3 Lent Yr C March 24 2019
Exodus 3:1-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8
We continue along this journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. Imagine yourself along the road with him, it's a hot and dusty journey. You stop along the way to make camp, and people gather to listen to Jesus teach. But the journey is made more difficult because talk is they don't like Jesus much in Jerusalem, and yet he insists on making his way there. On this day though, the subject at hand is one of the most common questions asked, then or now: Are the bad things that happen to us our fault? Do we deserve them? Are they, in fact, at least the consequence of, if not punishment for, our sinful deeds?
We may ask that question in a relatively mundane, even superstitious way, when something relatively minor goes wrong and we wonder, “What did I do to deserve that?” Or we may echo this question in a much more profound, heart-wrenching way when calamity strikes. I’d be willing to bet that almost all of us have sat with someone at the hospital or at the funeral who attributes grave illness or death to God as some sort of punishment. Those are not the times to correct incorrect theology, but the story of the fig tree we hear today tells us something very different.
A very different theology is enacted in what we do and say and hear each time we gather together on these Sunday mornings. Before we eat together, before we put out our hands to accept Jesus into our hearts and bodies, we repent and return to the Lord. We confess our sins, ask for forgiveness, and indeed are forgiven. Sin is not really a very popular word these days. And yet, it is sin that separates us from Love, from God. The reality is that our sin causes our vision to curve in on itself, and we begin to believe that we are the center of all things. The corrective to sin is to turn around, to repent, to look outside of ourselves, to be bathed in God's grace and love, and to reach out to help others.
Our journey in Lent is not about how wicked we are, it's not about shame, it's not about not being good enough. Our journey in Lent is about the practice of living in God's presence, the practice of loving, the practice of turning around and turning toward God. The parable of the fig tree shows us that when you think God has reached God's limit of forgiveness, God will forgive one more time. We are not perfect, this world is not perfect, but we are perfectly loved, perfectly forgiven. We are broken, but we are not lost, because Love wins.
God’s relationship with us, God’s beloveds, is just that, it’s a relationship, it is not transactional. It is Love, and love is not transactional, it is not a bargain. We say, God, if you will get me out of this mess, then I will …. go to church every Sunday? never swear again? It is our mistake when we make it transactional. And humanity has been making that mistake throughout all story telling. Thank God for forgiveness. Thank God for just one more chance. Every time we bargain with God, we enter into a transaction, not a relationship. God calls us to relationship. Even Roman society was based on the premise that the good was a zero sum, a limited amount, so every encounter was transactional, there was aways a winner and a loser.
We are not so different today. People want so desperately to be rewarded for good behavior. Some want so desperately to make sure those who exhibit bad behavior don't get the reward of heaven. They are willing to use Jesus, God, and the Bible as weapons to keep themselves in the right, but, they're wrong. With God there are no winners and losers, only imperfect people who are perfectly loved and forgiven. Only imperfect people who respond to God's amazing and abundant love and forgiveness by loving their neighbor, by feeding the hungry, tending the sick, visiting those who need companionship.
So back to the question about why do bad things happen to good people. God's love is not about cause and effect. That is a very difficult proposition. God causes people to suffer? God causes people to loose everything they have? God causes storms and accidents alike? That's just bad theology. There are many people who don't believe in a God like that, and I'm with them. There are natural consequences to bad behavior, there are natural consequences to all our behavior, but that is not God's judgment. That said, God does indeed care how we live our lives, and how we treat people, and holds us accountable.
The claim of scripture is incarnation, no less. That is an amazing and astounding claim, and I can believe in a God of no less. God does not rescue humanity from itself, God does not rescue humanity from it's own stupidity, or it's own brilliance. God does not rescue humanity from the depths of grief, or the heights of joy. God joins humanity in the midst of it. The claim of scripture is incarnation, no less. God with us, in all of it with us. And God transforms us. God creates something new out of it. God's grace and love trumps judgment. God's grace and love transform us, and in being transformed we turn away from that which is killing us, that which is causing brokenness and division and fragmentation, and we turn to God and to others. We are forgiven. We are loved. We are changed.
Let it alone for one more year, let me put some more manure on it, give it another chance. Let's be patient with this tree. It may yet produce, let's help it along and wait and see. For all of God's love and God's grace and God's patience and God's forgiveness, there is an expectation that something new will be born, that there will be fruit.
Bad things happen to good people. We read about and hear about tragedy all the time, sometimes so much that we just have to turn our televisions off, leave the mobile device alone. But it is not God's doing. God's doing is being with us, among us, carrying us in our weakness, crying with us in our grief, dancing with us in our joy. God is digging around our roots, spreading manure in the hope that we’ll blossom and bear fruit. God loves us, loves us, loves us, enough to hold us accountable for our faults, cover us in grace, walk by our side, and forgive us our sins as long as this life shall last. And that's what Lent is about.