Today’s gospel lesson starts with some hard news, then shares practical wisdom, and finally a larger than average dose of hope.
Folks are gathered around Jesus – there was just something about Jesus that made people want to get close to him; folks are gathered around Jesus and some of those who are present tell Jesus about some Galileans – Jewish people from Galilee - whose blood had been “mingled (by Pilate) with their sacrifice.” In other words, Pilate had killed these Galileans as they were making their sacrifices at the Jewish Temple, fulfilling the practices of their faith.
(deep sigh) It’s hard to hear about people getting needlessly killed. These Jewish Galileans in Jesus’ time, or the Ukrainians and Russians being killed in this current war, or the Syrians and other people being killed in the ten-year civil war that has been raging in that country, or how about when we hear of all the children dying of hunger and malnutrition in too many places around the world.
But the people gathered around Jesus aren’t just sharing this news so that they can collectively mourn (although it is good to find ways and times to mourn in community for the tragedies of this world!). The people gathered around Jesus are telling him about the Galileans, the Jewish worshipers being murdered by Pilate because they want to ask Jesus why. It’s the age-old question. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why.
Those gathered around Jesus suggest that maybe it was because those who were killed were worse sinners, is that why they were murdered? In other words, did God allow them to be killed because they deserved it? This is the kind of false logic we heard from various corners of US society, I’m sad to say, after the Twin Towers were knocked down in the terrorist attack of 9-11. Some were saying – sadly even some who called themselves Christians were saying – that this terrorist attack had happened because the United States had become morally corrupt with our acceptance of LGBTQ persons in the fullness of their personhood.
Nonsense, says Jesus. The answer to whether or not bad things happen to good people because they are worse sinners, says Jesus, is “no.” And then Jesus goes on to give an example of how eighteen people had died when a tower collapsed on them. Was this because they were greater sinners? No! It’s because bad things randomly happen to good people. Truth be told, bad things randomly happen to people acting badly as well, but most of us don’t spend as much time thinking or caring about that.
Thank you Jesus for this practical wisdom. Bad things happen to good people because bad things happen. We wish they didn’t. We long for a world where towers weren’t being knocked down in terrorist attacks and where LGBTQ people or any other people are turned into scape goats in an effort to create false reasons for bad things happening. We long for a world where the children and parents and loved ones of Ukrainians and Russians and Syrians weren’t dying for senseless purposes and where, in efforts to prove ourselves to be entirely in the “right” we dehumanize other people so as to make them seem entirely in the wrong.
The truth is that we live in a beautiful and amazing world that has been cracked and stained by sin. We are beautiful and amazing people who have also been cracked and stained by sin. And our hope rests in the Gardener who says “let’s turn the soil and give this fig tree one more year.” In the face of the real fears and concerns and worries of the people gathered around him, Jesus gives them practical wisdom, and more than an average dose of hope with a story that he tells. A parable.
And in this story of the gardener that Jesus tells, the landowner is ready to cut down the fig tree that is not giving any fruit. Yet the gardener says, “give it one more year.” This is an image of God’s graciousness with us as humans and with the whole world, no corners and nobody left out (even the people we might try to leave out). Looking right at us with all of our imperfections and sin and wars and hate, God says, “let’s turn the soil and give them one more year.” Is there an urgency for those of us in the garden of this world to work on changing ourselves and the world for the better? Yes, of course! This is an urgent call from God to get to work. Yet it is also a deep reminder that we work on ourselves and this world not out of fear or guilt or shame, but because we have heard again the story of the Gardener’s love and grace and mercy that are certainly not what we always deserve, but what is nevertheless freely given.
And as students of history will tell us, time and time again, humans have risen from the ashes of our wars and brokenness to build times of peace and prosperity. And even as wars rage, we can find instances of people building towards peace. I’ve told some of you the story of the American Field Service, or AFS, who during the second world war provided medical and humanitarian aid to whoever they found on the battlefield. It did not matter if you were English or German or Russian, French or American. To the American Field Service, you were human. And that made you worthy.
So, do, does our God look on us with love and compassion and say, “You’re human. You are a part of my created world. That not only makes you worthy of my love, that makes you worthy of my redeeming work through Christ.” And that’s the real story we should be focusing on. Not why bad things happen to good people, but how God time and time again brings a resurrection story to our lives and to this world. Does it happen when and how we want it to? Of course not. And I find that totally annoying, truth be told. We’re human, we’re allowed to have our feelings.
Still, we gather as community around Jesus just as those people did thousands of years ago. We gather around Jesus – again with the body, the bread we will receive in a few minutes and in the Word that fills all the nooks and crannies of this communal body of Christ gathered on Zoom and in person. Sometimes we gather with joy. Sometimes with great sadness to mourn. Most times, most days, probably in most of our lives there is real mix of the joyful and the sad, the good and the bad going on, isn’t there? And Jesus meets us in all of our nooks and crannies to remind us that we are held in the love and hope of God as people and world. Jesus meets us with an invitation like the writer of Isaiah, “come, everyone who thirsts.” I will give you delicious food without you paying for it. I will welcome you with open arms into the story of restoration and resurrection.
The Gardener says, “let’s give them one more year.”