One More Year Luke 13:1-9 March 7, 2010
Haiti. Chile. New Orleans. The Tsunami. Katrina. Rita. Mitch.
The Pentagon. The World Trade Center. Somerset County Pennsylvania.
Nickel Mines. Ireland. Virginia Tech. Columbine. Iraq. Afghanistan.
Sometimes the world just doesn’t make sense. Too often, we’re left scratching our heads, unable to link the effect to the cause; unable to explain why we suffer like we do.
Sometimes it’s a natural disaster that takes us before our time, things like earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes.
Other times we inflict the suffering upon ourselves through war, segregation, and bigotry.
But no matter the cause, the effect is the same—grief-stricken people with empty hands, scratching our heads in disbelief.
Why the earthquake? Why the war? Why isn’t there enough to eat?
The world just isn’t fair. If it were, the good people would always get what they deserve, and the bad people would always get what they deserve.
If the world were fair, bad things would never happen to good people.
Life isn’t fair.
But in Jesus’ day, as in our own, people tried to live as if it were. Questioning why this or that tragedy happened—trying to hold someone—anyone—accountable; it’s a way of trying to make the world a fair place even though we know it’s not.
In Jesus’ day, the assumption was that disease, suffering, and death were somehow connected to sinfulness. So the people lived as if they could avoid certain types of suffering by avoiding certain types of sin.
And at least to some degree, we still think this way.
For example, my mother developed breast cancer when I was in high school.
It wasn’t fair.
It wasn’t fair for her, and it wasn’t fair for our family. She hadn’t done anything—you see? She didn’t smoke, she didn’t drink, and she tried to watch what she ate. She tried to exercise…But she still got cancer.
And even now, 15 years later when I think about that experience, even now I wonder; “why?”
Even now I wonder what caused the cancer to grow in her body, and at least on some levels my lifestyle has changed. In some ways I still believe in some kind of cause and effect relationship between lifestyle and cancer. So I don’t use tobacco, I try to eat healthy, and I try to exercise at least now and then.
But I’m well aware, as all of us should be, that there are no guarantees.
When something bad happens to us or to someone we love, it’s common to scrutinize our life. It’s common to look for some way to control and therefore change whatever is going wrong.
We long to understand and control misfortune.
We like to protect ourselves from suffering and pain.
And I think that’s what was in the mind of this crowd that told Jesus about the Galileans that Pilate had killed while they were praying. They also wondered about the people who were killed when the tower of Siloam collapsed.
If this story had happened today, they might have been asking Jesus about the Tsunami, or the Earthquakes, or violence in the schools or the hurricanes or the floods or a hundred other things we could name off the top of our heads.
They were seeking answers—kind of like I’m still doing with my mom’s cancer.
They were seeking ways to make sense of it all… ways to avoid a repeat in their own experience. What is it that you are seeking answers for?
Jesus knows what they are thinking, and he seems less than pastoral in his response:
He says Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.
Jesus does not engage the question of why these things happened.
It’s a non-conversation as far as Jesus is concerned.
Rather, he emphasizes that death is always close at hand; for everyone.
It’s nothing we can control or explain.
Death happens, he says. It can happen when you’re praying. It can happen when you’re standing near a tower. It can catch you by surprise.
Jesus is less compassionate and not as comforting as we expect him to be.
His intention is not to comfort the crowd; rather it’s to touch them.
Jesus reaches in and touches the panic they have inside of them about all the awful things that are happening around them.
He seizes this opportunity to connect with the people right where they are, confused, frightened, and searching for answers.
See, the crowd has started searching their hearts for anything that could bring disaster their way. They’ve started the important work of taking stock of their lives; trying to link cause and effect to the tragedies they’ve witnessed. Maybe they have lain awake at night, making mental lists of the foods to avoid that are linked to cancer, thinking of the people they need to forgive, of what they need to do to be right with God so that just maybe He will protect them from death or disease or suffering.
Taking stock is important work. But Jesus does not honor the illusion that we can protect ourselves from calamity.
He does not honor the idea that there is a cause behind the tragedy.
But He does honor the vulnerability that our fright opens within us.
It is not a bad thing for us to feel the full fragility of our lives.
It is not a bad thing for us to lie awake some dark nights and take stock of what we’re doing.
It’s not a bad thing to desire the light because of the darkness.
Jesus doesn’t tell the people that everything is going to be OK.
He doesn’t tell them that if they live good, righteous lives, that they’ll be able to continue their safe, comfortable lives free from pain or suffering.
What Jesus does is tell the crowd not to worry about Pilate or all the other things that can come crashing down on our heads. Terrible things happen, and you are not always to blame for them. But don’t let that stop you from doing what you are doing. Don’t let that stop you from repenting, from turning towards God. Don’t let your fear stop you from holding on to God and letting go of everything that distracts you from God.
That wound that your fear has opened up inside of you—that’s a holy place!
Look around while you are there. Pay attention to what you feel.
It may hurt you to stay there, but it is not the kind of pain that leads to death.
It is the kind that leads to life.
To make that point, Jesus tells a parable. He tells the story of a fig tree that is not producing fruit. The landowner has grown impatient with it. He proposes cutting the tree down so that the soil can be used for other things.
But the gardener presses for one more year. He persuades the landowner to give him one more year to work with the tree, and then if it still does not produce fruit, then he agrees to cut it down.
The gardener asks and receives just one more year to work with this tree.
So what’s that year look like?
What’s the gardener doing in that year that will make any difference to the tree?
Jesus is the gardener.
And like a good gardener, he’s going to do everything he can to help this tree live and bear fruit…He’s going to find ways to cultivate hearts that are as hard as packed down soil.
So while we’re speculating about why certain people died at Pilate’s hands or why the others were killed by the falling tower…while we’re wondering how to avoid cancer or earthquakes or all manner of pain and suffering–Jesus the gardener is patiently and yet urgently working on our hearts.
“Give me one more year”, he says. “I know this tree can do what it was meant to do.”
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?
Jesus digs at us with questions like these; cultivating the root systems of our lives, pruning back the overgrown parts of us—where we’re overextended and off balance.
It’s painful but necessary work that needs done. Is this our year?
Often all we can think about when we hear of tragedy is what happened, and why, and how things can be so unfair.
Such questions are common, but ultimately they distract us from the question of the cross.
The main question to give your life to is not “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
The Lenten question–the cruciform question–is “How do we bear fruit before God?”
We have come to believe that any difficulty, any struggle, is wrong and unjust.
We want to believe that no one needs to suffer. Will Willimon says, this is “because a long time ago we stopped trusting in a God whose presence makes tragedy and suffering bearable.”
Our hang-up is that we don’t want God, we want answers. What’s more, we want easy answers. But the Church is not built upon easy answers.
Rather, it is built upon a recognition that in the presence of the God who is revealed in Christ, we are enabled and empowered to live without all the answers.