February 28, 2016

Lent 3 Year C

When people came to tell Jesus the horrible news that Pilate had slaughtered some Galilean Jews while in Jerusalem, Jesus knew the question on their minds. Is it because those Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans that this happened to them? Did they do something to deserve such an awful death?  But Jesus says, no.

Or when the tower of Siloam fell and eighteen people were killed, crushed because they stood in the wrong place at the wrong time, is it because they were sinners? Jesus says, no.

Is God keeping track like a heavenly Santa Claus, who’s been naughty or nice and whether to respond with punishments or rewards? Does God allow tyrants to kill people or tsunamis to drown people because they’ve done something to deserve it? No. We live in a beautiful yet broken world. And we are fearfully and wonderfully made, but are also deeply broken.

Another time some people ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither.” says Jesus, and he cures the man of his blindness. Jesus denies a correlation between the man’s problem and someone’s sin. Rather, it is an opportunity for Jesus to demonstrate God’s love.

Sometimes we do suffer as a direct result of something we have done, some bad decision, some action we’ve neglected to take and we suffer the consequences. Mistreat your body, and you will get hurt. Mistreat a friend, and you may damage your relationship. The negative consequences of our actions can be clear. But sometimes we’re confused when we’ve done right, tried hard, and still, we suffer.

As followers of Jesus, we really shouldn’t be so surprised when this happens. The idea that only good things happen to good people should have been put to rest when Jesus was nailed to the cross. Christian faith is no magic protection against tragedy. The cross is our central symbol – the cross, where an innocent man died the death of a criminal. Nonetheless, we have long wondered why bad things happen to people, even good people.

In his book, The City of God, St. Augustine considered the great suffering that occurred when the barbarians sacked Rome, and he noted that when the barbarians raped and pillaged, Christians suffered just as much as non-Christians. Faith in Christ did not make them immune to pain and tragedy. Augustine wrote, “Christians differ from Pagans, not in the ills which befall them, but in what they do with the ills that befall them.” The Christian faith does not give us a way around tragedy. Faith gives us a way through tragedy. So, no we can’t look at tragedy and assume that someone did something to deserve it.

Jesus is not saying that questions are bad or that ‘why’ isn’t a vital human question. Jesus is saying, don’t be distracted by the wrong question. God made us in love and gave us the freedom to choose how to respond. In freedom, humans have written symphonies and started wars. God made a dynamic world in which natural things change, but we also live in a broken world with broken human beings where tragedy also befalls us.

A good question to ask, according to Jesus, isn’t: what did they do to deserve that suffering? The much more important question is: how are you attending to the gift of life God has given you? Jesus says don’t be distracted by looking at what happened to someone else. Don’t spend your time wondering what must someone have done to deserve what they are going through. Instead, look at yourself.

Jesus refuses to get caught up in the question of whether or not someone else deserves to suffer, and instead asks another question: What in your life needs some attention? After all, isn’t that what this season of Lent is all about, taking some time to evaluate and examine our lives to see where we need God’s help to make some adjustments in how we are living? What needs to change for us to more fully live into the life God desires for us?

We need to ask ourselves, how is our relationship with God? Do we love our neighbors as ourselves? Are we relieving the suffering of others and helping them find the abundant life Jesus has offered to all?

The scandal at the heart of our faith is that God already loves us; that God doesn’t need a ledger or tally sheet because we don’t do anything to deserve God’s love. We have no favor to earn, because God already sees us as God’s beloved ones. All we have to do is respond to the amazing mystery of our acceptance. We can’t lose God’s favor and make bad things happen to us because we don’t earn God’s favor in the first place.

Life is short. Don’t be distracted by the wrong questions. And don’t be disappointed if Jesus asks you to love God more than you love answers. Because Jesus will do that. When people asked him questions he often responded not with an answer, but with a story. Like he did in the next part of the Gospel lesson.

A man planted a fig tree but it didn’t produce any figs. “Why should I let this do-nothing fig tree use up good soil?” asked the man. “Cut it down.” But the gardener replies, “Let it be for one more year. I will do everything I can for it. If it bears fruit, great! If not, cut it down.”

This is a story about a fig tree and an extravagant gardener who should remind us of another divine gardener from way back in the beginning, who just couldn’t help it when he picked up some dirt and just had to form it into a human and breathe life into it. God just had to make someone to love, someone who would be free to choose to love in return. Maybe we can hear this gardener at work in our own lives, saying, “Wait. Give me another year. I’ll do all that I can to nurture this tree.”

Amen.