BIBLE READING: LUKE 13: 1-9
"Why me?" I got asked the question again last week: How can this happen to a Christian? Over and over again, I hear it: What did I do to deserve this? I lost my job. My two-year-old daughter is dying. The tower of Siloah fell on my brother. He was a good man. It isn't fair. Why does it happen?
It's a question religious authorities, whether twentieth century priests or first century rabbis, get asked regularly: Why do bad things happen to good people? God knows. We don't. There isn't an easy answer, hundreds of books have been written about this dilemna. And the question remains.
The underlying fearful question is usually, "Why me?" Even when it's not us, we hope there is an answer that will give us control of our lives. If we know what "they" did to deserve it, we can avoid it and save ourselves from the suffering.
The thinking in much of the Hebrew Scripture goes like this: God is good. God hates evil. God punishes evil. There is suffering. Therefore someone must have done something evil for which they are being punished. The assumption is that there is a cause and effect; we just can't always figure it out.
We want to know what those Galileans did wrong so we that we won't do it and perish like they did. We want to know what those eighteen at Siloam did too, so no tower falls on us. We want to have some control over the outcome of our lives.
Then along comes Jesus. "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than other Galileans?" Wrong Question! And the ones the tower fell on? They're no worse than you."
Jesus comes along and shatters the neat little cause and effect theory. Suffering is not always the result of sin. But not only that, Jesus adds the scary stuff: "but unless YOU repent, you will all perish as they did."
Repent. Turn around. Turn toward God. Maybe we need to turn our question around: Ask instead "Why not me?"
We're all sinners, even if our "sins" are only ones of omission like the fruitless fig tree -- "Things left undone that ought to have been done." We're all broken and imperfect. If we think we are not we deceive ourselves and harden our hearts so there is no crack to let God in. Those who know their sin and can admit those cracks can simply turn and invite God inside.
But for some of us it may take a real heart-breaker to open us to God. We work at being good. We struggle so hard not to do anything that we may do nothing but protect ourselves. Only the when the suffering shatters our well protected, hardened hearts or Jesus the vinedresser digs (usually painfully) around our toughened roots are we able to let God inside.
The cause of the suffering is not the point. When we focus on whether it is our sin or the sin of another or a "natural disaster" or simply beyond our understanding because "God's ways are not our ways" we miss the centre where God is. Continually asking "Why me?" turns us toward ourselves and away from God.
As the psalmist reminds us "God has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness." If God did that, we'd all have perished already.
The point is that given half a chance God takes our sins and our sufferings -- those broken, cracked places in our lives -- and slips through the cracks into our hearts. Jesus reminds us to give God that half a chance -- to repent, to focus on God instead of on ourselves, to turn the broken places of our lives toward God.
Because the cross tells us that God works miracles with brokenness.
Those who know their brokenness and, like Moses, ask "Who am I that you should choose me?" and those who turn aside from their own lives to look at a burning bush are the ones whose lives God enters most powerfully.
It is the world that tests us with temptations and suffering. It is the world that looks at the fruitless fig tree and says "Cut it down!" We, who are the world, are the ones that judge and condemn so easily. Then God is the one who picks up the pieces. God is the one who digs around out roots and fertilises our sufferings. God is the one who says, "Let's wait a while, let's try again."
When the world condemns and wounds us, it's God who will not let us be tested beyond our strength and who provides a way out of our suffering. God is the one who is faithful, who slips quietly into the broken places of our lives.
So that we do not perish but bear good fruit.
Acknowledgement: Rev. Patricia Gillespie