The Manure Years
THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT MARCH 20TH, 2022 LUKE 13:1-9
Psychologists say there are two equal and opposite problems with human beings. Some of us are too focused on the future and are therefore stalked by worry and fear; while others are focused too much on the past, and are prey to nostalgia, and a longing for a Golden Age when everything was wonderful. The problem with both groups is that they are not paying enough attention to now, and now is all we have. Most of our fears will not materialize and there never was a golden age, so let’s put our energy into this moment, say the wise.
But, having said that, I’m afraid that this morning I’m kind of wandering into that nostalgia group. I’m remembering the good old days. I’m wishing we could turn the clock back to a time when the world was not so complicated. Because the last time today’s Bible readings were read in church was March 24th 2019. Life seemed so simple in 2019, didn’t it? On March 24th 2019 the price of gas was $2.59; people were pouring into the cinema – many of them to see the film ‘Us’ which was top of the box-office, and earned $16.8m on that day alone. Even the hazy memory of 1 million people marching in London to protest Brexit seems like a whimsical little moment of ancient history now. And speaking of millions, on March 24th 2019, Mike Trout signed for the LA Angels for 426 of them to be paid over ten years. Yes, life was so much better on 24th March 2019, especially if you’re Mike Trout.
This week I re-read my sermon from that day. I talked about turrets falling and soldiers coming, because that is what Jesus talked about in Luke 13. And on March 24th 2019 I could talk about them in a hypothetical sort of way. Turrets fall and soldiers come. It’s the way of the world. Turrets fall and soldiers come. Accidents happen and tyrants invade. We suffer from deliberate acts of evil and from events that have no human cause. But on March 20th 2022, I can’t preach about turrets falling and soldiers coming as if they just happened in theory. We can’t read this Gospel passage about turrets falling and soldiers coming like it were some abstract idea, the sort of thing that’s discussed in a dry and dusty theology seminar. Three years on and the world is living these things. Turrets have fallen and soldiers have come.
Two tragedies. Two moments of devastation, two canvasses of carnage. One an accident, the other calculated; one just ‘one of things’, the other mass-murder; one the sheer bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the other the brutality of a tyrant. It was a bad day to be at the Pool of Siloam, the day the turret fell; it was a worse day to be at the Temple, the day the soldiers came. It was a bad time to be alive when the pandemic fell (see where I’m going with this?), it was a terrible time to be Ukrainian when the soldiers came.
The day the turret fell at the Pool of Siloam, it crushed eighteen people to death. It was no one’s fault. It was just one of those things – call it an act of God. Sometimes, despite the best efforts of humans to prevent tragedy, turrets fall and people die. We’re not in control. As it was in Jesus’ time, so it is today – turrets fall, hurricanes destroy, earthquakes devastate, pandemics lacerate. We’re not in control. Covid has now killed over 6 million people worldwide, and by Easter it will likely have killed one million in these United States. One million people. Asia and Europe are getting nervous again as a new variant of Omicron begins to spread. Turrets have fallen.
The day the soldiers came was more chilling. Pilate’s stormtroopers goose-stepped into a house of prayer and slaughtered the worshipers, like the lambs that were usually sacrificed there. Today no one knows why. Why do you need a reason when you have power to wield and an empire to build. As it was in Jesus’ time. So it is today. Accurate estimates are impossible, but it seems that many thousands of residents of Ukraine may have been killed during the Russian invasion. And over three million refugees have escaped the violence. The solders have come.
When turrets fall and soldiers come, we want answers, we want to know why it happened, how we could have stopped it, and most importantly, who is to blame. And so when the turret fell and the soldiers came people approached Jesus. And they told him about the murdered worshipers. This barbarity had shaken their faith in God’s mercy, disturbed their confidence in his love. They are shocked, appalled, they need the rabbi to help them make sense of this outrage, to give them a wise word, a hopeful word, the word of the Lord. And there’s that ‘why’ question. The smart religious money was on God’s punishment. That’s the horse the smart religious money is usually bet on. It’s the odds-on favorite whenever a turret falls or soldiers come. Pay attention and you’ll hear the hooves – turrets fall and soldiers come because the dead and injured deserved it; because God is angry with them, because their government or their country or their city have sinned.
When turrets fall and soldiers come, rational minds cross a line that need not be crossed. Rational minds are great in the lab, in the office, in the boardroom, classroom, courtroom. But they trespass and trample all over other parts of us where they are useless. Like the soul – the home of wonder, awe, worship, mystery, God. The rational mind can’t stand mystery. It must solve it, crack the code, take everything apart until it understands it and controls it. It’s not that our rational brains are bad or wrong. It’s just that they get too big for their boots, and pontificate when they should be humble, pronounce when they should be silent, and judge when they should fall down and worship.
And human reason blames. It has to. Actions have consequences, it correctly argues. So, when something goes wrong there must be a reason; and that reason is usually a person making mistakes, or being weak, or sinning. We must blame, we have to blame – maybe ourselves, more often someone else. The careless neighbor, the guy in the next cubicle, the bank, the township, God. And so, these first century humans, in all their rational thinking, come to Jesus. The turret fell and the soldiers came. Who is to blame? They had not learned to live with the mystery of a fallen creation filled with broken human beings. They had not discovered the secret of being content with a God who does not throw his weight around. They had not embraced the mystery of a God who is patient, compassionate, and who accompanies his loved ones through devastation and pain. I’ve said before in sermons that the ways of God are sometimes a mystery, and a mystery is not a puzzle. A puzzle is for solving, but a mystery is for living with; yes, even when it hurts, when it breaks your heart, when it pierces your soul.
Jesus answers them, “Those eighteen who died when the Turret of Siloam fell on them, do you think they were more guilty than anyone else living in Jerusalem? And those worshipers from Galilee that Pilate murdered, do you think that they were worse sinners than other Galileans?” Now it’s rare in the Gospels for Jesus to give a straight answer to a question. But he does now. He wants to leave no room for misunderstanding. And it is a resounding answer, “No.” These two tragedies were not God’s judgment on the victims. God is not waiting to catch us sinning and then punish us by making us suffer. That is some malevolent, superstitious deity, and not the loving God and Father of Jesus. Yes, obviously, when a drunk driver ploughs into a tree – yes, of course, their injuries are caused by their actions. Jesus is not breaking the link between sin and suffering. He is breaking the link between suffering and punishment.
Jesus is calling us to live with the mystery, to trust in God, even when we don’t understand. Sometimes we just don’t know why turrets fall and soldiers come.
Jesus finishes the conversation with a story. A tale of a useless fig tree and the gardener’s efforts to make it fruitful. And even though this tree is wasting good soil and healthy sunshine this patient, loving gardener says, “Don’t chop it down. Give it one more year.”
In effect, he says, “Don’t spend too much time wondering why God allowed this terrible thing to happen. Instead, think about how you are going to live in response to the evil and the catastrophe of this world. What are you going to do in the light of it – how are you going to change because of it?” When turrets fall and soldiers come, we receive a jolt – we remember that we are mortal, that we too will die, (this is a perfect reading for Lent); we are shaken into remembering that we have choices right here and now, and that God is patient and gives us another year to grow and change and produce fruit, then another year, and another. We inhabit a space of grace. It is now – it’s not in some romanticized view of the perfect past, nor is it in the anxiety of unknown tomorrows. It’s today, it’s now, the space of grace is here. Today is the day of salvation.
And so we don’t resent the gardener when he spreads manure on our feet, because we know that the important thing is fruit. Fruit is what we were made for, and fruit we will bear, as we accept the compost of the loving gardener. This is a space of grace; these are the manure years. We commit to God the 6 million covid victims and the billions of people who have mourned a friend or family member in the last two years. We commit to praying and laboring for peace in Europe, and to acting in any way that feels appropriate to us. Lent tells us that before we can look outwards, we need to draw aside and look inwards. Who am I going to be in response to catastrophe and evil? What are the fruits that God will grow in me. Today is the space of grace, these are the manure years. May God grow the fruit in us.