Lent 3 … Luke 13:1-9 … 2/28/2016, Pastor Phil Fenton
That’s a tough one, isn’t it? How do you get your brain around it? Where do you begin? Well, let’s begin where it does, with the question about God’s involvement in human suffering.
On any given day of any week you can find tragedy happening somewhere. Tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, plane crashes, epidemics, violence, all wreaking havoc and altering lives. And, left unreported, are the less visible and somehow less dramatic tragedies – like the 30,000 children who died this past Wednesday of hunger, and roughly the same number who died Thursday and Friday and yesterday and will die today somewhere on Planet Earth. In every one of these deaths, families grieved. And at some level, every one of those grieving people asked, “Why?”, looked for a cause and effect pattern, tried to make sense of it all.
You and I can tell our own stories of tragedies that have happened to good and faithful people. Maybe they happened to you. We want to make sense of things that make no sense. Why? What had any of those folks done to deserve what came upon them.
People reported to Jesus that Pilate had killed some folks who were at worship, and then had mixed their blood with the blood of their animal sacrifices. Jesus instantly knew that their concern wasn’t merely to keep him informed. So he essentially says, “Look, I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking that those Galileans were worse sinners than most Galileans and God was punishing them. And you probably think too that when that building collapsed in Jerusalem and killed 18 people, those 18 were also being punished for their sin.
And he was right. That’s exactly what they were thinking. In that day, there was no question about fairness. The assumption was that disease, suffering, and death bore a direct correlation with human sinfulness: the greater the sin, the more likely was the misfortune to come. Conversely, health, wealth, property and children were signs of personal goodness and God’s favor.
Now, I’d like to say that we think better, believe better, but I’m not so sure. I see instead plenty of evidence that when calamity strikes, we wonder what we did wrong, that God is giving us what we have deserved.
A family in my congregation lost their young son in a freak accident. I went to their home and was met at the door by the distraught father. I wasn’t ready for what he said. I’ve never forgotten it. He said, “Thanks for coming, Pastor. You know, I haven’t been reading my Bible much these days, and you know better than anyone that I haven’t been in church much either.”
Do you hear what’s going on? He felt guilty. Somehow he felt responsible; God was punishing him. Someone had to be at fault. It must be him. Calamity strikes and we wonder what we did wrong. We hunt for some cause to explain the effect.
In truth, this primitive, superstitious stuff lies just below the surface for many of us. Trouble comes. “Pastor, don’t you believe that everything happens for a reason?” Well, no I don’t. Senseless things happen all the time. No, I don’t, not if by that statement you believe that God has made the bad thing happen in order to teach someone a lesson. No, I don’t believe that God decides, “OK, today I’m going to bring some hard stuff down on ______. I need to get his attention.” It’s kinda like blaming God for something we would put a human being in prison for.
Now, I do believe that God will bring something good out of every bad. We are people of resurrection. We believe in life coming from death, new beginnings coming from every dead end. But, no, not everything happens for a reason. Stuff just happens. Death happens, Jesus says. It can happen when you’re at worship. It can happen when you’re standing next to a wall.
During the years when Rev. William Sloan Coffin was senior minister of Riverside Church in New York City, his son Alex was killed in a tragic car accident. Alex was driving in a terrible storm; he lost control of his car and careened into the waters of Boston Harbor. The following Sunday, Dr. Coffin preached about his son’s death. He thanked all the people for their messages of condolence, for food brought to their home, for an arm around his shoulder when no words would do. But he also raged; he raged about well-meaning folks who had hinted that Alex’s death was somehow God’s doing, God’s will.
“Do you think it was God’s will that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper…that he was probably driving too fast in such a storm? Do you think it was God’s will that there are no street lights along that stretch of the road and no guard rail separating the road and Boston Harbor? The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
I think what Jesus is saying is, “Don’t look for a cause and effect explanation. Use this occasion instead to look at how you are living your life. Were those who died worse sinners? Don’t speculate about others. What about your life? What about mine? Death is always close and not necessarily controllable or explicable. Let these senseless deaths awaken you, so you can put your life in order.”
Pastor Mike Slaughter says that he feels it is his responsibility to remind his congregation regularly that they will die – sooner, later – but it is inevitable: no one gets out of this life alive. Let that awareness turn you toward what really matters. Don’t be afraid of it. Don’t try to be in control of it by finding cause and effect.
[It’s not a bad thing to feel the full fragility of our lives, not if it turns us toward those things that lead to the life God intends for us. That torn place your fear opens up inside you is a holy place. Enter it. Look around while you are there. Pay attention to what you feel. It may hurt, but it’s not the kind of hurt that leads to death. It is the kind that leads to life.] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Life-Giving Fear,” Christian Century, March 4, 1998, 229.
We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Romans 5:3-5
God didn’t cause the suffering, but God will use the torn places and times to flood our hearts with his great love for us and convict us of that life that makes every other way of living seem empty.
And then Jesus punctuates his words with a parable about a man and a fig tree. The tree isn’t producing and the man is ready to cut it down. Then, enters the gardener who pleads with the man to give the tree another chance under his careful attention. Can you see here God’s justice in conversation with God’s mercy? Maybe the fig tree is the whole earth. Maybe it’s the Church. Maybe it’s your life and my life. Jesus, the gardener, isn’t giving up on any of us – you, me, the Church, the world. [There’s hope here. So don’t wait. Let the hard things in this life turn you to look at your life and dare to ask the hard questions: Am I stingy in my love for others? Am I withholding forgiveness for old wrongs? Am I so busy making a living that I’ve forgotten to make a life? These are the kind of questions that lead to repentance.] Barbara K. Lundblad, “Could This Be the Year for Figs?” Day 1, 3/18/01.
Let me tell you about the bravest thing I have ever witnessed. Several years ago, in the community where I served, two very popular high school students were killed in a car crash. That community was rocked to its foundation. There was considerable anger at God: “Why?” “How could God let this happen to such promising young lives?” Others came to God’s defense: “You’re not supposed to question God.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “It’s God’s will. One day we’ll know why this happened.”
But the mother of the girl who had been the driver did something that put an end to speculation and brought light and hope and life out of her daughter’s senseless death. At her daughter’s funeral she delivered a message especially aimed at her daughter’s friends. Let me read you her words.
“I didn’t think I would be able to do this – but I feel I have to. My husband and friends tried to talk me out of it. They told me just to come and let you minister to me. Let you tell what a good person, what great friend Delaney was. And you have done that – and I thank you. And it’s true. It’s all true.
But there is another truth about why we are here. We all know it. So let’s go ahead and talk about it now – together. We must. If it is not talked about here, if it is not named in its awful reality, then we will have come together in vain. We will not have learned from Delaney’s terrible decision.
You see, my daughter, my precious daughter, the light of my life, got a legal age friend to buy beer for her and Jill. They went to a park where Delaney drank 2 of the beers and then drove to a party where she drank more. She then decided to go to another party – and she got in her car and went down the road … and killed herself and Jill.
There it is. That’s the real answer to WHY? Isn’t it? It’s not God’s fault. My daughter is dead, her best friend is dead because my daughter decided to do a wrong thing.
Remember all the wonderful things that Delaney was and all the wonderful things that she did. But remember too her wrong. Remember it and never forget it. Honor her memory by learning from her mistake. Please, please, decide today and every day of the rest of your life – to not repeat it.”
Elie Wiesel wrote :
When God created (humankind), God gave (us) a secret – and that secret was not how to begin but how to begin again….it is not given to (us) to begin; that privilege is God’s alone. But it is given to(us) to begin again – and (we) do so every time (we) chooses to defy death and side with the living.” (Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God Random House, New York:, 1976 p. 32)
We can begin again. That’s today’s good news.