My sermon this morning is the third of a three-part Lenten series. I want you to think of your life as a spiritual journey of discovery, of formation and transformation. There is no part of life that is not part of the journey: both the triumphs and the tragedies. Those bleak moments when you feel as if nothing is happening may be the most profound moments of all – because there is no time that is not God time; Kairos time, full of meaning and potential time. I believe this!
From the time you are born to the time you die – you are moving. And sometimes I think the journey continues after you die (but that is for another Sunday!)
We all, like Jesus, find ourselves in the wilderness trying to figure out who we are. There is no way to avoid long stretches of desert space, so we have to start claiming the desert spaces as “holy.”
We all, like Jesus, bump into opposition as we live into our own selves. There is no way to avoid struggle as we strive to become our best selves, so we have to start claiming the struggles as “holy.”
And this morning there is a third thing that Jesus teaches us about the spiritual journey of life; on the path through the wilderness, on the path into opposition and struggle you will be faced with inevitable questions – hard questions about reality, about what you believe. There may not be easy answers, so we have to start claiming the questions as “holy.” Even more “holy” than the answer!
Were you following the campaigns this past week? Candidate Cruz fired his chief of staff because of an audio comment that was leaked of Candidate Rubio “joking that there were “not many answers” in the Bible. Joke or not, I think Rubio is on to something – the Bible is more a question book than an answer book – it drives you to ask good questions, and moves you beyond pat answers to simplistic solutions.
I think this is the problem with politics and religion, or almost anything today – it is so shallow. Nobody seems to want to go deep. It is all sound bites and spin. The Psalmist wants you to “meditate on God in the watches of the night.”
If you are taking the spiritual walk seriously, you are going to bump into profound questions that leave you wondering. And yet still you walk on, because you don’t want answers, you want truth. Answers are a dime a dozen. The truth that sets you free is something else–more of an encounter with reality.
Let’s take a moment to recount today’s Gospel story because it isn’t easy.
Jesus, on the way to Jerusalem, encounters some people who share with him news of two tragic events. The first one was the brutal deaths of some Galileans who were killed by Pilate (the Roman prefect of Judea) while these Galileans were sacrificing in the Temple of Jerusalem.
Galileans were held in some suspicion because of their “revolutionary” “Galileans Matters” attitude. Jesus was a Galilean after all. These Galileans were showing their piety and the secular orders crashed in and killed them in cold blood. And the blood of the Galileans mixed in with the blood of the sacrifice. It was a mess.
The second event was a horrific tragedy when 18 people died when a tower crashed and fell on them. And so Jesus raises the question, and it’s the same question in his day as in ours. “Did “they” (whoever the “they” are) deserve it? In other words, were they sinners?
Babies born into poverty, the Holocaust, cancer, loss of job, tornado, gun massacre whatever–whose fault is it? Because if God allows this stuff to happen, he ain’t much of a god.
Jesus’ answer has three parts and, I admit, leaves me a bit confused.
Jesus says “No!” No one deserved these things happening, whether they were good or bad. So we can’t judge or assign cause.
But then he says, “Repent or you will perish just as they did.”
And then he concludes with a parable about a man who wanted to know if his fig tree was bearing fruit, because apparently for two years it had not.
The best I can do, since I don’t have the answer, is to suggest that Jesus was being somewhat tongue and cheek. In effect, saying “Since we are all going to die one way or another, how do you want to spend your time? Wringing your hands over questions that cannot be answered, or are you at least going to keep cultivating the soil?”
It reminds me of the often-reported conversation between two medieval scholars in which one asks, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” The other replied, “I don’t know, but God has created a special place in hell for those who ask that question.” (I asked Siri on my iPhone that question about the dancing angels and she referred me to Wikipedia.)
It is as if Jesus is saying, “Do you want to spend your time on the “un-answerable questions” of suffering or do you actually want to go out and help alleviate suffering? Do you keep your distance and not get involved because you can’t answer the “why” question, or do you get your hands dirty and do something?”
Keeping things intellectual can be an excuse. Especially when asking the questions (while interesting and not without purpose, certainly) keeps you from feeding the hungry or showing up at the Greater Cleveland Congregations meeting.
Why did Mom get cancer? Did she deserve it? No, but who knows. And really, who cares? What matters more is whether you’re at the bedside holding her hand. Because that’s where God is going to be found.
Where was God on 9/11? Who knows, who cares. I believe God was in the building with every person who was facing her or his death. Maybe even with the terrorists asking them, “Why did you do that in my name?”
W. E. B. Du Bois asked in The Souls of Black Folk, “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?” But are you and I willing to create the beloved community?
“Why is this happening to me?” I don’t know, but will I claim this as an opportunity to be faithful and not give up or give in?
I am reminded of the great example of Cardinal Bernadine who, when he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer, said, “I have counseled hundreds of cancer patients to ‘place themselves entirely in the hands of the Lord…’ Now I have done that with great conviction and…while I know that, humanly speaking, I will have to deal with difficult moments, I can say in all sincerity that I am at peace.”
Now that is bearing fruit! That is seeing the world through a whole new lens; that is a radical mindset – that is from one who has experienced the Lord’s steadfast love which is better than life. That is an example of repentance – of getting a new mind for a new age!
So maybe we need to ask better questions. Or maybe we need to actually do something and an answer may begin to form. I think this is what Jesus is talking about, I really do.
The great German mystic poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote something so very profound and I think it speaks directly the mystery we are confronting today. He wrote:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
On the Lenten journey, on the road that seems so often to be full of twists and turns and potholes, as you live your life and find your faith, there will be more questions than answers. Learn to love the questions, till the soil, give it one more year, bear fruit, truth will find you.