“At that time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus 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.” (Luke 13:1-3)
The conundrum we all encounter in the face of human suffering is nothing new, of course. People were doing all they could to understand long, long before you and I woke up this week to countless stories like the one recounted to Jesus so long ago: stories where the innocent died so senselessly, including accounts just like the one described above where people at worship were massacred. Indeed, such as this comes so frequently now that I can hardly begin to take one in before another breaks into my news feed, threatening to break my heart all over again.
First it was the crash of Ethiopian Air 737 as it took off from Addis Ababa. I have flown that airline more than once and every time it takes my breath away for the glorious diversity of the passengers who have accompanied me to my destination. I cannot begin to imagine how their loved ones cope today, much less how they go on.
And then it was the shootings in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand — a country known for peace — now forever shattered by misplaced hatred and unending grief.
And in particular, for me it was a phone call that brought not news of multiple casualties, but one. One 43 year old who died unexpectedly, leaving a lifetime of love and precious ones behind to try to move forward without him now.
Can’t you just hear these stories and a thousand more echoed in the ones brought to Jesus today? Don’t we still do the same, trying somehow to understand?
Indeed, I do not doubt that those who spoke to Jesus about the tragic deaths of those Galileans were wanting to place blame, and no doubt such blame was well deserved. I expect they hoped Jesus would do the same — pointing to the obvious evil which Pilate had done, condemning him for this and more. Those speaking seem less clear about who is responsible for the falling of the tower of Siloam, but the questions remain: “Why this? Why now? Why them and not some others? Why anyone at all?” In response, though, Jesus doesn’t even begin to try to answer. He does not speak of blame. Instead, Jesus brings the focus back home, using these awful tragedies to bring us all to our knees.
It is not at all our first human instinct to go there though. Too often, instead, we look away, allowing ourselves to remain in the superficial, not going to places of such deep awareness or self examination.
Indeed, I found myself doing just that a few days back: distancing myself so as not to have to feel too much or look too closely. Perhaps it was necessary to do this then as I had to ‘stay above it’ in order to do what needed to be done next. But even so…
This is how it was.
I had arrived just on time at the funeral home where I would shortly officiate the funeral of the 43 year old I mention above. It is hard to look in the face of such a senseless loss of one so young — one who through no fault of his own, collapsed and died instantly a week before. I have been here before, too many times, of course, walking with the families of those who were too young. One always wants to lay blame or at least to find reason. Reason which is always, always elusive. I was not doing this then though.
Rather, I walked in the front door and found a place to hang my coat. I stood and talked with the funeral director, sorting out some minor details and then making small talk, smiling together about odd moments we have shared over the years. I made my way to the back of the room to visit with the organist for a moment. He and I have been doing this together a lot lately, so we only needed a moment to make sure we both understood how the service would progress. My spirit, my demeanor was somber, yes, but if I’m honest, my first inclination was to distance myself from the unspeakable pain which was permeating that room.
It is what we do, of course. It is what we always do. For the most part, many of the mourners were doing it, too, right up until we ended the small talk at 6:30 and began with prayer.
It is what we always do.
And then, Jesus brings it home.
Indeed, Jesus ‘brought it home’ to me in a powerfully direct way not twenty four hours after that memorial service this week. I came home to the news of the massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand. As of this writing 49 are dead and countless are suffering.
And yes, it surely grows hard to look at after a while. Such as this has been repeated again and again and again — fueled by the sort of violent hatred which is hard to comprehend. I find I want to turn my head the other way, to shake my head, or to point a finger of blame. I was, no doubt, doing all of these even as I sent a quick note to a friend for whom these awful events had surely stirred up anxiety and fear, not to mention powerful grief in the community he serves. Mohammed Lobadi is the president of the Islamic Center here in DeKalb. My words to him were brief. I told him we were praying for him, for them. I asked what we could do.
He quickly replied:
“Thank you very much for reaching out. We ask God to comfort the victims and their families. We trust in God and what he has arranged for us and we pray that something good comes out of this tragedy. Please spread the message of peace and draw from your own experiences with your interactions with your Muslim neighbors to help educate people and eliminate hateful speech and fear mongering. Thanks again and peace to you and yours and on earth.”
Mohammed was the voice of Jesus to me, for me, for he brought it home.
It is easy to point fingers, of course, and there is plenty of blame to go around. But in a few short sentences, Mohammed reminded me that even this terrible tragedy which took place thousands of miles away, is about us. It is about what happens within me and you and what happens between us and the world.
It brings me to my knees, it does, this important word which brings it all back home to my own doorstep and into the recesses of my own heart. And this is repentance: the same recognition, the same turning around which Jesus calls for now.
For oh, this is so. I have been part of these very conversations for a long time now. My awareness runs deep, it truly does. However, my privilege allows me to turn away and forget — to make small talk and tend other matters which, in the end, are far less important: even as I did in the funeral home a few nights back. Some days it loses its sense of urgency: this constant need to work for peace, as other more mundane but still pressing matters vie for my attention.
This is why I am especially grateful for the words of Jesus at the end of our Gospel reading this week where he speaks of the Gardener begging for and being granted one more year. I am grateful now that the Gardener has claimed for me ‘one more year’ — precious time when I am called to become more deeply aware of the manure I am standing knee deep in even now.
Manure. Waste, yes, the waste of death and regrets and words too often unspoken, deeds too often undone, but waste which God is somehow using to help me grow and learn and risk and hope and stand more surely and speak more clearly the truth of God’s deep love for all people. Manure which is calling me to repent, yes, and then to be and do precisely what my good friend Mohammed called me to again a few days back. To work for peace. Here and now. Today and tomorrow.
Indeed, perhaps this is all there is for you and me. And yes, perhaps this is everything.
And in the meantime, as I am leaning into repentance once more, I am so grateful that God is not yet done. Not with me. Not with you. Not will all this heartbreaking, heartbroken world. For there is one sure word of hope today for all of us and that is this:
There is still time. And God is not done yet.
- I have offered a number of stories which brought the words of today’s Gospel to life for me. What stories would you add?
- Can you see how Mohammed’s words called me to repentance? Who has spoken such words to you? How have you responded?
- Manure is waste. It is what is left over, left behind. It is also that which nurtures and brings life. What ‘manure’ are you standing knee deep in today? How is that very ‘manure’ calling you, enabling you to ‘repent?’ What does such repentance look like for you? For your community?