|Mourners light candles after a car bombing in Baghdad.|
Scripture can be found here...
News of another catastrophe greeted me as my alarm went off on Wednesday… the explosion of a restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri. You can watch footage of it online… a busy city street at evening rush hour, suddenly illuminated by a flash of fire, an explosion. When the smoke had cleared and the rubble was smoldering, a man was dead and sixteen others were injured.
And once again, somewhere, for a particular group of people, a chasm opened up, between life as it had been—life, as it never would be again—and life as it was now.
Each of us has our own memories of moments like this. The terrible conversation that turned the world on its head. The sudden awareness that we could no longer ignore that symptom that told us all was not well. The officer at the door, the urgent call—“Turn on the TV.” And… a chasm opens before us, one between us and the rest of the world, one between us and our own lives as we knew them.
These are the moments that inevitably leave us asking: Why? Why did this happen to me? Why now, when they were so happy? I know it may sound absurd, but fans of “Downton Abbey” have been asking this very question over the past several weeks, as first one, and then another beloved young character died unexpectedly and tragically. Despite the fact that we all know these are fictional characters, and we all know those actors live to perform another day, good stories get inside us. They tell us the truth about life. And so even on behalf of flickering images on a screen, we ask: why?
And it is inevitable that this question should come to Jesus, especially now, as he makes his way towards Jerusalem. We (the readers) know, and by the end of this passage it becomes clear that Jesus knows: something dreadful awaits him at the end of this hard journey.
And if you read the passage right before this, chapter 12, you can feel, intuitively, the pull and strain of this season in Jesus’ journey. In his teaching of the inner and outer circles of his followers, the disciples and the crowds, his words have turned apocalyptic. He, who faces the end of his own time, speaks of end times. His words mingle tenderness and bitter reproach, words of assurance of God’s care for us side by side with his bitter lashing out at the Pharisees, the religious elites.
And then, at the beginning of our passage in chapter 13, someone asks a question straight out of the first century Palestinian version of the headlines. “What about those people who died, those people from Galilee? They were offering their sacrifices at the Temple, only to have their own blood mixed in with the blood of the goats and lambs and pigeons?” This is foreshadowing, of course. It’s the gospel’s second mention of Pontius Pilate, but it’s our first chilling taste of that Roman governor’s cruelty. And this is a question that could have come right from our own headlines… I am haunted by a news story I read some years ago, a story about a tornado in Alabama demolishing a United Methodist church in the middle of Palm Sunday Services. Twenty people were killed, including the four-year-old daughter of the pastor.
Why? Why do these things happen? These people were all in the midst of worshiping God, and they were not spared. Is there some explanation as to why it happened to them, and not to us? Did they, in some way, deserve it?
Jesus’ response is swift. No, he says. You think these people suffered because they were worse sinners than anyone else? No. Not true. And the same goes for those eighteen who died when the Siloam tower fell on them. Do you think they were worse sinners, worse offenders than anyone else? No. That is not what I am saying to you.
And thank God for this. In a few terse words, Jesus puts to rest the notion that God punishes us for our sinfulness in this life, that God sends tornadoes to rip apart our churches, or airplanes to destroy our centers of commerce, or floods to wreak havoc on our cities and coastlines because of sin, because we are not worthy. No, Jesus says. That is not what I am saying to you. We can look to science or to negligence or even to the evil that lies in human hearts for explanations of these catastrophes. But we cannot blame them on God.
And yet… and yet, Jesus says, let me tell you about this fig tree.
So first, a fig tree refresher course. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people:
For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing… ~Deut. 8:7-9
And in countless places in scripture the presence of grapevine and fig tree is the sign of God’s care and peace, and its absence is the sign of loss and scarcity.
Fig trees are part of God’s plan for abundance. They are a sign of God’s plenty… figs are sweet, and luscious, and their presence in a story told by Jesus is significant.
There was this fig tree, Jesus tells all who are listening. And it was not producing figs. And the owner’s instinct was to uproot the thing, and be done with it. Why waste the soil?
But the gardener asked for one more season, to take particular care of the tree… to dig around it and put manure on it, to let God’s own cycles of waste and renewal go to work on that tree.
And it that doesn’t work, fine. We’ll cut it down.
Parables are funny things. We make them literal, we make them allegories, at our own risk. In virtually the same breath as he is urging us not to read God’s will into those disasters, Jesus is saying, nevertheless, consider the fig tree.
Consider the fig tree, part of God’s plan of abundance. Consider what happens when it is not producing fruit, as it should.
Consider what it means to bear fruit.
When my children were little, they learned a song in church:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity,
The fruit of the Spirit is faithfulness,
gentleness, and self-control. ~ Galatians 5:22-23
Chasms will open up in life. We will suffer losses, every one of us. We will wonder how we will go on.
But consider what it means to be fruitful. Consider what it means to be already bathed in the work of the Spirit: to be one who embodies love, who exudes joy, who radiates peace; to be one who shows patience, who lives by kindness, who practices generosity; to be one who rests in faithfulness, who whispers gentleness, who models self-control.
To be fruitful, for Jesus, is to be open to the Spirit, to allow the Spirit work on us. And yes, I suppose, to give into allegory, we could ponder precisely what it might mean to have the Spirit digging around us and giving us a good helping of manure to set us right.
My point is this: Jesus says, no, when the chasm opens up, that is not God punishing you. But consider what it might mean to be bathed in the work of the Spirit when that moment comes. To already know in your flesh and bones and heart and spirit, the love, joy, and peace of God. To already be living witness to the patience, kindness, and generosity of God. To already be found in the faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that are a part of God’s plan for abundance in this world.
One thing I notice about the fruits of the Spirit: they are not the attributes one associates with disconnection or isolation. Far from it. They are a way of living that is deeply, deeply connected, not just to God, but to God’s people. The fruits of the Spirit are our bridge across that chasm.
Jesus says, “…unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” When he says that, “as they did,” I don’t think he means “in a great disaster,” or “by the angry hand of God.” I think “as they did” means, unready. Unprepared. And, perhaps, disconsolate. Despairing.
What would it mean to be ready for anything? Not by filling our homes with canned goods and guns, but by filling our hearts, our spirits, with God’s Spirit? What would that kind of fruitfulness look like?
And as if to answer that question, our passage skips to the end of chapter 13, in which the Pharisees… remember the Pharisees, who were supposedly Jesus’ enemies? Here they are, trying to get Jesus to safety, trying to protect him. “Get away from here,” they plead. “Herod wants to kill you.” And we have an opportunity to witness Jesus’ response, a moment of his clear awareness of the danger that lies ahead, the yawning chasm that awaits. He brushes off Herod as a fox, more a nuisance, a pest, than a threat, and says, “Listen. I’m about the business of healing. I am going about the business of doing God’s work.”
Listen. Life opens up chasms, but we can greet them with love. Joy. Peace. Terrible things happen—to us and to those we love. But we can meet them soaked in patience. Kindness. Generosity. The unthinkable happens, but imagine encountering them in faithfulness. Gentleness. Self-control. Imagine living fruitful lives, lives that enable us to gaze across any chasm unafraid. Imagine knowing that in the moment of disaster, God is not shaking the divine fist at us, but weeping with us. And imagine knowing that God has already sent a healer, one who will not be delayed from doing his work on our behalf. Thanks be to God. Amen.