Lots of Things Can Be Medicine
March 20, 2022 - Cobleskill UMC - Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Third Sunday in Lent
Repent or Perish
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
“What is repulsive to the nose may be sweet to the roots. What is waste to the mind may be food for the soul.
What is difficult and disruptive may harbor grace.”
(lines by poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes)
These lines were part of a poem written by Steve Garnaas Holmes with the title “Manure.” What is repulsive to the nose may be sweet to the roots, indeed. There aren’t many weeks in church where it’s appropriate to talk about manure, but this, my friends, is one of them. Maybe the only one of them…. And it fits in well with our theme. We’ve been talking this Lent about how we can convince ourselves that it’s okay when life isn’t perfect. That’s it’s okay to stop trying to be the productive, ladder-climbing, life-is-great-all-the-time, kind of people that our culture expects. That it’s okay to sometimes even lay fallow, letting ourselves be nurtured, and seeing what surprising goodness can come about right in the midst of the messy life we live.
But before we get to the business of manure, we have to talk about some other unpleasant things. There are some folks who find Jesus in our scripture reading with a specific question, and it’s question we’ve often wondered ourselves. Is there a reason why people suffer? You see, tragedy was just as much a part of Jesus’ day as it is a part of our day. Two jarring and tragic things had just happened. Pilate, yes, that same Pilate we’ll hear about on Good Friday, had apparently killed people who were on a religious pilgrimage for no apparent reason. And if that horrific event wasn’t enough, eighteen people had died when a tower along the wall around Jerusalem fell down on top of them. The people who saw these tragic events needed to know from Jesus if there was a reason why it had happened. If, perhaps, it was because they had been bad people.
It’s pretty easy to imagine the conversation that day because we too have experienced tragic and jarring events and we wonder again and again, why. In this past week alone we’ve seen the death toll climb at the hands of another ruler on a power-trip in Ukraine as mothers, fathers and children die…. For what reason? Why is this happening?
Can you imagine running up to Jesus, your teacher, and begging him to say why these things are all happening. Why do bad things happen to innocent people? What can possibly explain the tragedy?
The truth is, things that we can’t make sense of leave us utterly bewildered. After Hurricane Katrina I remember hearing an interview with one gulf coast fisherman who lost his entire livelihood in the storm and he blamed himself and his own sins for the suffering. He saw God as the one causing the suffering as punishment for the bad things he thought he must have done. What else would explain it, he thought? When we stand squarely in the face of tragedy it’s difficult not to search for answers to our questions.
There must be a reason why bad things happen.
I’m not a psychologist, I’m not even close, but I think what’s going on here is that we fear the irrational. We find peace in believing that calamity happens for a reason even if that means that God causes suffering. Cause and effect is rational and it makes sense to us. This seems, to us, a way better way of explaining it than suffering and tragedy coming from nowhere at all. You know what I mean? If suffering comes from nowhere at all, wouldn’t the world be meaningless and chaotic. Where would God be? Standing on the sidelines, watching? Faced with this mystery we often conclude that God must be involved, and that God must be the cause of the suffering. And therefore, we who suffer, somehow, must have done something to warrant it. I know this pales in comparison, but this week when my beloved basketball team lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, I immediately began to wonder if it was my fault because I hadn’t worn my lucky blue socks that day. We want to know there’s a reason behind our suffering, for small things and big things alike, because ultimately we want to be able to prevent more suffering in the future.
It was to this point exactly, that Jesus’ disciples came to him. You can almost see it between the lines. His disciples were scared that they, too, might face tragedy someday. Surely the sudden and tragic loss of life in their community had a purpose and was not just random. Those people must have died because they deserved it. It’s the only option that makes sense. Right? Jesus?
The exact same way,
No! These people did not die because of something they had done! The lives of these people who died did not matter less to God. They were not expendable lives. God was not satisfied by their death. Our God is not a God who plots out your suffering based on how good you are. I have to believe that God was and is heartbroken at our suffering.
So why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen at all? Jesus doesn’t answer those questions but what he can say is that bad things happening have nothing to do with how good or bad we’ve been. Tragedy just happens and it’s just horribly, irrationally tragic. Can you see how this is at the same time both good news and bad news?
The disciples were obviously disturbed when they came to Jesus with all this tragedy. And Jesus tries to set them straight. No, these tragedies aren’t divine punishment. But I think Jesus also saw this moment as an opportunity to teach another even more important lesson.
And watch out, because this is where Jesus pulls out his bullhorn and goes into full street preacher mode. But it’s okay: because what he had to say is really important and really urgent and really hard.
What does Jesus say? Repent! Jesus says. Or you, too, will perish. He’s saying: It’s true, these people didn’t die because of their sins, but it’s also true that life is short. You never know when it might end and so, listen: repent while you can.
Repent! It means, literally, turn around and go in a new direction. Don’t waste another minute of another day headed down a path that leads you away from God. Do not focus on how you might die or why bad things happens at all. Focus on the life you have; repent of the thoughts and actions that were leading you toward your own fear and turn toward life.
With all of our “why God?” moments—Jesus is right there saying, don’t for a minute think that God will intentionally cause your suffering. God is there to open the door to life, helping us turn the mess into something that can be life-giving again.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all that this command to turn away from death and toward life is followed by the story of the unproductive fig tree. The fig tree, as we heard, has been a slow in producing actual figs. The owner of the field where the fig tree stood presumably held that tree to the same standard as the other fig trees in the vineyard. They were producing figs, so why wasn’t this one? Cut it down, the order came. You can’t just stand around doing nothing for three years and expect to be kept! But the gardener, the very Good Gardener, was listening and spoke up. Give the tree one more year. Please. If it’s not fruitful after another year, then you can do as you want. The owner reluctantly agreed. One more year. Immediately, without wasting a minute, that Good Gardener got down on his hands and knees and began digging around the tree in order to put what on the roots? Manure!
We don’t know the end of the story… if that fig tree ever made figs that year or not. But we kind of don’t need to. The turn had already happened. What is manure anyway? Yeah, you know exactly what it is. I don’t have to tell you. It’s crap. It’s the stuff in life that nobody wants; the stuff our bodies don’t want and can’t use. It’s the leftovers. It’s the stuff that gets in the way. It’s the rotten parts of life. It’s kind of like the crappy stuff in life that happens to people that we just can’t explain and we just want to be rid of. I think you know what I mean. The gardener is taking this stuff—the mess no one wants around anymore—and using it to change our perspective. What if these crappy situations in which we find ourselves have something healing to offer us? What if something good can be made out of the bad? What if, when we turn away from our fear, God is there putting a new kind of medicine around our roots. A freedom to live each moment of life, whether or not it’s perfect or ideal. To forgive ourselves when bearing fruit takes time. To accept God’s grace to change our perspective on suffering. The bad things in life don’t control us, they can actually empowers us to be stronger and healthier in the long run.
When we are hurting, when we are surrounded by suffering, maybe we’re looking for medicine in the wrong places. Instead of numbing our pain or accelerating an unhealthy recovery, maybe our job is to let ourselves lay fallow and to let God take the messy parts of our lives and turn them into something that will ultimately make us stronger and healthier. Are we patient enough to trust that process?
One last thing. I was sitting in church this week where you are while the Bishop visited and spoke to pastors from the area. And while I was sitting there my eyes drifted to the windows. That probably happens to you, too. Our windows feature a lot of plants and growing things, which I think is absolutely fitting as a metaphor for God in our lives. But I couldn’t help but notice that these two front windows have entire sections of their stained glass that are brown. And when you look at the whole picture you realize this is the dirt and soil beneath the plant that is working behind the scenes to make the plant grow. So important is the work that God is doing to fertilize our roots with the decomposing leftovers from the world’s mess, that here it is put into the art of our stained-glass windows.
God is turning surprising things into medicine to heal us and make us whole again. Trust the process and turn toward life.
Grace and Peace,