about it?
See, We are the gardeners. We are in charge of this unproductive and suffering fig tree, in this scenario. We are stewards of a world that is haunted by sin at every turn, that can be hurt or healed by the actions we take. So much suffering in this world, and rather than just blame it on a wrathful or a punishing God, or letting us separate ourselves from it by saying “they deserved it”, Jesus turns to us, makes us face it head on, and asks how we plan to help.
Because the truth is, everyone suffers at some point, even while everyone’s suffering is unique. And what Jesus calls us to do is to remember that part of our job is to help alleviate this common human suffering while we are here.
Not turn our backs on it or become numb to it.
And even though we can’t fix everything, we can change something. And so we are called to try. To do our little bit– put down the fertilizer, dig around the roots a bit, and give this tree one more shot.
Towers fall. Hurricanes destroy. Madmen kill. We witness these things every day. But Christ calls us to not become numb or cynical, or closed off, but to acknowledge, and wade right into the darkness of the world, bringing the light of Christ, bearing witness to the pain and confusion of the world and try to help.
Because. In the end, it is that witness, that presence of the divine in the midst of brokenness that means more than any explanation.