+ + +
The questions posed by Jesus in today’s gospel reading appear to be “ripped from the day’s headlines.” While we don’t have any confirmation from outside the Bible about the particular incident of Pilate mingling the blood of slaughtered Galileans with the blood from their sacrifices, what we do have are numerous references to confirm Pilate’s barbarism. One example, recorded by Josephus, is about a group of Samaritans who were climbing Mt. Gerizim that he had killed. So whether or not it happened, it’s credible.
Jesus seizes on the current events of his day to ask the theological question that is raised whenever bad things happen to innocent people. The first incident is a ruthless act ordered by Pilate on behalf of the Roman government. “Do you think that this happened to the victims,” Jesus asks rhetorically, “because they were worse sinners than others?” The second is a tragic accident, the collapse of a tower over at Siloam that raises the very same question. “Do you think those who died were worse sinners than others?” Jesus asks.
I suspect you’ve heard this question or maybe even asked it yourself before. When something big happens, we want to know why. We want to find a reason. Notice that, if you don’t hear anything else I say today in this sermon, that Jesus is very clear in his response: no, they were not worse sinners. These events were not some punishment from God. Jesus rejects the notion that tragedies like this are connected to moral behavior. Those people did not deserve to die. Period.
It would be comforting in a strange way if the world were that predictable, so that I could remain good and then be safe. On the other side, it’s easy to scapegoat people – when bad things happen it has to be somebody’s fault and conveniently it’s often the people we trust the least whom we are quick to blame. Some, in the name of Jesus, did this after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, deciding that these things must have happened because of God’s judgment on New York City and New Orleans. If bad things only happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people, there is some comfort in that. We can keep ourselves safe by behaving. Going to church keeps us safe from harm. Putting a silver cross around our necks is a kind of “lucky charm.”
But of course that isn’t how the world is. Sometimes people who have never smoked a cigarette their whole lives, get cancer and die. Sometimes people get all the aerobic exercise they are supposed to and eat a low-fat, healthy diet, go out one day for their usual six-mile run and drop dead of a heart attack. Sometimes chaos is unleashed, and things happen for no good reason. Sometimes life is uncertain, and not fair. There are just no guarantees. So Jesus is clear: no…they were not worse sinners.
But this doesn’t mean there aren’t important things to ponder after such tragic events. Precisely because the world is not always tidy and predictable, we can take such moments and reflect on them. Moreover, they can become for us occasions that invite true repentance. They can be wake-up calls for us.
Repentance. In Greek, it’s meta-noia. It’s the same root found in our English word, paranoia. Para-noia is when you are, literally, “out of your mind.” Noia, in other words, is “mind.” Meta- is the prefix we know from metamorphosis; it means “to change.” So metanoia means, literally, “to change your mind.” We do well to remember that this Lent. Repentance isn’t a feeling. It’s not about feeling sad, or remorseful, or guilty and certainly it isn’t about feeling ashamed. In fact, my experience is that shame is a stumbling block that very often keeps us from true repentance and real change.
Most people I know, including myself, don’t like to have to consider changing our minds about much of anything. Most arguments are more about stating our case louder and louder rather than about listening. We try to keep things in order, holding onto the “way we were raised” or the “way we were taught” as if that settles the matter. People were taught for centuries that the world was flat, though. People were taught for a long time that black people were inferior, and that women must never be ordained, and that the first European settlers and the native Americans got along just swell and sang kumbaya over turkey and cranberry sauce.
This story is told from the desert tradition:
Once upon a time a visitor came to the monastery looking for the purpose and meaning of life. The Teacher said to the visitor, “If what you seek is Truth there is one thing you must have above all else.”
“I know,” the visitor said. “To find Truth I must have an overwhelming passion for it.”
“No,” the Teacher said. “In order to find Truth, you must have an unremitting readiness to admit you might be wrong.”
Faith isn’t a security blanket to keep us snug and warm. At the heart of Lent is this notion that true repentance is not about stability, but about being shaken up. It means we have to learn, one way or another, to live with contradiction and ambiguity as we encounter “the other” and then listen to that person who sees the world from another angle than we do. It’s almost always pretty unsettling stuff. But it’s an election year so we have lots of opportunities to practice! It is easier to just shout louder than it is to listen, and easier still to make our world smaller and smaller until it is filled only with people who tell us what we already know to be true. The problem with that way of being in the world, however, is that we stop learning and we stop growing. And when that happens, repentance becomes nothing more than a psychological exercise, a kind of spiritual narcissism.
The Christian journey is about growth in Christ, and there is never growth without change. So Jesus invites us to true repentance in these forty days. And he seems to be suggesting in today’s gospel reading that the uncertainties of life can become an opportunity for spiritual growth. It isn’t always about big national tragedies. Sometimes it can happen when a person who is very dear to us dies. Or when we encounter failure, or lose a job. Or when a priest leaves a parish and there is some amount of uncertainty about what will come next. Anything that helps us to see that we, too, are mortal; that we, too, will one day return to the dust, can become an occasion for us to ask: how might these lead us to rely more and more on God’s mercy, one day at a time?
And that, I think, is the main thing in today’s gospel reading. The parable of the fig-tree that doesn’t produce figs is a “right-brain” way of making this same point. A fig tree that doesn’t produce figs isn’t doing what it’s meant to do. (Is it even still a fig tree?) The owner of the vineyard says to the gardener that he may as well cut it down; it’s just wasting soil. The gardener, however, buys the tree another year by digging around it and fertilizing it in the hopes that it will still bear fruit. The tree gets a second chance—another year to see if it might do what it is meant to do.
Jesus invites us to see our lives in the same way and to bear fruit worthy of repentance. What if when tragedy strikes, we ponder the implications long enough to ask the question, “what if that was me?” How would I be remembered if I died today? And is that how I want to be remembered? What if in the very asking of such a question we discover the seeds of change within us and become willing to dig around the ground of our lives, and to fertilize our souls?
Such moments offer us an opportunity for real change—for new possibilities—to see the world through new eyes, and therefore for authentic spiritual growth. What happens when we hear God giving us a second chance, another year “to bear the fruit that is worthy of repentance?” Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. How might your mind be changed, and then your life, if you were told you had twelve months to live? What needs to be dug up in your life? What needs to be fertilized, so that you can bear fruit worthy of repentance?
Sometimes people think that this must mean that they should “live every day as if it were their last.” But think how intense that would be, and really almost crazy – like the film Groundhog Day on steroids. Rather, I think what we need, is to make room each day in our lives for putting first things first: for God and for each other and for making the neighborhood a little bit better of a place to live in. What we need is to learn to pay attention to the normal stuff of life: dinner together and a fire on a winter night and a kid’s soccer game. What we need is to “open our eyes to see God’s hand at work in the world about us.” What we need is to discover (and re-discover) that each day is a gift and then fully live that present moment.
What needs to happen for you to tap into the creativity God has given you, the gifts God has given you to use in service to others, that make you more fully alive? If your present life bears no resemblance to the way you answer that question and you begin to make some real changes—even incremental ones—then this will indeed by a truly holy Lent that leads to the joy of Easter morning.