1 Corinthians 10: 1-13
“The man who has many answers
is often found
in the theaters of information
where he offers, graciously,
his deep findings.
While the man who has only questions,
to comfort himself, makes music.”
― Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings
As humans, we tend to seek out answers to questions that trouble us. We often do that when things aren’t turning out the way we expect (or want) them to. Times when things just don’t make sense. What did I do to deserve this? It’s a question we all may have asked at some time in our lives, or heard someone else ask – when things began to go sideways – when we heard a difficult diagnosis, or lost a loved one, or a significant relationship, or a job that felt secure – (until we found out it wasn’t.) We may have been tempted to wonder why – to seek out a reason. Why, when we have tried to do everything right? It is the question of many who want an answer. . . what have I done to deserve this? Why am I experiencing this pain?
That’s what the Galileans who were talking to Jesus wanted to know. Were those other Galileans slaughtered because they deserved it somehow? Were they worse sinners than other Galileans that this happened to them? And. . . of course. . . outcome, for those living during Jesus’ time, reflected that way of thinking. If things were going badly in one’s life, one must have done something to make it so. One must have sinned and caused God’s ire.
Jesus says, “no!”
“And, remember the Tower of Siloam. . . when it fell and eighteen people were killed, crushed because they were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time? Do you really think it was because of something those individuals did?
“NO!” he said, “This is not the way of God.”
In the Gospel according to John, chapter 9:2, Jesus was asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Again, Jesus denied any connection between sin and the man’s blindness, and he simply went about curing the man. Amen to that, but there’s that question again – blindness caused by the behavior of himself or another? And, when we think of it, things may not have changed much since that time. . .
Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal Priest and author wrote, "Calamity strikes and we wonder what we did wrong, We scrutinize our behavior, our relationships, our diets, our beliefs. We hunt for some cause to explain the effect, in hopes that we can change what we are doing and so stop whatever has gone (or is going) wrong.” “What this tells us is that we are less interested in truth than consequences," Taylor says. "What we crave, above all, is control over the chaos of our lives."
Like me, you may have heard someone ask, “I wonder what he did to deserve that.” And, Jesus remind us, again and again. . . “that is not how it works.” In fact, like the non-productive fig tree, we are spared the ax by a gardener who waters, fertilizes and looks after us, the gardener who knows that we can produce more fully than we do.
To be clear, I am not saying there is no connection between action and outcome. If we overeat certain foods, our bodies will suffer. If we mistreat a friend, that relationship will suffer. If we don’t pay our bills, there will be a response from those to whom we owe money. The consequences of negative actions are predictable. But sometimes, it gets confusing . . . it gets confusing when we have lived in a healthful way, done what we know to be right, tried hard, and still we (or someone we know) suffers.
And Jesus, who did good, who lived in a way that lead others to do good, and to live in ways that respected the dignity of all people . . THAT Jesus died on the cross, in a most excruciating death. So, as Christians, we should all know, deep within us, that we should dismiss the idea that only good things happen to good people.
At the real core of all of this is the scandalous belief that we have to do things to earn God’s love. We don’t. We are unconditionally loved by God. We are sinners, flawed and fragile - AND beloved all the same. We need only to repent, that is turn and reorient ourselves to that fact and to live it. God loves us. . . period. We can’t lose God’s favor by our sinfulness because we don’t earn God’s love in the first place. We have it – by grace.
In his book, The City of God, St. Augustine wrote about the severe suffering that occurred when the barbarians sacked Rome. He noted that in brutal acts such as rape and murder, Christians suffered in the same manner as non-Christians. So, faith in Christ didn’t make them immune to pain nor tragedy. Augustine wrote, “Christians differ from Pagans, not in the ills which befall them, but in what they do with the ills that befall them.” Our faith doesn’t give us a pass on tragedy, nor a way around it. Rather, our faith gives us a way through pain and suffering. God is with us all the while.
Jesus seemed to say to those gathered, looking for answers, Don’t worry about Pilate and all the other things that can come crashing down on your heads and your part – or other’s parts. . That torn place your fear has opened up inside of you. . . is a holy place. Look around while you are there, feeling pain and fear, seeking answers. Pay attention to what you feel. It may hurt you to stay there and it may hurt you to see what you see, but it is not the kind of hurt that leads to death. It is the kind that leads to life.
Someone in my family is battling aggressive Pancreatic Cancer. She has been moved to a nursing center and is unable – because of Covid protocols – to even see her husband but once a week for 30 minutes, and her sons and grandchildren who live nearby, she hasn’t seen in a very long time. We talked by phone last week, and she said, I have so many friends who are my age and even older who are fine and healthy….and I keep wondering why is this happening to me? We talked for a long time that rainy afternoon. She told me what life was like there in her “not my house” room just off the nurses’ station. She told me of her worry and her pain, and she shared her fear. We talked about her mother, who was a woman of deep faith – and a model to both of us. We laughed over family stories and what our children and grandchildren are doing, and about our gardens and what she intends to do in her garden and with her bird feeders when she gets to go home. We cried some and we laughed some. And in the end, the question of why this is happening had turned to one of life – present and past and what comes next even though we both know it might not go the way we want. We all can help ourselves and others reorient and find a way through the difficult times – no matter what they are because God is with us as we do.
When Jesus calls us to Repent, he seemed to say, don’t get hung up on the wrong question. . . the “WHY?” question – for which there is probably never a satisfactory answer. That’s the wrong orientation. Instead, pay attention to one’s orientation to God and the strength that comes there.
As humans, we do seek out answers. The news of the day is harsh and painful. And, surprisingly, it is, in many ways, hard not to watch, for we care, especially, about the people of the Ukraine (and Afghanistan) who are suffering so as they flee homes and danger. We care about what happens to children and to families and to the elderly in this tragic period of history. As we repent, reorient, we pray and meditate, we seek out the aspects of this situation and raise them to God, who hears our prayers, who walks alongside us in our times of despair and sorrow. And as we do, we listen, and consider what we, as individuals, might do here and now in concrete acts of love for our neighbors.
Sooner or later, we all attempt to be reconciled with human suffering, disease, and violence. Lent calls us to come to terms with our mortality every year in the words, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” We all have to deal with those places in life that cause us despair. And when we do, we have a choice. We can choose a theology of reward and punishment, thinking that God is just like us — parceling out punishment for misdeeds— or we can choose the Gospel. The Gospel is that we are all broken, we have all sinned, and that we all suffer, but that God has the final word, and the final word is resurrection. The Gospel is that rather than causing our suffering, God holds us when we suffer. That even God suffered on the cross and ultimately defeated death. The Gospel, through Christ, is that God does not destroy life — God restores it.
May we all live, right here and right now, in this believe.