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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Life is filled with moments of triumph and tragedy. Nelson Mandela, the late anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader and philanthropist knew this truth well. He was elected South Africa’s first black head of state from 1994-1999 after 27 years in prison. He said of his moments of triumph and tragedy, “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
Through the course of life, we all experience moments of tragedy which cause us to doubt our self-worth and purpose? It is a battle that has troubled faithful believers for generations. It is not simply the issue of why bad things happen to good people It is a question of why bad things happen to unsuspecting people? I can assure you there are no easy answers. Still, men and women try to make sense of tragedies and search for reasons even when there are none. They often attribute these acts to the will of God or to his displeasure with human behavior.
In today’s gospel reading, St. Luke describes two terrible tragedies that had happened in Jerusalem at the time Jesus, the first in the Temple, and the second near the pool of Siloam. In the first instance, the Roman governor Pilate had killed some Galileans who were making sacrifices at the temple and then he mixed their blood with the sacrifices. No doubt this was a warning to other Jews to remember that Rome was in charge. In the other incident, a tower fell on bystanders near the pool of Siloam killing 18 people who simply happened to be there. How could such tragic events take place in the Holy City of Jerusalem? How could evil have its way? Surely, there must be a meaning. As Jesus was speaking to his disciples, he asked the question that must have been on people’s minds. Were the Galileans worse sinners than other Galileans? Were the people killed by the tower worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem? Did they deserve it more than their neighbors?
Perhaps you are toying with these thoughts as you watch the news coming out of Ukraine. Or as you contemplate the ongoing starvation in Yemen, or the drought in Africa. Oh, what a poor, difficult situation for a people born on the wrong side of the world. Turn on the television news, open your tablet or pick up a newspaper in any given week and you will find a report of some tragedy somewhere. Only the locations change. Mass shootings, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes–all of them wreaking havoc and altering lives. And then, there are the less reported events. The car crashes, the building accidents, and disease, the bad things that happen on a personal level to good people you know which seldom make it onto the front page of the morning newspaper. To all of these tragedies and human suffering, Jesus said that this is not a sign of God’s divine retribution and punishment. Instead, Jesus said, “No, I tell you, they are not greater sinners, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Jesus’ words should make your head spin. He doesn’t say, “It was God’s will.” And surely, Jesus knows the heart and will of God better than you or me. But instead, he declares that there is no rational explanation for these tragedies. There are no simplistic answers. So, when bad things happen to unsuspecting good people, do not let critical voices assert that God is passing judgment on them. God does not abandon his beloved children in their hour of need.
But my friends, Jesus warns his followers, that unless you and I put aside our sense of privilege and entitlement, and unless we repent, we will all perish just as tragically. Repentance, you see, doesn’t simply mean confessing your sins as a seasonal gesture of piety. Repentance means to turning your life, values, priorities and attitudes around to be more like Jesus. That may be the shock in this story. God also longs for his children to live a productive and fruitful life caring for their neighbor, for that is what we were designed and created to be and do. As Nelson Mandela said, “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” And I would add- that means lifting up your neighbor in the moments of tragedy.
To underscore this teaching, Jesus tells the Parable of the Fig Tree. We have already been warned that the ax is resting on the root of the tree. Three years the tree had produced nothing. “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?” As harsh as God’s word may seem, just as trees were created to bear fruit, human beings were created to bear good fruit.
If there is good news in the parable it is the possibility offers in God’s patience. God’s gracious love and patience is not to be received as casual indulgence or indifference. God is always in the business of opening doors and not simply closing them. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. The past fruitlessness of our lives doesn’t have to be the final word. With that said, the parable challenges us to make something of our lives.
Decades ago, when Kansas City Chiefs head coach Hank Stram led his team to victory in the Superbowl, he spoke of finding that fruitful, greater purpose. He pointed out that, “ a plain barb iron was worth $5. With a bit of work that same piece of metal could be made into horseshoes valued at $10.50. But with time, energy and patience, that same metal could be made into balance wheels for watches worth $250,000. Your value in the midst of tragedy and loss is determined by what you make of yourself for others.”
My friends, Jesus understands your fatigue and emptiness and he knows that there are times when you cannot take the first step. And so he comes as the gardener to you. That is the grace, patience and mercy he wants you to discover and experience so that you can be fruitful again. So do not judge yourself by your tragedies and triumphs. Instead, judge yourself by how many times God has given you the strength and will and patience to rise up again. Then ask yourself, if you have dared to lift up your neighbors in their moments of tragedy. Remember, God has called us all to produce fruits worthy of his love. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.