Sunday, March 24, 2019
Third Sunday of Lent
He was seated on a bench in the back yard of the family home. Neighbors and friends gathered with family to mourn the death of a person they all knew and loved. Some say our response to suffering and death is instinctual; that it is a reflex (“Reflections on the Lectionary”, Eric D. Barreto, Christian Century, February 27, 2019, page 19). “When people suffer, we rush to name a reason for their suffering, to explain away maladies as mere preparations for greater blessings, to minimize pain so as to make way for God’s glory” (Op. cit.).
My hunch is that our response may less about instinct or reflex, but something we have learned and passed on to others down through the generations. Long ago the disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). The disciples assumed that there is a correlation between sin and suffering. Illness, poverty, disease, loneliness and death are the punishment for sins known and unknown.
But Jesus denied the correlation even as we continue to equate prosperity and good health as evidence of God’s favor and poverty and suffering as signs of God’s punishment. We are quick to point to Jesus’ warning to the Galileans and Jerusalemites: “ . . . unless you repent, you will all perish . . . ”
Some will conclude that our reading from The Gospel According to Luke is about a God of judgment and punishment leaving no room for a God of grace and mercy. “Too often, we assume that sickness and its sibling death are but lines demarcating the cursed from the blessed” (Op. cit.).
The Rev. Eric Barreto, a Baptist minister and associate professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary wonders: “Why do we do this? To others? To ourselves? Why do we rush to a mind that explains rather than a heart that cracks open with tears?” (Op. cit.).
We know, Barreto points out, that as we look at the complexities of our world, we will not always be looking upon the suffering of others, but that we will eventually be its victims. We find avoiding the pain and suffering of others ourselves and the pain in our own lives.
In Thornton Wilder’s novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Harper & Row, 1967), a priest attempts to prove that the reason a bridge collapsed with certain persons on it was to be found in “the moral flaws in the lives of those persons” (Op. cit.). They perished because they did not repent.
Some believe that there is a purpose and meaning to death. But the truth is death makes no distinction. Death pursues us all. We may want to look for some deeper meaning, some way of making sense of the chaos and trauma of the 50 Muslims who were murdered in Aotearoa New Zealand during Friday Prayer on March 15, 2019.
There are those who say they were killed in self-defense because “we know they hate us.” They suffered and perished because “”they” did not repent.
Jesus rejects any attempts for us who follow in his way to say that because such efforts will distract us from “the obligation of every person to live in penitence and trust before God without linking one’s loyalty to God to life’s sorrows or joys” (Preaching Through the Christian Year C, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Trinity International Press, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1994, page 153). “Death is coming for us all. But Jesus says one more thing: death is not as powerful as we think. Yes, death is coming for us all, but it will not overcome us – if we repent. God’s grace [and mercy] blunts death’s sharp edge. Repentance acknowledges that God can redeem, God can set right, God can make whole” (Op. cit.).
That is the lesson that comes to us from the parable of the fig tree. God can redeem. God can set right. God can make whole.
A man grows frustrated with a fig tree he has had planted in his vineyard. Three years have gone by and still there is no fruit.
“Cut it down,” he tells the gardener. “There is no point in wasting the soil.” But the gardener intercedes. “Give it one more year” he says with hope believing that the tree may finally bear fruit.
We do not know what happens in the story. Does the tree finally bear fruit? Or is it cut down? But what we do know is this - the gardener saw possibility where others did not. In a way, we are the fig tree. We are given one more chance to a new life if we turn away from attitudes and actions which separate us from God, others and even ourselves. We are given one more chance to a new life if we repent.
The Greek word for repent is metanoia. It means a transformative change of one’s mind or some will say “of one’s heart.” It is a change prompted not by regret or guilt or shame but about a decision to turn around, to face in a new direction – or as the Hawaiians would say to huli in order to he alo ahe alo – to turn back in order to be in a face-to-face relationship with God. We draw upon the Spirit’s presence in our lives to help us shift our instincts and reflexes from judgment and punishment to compassion and empathy.
He was seated on a bench in the back yard of the family home. Neighbors and friends gathered with family to mourn the death of a person they all knew and loved. He later described what had happened to him while he was sitting there.
“Someone came up and sat beside me. He offered his condolences and said: ‘God has a purpose and a plan. Things will get better as time goes by.’
I listened but said nothing. Even if I tried to say something, it was apparent that he might be able to hear me. Thankfully, he finally got up and left.
Moments later, someone else came by and sat down in the same spot. He did not say a word. He just sat there. He looked across the back yard and the house and the people who gathered to be with each other.
He sat there quietly. He did not say a single word. And when it was time to go, he reached over and gently touched my hand and left.
I wished he had stayed by my side a few moments longer.”
Eric Barreto put it this way, what if the Spirit can help us? What if there is no order to the chaos of suffering? What if what matters most is to know the overwhelming power of God’s grace and mercy. What if “when we encounter the chaos of suffering, our first gesture might then be to sit alongside those who are suffering, to join them in the ashes of grief, to eschew pity and opt for accompaniment in the trials of life”? (Op. cit.)