The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Second Sunday after Epiphany
When something bad happens, how often we think: “What did they do wrong? Why is God punishing them?” We quickly think God is in control and must be involved, if we are Christians, of course. But what about times when something turns out good? Do we think about that, and wonder if God is there, too?
What seems good in Luke’s story? Well, the fig tree gets a year reprieve. Do you think the tree felt the hand of grace? But then on the bad side, people tell Jesus Pilate slaughters innocent Galileans at worship. Jesus has one for them – a tower falls and kills innocents in Jerusalem. Jesus asks: Does God whack people because their sins are worse than others? Is this how God is? The worst batch gets eliminated; the next worst takes their place. Is that how it works? Where would God stop such a purification program – if that’s what you believe about God?
I remember when a hurricane bore down on the Chesapeake Bay. I helped a friend move his boat into safer waters that afternoon. On the 700 Club that evening, an evangelist who shall go unnamed prays, “God send this hurricane away – somewhere else.” And I’ll be doggone. That storm suddenly swings away, missing us, slamming into the New England coast. Were they worse sinners than us? Does God punish sinners and reward the good. Or is it that life sometimes just happens. It’s beyond our control. It’s a mystery. If you think you know for sure, rethink it.
I suspect more people trust in karma than God, you know what you give is what you’ll get; or Christianized, “Be sure your sins will find you out.” That was my mama’s version. Karma’s not so hot either. I can send good juju, love and forgiveness toward someone who annoys the heck out of me. They neither notice nor thank me for all the love I send them. I pray, “Lord, smite them.” God says, “Forgive and let it go, and keep loving them.” And then the world’s voice says, “Let it go. Then get even.”
How do you sort out the old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people – or good things happen to bad people?” Remember Jesus’ story about wheat and weeds growing together? Let it be. God will sort it out. In this world, life is not fair. We draw the short straw. We suffer. We die. Some die too soon, or even before they live. We want answers that will not come on this side. “Repent,” meaning turn toward God and hold on for dear life, if you want to thrive which is more than survive.
Jesus says what many of us think: “Repent or perish,” but what he means is not what we think. I know saints – good faith-living people who suffer, get mistreated and even killed. Those Galileans went to church to repent, atone and sacrifice – and they get slaughtered. They repent and they perish. If you think you can control life, God, or life’s vagaries – that it’s possible to earn divine protection, and, forget it. What is Jesus saying? Trust God, and just hang on. As a friend once advised me, “All is well. You just don’t know it yet.”
Jesus tells a little story about a fruitless fig tree. For three years it bore not the tiniest hint of a fig. The owner says to his gardener, “Cut it down. It sucks up water and nutrients the vines need – cuts into my profits.” That owner makes sense. But the gardener pleads for mercy: “I’ll dig around, tend it, and scatter some manure. Give it a year. If no figs then, cut it down.” I wouldn’t have used that impolite “m” word in front of good church folks like you, if Jesus hadn’t said it first. Some may think God is the owner, as God usually is in Jesus’ stories. Jesus, the gardener, gets us a reprieve. We don’t bear a lot of fruit. Does Jesus have more mercy for us than the Father? Sadly, some Christians think so, or they don’t really think that deeply about God’s love.
Here’s how I think it works. Repent of wrong images of God you may carry and not realize – that God uses violence, suffering and death to scare us into shape. Repent of any lingering suspicion that God repays our evil with suffering – or does anything but love us and stands with us when life treats us badly. Repent of calling on God only when you want cosmic help. Bad things do happen. Repent and receive the God who comes to us where we are; to suffer, die, and stand with us when our broken hearts break his. Love says God cares enough to get into the dirt, mess and manure with us.
If you want to find where God is – go look where people suffer; where children die by gunfire; where they starve, and hope is sucked out of them. They aren’t sinning worse than we do. God enters the deaths we live now, to bring new life. Don’t look to the heavens. Look in the messes we help create and permit to continue. That’s where you’ll find God, weeping, not causing the suffering. Repent of any notion that life must be fair, that suffering and pain can be explained, and if we’re worthy, we’re exempt. Repent – not so you won’t perish, but so you will live each day as a gift and when it’s all done, you have no fear of giving an accounting for how you spent the love God gives you.
The gardener returns to the vineyard. His blood gets poured out, mingled with the sin and suffering of our lives – raised onto a towering cross that crushes his life. But that’s not the end. God speaks the final word over the vagaries and tragedies of our lives – deaths, and what’s not fair. Repent, turn to Jesus’ Father. Step into a world greater than this we live in now – a reality and realm Jesus brings to transform fruitless trees. He grafts his life into ours. And when that happens, it’s Easter – resurrection.
Remember how Mary goes to the tomb on the first day of the week after Jesus’ death. Who slips up on her? She thinks he’s the gardener. Do you get it? And all along, we’ve thought she didn’t get it right. Repent, awaken – God is right here with you. Believe it – and when you get it, that will be God’s grace, not our smarts. God waits on us to accept and take what God is already giving us.