Sunday, February 24, 2013

That's Not An Answer

Luke 13:1-9, 31-35

             Why do bad things happen to good people? Conversely, why do good things happen to people who seem evil? Why should a murderer have joy? Why should a gracious person experience deep grief? This is the question Jesus is confronted with in today’s reading. People want to know why God allowed the faithful Galileans to be killed.

            Jesus responds by asking if the people who were killed in the accidental falling of a tower were worse sinners and deserved to die. The questions that are being raised go all the way back to Job and beyond. We want to know why there is suffering in the world. We want to know why it comes to us and to those we love and to those we deem innocent.

            So, Jesus, ever helpful, answers these deep, heartfelt questions with a parable (everyone’s favorite). He speaks of a fig tree that is not producing fruit and the desire of the owner of the garden to cut it down, presumably to make space for a tree that will produce. The gardener gets the life of the tree extended by promising to rededicate effort to its growth for one more year.

            It is tempting to make a metaphor or an allegory out of this parable. To say that we are the tree(s), God is the owner, and Jesus is the gardener- bargaining for more time for us to produce fruit. However, that scenario pits the Father and the Son against each other, instead of seeing them work together out of love for all creation.

            Jesus does not say why bad things happen; he skips right over that question. We want the world to make sense- for bad things to happen to “bad” people or for bad things to happen as a direct correlation to bad actions. It is not so. God is in the center of all events, but not the immediate cause of all that happens. God is present in all pain and suffering, but not at the root of these things. Human freedom and freedom in the created order can, unfortunately, lead to pain and sadness. (What is freedom in the created order? It means that some things happen like the growth of cancer cells or natural disasters or freak accidents.)

            Knowing that God is present in all things, but not the cause of all situations, Jesus does not answer the questions that we ask, but instead gives us the direction and information that we need to know and to remember. Through the parable of the fig tree, Jesus reminds us that pain will happen to everyone. Everyone will experience loss. Everyone will make a bad decision and experience consequences, sometimes negative and sometimes not. Everyone will (most likely) die. And everyone will experience God’s judgment.

            Jesus is reminding his hearers- then and now- that there are things we do something about and things we cannot. For the fig tree, and for us, fruitlessness is not inevitable. Through the Holy Spirit, God is constantly shaping us… using the events that happen to us and around us to bring forth good things for our neighbors, our communities, our families, and… even for ourselves.

            God is with us as we weather life’s experiences, but then helps us to grow into the producers that we have the potential to be. When we reflect on God’s grace, then, we have to ask ourselves if and how we are producing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These things grow in us, by God’s help, and we are called to use them to mend the wounds in the world that are caused by bad choices, by poor use of freedom, by accidents, by the forces that oppose God and God’s good work.

            Instead of clearing up the mysteries of the ages, Jesus tells us that we are the answer to someone’s question. We are the answer to someone’s pain, to someone else’s inability to make ends meet, someone’s call for help, to the needs for justice, peace, and healing. Jesus reminds his disciples, his hearers, and those who would deride him that we can still produce this fruit without having all our questions answered.

            This is what it means to live in faith and to live together faithfully. Our life of faith is living together and living in the world until the time when we have all the answers, but the questions no longer matter. We are not brought together, we are not given faith, we are not believing for the answers. We are together, granted faith, and believing with the questions.

            Which does mean that we may become exasperated, on occasion with Jesus, with God, with the Spirit. We may yell. We may rend our clothing. But the difference between living in faith with doubt and not believing is revealed at the end of today’s reading. We can be with Herod, with the religious officials, with the people who demand answers or refuse reason, with those who reject Jesus. Or we can stand with Jesus, with the One who Saves, and say that we do not know all that we will know, but we know enough now, we trust enough now… to continue forward. We can say that we have received enough grace to sustain us into the next step. We can share with one another enough confidence that God is continuing to shape us, feed us, and nurture us into the producers of the fruits of the Spirit that the world so desperately needs.

            Jesus reminds us that, on this side of heaven, pain and death are going to happen. Judgment, God’s decisions toward us, is also inevitable. However, these things- separation, loss, and death- do not mean division from God. And they most assuredly do not mean inevitable unfruitfulness. The good news of God in Jesus the Christ is that God continues to use us for good, whether we know it or not. The world is changed through each of us, for Christ’s own sake. And we are gifted with the opportunities to be participants in God’s grace and creativity. We become co-workers and co-creators through the power of the Spirit.

            The Lenten season reminds us that the time to join with Jesus is now. We do so, invited by the grace we have already known. The promise of God in Christ to continue working in us so that we might bear fruit is the deepest measure of God’s grace. And while that grace does not answer all our questions, it helps us to live with our questions. The consolation of today’s reading is that we can live with questions and still live in faith.  

Sunday, February 17, 2013

No Next Time

Luke 10:25-37

            The parable of the Good Samaritan is a summer story. I do not mean that it happens in the summer, though it might, but that we usually get it in the summer. Well, into the Pentecost season, we hear this familiar parable. However, now we are hearing it where it comes in the gospel- at the start of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. He and the disciples have just left a Samaritan village, where they were not well-received, and they are now on the journey that will end where? (At the cross)

            Why are they traveling to Jerusalem? Is it so that they can be near the temple for Passover? Is it so that Jesus can confront the religious authorities and bring about revolution as the Messiah? The journey begin far off, but with each encounter and each parable- Jesus and the men and women traveling with him get closer to Jerusalem and the events of betrayal and crucifixion.

            Here’s a question, though, for the start of their journey. Is what happens in Jerusalem inevitable? Does Jesus have to be crucified? Does the purpose of his time in the flesh on earth culminate in the events of one dark Friday? If we believe that people have free will, given to us by God, then Jesus does not have to end up crucified. People could choose to recognize the Messiah, they could heed to urging of the Holy Spirit, they could be open to God’s work in the world. But in anger and fear, in rigidity to their expectations, in a desire to control God, many people will stand and say, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

            Were there enough people to resist that? Maybe, but where were they? Many people who are in that Jerusalem courtyard believe they are good people. They believe they are people doing the right thing. Yet, when we look at it (and perhaps when others on the periphery looked at the crowd), we think they are very wrong. How could they think they were right to crucify Jesus?

            Where did they go wrong? Is it possible that the events in that courtyard start on the road to Jericho? Does denying Jesus in a story where well-intentioned people pass by a man dying in a ditch after having been robbed and beaten? The people who pass by have good reasons, you know. In the story, there are two people who pass by. Ostensibly, the priest and the Levite have very particular reasons for not stopping. If they touch blood or a dead body, they will be ritually unclean for a certain amount of time and, therefore, unable to perform their religious duties. It could have been a trap, set by the robbers, to gain additional victims from those who stop to render aid. The men may have been in a great hurry and trusted that any one of many others on a busy road would stop to help.

            Jesus offers these two examples because those listening to his story would have understood the religious reasons, but also known that carrying for others is supposed to trump religious minutiae. Then Jesus drops his bombshell for big effect, a Samaritan- one who is outside the laws of Moses and, thus, presumably outside the affections of God- is the one who does the right thing. A Samaritan is the one who genuinely has good reason not to stop and help a Jew, but who abandons all else, offers aid, and promises to return. (Speaking of, can you think of someone else unexpected who abandons their position, offers gracious aid, and promises to return?)

            One can always find a reason not to help. It’s just this time- when I’m so busy, when I’m not sure what to say, when things are tight, when I don’t want people to know how I feel about this, when I’m afraid… There are always good reasons for not acting this time (or ever), but are they good enough?

            The trouble with thinking that your reasons are good or that you’ve done enough is that the world keeps moving, the powers that oppose God keep working, and eventually… not stopping for someone, not speaking up, not heeding the Spirit’s urging… leads to standing in a courtyard with a crowd who are yelling, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” We wonder, “How did we get here?” and we tell ourselves it happened because Jesus came to die.

            But if he didn’t. If his death is the result of people’s actions, when did it start? It started when people wanted to pinpoint who deserves care, who deserves neighbor love… and who can be left in the ditch. It starts when people want to point out who “deserves help” and who made their own bed. It starts when there is a line drawn between people for any reason- for race, color, creed, habit, affection, or location.

            The Levite and the priest probably told themselves that they would stop next time. Next time. There’s always a next time. That’s one of the problems that Lent brings before us. Putting off caring for your neighbor, speaking up against injustice, making God a priority brings us right to the foot of the cross. In Lent, there is no next time. There is now.

            Now is the time. Now is when you stop. Now is when you call. Now is when you write. Now is when you reach out, stand up, speak to, lift high… There are no good reasons not to do so.

            The Lenten reminder that there is no next time is rooted in what we know is coming- not the death, but the resurrection. This is the season in which we reflect on what it means to be people whose decisions are not final. We like to think that the world hinges on what we do. Yet, all of history is in God’s own hands. “Crucify him” was not the last word, resurrection is. There is no next time because we are not waiting to receive God’s grace. It has already been poured out for us and on us. If we have already received, why should we wait to give?

            Recognizing Jesus as the one who saves the world does not wait for Easter. It doesn’t wait until we have more time, a better physique, or more money. It doesn’t wait until we are confronted with a clean-cut, sanitary, comfortable moral decision. Recognizing Jesus as the one who saves and is alive in us and in our neighbor… happens right now… with people all around us… all kinds of bodies, all kinds of needs, all kinds of grace.

            The road of the decision to crucify starts when people give small reasons for ignoring the needs of people in front of them and promise, “Next time.” God never says, “Next time” to us. Thus, it’s not a response that we should give to God.