O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; *
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water. (Psalm 63)
Once again we come together in the wake of horrible tragedy. Last Friday, when I was in Texas visiting family, an white man from Grafton, Australia afire with the hatred of white supremacy went into two houses of prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand and massacred 50 and injured 40 worshippers as they humbled themselves before God. These people had come from all over the world to stand, bow, and prostrate themselves shoulder to shoulder with sisters and brothers of different races, nationalities, native tongues, ages, ideologies, and life experiences.
It was here as they let the poetic rhythms of Qur’anic Arabic drown out the noise of the world, with arms and shoulders brushing against each other, moving in unison, touching their heads to the floor in ultimate humility and surrender to God that they were gunned down by a man who saw them as “invaders.” He was inspired by other white nationalist terrorists such as the man who slaughtered nine men and women who welcomed him in to a Bible Study at the Emanuel A.M.E Church in Charlestown, South Carolina and by another racist who murdered 77 people in Norway hoping that his violence would start a retaliation between white Europeans and immigrants.
So today when we hear the stories that “some who were present” tell Jesus, we realize that great suffering continues to fracture our world. As Luke describes the scene, some people come to Jesus describing news of horror and tragedy. Pontius Pilate has slaughtered a group of Galilean Jews as they worship, throwing their bodies alongside the animals that they had offered in sacrifice to God. Meanwhile, the tower of Siloam has collapsed, killing eighteen people. The reporters accompany these brutal accounts with a question that is as old as the human race: why? Why do these terrible things happen? Why is there so much pain in the world? Why does a good God allow human suffering?
This is a question that has endured. As a people we want answers to these bewildering questions. For two thousand years Christians have asked this question and for two thousand years we have failed to find answers that satisfy us. We still want to know why bad things happen. Everything in us longs to make sense of the senseless.
Luke’s Gospel makes clear, the people who ask Jesus this question “why?’ come with an answer they have already concluded in their mind. They show up hoping that Jesus will confirm what they already believe. They come expecting Jesus to verify their deeply held assumption that people suffer through some fault of their own. That people really get what they deserve. That bad things happen because people sin.
It may be hard for us sitting in the 21stcentury to look at such beliefs and feel anything but horror and superiority. But how different, really, are they from the beliefs we maybe unconsciously believe about human suffering? When tragedy strikes, what default setting do we revert to? “God has a plan.” “God won’t give you more pain than you can handle.” As Kate Bowler says from her own experience being diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer, people often quickly try to find an explanation that provides them cover from such a disaster. “At least you have good medical insurance.” Or “I know that you will beat this cancer.”
The problem with every one of these questions and search for certainty is that they hold us at a distance from those who suffer. They often mask our greatest hope that we can control what life brings. That because we care, we can fix and cure whatever tragedy or hardship has fallen on another and in doing so can hopefully learn how to prevent it from happening to us. But this keeps us from facing the truth of our own mortality, which is our common lot, our common brokenness, our common humanity.
Instead Jesus challenges his listeners’ assumption and tells them that blame is not the answer. That the people who died in these tragedies were no better or worse than those who were spared. Jesus reminds them that all have made errors and all lose sight of God’s best hopes for our lives. He says the connection between sin and suffering is not God’s intent. God does not send suffering as punishment for sin. God does not send suffering to teach us something. God does not send suffering to make us stronger or more resilient or more faithful. Suffering is a part of being alive. Dying is as much a part of life as is being born.
Now sin itself can cause us to suffer. There is no question that Pilate’s murderous deeds and the faulty structure caused the deaths of the people in our story. There is also no question that our atmosphere of hatred, fear, and demonization has seeded the ground for increasing acts of hatred and violence towards vulnerable people. God did not cause the deaths of the people in the mosques, a man with a powerful gun did. Sin has consequences
Jesus then turns from this discussion of suffering as punishment to something that he believes is much more important. Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. He knows that he soon will die. So he tells those present that they must repent and live. He tells them to repent before it is too late–to repent and choose a way of life that is life giving for themselves and for the world.
As long as we have breath, we have the opportunity to repent—metanoia—–to change our heart and our mind, to turn towards what is life giving—to turn once again toward God, to turn once again toward neighbor, to search for what in our lives are serving as obstacles to love and to do what we can to remove these obstacles. Irma Zaleski in her book The Way of Repentancesays “Repentance or a turning around of the heart does not mean being filled and tormented by guilt. Instead it means being willing to change our life: to turn towards God and neighbor in prayer and in love. Repentance means, above all, a constant, patient, growing in love. It means our willingness to open ourselves to the work of the Spirit in us and to embrace fully the gift of our salvation.”
In New Zealand, we see acts of repentance from the leadership and from the people. We see people coming together to pray and lament the loss of precious lives. We see people coming together in solidarity to stand against hatred and violence. And we see concrete acts of policy that seeks to remove guns that are only intended to kill on a massive scale from the common market . Repentance can have consequences as well.
As Church we are called to speak out against the evils of white supremacy and white nationalism. As Church we are called to speak out against anything that denies the dignity and potential of every creature of God. We cannot merely lament—though lamentation is certainly called for. We cannot simply pray—though prayer is essential. We must repent, we must examine all the ways that our failure to respond to hatred has allowed hatred to re-form and advance in our times. Without this faithfulness, we are complicit despite our distance from these actions.
I was overjoyed to see the large turnout at the Islamic Center of Western Massachusetts in Springfield last Sunday night. It was an opportunity for the community to stand alongside our Muslim brothers and sisters in pain. As Church we must take every opportunity to learn about, to support, and to stand alongside those who struggle in this time to find a place of dignity and hope. As Church we must stand against all forms of hatred, and bigotry, and violence. This is our repentance.
And then Jesus offers the parable of the fig tree. As humans we cling from our childhoods to an idea of “fairness.” Despite our rejection of automatic reward for good behavior, we often hope it will happen. Just as we hope that our mistakes or poor choices are not always greeted with punishment. This parable has a word to say about “fairness.”
In this parable, the fig tree has been given plenty of time to provide fruit. So the landowner wants it replaced with something that will give him figs right now. This seems only fair that an unproductive tree not take up good ground. But the gardener offers another possibility. “Sir, let me dig around it and put manure on it. Give it another year and let’s see what it can do.” Maybe this is a parable of how God works—patience, faithful tending, and hopeful expectation.
Rather than blaming or offering certainty as to why suffering exists, the parable offers a word of hope; God has not given up on us. God is still tending the garden. God is still at work in and through you and me and all God’s people to help us choose life, to choose love, to choose peace, to stand with rather than at a distance from people’s suffering, to stand against anyone or anything that causes harm to God’s creation so that hope can endure even in a world that has yet to give up on sin. In this, hope can be found.
In this time of Lent we are invited to remember that God observes the misery of God’s people. Life can come at you fast. But God is with us when Life is beautiful. And God is with us when Life is hard. We are reminded every time we come to the table of thanksgiving that we can turn to God who sees us, who cares for us, who tends us, who stays beside us through all that life brings and sends angels to comfort us. We are asked to daily remember and turn toward this love, and to turn away from anything that separates us from the love of God and the love of neighbor. God does not send suffering. But God hears us and knows our suffering. And God is faithful.