Hardships, Reasons, and Fig Trees

Pastor Ingrid’s sermon from 02.28.16.

Listen along here.

The gospel according to Luke, the thirteenth chapter:

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 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? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

+++

Some of you may have seen the new line of greeting cards designed by a woman by the name of Emily McDowell.[i] McDowell’s series of empathy cards were born out of her experience as a cancer survivor. McDowell says that “the most difficult part of [her] illness wasn’t losing [her] hair, or being erroneously called ‘sir’ by the Starbucks baristas, or the sickness from chemo. It was the loneliness and isolation [she] felt when many of [her] close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say, or said the absolute wrong thing without realizing it.” In hopes of empowering the public to make fewer mistakes, McDowell now sells cards that read:

“There’s no good card for this. I’m sorry.”

“I promise never to refer to your illness as a journey. Unless someone takes you on a cruise.”

And her overall bestseller: “Please let me be the first to [correct] the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason.”

Unfortunately, McDowell’s cards came about 2,000 years too late for the crowds gathered around Jesus in the thirteenth chapter of Luke.

To understand what’s happening in this strange gospel text, it’s helpful to think of the events that the gospel writer references as front page headlines—you know, as events that would have been familiar to ancient audiences. The headlines would have read: “Galilean Pilgrims Massacred on Their Way to Holy Site” and “Police Currently Investigating Tower of Siloam’s Collapse that Killed 18.” If those events still seem too far out of reach, it’s not difficult to modernize them: “More Than 2,000 Fleeing Syrians Have Drowned in Mediterranean” and “35W Bridge Collapses Killing 13 and Injuring 145 Others.” In the words of Rabbi Harold Kushner, this crowd is wondering why on earth “bad things happen to good people.”

They begin with silent questions: Why, O God, were the pilgrims killed on their way to the holy site? Why, O God, did that tower fall on the innocent?

Deep down, I have to assume that the crowd knew that these questions didn’t have answers. But that didn’t stop them from trying. And it doesn’t stop us, either. When the going gets tough, we, like our ancient ancestors, tend to fall into an if-then theology: If you’re good, then you’ll be blessed. If you’re bad, then curses will be befall you. Despite the fact that we push against this theology week after week, it still has a sneaky way of framing the way we see the world. It leads us to believe there must be reasons why bad stuff that happens to good people. It offers clean reasons why there appears to be an inequitable distribution of blessings and curses.

Kate Bowler, a religion professor at Duke, says the impulse to assign reasons to unreasonable realities is strong. A few months ago, thirty-five-year-old Bowler was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Last week, in a gorgeous piece in the New York Times,[ii] she described an interaction with a well-meaning neighbor, who upon hearing the news came to the door and tried to comfort Bowler and her family, saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” Bowler writes, “She wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of [being] #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.”

Ironically, Bowler has spent her academic career studying the prosperity gospel, which is just a fancier name for this if-then theology that is in the air we breathe. She says she “spent ten years interviewing televangelists with spiritual formulas for how to earn God’s miracle money. She held hands with people in wheelchairs being prayed for by celebrities known for their miracle touch. She sat in people’s living rooms and heard about how they never would have dreamed of owning this home without the encouragement they heard on Sundays.” Bowler says that “if there was a river running through the sanctuary, an eagle flying freely in the auditorium, or an enormous, spinning statue of a golden globe,” she was there. She claims that she once saw a megachurch pastor choke on his own fog machine.

In the wake of her diagnosis, however, Bowler writes that it became clearer that “[this prosperity gospel] has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all…it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addition to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our own deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder.”

By assigning reasons to unreasonable realities, if-then theology allows you and me and Presidential candidates to minimize the tragedies in other people’s lives. We don’t need eagles flying freely in our sanctuary to distance ourselves from the hurts of another. It is how we attempt to save our own hearts. But the gospel of Jesus Christ—or what Bowler so beautifully calls “the contemplations of a dying man”—invites us to live with hearts broken open for the sake of the world.

It’s hard work—this living in a world where some fig trees blossom and some never produce one piece of fruit, hard as they may try. But Jesus assures us we needn’t made it harder by interpreting good fortune as evidence of God’s special blessing, and tragedy as divine punishment. Luke is clear: sin doesn’t make hardships come. They just come. My friend Anna says that “faith doesn’t insulate [us] from troubles when life tanks.” But when hardships come or when tragedy strikes, the little fig tree left standing at the end of today’s reading reminds us that God will not leave us to our own devices. Together with the community, God will keep tending. God will keep speaking these words, which—though often interpreted as threatening—I believe to be words of compassion: “Let’s give it another year.”

Jesus references repentance in the gospel, which is why this tough passage is assigned to the season of Lent. I don’t think he’s talking about greed or licentiousness or too much chocolate or too much screen time. Important though these may be, we can leave them for another day. Here, repentance is less about bad behavior and regret and more about a new perspective and life. Here, repentance is something that God gives in the midst of hardship and fruitlessness and fear about the future. Here, repentance is a way of life that honestly acknowledges the way things are, and yet holds tightly to the way they are meant to be. Here, repentance is God’s gift of courage—audacity, really—to turn back to a world that is fragile, to a life that refuses to be controlled, and, with hearts broken open, say in the words of poet Ellen Bass, “I will take you. I will love you, again.”[iii]

AMEN.


 

[i] Here’s her website: http://emilymcdowell.com/collections/empathy-cards

[ii] Read the whole piece here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html

[iii] From Bass’ book Mules of Love.

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