Bad news sure travels fast, doesn’t it?
In today’s Gospel, Luke tells us about some people who ran up to Jesus to tell him about some Galileans who were not only executed by Pilate, but how Pilate mingled their blood with his sacrifices. Jesus verbalizes what’s on their minds: "Do you think that... these Galilean were worse sinners than all other Galileans?"
It’s a common misconception. Take today’s Epistle. Please!
It contains one of the most misused passages in all the New
Testament (and that’s saying something!): that God never tests us more than we
Saying to a suffering person that “God never gives us more than we
can handle” backfires in three ways: first because it teaches that bad things
only happen to bad people; second, it says that if we are feel as if we are
buckling under the weight of grief or pain, that we somehow lack faith; and
third, it teaches us that God deliberately does horrendous things as a cruel
expression of love. In short, it teaches us to hate God.
By saying that the suffering somehow deserves their fate has the dubious virtue of putting you out of my misery. It’s a platitude that creates a comfortable distance between us and the pain of the moment. It preserves the illusion of control when things are clearly out of control.
But Jesus doesn’t go there. When people ran up to tell him all the bad news, they asked him if those Galileans executed by Pilate were above-average sinners? "No," he tells the crowd, "but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."
When a tower in a village called Siloam collapsed killing eighteen people who were in the wrong place at the time, was that because they were all sinners? Jesus says “no.”
When Jesus is presented with a man born blind, they asked Jesus “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”
“Neither.” says Jesus. And when he cures the man, Jesus denies a correlation between the man’s problem and someone’s sin.
A long time ago a science teacher once taught me that correlation
is not causation. Sometimes, he said, it’s not even correlation... just dumb luck or bad data.
And that’s true in everyday theology, too. We often act as if God keeps a big ledger and, like Santa Claus, keeps track of who’s been naughty or nice and decides to send earthly punishments or rewards accordingly! To this, Jesus says “no.”
Does God cause tyrants to kill people by dropping bombs on theaters sheltering refugees or make it so church people riding in a van on a highway are killed in a head-on collision because they’ve done something to deserve it? No!
Does God send illness or catastrophe as object lessons in behaving well? Jesus says “no!”
But while Jesus says, there is no connection between the suffering
and the sin, he reminds us that the death rate for all humanity is still 100%,
that is enough for Jesus to urge us to line up our lives with God.
Yes, I hear your “but”… But there is suffering that comes out of our actions! We see it all the time, you tell me!
But... sometimes we do choose to do things that harm us: like cigarette smoking, not caring for our health, exploiting others, abusing power, driving drunk, carelessly polluting our planet, or dealing with our rage with violence.
But... it is possible for us to inflict our sin on ourselves and others!
And you would be right! After all, we did just say the Penitential Order for a reason, right?
Okay... but think about it. Is God the one doing that? Or are these part and parcel of
what we confess to God as sin?
Underneath all the rationalizations there is terror. If I had a nickel for everyone I’ve heard tell a grieving person that God needed a deceased loved one more than we do, or when someone says that God only gives us what we can handle, then I’d have a Brinks truck for a piggy bank.
Listen. I get it. Life can be scary, and tragedy knocks the wind out of our sails. People say stuff like that because by giving every random calamity or violence a motive, no matter how lame, we are attempting with our heads to keep the terror in our hearts at bay.
But instead of shifting all the blame on God or even on us, Jesus invites us to go deeper. He goes to our most vulnerable spot and invites us to peer into those scary spaces in our souls. It is okay to feel the full fragility of life – but instead of staying in the place of fear, Jesus calls us to turn toward the light. And that takes courage.
Jesus invites us to turn towards God and gives us the courage to face our fear. Terrible things happen, and you are not always to blame. But don’t let that stop you from cultivating the good. You know that fearful place you feel at the pit of your stomach? That is also a holy place inside you, nurture it.
Many years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner said in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, that God willingly gives up one of God’s three attributes—that God knows everything, that God is all powerful, and that God is all loving—in order that we might be free. I am indebted to him for this insight. Over the years, I have taken it on a different, and, I hope, a more Trinitarian track.
Some Christians like to have God be the one behind every circumstance and every event…the cosmic manager (or puppeteer, some will sneer). Others understand God as the one who makes the clock, winds it, and walks away. That’s because we humans are binary. We like
things to be either one or zero. Yankees or Red Sox. Ford or Chevy. One way or the other. Our brains cannot wrap themselves around too much contradiction.
But instead of living in an either/or, one or zero world, I
believe we live in a universe of concurrent realities. This ought not to surprise
us. After all, we know Jesus to be fully human and fully God. Christians know
that God is a Trinity of three distinct persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--
who contain the fullness of the one God without diluting the personhood of the
three. When we say the creed or close a collect, we acknowledge in shorthand
that the nature of God is a unity of concurrent realities.
And it is true in nature, too. Physics tells us that concurrent realities are part and parcel of the
created order: light is at once a wave and a particle. Today we live in a world that at once makes use of Newtonian and quantum mechanics—Newton shows us how to launch and keep things in orbit, drive your car, or play ping pong, while quantum theory helps us scan our groceries and makes our GPS and cell phones work.
And just as concurrent realities live in the physical world and in the person of God, they are part and parcel of the mystery of living.
We see in Jesus one who is 100% God and 100% human in the same package undiluted. In the person of Jesus, we see that God is at once intimately and fully involved with every aspect of our living and in every element of creation; and, at the very same time, we and the entire universe are completely and utterly free.
But just because we are completely free and nature happens, does not mean that God is apathetic to our suffering or distant from our reality. God is very much involved and has given us a solution.
Jesus’ incarnation shows us that God is truly with us. And Jesus’ story about the gardener who talks the householder into giving the unfruitful fig tree another chance by cultivating
and watering it tells us something of how this works. In Jesus’ parable the owner is ready to give up on the unfruitful tree on and cut it down. But the gardener pleads for the tree, saying that he will care for it—give the tree another chance. Think of the ground around that tree as holy ground, manure and all!
And when God appeared to Moses in the form of another plant, a
bush that was on fire but not being burned up. Moses saw this strange sight
while minding his father-in-law’s sheep, and he goes to check it out. Having
gotten Moses’ attention, God tells him that he is on holy ground, and God is
about to directly intervene to liberate the Israelites from their bondage in
Egypt and lead them to a land of promise.
Holy ground is where God shows up, doing things miraculous things outside our expectation.
Holy ground appears to be quite ordinary, but it is ground that has been disturbed, into which is spread food, water, and manure… and a plant that has been pruned, all so that we may bear fruit and grow as God intends.
Jesus’ parable reminds us that we cannot stop suffering but we can in be attentive and caring to one another, focused in our prayer and in tune with the world around. Above all (and this is the real reason why we confess our sins in Lent) we can honest about what we know or don’t know; about what we fear; what we ignore and what we hope we have mastered; what we have tried and where we have failed. We confess not to grovel but to allow Christ into our vulnerable places so that in his passion we may accompany him to the cross. Giving God our honesty will feel like dying. Recognizing that we are not in control can feel like darkness. Cultivating the things we can do—our love, our relationships, our attentiveness— is how we discover resurrection and receive the strength that turns our frailties into our greatest strengths.