St. Paul’s – Third Sunday of Lent – 3-17–2019
Give you and idea the way my mind goes…….Here I was pondering the gospel for today and I came across
John Oliver on Last Week Tonight. On his show was the following film clip….
Dialogue between British Journalist and a cabinet member in Theresa May’s cabinet about Brexit.
Journalist: Secretary of state, you know better than I do that Parliament is for once is deeply representative of the country,….it’s completely asunder…Nobody in this country knows what is going on….Nobody in there (pointing to Parliment) knows what’s going on and you know nothing about what’s going on even inside the cabinet….the cabinets at sea and the parliaments at sea…..we are a laughing stock…..
Secretary of State: Is that a question?
Then I started thinking about the importance of questions—-good questions and remembered something Gertrude Stein is said to have asked on her death bed, What is the answer? Then, after a long silence, What is the question?Don’t start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives. Start by listening for the questions it asks.
We are much involved, all of us, with questions about things that matter a good deal today but will be forgotten by this time tomorrow—the immediate wheres and whens and hows that face us daily at home and at work—but at the same time we tend to lose track of the questions about things that matter always, life-and-death questions about meaning, purpose, and value. To lose track of such deep questions as these is to risk losing track of who we really are in our own depths and where we are really going. There is perhaps no stronger reason for reading the Bible than that somewhere among all those India-paper pages there awaits each reader whoever he/she is the one question which, though for years he/she may have been pretending not to hear it, is the central question of his own life.
Which then brings me to one of my favorite poet/theologian and healer I have talked about. In his beautiful book of narrative theology, In the Shelter: Finding Welcome in the Here and Now, Pádraig Ó Tuama describes the Buddhist concept of mu,or un-asking. If someone asks a question that’s too small, too flat, too confining, Ó Tuama writes, you can answer with this word mu, which means, Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked. A wiser question, a deeper question, a truer question. A question that expands possibility, and resists fear.
And finally, this brings me tenth Gospel reading for today…..If I could sum up this week’s Gospel reading in a single word, I would adopt Ó Tuama’s. Mu. As St. Luke describes the scene, some folks come to Jesus with headline news of horror and tragedy. Pontius Pilate has slaughtered a group of Galilean Jews, and mingled their blood with the blood of sacrifical lambs. Meanwhile, the tower of Siloam has collapsed, crushing and killing eighteen people. The reporters accompany these brutal accounts with a question as old as the human race: why? Why did these terrible things happen? Why is there so much pain in the world? Why does a good God allow human suffering?
Jesus’s response? Mu. Ask a better question.
For two thousand years, questions of theodicy have plagued Christianity, and for two thousand years, we Christians have failed to find answers that satisfy us. Yet we can’t stop asking the questions. We still crave a Theory of Everything when bad stuff happens. We still look for formulas to eradicate the mystery. Everything in us still longs to make sense of the senseless.
As Luke’s Gospel makes clear, the people who ask Jesus their versions of the why? question already have an answer in mind. They don’t approach Jesus blank slate; they show up hoping to confirm what they already believe. That is, they come expecting Jesus to verify their deeply held assumption that people suffer because they’re sinful. That folks get what they deserve. That bad things happen to bad people.
It’s tempting for us 21st century Christians to look at such beliefs and feel smugly superior in comparison. But how different, really, are the beliefs we hold about human suffering? When the unspeakable happens, what default settings do we revert to? Nothing happens outside of God’s perfect plan. God is testing and refining your character though this tragedy. This is the refiner’s fire. The Lord never gives anyone more than they can bear. Buck up — other people have it worse. This vale of tears is not your true home; everything will be restored in eternity.
The problem with every one of these answers is that they hold us apart from those who suffer. They innoculate us from the searing work of solidarity, empathy, and compassion. They keep us from embracing our common lot, our common brokenness, our common humanity. When Jesus challenges his listeners’ assumptions and tells them to repent before it’s too late, I think part of what he’s saying is this: any question that allows us to keep a sanitized distance from the mystery and reality of another person’s pain is a question we need to un-ask. Mu, Jesus says to the folks who bring him the news about Pilate and Siloam. Mu, he says to us when we wax eloquent about them and us. Their sinfulness and our piety. Their conservative backwardness and our progressive sophistication. Mu. You’re asking the wrong questions. You’re mired in irrelevance. You’re losing your life in your effort to save it. Start over again. Ask a better question. Go deep. Be brave.
Okay. But what is the better question? If asking why? won’t get us anywhere, what kind of question will? In typical fashion, Jesus addresses the problem with a story. A landowner had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, Jesus tells his listeners. One day, the landowner went looking for fruit on the tree, and found none. Incensed, he confronted his gardener: For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, he said, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it waste the soil? But the gardener begged his employer for more time: Sir, let the tree alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.
What an odd story to tell at such a moment! What on earth does a fruitless fig tree have to do with Pilate’s heinous killing spree, or with the massive technological failure that toppled the tower of Siloam? What is Jesus saying?
Well, for starters, he’s saying, Engage in story rather than platitude. Platitudes are flat. Formulas are reductive. Theories don’t heal. And questions that call for shallow answers aren’t worth asking in the face of tragedy. But stories? Stories open up possibility. Stories include, unmake, and transform us. Why did those Galilean Jews die? Why did the tower fall? Okay, sit down, let me tell you about a fig tree…
The parable Jesus tells invites questions in several directions at once. I can’t possibly exhaust them — none of us can — but here are a few to get us started:
In what ways am I like the absentee landowner, standing apart from where life and death actually happen? How am I refusing to get my hands dirty? Wallowing in futility and despair? Pronouncing judgments I have no right to pronounce? Am I prone to look for waste, loss, and scarcity in the world — or for potential and possibility? Where in my life — or in the lives of others — have I prematurely called it quits, saying, There’s no life here worth cultivating. Cut it down.
In what ways am I like the fig tree? Un-enlivened? Un-nourished? Unable or unwilling to nourish others? In what ways do I feel helpless or hopeless? Ignored or dismissed? What kinds of tending would it take to bring me back to life? Am I willing to receive such intimate, consequential care? Will I consent to change? Might I dare to flourish in a world where I have thus far been invisible?
In what ways am I like the gardener? Where in my life am I willing to accept Jesus’s invitation to go elbow-deep into the muck and manure? Where do I see life where others see death? How willing am I to pour hope into a project I can’t control? Am I brave enough to sacrifice time, effort, love, and hope into this tree — this relationship, this cause, this tragedy, this injustice — with no guarantee of a fruitful outcome? Can I, in the words of ArchBishop Oscar Romero, be the prophet of a future not my own?
I won’t lie: I’m a pro at asking the why question. Why? is the question I stick in God’s face whenever bad stuff happens; I ask it more often than all other questions combined. I ask because I want to understand. I ask because I’m afraid. I ask because mystery unnerves me.
And yet, every time I ask why, Jesus says mu. He says it because why is just plain not a life-giving question. Why hasn’t the fig tree produced fruit yet? Um, here’s the manure, and here’s a spade — get to work. Why do terrible, painful, completely unfair things happen in this world? Um, go weep with someone who’s weeping. Go fight for the justice you long to see. Go confront evil where it needs confronting. Go learn the art of patient, hope-filled tending. Go cultivate beautiful things. Go look your own sin in the eye and repent of it while you can.
In short: imagine a deeper story. Ask a better question. Live a better answer. Do it now. Why? Because there is no us and them. Because there are no guarantees. Because all of us are beloved, all of us are perishing, and all of us need the care of a hopeful, patient gardener. Ask a better question. Do it now.
- Rainer Maria Rilke
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves … Don’t search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps then, someday far in the future,
you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Let us pray:
When the question is Why?
Be the voice that I hear
When the question is where?
Be the guidance I need…
When the question is When?
Be the wisdom I seek…
When the question is How?
Be the strength I require
When my answer is Yes!
Be the peace that I know.
How long does it take a fig to grow?
How long does it take the bread to break?
How long does it take the wine to shimmer?
How long is the patience of God?
How long does it take a tree to bear fruit?
How long does it take a crumb to be held?
How long does it take the grape to bear promise?
How long is the patience of God?
How long is the horizon of the journey we’re on?
How long is the search for grace and forgiveness?
How long is the hope we have in renewal?
That’s the length of the patience of God.
So let us come here today with our hunger and thirst,
our unsatisfied longings, our heart-felt yearnings,
and let the God of life satisfy our souls.
The Prophet Isaiah asks one of the most
basic questions of Christian stewardship.
When we look at our wallets and wonder,
how can we be asked to give yet another offering,
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
If we paid attention to what we really do with our money,
we might not be very satisfied with the evidence.
But let this be the day we decide to make a difference.
Direct, O Lord, we pray, the hearts of your faithful,
and in your kindness grant your servants this grace:
that, abiding in the love of you and their neighbor,
they may fulfill the whole of your commands.
Through Christ our Lord.