3 Lent, Year C
March 11, 2006
Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler
Readings: Isaiah 55:1-9, Ps. 63:1-8, 1 Cor.10:1-13
Gospel: Luke 13:1-9
The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell
How often do we read in the news about a kid caught in the crossfire of a drug deal on the south side, a really nice kid, an A-student, who shouldn’t have died, but did? Our news accounts flood us with examples of decent people, both old and young, caught up in tragedy. Ordinary people killed on their way to work, school, worship. The bus accident last week that took the lives of baseball players at a small college…who among them deserved to die? So many other examples in the headlines, or in our own lives.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he’s teaching. Some people in the crowd tell him about several Galileans who were brutally killed by Pontius Pilate’s solders while they were presenting their sacrifices. Jesus responds by asking the crowd if they think these Galileans were worse than any others, any more deserving of such a fate? Jesus goes on to tell them about 18 people who died when the Tower of Siloam in the Jerusalem wall fell on them. Jesus then says that neither the Galileans killed by Pilate nor those struck by the Tower were any more sinful than anyone else.
So much of life seems unfair, or at best random…and that’s hard.
If we’re doing our best to be faithful and good, if we’re minding our own business….shouldn’t there be some guarantees?
Where’s the good news here?
Today’s gospel contains good news for us, as the gospel always does, though sometimes we have to dig a bit to find it. A former pastor of mine used to say: “The good news is the bad news is the good news.” The good news sometimes masquerades as, or is found in the midst of, the bad news. This pastor should know: he lost two sons to cystic fibrosis. He was no stranger to life’s difficulties.
The good news here is… a loving God is present to us, even though there’s much of life we can’t control. It’s a subtle, complex message. And it may not sound like good news, for those of us who like to be in control, or when we desperately need to feel some control…but control is actually a very mixed bag. Once we start feeling we have to be in control, it’s hard to stop. We end up controlling things – and people -- we’ve got no business messing with. Sometimes we even try to control God. And we can’t.
God asks us to do our best with life, in all its unpredictability. God asks us to turn to and trust God, who will love and be present to us in all things. Today’s gospel and epistle ask us to get right with God – and stay right -- even though much of life is out of our control.
Can God control everything that happens? That’s debatable. Theologians differ on that point. But we know for sure we can’t control everything. That’s beyond cavil. We’re noticeably out of control on this island planet, as we spin through a vast desert of space.
Sometimes we invent a sense of control when we have none. It helps us cope. We seek to put God, and life, into neat little packages.
If something bad happens to someone, they must have sinned. God is punishing them.
If someone lives a charmed life, they must be good. God loves them.
That was the prevailing worldview in Jesus’ time.
But life is not that neat and clean.
Bad things happen to good people.
Good things happen to bad people.
Would any of us say to a person dying of cancer: “What did you do to deserve this?” Who among us would say to a rape survivor: “I bet it really was your fault.” No. All of us in this room are too sensitive and aware for that.
Still our human minds often struggle to understand the “Why’s” of life. And we can spin on that hamster wheel a long time. A mentor once told me: “We don’t have good answers to the why questions.”
We do, however, have some very good answers to the how questions. How can I live well knowing the reality of suffering. How can I help others with the empathy and experience I’ve acquired through my own struggle. How can I try to be right with God in a world where so many things go wrong? How can I take responsibility for my actions, and work on the parts of life I can control?
Our gospel today calls us to do our level best with the non-level playing field that is life. To accept that we’re not always in control, yet we still need to take responsibility for our actions.1To know that rain falls on the just and the unjust, and try to be the just, anyway. Because…God expects it of us. Because….ultimately there’s more joy in it. And because…as Jesus says, there’s a both/and here: the love of God and the wrath of God. God the gardener, lovingly tends us fig trees, and gives us many chances to be fruitful. Yet God is also capable of cutting us down if we continue to be unproductive and unhealthy. Or perhaps it’s we who, by our own actions, wither away if we keep wasting the nutrients we need, keep turning away from what truly nurtures us. As one author says “Seen in theological terms, judgment is God’s grace. This grace says that life is too precious to be squandered by living apart from Christ. The parable says that there are limits to this wastefulness, and it is for our sake that there is a deadline, since rarely do any of us change without the impinging of consequence.”2
Jesus is saying that the Galileans murdered by Pilate and those crushed by the Tower of Siloam were no worse than anyone else in Galilee or Jerusalem. But he also says that unless his listeners shape up, they might meet the same fate. He’s trying to instill holy fear in them. Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “[For Jesus] it is not a bad thing for them to count their breaths in the dark – not if it makes them turn toward the light…it is that turning he wants for them, which is why he tweaks their fear. Don’t worry about Pilate and the other things that can come crashing down on your heads, he tells them. Terrible things happen, and you are not always to blame. But don’t let that stop you from doing what you are doing. That torn place your fear has opened up inside of you is a holy place. Look around while you are there. Pay attention to what you feel…
“Depending on what you want from God, this may not sound like good news. But for those of us who have discovered that we cannot make life safe nor God tame, it is gospel enough. What we can do is turn our faces to the light. That way, whatever befalls us, we will fall the right way.”3
Being a good person of faith is not a talisman against misfortune. It’s no guarantee. Life is life. God is God. There’s much we can’t control. But there is a promise we can lean on: God is with us in everything. In all the vagaries, unfairness, and beauty of life, a loving gardener attends us, cajoling, nurturing, and stretching us into bearing the fruits of the spirit. We’re asked to trust God, turn our faces to the light, and “grow and flourish like a fig tree in bloom, doing [God’s] will.”4 That’s what our gospel gives us. That’s the good news. That’s what we have. Amen.
11 For assistance in recognizing the both/and – there’s much we can’t control yet we’re still responsible for our actions -- as those ideas relate to this gospel – I’m grateful to my colleague M.E. Eccles.
2 Synthesis, Sedgwick Publishing Company, March 11 2007 issue.
3 Barbara Brown Taylor, as quoted in Synthesis, March 11, 2007 issue.
4 Synthesis, March 11, 2007 issue.