Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent – March 24, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
When I tell people I have a friend my same age who has been battling lung cancer for several years, the question I almost always get is: Was he a smoker? Or if not that then: Did his parents smoke? The answer is no to both, but the question reveals something about us, doesn’t it? Oftentimes our first response to frightening or threatening circumstances is to try to find an explanation. We try to connect the dots. We try to understand cause and effect. Sometimes this even leads us to blame the victim. If we can find something that the victim did to bring it upon themselves (like smoking), we can distance ourselves from what is happening to them and the world seems a little safer, a little more predictable, a little more in our control.
Trying to understand cause and effect can be helpful in many circumstances. If we understand what might be causing bad things, we can potentially prevent them from happening again. But sometimes the cause is elusive. Sometimes there is no ready explanation. Sometimes the victim did nothing to bring it upon themselves. Sometimes lung cancer just shows up. Sometimes a gene or a cell just randomly misfires.
We have a saying we turn to when there are no easy explanations. We say: “Stuff happens.” (Only we don’t say stuff, do we?) When something bad happens out of the blue, things we can’t understand, things we can’t explain, we often summarize the situation by saying, “Stuff happens.”
Well, some stuff happened in our gospel reading for today. Some really nasty, awful stuff. First we hear about a gruesome act of terrorism in which Pilate slaughtered some pilgrims coming into Jerusalem from Galilee. They were bringing their sacrificial offerings to the temple when Pilate struck them down, mingling their own blood with the blood of their sacrifices. It was a horrible act of violence, cruelty, and desecration.
Apparently when people heard this news, they tried to make sense of it. Jesus seems to suggest people were thinking: Well, they must have done something. Maybe they upset Pilate somehow. Maybe they provoked him, the fools. Maybe they weren’t as faithful as their offerings suggested and God even had something to do with it! Maybe God was preventing the secretly unclean from entering the temple. You never know. Jesus soundly and swiftly rejects this way of thinking. “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans?” he says. “No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Jesus then points to a different tragedy, the collapse of the Tower of Siloam, which came crashing down, killing eighteen people. Again, Jesus said: Do you think these people were worse sinners than everyone else? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
When people tried to offer trite explanations for tragedy, when they tried to assign blame, when they started even to implicate the victims themselves, Jesus rejected this line of thinking entirely. He told people instead that tragedy should lead to repentance. It should lead people to look at themselves. It should push people to turn to God.
We’ve had strikingly similar situations happen in our own time in just the past couple of weeks. There was the shooting in New Zealand, where fifty people were killed as they were worshipping God. I know they were Muslim. I know that their prophet is not ours. But the Bible tells me that those were human beings created in the image of God. The Bible tells me they were fellow children of Abraham. The Bible tells me they were neighbors we are called to serve in Christian love, just as Christ loved and served Samaritans and Gentiles. These people were struck down while offering their sacrifices to God. While all kinds of blame has been cast in just about every direction, they have been gathering in their house of worship this week on bare floors because they had to tear out the entire carpet in their sanctuary, which was soaked with blood from wall to wall.
Then there was the crash of the jetliner in Ethiopia, which took the lives of all 157 people on board. There were many people on board who were in Ethiopia doing mission work, including pastors, priests, and nuns. The Rev. Norman Tendis, a Lutheran pastor who had been in Ethiopia on behalf of the Lutheran World Federation, died in the crash.
There are plenty of questions that should be asked about both of these events, to be sure. There are plenty of “how” questions that need to be explored to try to prevent them from happening again. But what about the “why” questions? Why those people in New Zealand? Why those people on that plane? Why those pilgrims from Galilee? Why those eighteen people when the Tower of Siloam fell?
In the face of bad things happening that we can’t explain, we might say, “Stuff happens.” We don’t say that to trivialize the tragedy or to dismiss the pain that comes as a result, but as a way of acknowledging that sometimes there are no answers to why things happen as they do in this broken world. “Stuff happens.”
Jesus doesn’t give answers to why stuff happens, but he does tell us how to respond. First he tells us what NOT to do. He warns us against blaming the victims. He warns us against thinking that we are somehow superior because what happened to them didn’t happen to us. But even more importantly, Jesus tells us what we SHOULD do. He tells us we should repent. This doesn’t just mean feeling sorrow for things we’ve done, which is how we usually think of repentance. Jesus is using the word ‘repentance’ more broadly here. When bad things happen, we are to turn to God. When the stuff hits the fan, we are called to turn to God.
This leads us into the second part of our reading for today, the little parable Jesus tells. Jesus paints a picture of a man who had a fig tree in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit and found none. He was ready to cut it down, but the gardener pleaded for a little more time. “Let me put some manure on it. If it bears fruit, well and good. If not, you can cut it down then.”
What does this mean? In writing on this passage, St. Augustine said some interesting things about the manure. He wrote, “The basket of dung is filthy, but it produces fruit.” He wrote: “The gardener’s filth is the sinner’s sorrows.” I find this interpretive move by Augustine very helpful in connecting the parable with the circumstances Jesus is addressing. Augustine says that the manure represents the sinner’s sorrows. These sorrows are unpleasant. They are filthy. They are the “stuff” that happens. Why these things happen remain a mystery, but we do know that God uses them to draw us to himself. When “stuff happens” God uses that stuff to push us to repent, to remind us of our dependence on him. When “stuff happens” God uses that stuff to call good fruit out of us, the fruits of faith.
We see this again and again in the Bible. We see it in how God used the horrible behavior of Joseph’s brothers to ultimately save all of them. We see it in how God used the invading armies of Assyria and Babylon to call his people back to the covenant. We see it in how God used the persecution of the early Christians to spread the gospel out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. We see this most clearly in how God used the violent and cruel and desecrating act of the crucifixion of his Son to bring about our salvation.
There is still so much mystery surrounding all of this. The “why” questions are so far over our heads! But it is clear that when “stuff happens,” God uses that stuff to push us to turn to him. When “manure happens,” God uses it as the fertilizer, so that we would bear the fruits of faith.
I’ve told you before that I see this so often in my friend with cancer. When the worst kind of “stuff” happened to him, it has led him even more deeply into a reliance on God that has born fruits of faith. He has no doubt had his dark nights pondering why, but that filthy manure in his lungs and now his bones and brain as well, has also made him a man of even deeper faith, an even more loving husband, an even more doting father to his two girls, and an even more compassionate pastor. Turning to God will do that!
Turning to God will do that to you too. So when “stuff happens,” rather than blaming victims or grasping for answers that might not be there, simply turn to God. When the manure hits the fan, on the news or in your life, turn to God. Place that manure into the hands of the Gardner.
This is earthy stuff, I know. You should hear the uncensored version of this sermon! You should the parts my wife talked me out of saying! This is earthy stuff, but that’s Jesus for you. He isn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty. He isn’t afraid of the manure. He can use it! This Gardner took the basket of dung that was the cross and made it bear the sweetest figs of forgiveness, life, and salvation! So when “stuff happens” to you, hand it to him. He’ll use it to grow in you the fruits of faith.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church