Third Sunday in Lent
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from our God who is with us at all times. Amen
Jesus is teaching,
he’s surrounded by people
who value what he says,
he helps them make sense of the world around them
so it’s only natural for them
to run puzzling situations by Jesus
to see what he thinks,
in this case it’s about these Galileans
who Pilate had murdered and then desecrated
by mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices.
And the people around him
tell Jesus this story
because they have a question:
Why did that horrible thing happen to those people?
And Jesus responds
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”
he asks because he knows that is at the back of their minds,
it’s how our brains work,
we try to find meaning
so if something bad happened to these people
then they must have done something to deserve it.
But then Jesus answers his own question:
“No, I tell you but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Now this seems like kind of a harsh response
to a question about suffering
but Jesus goes on to give another example,
he tells those present
about some people who were killed
when a tower collapsed and asks
“do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
and again he answers his own question
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
What does Jesus mean with this response?
And we’re all curious right?
Because we have observed the suffering of others and asked:
why did it happen to them?
And right behind that question, why didn’t it happen to me?
Or why did it happen to me and not them?
These questions have been raised to the surface of our own lives
in the past weeks
as flood waters have risen
and we’ve watched some people lose everything
while others stayed dry.
And we’ve wondered,
It’s an age old question
and frankly one without a good answer
and that drives us nuts
Desmond Tutu in his book God Has A Dream
makes the observation
“We humans can tolerate suffering but we cannot tolerate meaninglessness.” pg 75
We cannot tolerate meaninglessness,
so when faced with situations of suffering
we try to make sense of it,
the meaning we put on it is wrong,
at least according to God.
We heard this in Isaiah:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts your thoughts.”
There is often a disconnect
between our thinking and God’s thinking,
so when Jesus tells the questioning crowd
“No, I tell you, repent”
he is telling them, us,
to align our thinking with God’s thinking,
in a way,
that’s Jesus’ whole mission,
to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between people and God.
In telling us to repent
Jesus is not saying we should feel bad about our thinking,
that’s often the feeling we associate with that word,
but in the gospel of Luke,
a call to repent
is a call to turn away from the assumptions and norms of the world
to live lives directed toward God,
living God’s way as taught to us by Jesus.
Jesus knows that this teaching is a bit of a stretch for his listeners
so he tells them a parable to illustrate his point,
a man with a vineyard plants a fig tree,
and when he comes to the tree and finds no fruit on it
he tells his gardener to cut it down,
it’d been three years,
clearly the tree was useless.
But the gardener intercedes for the tree,
asks for a year reprieve,
time for the gardener to nurture it,
dig around it, put manure on it
and if the tree produces fruit next year, great,
if not then the owner can cut it down.
There is a gap of misunderstanding
between the owner and the gardener about the fig tree,
from the owner’s perspective
a fig tree is supposed to produce figs
and after three years without figs
he determines that the tree is a waste of soil.
What the gardener understands that the owner doesn’t
is that it often takes fruit trees three or four years to grow
before they produce fruit,
and so he offers to nurture the tree for one more year,
to get it to the point where it would be reasonable to expect fruit from it
We are often the owner to God’s gardener,
we know what is supposed to happen, or think we do anyway,
and when it doesn’t happen when we expect
we get impatient
we render judgement
and cut down perfectly good trees in our search to make meaning.
We do this with ourselves as well as others,
we expect things of ourselves
and when we don’t live up to those expectations
we cut ourselves down
before we’re done growing,
before we’re ready to produce fruit
when God knows that all we need is some more time,
and perhaps a little manure.
And this brings us right back to the discussion of suffering
because the manure in our lives,
what seems like stinky waste
is actually often what we need to grow into our full selves.
Again, Archbishop Tutu observes: “In our universe suffering is often how we grow, especially how we grow emotionally, spiritually, and morally. That is, when we let the suffering ennoble us and not embitter us.” pg 72
His point is that when faced with suffering
we have a choice in how we respond,
we can tie ourselves in knots
trying to figure out why it happened
and whether we blame ourselves or others
we end up feeling resentful,
like we got a raw deal.
Or, we can turn toward God,
face the suffering head on,
and work to lessen the suffering,
finding the humanity in ourselves
and those around us,
growing in the love of God as we do so.
I think it’s safe to say that most of Nebraska
has made the second choice
in responding to the suffering around us.
People have already come together
to lessen the suffering of others
and we will continue to do so
as what needs to be done to recover becomes clearer,
it will be a long road
but we will walk it together
and we will grow together.
Why is there suffering?
We don’t really know,
and that’s unsatisfying.
But what we do know
is that we have a God who has also experienced suffering,
who chose to work through it
to lessen the suffering of others,
who promises to be with us in the midst of suffering,
that we may even grow because of it
and that it will not have the last say,
the cross of Friday after all
was only a stop along the way
to the empty tomb on Sunday. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.