This week, we’re continuing to think about trust.
Two weeks ago… at the beginning of his ministry, when he was weak and famished, Jesus resisted letting evil control him. Evil could not stop him from his mission. Jesus can be trusted. Good to remember that the dark side is close by when you are at your weakest. Jesus can be trusted to be with you in those times. He has been there.
Last week… Abram (or Abraham) trusts God to come through on huge promises even though it’s taking a really long time and Abraham seems like the last person God could use. God will use us when the challenges seem impossible to overcome.
There are times when trusting God is a very difficult thing to do. Ever have a bad day? Of course! There are bad days, really bad days, and then life-altering bad days when something happened and you really struggled to get through it. You look back and realize that’s when everything changed. There was a life before and a life after. And then sometimes, those bad days drag into weeks and months or maybe years.
Just to cut to the chase, God is there in all of it. Ready to hold you and make you strong again. Maybe you needed to hear that today.
None of us have exactly the same kind of bad moments. Once upon a time, I had gotten a phone call to visit a family because something bad had happened. They had gotten some bad news and they just needed to get through the moment with a prayer. So I went and spent some time with them. Later in the day, I went to a meeting, and at the meeting was someone who was also having a bad day. I can only remember that it involved an expensive sweater and something had spilled on it. And there was more emotion in that moment than I’d seen with the struggling family.
Now, you can make a judgement as you compare those situations, but the fact was that the emotion was very real in both places. And what I learned was… when you are in the middle of chaos or a crisis, sometimes, big or small, that’s all you can know. You know you’ve been there. It doesn’t necessarily matter what it is. Sometimes, we are stronger in the big, difficult situations than the small surprising ones. In any case, we can be prone to having anxiety about something and everybody has a different trigger depending on what’s going on. Over time, if we are open, God toughens us with perseverance and endurance to recognize what the appropriate level of emotion is necessary for the moment. Every now and then, I hear someone say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Well, your small stuff is probably different from mine.
And then with a little more time to think, we ask, “Why do these bad things happen? God, why?” That’s the question behind the story in the gospel reading this morning, and Jesus has an answer to at least part of it. Maybe it’s better to say that he has a perspective.
Luke 13:1-9. At that time some people were there who told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices to God. Jesus answered them, “Because those Galileans were killed in that way, do you think it proves that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No indeed! And I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did. What about those eighteen people in Siloam who were killed when the tower fell on them? Do you suppose this proves that they were worse than all the other people living in Jerusalem? No indeed! And I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “There was once a man who had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. He went looking for figs on it but found none. So he said to his gardener, ‘Look, for three years I have been coming here looking for figs on this fig tree, and I haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it go on using up the soil?’ But the gardener answered, ‘Leave it alone, sir, just one more year; I will dig around it and put in some fertilizer. Then if the tree bears figs next year, so much the better; if not, then you can have it cut down.’”
Some people have come to Jesus and gotten into discussion about some really awful things that had happened. Some people coming to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem had been murdered by the Roman governor Pilate (you know, the guy who allowed Jesus to be murdered later), and some others had been killed in a construction accident. Two awful moments that affected real people. It’s not hard to translate them into today’s news and this is not a hard conversation to be a part of.
You could put yourself in that moment with Jesus. We’re sitting around after dinner in the evening, everyone is relaxed, and we’re talking. You could change the stories to fit so much of what you’ve seen on the news. Lately, it seems to be non-stop. So many terrible things – wars, shootings, the worst natural disasters in our lifetimes. Every week, I see a photo that’s hard to get out of my mind. Maybe you’ve found yourself asking – can it get any worse? It’s disturbing, to say the least. Is it possible to put yourself in the place of some of the people affected by these things? Is it possible to empathize?
For me, it’s another reason that scripture stories like this are still relevant, still important to hear now, today. People were asking, Can it get any worse? What did these people do to deserve this? That’s really the question they are asking, and Jesus knows it. In the mindset of these folks, anything bad that happens to you, whether it’s an accident, or something intentional, somehow, you deserved it. God is not happy with you. Standing on the outside of that little story looking in, we think, “Silly ancient Bible people.” As if we are so much more sophisticated. But you know that at some point you’ve asked the same question yourself. God, are you punishing me? No, really, something I did? Were these people worse sinners than other people? Jesus says “No.” And he says that to you too.
Whether it’s happening in the news right now or a couple thousand years ago, these things might seem a world away to you, but each of us, each of our families, has a story of huge loss and enormous pain. If it didn’t happen to you, it happened to someone in your family and you had to watch. It’s true for all of us. We all have this story. And whether you knew it or not, God was walking with you. The stories may turn into history, but they don’t stop. Somethings you just can’t get through alone. You need God and other people. Here’s a little picture of what I’m talking about:
In a tiny village on a Greek island are these ruins. Ruins are pretty common in that part of the world, but these aren’t especially ancient. During WWII, German planes bombed the village and destroyed all the houses. We’ve heard gut-wrenching stories of those times. This house belonged to my wife’s grandparents. They had come to the United States long before the war, escaped poverty and found a better life. The Greek Orthodox Church in Cleveland helped them make the transition. The house was never rebuilt because the people in the village thought that surely, they would come back to take care of it, but they never did. But a few years ago, we went and met people who remembered them. They didn’t talk about it, but I know that people died in bombings like that.
Maybe that story is interesting in a historical kind of way because time has moved on. But in that place, right now, there’s a different story unfolding, this morning.
Samos is not far from the coast of Turkey (you can see Turkey from the beach) and for the last four or five years, refugees have been coming to Samos in dangerous boats continuously, and landing on the beach just down the hill from “our” village. Mostly, they are escaping the war in Syria. So this isn’t far away from us, geographically or personally. Our family came as refugees from poverty to this country one hundred years ago and other refugees have taken their place. Trace it back far enough in your own family, and I believe you will find a refugee story. In my imagination, a refugee family has built a house and a life on top of the ruins!
We each have a story and there are many stories. When the bad things happen, even when death comes, is anyone a worse sinner than anyone else? Jesus says no. Life is terminal in so many ways, but does any person’s pain or death mean that they were a worse sinner than someone else? No. Not in God’s eyes.
Repent. But then Jesus says something that seems totally contradictory: “…unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” I hate it when he does that. This is so hard to understand, and he says it twice. Unless you repent, unless you repent. You know what that word means, right?
Change. Change! Unless your life changes. Ah! God is not so concerned with the death you die. That’s what happens to everybody eventually, at some point, in some way. God is much more interested in your attitude toward him and your relationship with him, which needs an overhaul. We’re these people being punished somehow? No. Are we? No. The “change” is a spiritual change of heart. What’s awesome is that the change God is looking for is something that God does, not you; all Jesus is looking for is faith in him, looking for trust, looking for a yes from each of us. Waiting for each of us to open the door.
There is a life-change that God begins in us when we believe. It can transform the core our lives, our households, the places where we work, and the streets of our town.
I heard from a church vitality expert not long ago that most visitors who walk through the doors of any church these days are there because they are distressed or suffering in some way. Most of us grew up thinking that church on Sunday morning is simply the right thing to do. But today, the church is a refuge for refugees. We need to think about how we do that.
And that’s why Jesus wraps it up with a story about a tree. The man who owns it wants to tear it down and throw it away. The person taking care of it says, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.” The ultimate destiny of the tree depends on whether it bears fruit. You realize that God’s people are the tree and Jesus is the gardener, pleading with God to give us a little more time. “God, give them a little more time.” Let me do some pruning and throw on some fertilizer. Let me work with them.
So, we have today, and maybe tomorrow. And we don’t know what will happen. These days are gifts from God. They are opportunities. Many times, the people who realize this most are the ones who understand that tomorrow may not come for them. They are the ones who realize that tomorrow is a gift from God. Another chance to know God. Another chance to give God’s love to someone else. Another chance to help someone meet Christ. Another chance to love, another chance to bring peace, another chance to offer forgiveness, another chance to bring healing, another chance to work for a cure, another chance to feed a hungry person or offer safety to someone. Another chance to build a house. Another chance to save a refugee. Another chance to be Christ’s house, the Body of Christ.
Another chance to not react, and by not reacting, stop a war. Another chance to be with someone else in their suffering and bring Christ to them. In other words, another chance to bear fruit. What kind of fruit do you think God is growing in you? This year, what can we do to make a difference as a church, to bear fruit?
Why do bad things happen? They just do. It might be better to ask “Why do we feel pain?” Because God created us to feel pain. God feels pain too. The only other choice is the kind of life that I think none of us want to live. A life completely free of suffering is also a life free of joy and love.
Through Christ, God has given us special tools to overcome and to help each other overcome. God has raised up the First Congregational Church of Wellington to bear fruit, to be a force for good. If you have believed in Christ, God has given you a mission. You do realize that most of that work happens outside of this building.
O God, give us all a vision for tomorrow, as mothers and fathers, as children in your family, as your church. Live through us and give us the power to overcome the discouragements we see in life. In spite of what we see around us, the evil, the bad things that happen, help us remember that you are with us, that your mercy surrounds us, even when we forget about you. When life feels like a tomb, roll away the stone, and help us remember that tombs are only temporary for you.
We pray with faith, because we know that your son Jesus overcame death, and leads the way ahead of us. We pray with hope, because we know that you are already changing us into the people and the church we should be. Amen.