When Things Go Wrong

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Claire Nevin-Field on the Third Sunday of Lent

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it 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.’”

One of the hardest things about being a nurse-midwife was sitting with women, with families, when things went wrong. 99% of the time being a midwife was about joy and happiness, but that 1% was just devastating. And, whatever the disaster, one of the constants was the search for meaning—for a cause. Sometimes the cause was clear, often not.  Often mothers would search their pregnancy—looking for something they did or didn’t do. On occasion a woman would tell me that it must have been God’s will—usually that God was punishing her for something she had done or left undone. Despite the fact that this theology horrified me I kept quiet—correcting someone’s worldview in the middle of tragedy is rarely the right thing to do. And for many people, the idea that there is no reason for tragedy, for calamity, is just too hard to fathom—so blaming God, even blaming themselves, is preferable.

At heart, though, I think often even those of us who claim to have a different view, who claim to know that God doesn’t inflict suffering, tend to react the same way in tragedy. Our immediate response is to search for a reason. We desperately want to know the why so we can make sure it doesn’t happen again. We desperately want to regain some measure of control.

So this morning we have a group of people delving into this issue with Jesus. Their question implies that they think the poor unfortunate Galileans who were murdered by Pilate must have had it coming—must have been big time sinners. I mean, that is the only reason something like that would have happened to them, right Jesus? They got what they had coming, right Jesus?

And to be sure, such cause and effect would be satisfying on many levels. It would confirm our deep hunch that bad things happen only to bad people. It would effectively let us know who the really bad sinners are, because their public tragedy would expose their sin. And it would assure us that God operates within a definable, predictable framework; you are good, good things happen. You are bad, you get zapped.

But Jesus, as is so often the case, takes the wind right out of their sails. He responds to their question with a simple “no”. No, those people did not get killed because they were big sinners-no, there is no connection between suffering and sin. Well, alright! What a relief. But hold the happy dance because Jesus keeps on talking. “But”, he says, “if you do not repent you will suffer the same fate they did.”

I have read, and re-read this passage many times. I have tried really hard to make sense of it. I have tried on, tried out, all sorts of explanations. And some of them are fairly satisfying. But still this passage nags—confounds.  My hunch is that Jesus, given that he has already said God does not “zap” people,  is warning about dying “suddenly and unprepared”, as the Great Litany so eloquently puts it. And it is certainly possible that is what is going on. And yet I am fascinated by my immediate need, our immediate need, to make sense of it. Figure it out. So finally I have concluded that there is no sense trying to make sense of it. And maybe that is part of what Jesus is trying to communicate. Perhaps he is not trying to reason with us but rather to get past reason and to our guts. Perhaps he is trying to disarm us—we who hide behind our intellect—using it as a shield or a weapon. We who need an explanation for everything and who want to feel good, feel settled about what God is up to. Jesus surfaces, touches, the panic the people in the story have about all the things that keep them up at night. All the awful things they see happening in the world around them. Seemingly random disasters. And they are terrified. And they have taken countless mental inventories of all they have done or left undone that might protect them from harm or leave them horribly exposed and vulnerable.

And Jesus wades right into this fear—this vulnerability with them. He doesn’t offer them the easy comfort of cause and effect—but he honors the vulnerability the fright has opened up in them. He knows it is not fun, but he seems to think it is not a bad thing to feel the full fragility of life- to sometimes take a fear driven mental inventory in the dark that makes them turn towards the light.

Which I think is what he was always interested in—helping us see so we can repent-in other words so that we can turn. And if it takes tweaking our fear in order to get us to turn, well, it seems he is willing to go there. Don’t worry about Pilate and all the other things that can come crashing down on you in an instant. Terrible things happen—you are not always to blame. But don’t let that stop you from doing what you are doing—feeling this fear, this pressure to examine your life and turn. That torn place your fear has opened up inside of you is a holy place. Stay there a while. Look around. Pay attention to what you feel and see. It is uncomfortable to stay there—it may hurt you to see—but it is not the kind of hurt that leads to death. It is the kind of hurt that leads to life.

You might be sitting there thinking this is not in any way, shape, or form good news. That this is not at all what you want to hear from God.  I am pretty sure it would not have sounded like good news to many of the women I sat with. But for those of us who have come to understand, most of the time,  that no matter how hard we try we cannot make life safe, that no matter how hard we try, we cannot make God tame, it is indeed gospel. Because what we can do is keep trying to turn to the light, knowing the one we turn to loves us and is endlessly patient—knowing that whatever befalls us, we will fall the right way.

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The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field

The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter's Church.

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