Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
What is the most difficult question to answer? It’s why, without a doubt. Why did she die? Why is there still poverty on earth? Why do people think that people with brown skin are inferior? Why don’t we get directions from God? Why would the earthquake in Haiti kill so many people? Why was Jesus crucified? Why would a child get incurable cancer? Why is there AIDS? Why can’t we pass gun control in this country? Why was he driving too fast around that curve? Why didn’t she tell me she was feeling suicidal? Why didn’t I quit smoking before I got this spot on my lung? Why did you do that? Why didn’t you tell me?
Have any of you been on the receiving end of a child’s incessant questioning why? Why is milk white? Why do bees sting? Why are the animals in cages?
Tell my why the stars do shine.
Tell my why the ivy twines.
Tell me why the sky’s so blue.
And I will tell you just why I love you.
Because God made the stars to shine.
Because God made the ivy twine.
Because God made the sky so blue.
Because God made you, that’s why I love you.
If you put the question in the middle of such sweet harmony, maybe no one will notice that the answer is so weak.
In these weeks of Lent, our Gospel readings from Luke tell stories about Jesus as he made his way to Jerusalem. If you read Luke’s gospel as if it were one story, you would see that these stories increase in theological complexity and conflict. Jesus was raising the stakes. Or, more accurately, he had made the decision to face, head on, the public, political forces that oppressed the Jews. And by doing so, he forced the Jews to face, head on, their own complicity with the Roman oppressors. They were harsh lessons. No one likes to see how our own life choices give aid to the enemy, how our own selfishness contributes to the poverty of others, how our own self-righteousness keeps our hearts hard, closed, and bitter.
In today’s story, Jesus came upon people shaken by two recent disasters. Herod’s soldiers had slaughtered a group of religious pilgrims from Galilee, and a tower in the town of Siloam collapsed, killing eighteen. Even those who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah wanted to know why those things happened. They had come to some conclusions - manufactured a few answers to satisfy their fears. But Jesus wouldn’t allow their facile answers. Do you think these died because they deserved to die? Do you think they suffered because they were more sinful than you?
Then he told them a parable about a fig tree, but what on earth did he mean by that story? A man was mad that his fig tree didn’t produce any fruit so he told his gardener to cut it down, the worthless, space-taking, resource-gobbling, ungrateful, Spanish-speaking, promiscuous, welfare free-loader. In Jesus’ story, the gardener wanted to spare the tree, care for it, loosen its soil, feed it, give it another chance. Why, I wonder? Why?
Jesus didn’t finish the story, or at least, he didn’t say what the fate was for that one tree. Did it bear fruit? Did it grow to be a fine, contributing, tax-paying, citizen of the garden? That wasn’t the point. It didn’t matter what the result would be – only that the tree was spared the impatience of the owner of the garden.
It’s curious, isn’t it, that Jesus would tell such a story to people who were just trying to protect him, to understand his message, to understand why bad things happened to the good people Pilate had killed, the good people who died when the tower fell. Why did those things happen, they wanted to know, as if coming up with a reason would somehow, what, make it ok again? Safe? If those who died were people more sinful than me, then I guess I’m still safe, because, since I’m a better person than they probably were, God won’t allow MY blood to get all mixed up with the blood of bad people, and God won’t let some random repercussion of shoddy construction fall down on MY head.
Notice something about Jesus’ story. Do we know why the fig tree wasn’t producing? Did Jesus even care why? The answer is no. It didn’t matter why. It never does. It isn’t why that matters – it’s what, and when, and how. Oh, and one more thing, the answer to the question who is always, me, here am I. Send me. I’ll go to Pharoah, I’ll dig, I’ll feed, I’ll clothe the naked and visit the prisoners. I’ll do it. Me.
That’s the answer Jesus was looking for to the question that matters most, I’m certain of it. Amen.