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March 20, 2022

Why?  It’s a question we start asking at about the age of two or three. It’s a sign of curiosity.  It means that we want to know more about the world. If we’re lucky, we keep asking questions for the rest of our lives.

If you’ve been a kid or known a kid, you know that the questions can be about anything. Why can’t I see the sun at night?  Why do I have to brush my teeth?  Why are your hairs white?

Eventually kids move to questions of fairness.  Why does John get to stay up later than I do?  Why does Sara get more screen time?  Why can’t I stay out past midnight when everyone else does?  Kids of all ages have a keen sense of justice.

As we get older, that sense of justice brings us face to face with the question that does not have any easy answers.  Why do terrible things happen?  That’s the question that haunts us.

You may have seen this week the story of an awful head-on collision between a pick-up truck and a van that killed nine people in Texas, including the coach and six members of the men’s and women’s golf teams from the University of the Southwest.  When I first heard the news, I immediately thought of the families and friends left to deal with this tragedy, including the entire university community.  This kind of accident devastates so many people in an instant.

A few days later investigators reported that at the time of the accident a 13-year-old was driving the pick-up truck.  Both the 13-year-old and the 38-year-old passenger also died.  There was some kind of spare tire on the left front side of the vehicle, which failed and caused the truck to swerve in front of the van.  Investigators also reported that several passengers in the van appeared not to have been wearing seat belts at the time of the crash.

When I heard these reports, I immediately went into a series of why questions that were laced with judgment.  Why in the world was a 13-year-old driving that truck?  Why in the world would the 38-year-old let a kid take the wheel on a highway where the speed limit is 75 miles per hour?  Why weren’t those college students buckled in?

Those judgments came instantly.  I still felt compassion and heartbreak for everyone involved, but I wanted answers.  What I really wanted to be able to do is go back in time and interrupt whatever had happened to create this terrible moment.  Stop the flat tire.  Get a better spare.  Make sure everyone is buckled up.  Keep the kid out of the driver’s seat.

That’s the hardest part of tragedies.  Realizing that we cannot change what has happened.  We can only live with the aftermath.

Some people come to Jesus in today’s gospel with questions about why a terrible thing has happened.  Pontius Pilate, a local leader of the Roman government, has executed several Galileans.  He appears to have done this heinous thing when they were in the middle of some kind of sacrificial ritual, so that their blood mingled with the blood of the animals they had sacrificed.  In responding to those in the crowd who are struggling with this tragedy, Jesus makes reference to another one, an accident in which a tower fell over and killed eighteen people.  We can imagine that both events would have been the subject of much discussion among the friends and neighbors of those who had died.  They were trying to make sense of two awful tragedies – one at the hands of a brutal leader and the other a random occurrence.

Jesus does not give them satisfying answers.  He rejects any notion of tragedy as punishment.  In other words, he says, these people did not die because they were bad people.  They were certainly not worse people than any of you.  They died because terrible things happen, and today those terrible things have happened to them.

Jesus talks instead about repentance.  He’s telling them to turn their hearts and minds to God because none of us knows when the terrible thing might happen to us.  Our traditional notions of repentance in Christianity sometimes lead us to assume that we have to “get right with God” before we die.  But I don’t think Jesus is talking about putting on sackcloth and ashes and going to confession nine times a day. For starters, we are already “right with God” because God extends grace and mercy to us each and every day of our lives.  We are in relationship with God because of who God is, not because we get it all right.

But Jesus knows that we want to find a reason for the terrible things, and that in the process we often blame the people who have been harmed rather than the systems that have caused the harm.  We tell ourselves that people who are poor or people who are experiencing homelessness didn’t work hard enough or did something wrong along the way instead of admitting that we often don’t pay people a living wage or don’t provide enough access to affordable mental health care.  We focus on whether the woman who was sexually assaulted drank too much or wore the “wrong” thing or stayed out too late instead of focusing on dismantling sexist and predatory ways of viewing women.

Most of the time when we go down these pathways, we don’t do so maliciously.  In the deepest corners of our hearts, we feel compassion, but what we really want to know is this: Can I keep the terrible thing from happening to me or to someone I love?  If there is a logic, then maybe I can interrupt it.

The actual answer, says Jesus, is repentance.  This week I heard a definition of repentance that has really stayed with me.  Repentance is “coming to see things from God’s point of view.”  It means “having our mind reoriented in a way that sees God’s kingdom breaking in around the edges and our own place in that.”[i]  As we say in the Lord’s Prayer: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus tells that story of the fig tree to help us understand how God sees us.  We do not always yield the fruit that God wants us to produce.  We fail to provide good health care for those who are sick or suffering.  We fail to protect those who are vulnerable because of their skin color or their gender identity or their economic conditions.  We get stuck in blaming and shaming each other rather than reforming the world.

But God, like that gardener, does not give up on us. God sees that we can do better.  We cannot prevent all of the terrible things that might happen, but we are all capable of growth, both individually and collectively.  God gives us what we need to do that growing, even if it sometimes looks like a big pile of manure.  God believes that we can, against all odds, bear fruit that will make life better for everyone.

May we look for ways to bear fruit this week.  After all, it is a season for growth and life and new possibilities.  We give thanks that God does not give up on us – not today, not ever.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] From this week’s episode of the Sermon Brainwave podcast from Luther Seminary

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