I didn’t preach on the shootings in New Zealand last week, so I was going to say something about it this week as it seems to fit with our Gospel lesson. Haven’t we all been trying to make sense of that tragedy, trying to discern the reasons why it happened? Just as the people around Jesus in Luke’s Gospel were discussing the folks whose blood was mingled with their sacrifices by Pilate’s actions. We’re all trying to figure out why tragedies happen. Perhaps you also heard about the Senator in New Zealand who got egged for suggesting that the fault lay with the people who were killed. “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place,” said Fraser Anning.
It is a human thing to try and understand why bad things happen – to try to bring some order to a chaotic world or to help us feel safe. We want to know cause and effect so that we can avoid the bad or somehow prevent it from happening to us. There are all sorts of rules we give our children and loved ones to keep them safe. Don’t cross the street without an adult. Look both ways before you step out. Don’t go for a run after dark. Don’t drive through that neighborhood. Don’t travel to that place. We hope to discover the secret sauce that will protect us. If we just do ‘x’, ‘y’ will never happen to us.
It is also a human thing to blame the victim for the evil that has happened to them. If it’s the victim’s fault that the tragedy happened, then we’re probably safe. If it’s the victim’s fault, then that lets us off the hook for not helping or not preventing or not stopping the bad actors. She shouldn’t have been drinking… the Muslim ‘fanatics’ should have been prevented from migrating to our country… he was never going to amount to much anyway… OR in the 1st century mindset: they were terrible sinners and so God punished them.
Blaming the victims might make us feel better, but it falls short of how we ought to live as followers of Jesus.
Life is full of difficulty – no one is immune. To be human, to be born into this world, means that some things will go wonderfully well and some things will be awful. Our world is full of illness, natural disasters, broken bodies, broken promises, mistakes and missteps, evil intentions and evil deeds. And our world is full of life and love, full of incredible beauty, promises kept, honor and courageous actions, kindnesses and honesty.
As much as we would like to believe that only good things happen to good people, that only good things ought to happen to us, the truth is that difficulty is as much a part of our daily existence as all the goodness we experience. Bad things happen. Bad things happen to us, too.
Our lessons for today have some suggestions on how we ought to think about the trouble in the world. First, let’s notice that Moses is called to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt because GOD SEES what has happened to them. “The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt,” God says to Moses.
God sees what’s going on. God knows the pain and struggle. God knows the evil that has been done. And God is calling us to join in doing something about it.
The people around Jesus were discussing the tragedies of their day – Galileans murdered while making their sacrifices in the Temple and eighteen people killed when part of the tower of Siloam fell down on them. Jesus challenges them not to think that the people who died were somehow deserving of what happened. They weren’t any more or less evil than his listeners. Jesus tells them that they need to repent, they need to be ready, because the same fate awaits them. Don’t blame the victims for Pilate’s actions or the bad architecture of the tower.
The second thing we can notice is that blaming the victims for the evil that befalls them reveals our lack of compassion. What if, instead of blaming the vicitms, we saw ourselves in the lives of those who suffer. What if we allowed ourselves to imagine how it feels to be them? And what if we reached out in compassion and love? An example of this also comes from New Zealand this week. We saw pictures of the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, in a hijab, mourning with the members of the mosques that were attacked. There were pictures of New Zealanders who, on Friday, joined hands and stood outside mosques around the country to ensure that their friends and neighbors would feel safe at prayer.
God sees what happens and has compassion. We see what happens and we have compassion. It’s another way of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Finally, that parable about the fig tree… What does it mean when the evil befalls us? Does it mean that God is angry with us? Does it mean that we’ve done something wrong? Was the tree bad because it wasn’t producing?
Sometimes we do reap what we’ve sown. If we’ve been less than kind, if we lie or cheat or steal, if we do not act with compassion when we see folks in trouble, then, yes, we may very well suffer for our own bad acts.
But I don’t think that’s what the parable is about. Jesus has just said that God wasn’t punishing the Galileans who died because they were notorious sinners. Jesus is less concerned about finding the cause of our calamities and much more concerned about growing our love and compassion for each other. The tree isn’t bearing fruit. The tree needs some tending to encourage growth – pruning and fertilizing. That’s not punishment – that’s caring and loving.
When evil befalls us, when bad things happen, we have to decide how we will handle it. We have to decide whether we will get stuck in that place and stop growing OR whether we will let the Spirit tend our hearts, prune out what we don’t need, feed our souls, so that we can begin to grow again. Our compassion and love will allow us to empathize with those going through difficult times as well – we remember how it feels so we stand with others who suffer.
Bad stuff happens. God sees what’s going on. God has compassion and calls us to have compassion as well. Bad stuff happens to us. God sees and has compassion for us. The bad stuff can prepare us for ministry and help form us into a people of love and compassion. May we have soft hearts to respond to God’s call with ‘yes’ and become the loving and compassionate people God created us to be. Amen.