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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Where Is God When Tragedy Strikes?

Luke 13:1-9

“Where Is God When Tragedy Strikes?”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

Sunday, March 11, 2007

During the season of Lent, the season when we get ready for Easter, which this year is all of March – I’m doing a sermon series called, “Where Is God?” Last week we talked about “Where Is God When You’re Worried?” Where is God when you’re biting your fingernails, and rubbing your temples, and staring at the ceiling at 3 in the morning? I’ve heard it said that 90% of the things we worry about never happen. And the worriers say, “See??? If you had let me worry a little more, maybe I could have taken care of the other 10%.” A little worry is a good thing, because it motivates us to be prepared. That’s the Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared.” Prepared for what? For anything. That’s what responsible citizens do. We prepare.

But what about that other 10% that nobody could possibly prepare for? What about the stuff that you don’t even know enough to worry about? And even if you did know about it, what about the stuff that no amount of worrying, no amount of preparation can ever teach you how to handle? Where is God then? Where is God when tragedy strikes?

Where is God when tragedy strikes? I’ve got to tell you: this is a scary question. It still scares me, even after almost 20 years in ministry. I think it scares all of us, to some degree, because none of us want to appear as though we’re weak in our faith, or questioning the will of God. I think we all want to be helpful in hard times, so we’re afraid to let on to the people we’re trying to help that we don’t have all the answers, or that we don’t know what to do to make things right.

Where is God when tragedy strikes? The scripture today tells us there are a couple of places where God isn’t. I want to start with the very basic questions Jesus asks that teach where God is NOT. Scripture says,

“At that very time there were some present who told him 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… 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 ….”

The first place God isn’t – God isn’t on the defense. One of the dangers of being a professional minister (one of several) is falling prey to the temptation to be God’s defense attorney. The Minister of Defense. I think anyone who’s trying to explain why bad things happen can fall prey to this; it’s just that we ministers do it publicly, with microphones. This is the first thing Jesus didn’t do. When the people confronted him with stories of tragedy, Jesus didn’t turn aloof. He didn’t say, “If you really knew God… like I know God… you wouldn’t ask such questions.” Jesus didn’t get angry. He didn’t say, “How dare you question the will of God! You sinner!” He didn’t turn aloof, he didn’t get angry, and he didn’t try to divert the question by over-explaining. He didn’t announce that this was the perfect time to start his twelve-session seminar on the problem of evil, pull out his PowerPoint projector and invite everyone to take a seat. All of these – turning aloof, getting angry, boring people until they fall asleep and forget their questions – all of these are defense mechanisms aimed at keeping God safe. They all tell people in one way or another, “Don’t question God.” And, we can take it one step further. The truth is these are all preemptive strikes to keep God’s defense attorney safe. (You know, in ancient Rome, when you lost a case and had to go to jail, your defense attorney had to go to jail, too. We, who feel the need to act as God’s defense attorney act as though that’s still true.) When we tell people they shouldn’t question God, what we’re really saying is, “I’m scared to death you’re going to question ME about God, and I’m scared I won’t have a good answer.” Think about it – if ANYONE could have explained why these bad things happened to these good people, it would have been Jesus, who perfectly knew the mind and will of God. And he didn’t. May we, as we try to care for people who are suffering, do as Jesus.

The other thing Jesus didn’t do when confronted with questions about tragedy is he didn’t turn into God’s prosecuting attorney. I’ve watched enough Nancy Grace (and she is the world’s foremost legal authority – just ask her), to know that there are *some* prosecuting attorneys who aren’t trying to uncover the truth, they’re just trying to get a conviction. They just want to find someone to blame for a crime, whether that person is guilty or not. They’re bad prosecuting attorneys. A great temptation when tragedy strikes is for us to want to become bad prosecuting attorneys for God, and find someone to blame, whether they’re guilty or not, whether it makes sense or not. We just want an explanation, even if we know it’s wrong.

We know from his response that the people who put the questions to Jesus were wanting to play God’s prosecuting attorney. They wanted Jesus to play it, too. They wanted him to say that the people who were murdered during worship were punished because they were sinful. They wanted to think that the people the Tower of Siloam fell on deserved God’s wrath. Here in America, we’ve seen our own towers fall. And right after 9/11, a lot of people wanted a quick answer, a place for blame. They said that God sent those planes into the World Trade Center to punish America for becoming an immoral, Godless society. No. Osama Bin Laden sent those planes into the World Trade Center to punish America for becoming (in his opinion) an immoral, Godless society. The people in those towers, or in the Pentagon, or on Flight 93 weren’t any worse sinners than anyone else. In fact, they may have been more heroic than any of us (thank God) will ever have to be. Easy answers always want to blame the victims. The purpose of easy answers isn’t to uncover the truth; the purpose of easy answers is to get a conviction. Jesus doesn’t play that game, either.

So where is God when tragedy strikes? If God doesn’t need a defense attorney, and doesn’t need a prosecutor, what does God expect us to do? What are we supposed to think when we don’t know what to think, when our world turns upside down, and our hearts break? When bad things happen a lot of counselors – defensive and prosecuting – will turn to what Jesus says next. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Wait a minute. Doesn’t that contradict what Jesus just said? That the people who had died weren’t worse sinners and weren’t being punished, but that if you don’t repent you’ll be punished like they were? That doesn’t make sense. It’s too easy to use a sentence like that to manipulate people for our own devices. I think – and others who have studied this scripture think this, too – that Jesus was using hyperbole to make the point that he’s not about assigning blame; he’s about turning our hearts and minds to God. Which is exactly where he leads in what he says next.

Jesus tells a parable about a man who plants a fig tree in his vineyard. Why you plant a fig tree in a vineyard, I don’t know. It sounds like the poor fig tree is out of place and all alone from the start. I imagine the fig tree thinking, “Why am I here? Why can’t I be over there, with all the other fig trees? Why did the owner plant me here, in this spot, in the first place?” The owner comes, after three years, and finds no figs on the tree (again), and tells the gardener, “Cut the darn thing down. Why is it taking up space, why is it wasting soil?” But the gardener begs for mercy on behalf of the tree. He says to the owner, “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.”

If you want to interpret the parable, you might be able to say that the owner is God the judge and the gardener is Jesus the defense attorney, but I think that’s trying too hard to give an easy interpretation to a complex story. It also gives too simple an explanation to the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son, who share the same mind and will. Dissecting parables is kind of like dissecting frogs – you end up with a lot of frog parts that don’t work anymore. Parables are more like precious diamonds, with a thousand facets, and you can never see all of them at once. And here we are, trying to figure out God, who we can’t see at all.

But I do think the one character in the parable that we can all identify with is the little fig tree. Tragedy strikes, and we feel as though we’re out there, all alone, by ourselves, wondering, “Why in the world did God put me here? Why did God stick me in this place? Why did God drop this situation on top of me? What kind of fruit could God possibly expect me to produce from an experience like this?”

When Jesus was confronted with the problem of tragic things happening to ordinary people, he didn’t give us any easy answers. He told us what God wasn’t doing. But to tell us where God was in all this, he told a story, and he didn’t give any explanation. (I’m trying so hard to stick to the scripture and not repeat any of the easy answers I’ve been told. It’s such a temptation, because I really don’t want you leaving church thinking, “That was a downer.” But maybe there is no simple way to answer the question of where God is when tragedy strikes, and maybe we diminish God when we try to put answers where no words can go.) Maybe we’re supposed to be left with the wonder and awe that tragedy happens – and we’re still here. Maybe that’s where God is. Maybe God’s whole point is to make us think, and count our days, count our hours, minutes and seconds. Maybe God’s point is to redirect our questions from, “Where are, you, God?” to, “Now that this awful thing has happened, what kind of fruit does God want me to bear?”

Which takes us back to the fig tree. The poor little fig tree, all alone, with its bare branches, doesn’t get any assurances. But it does get dug around. It does get a little fertilizer. It does get another year to squeeze some figs out of its branches. It isn’t left totally alone. It is cared for. So maybe that’s where God is. God is in the soil, the water, even in the manure of another year. God is helping, and God is waiting, watching, hoping that this year, this year, we’ll grow and produce some useful fruit. Maybe God is waiting to see what we do with the gift of another season of life. God is not in the towers falling, God is not in the easy answers, God is in the life that’s left behind. God is in the air we breathe, in the sun that warms our faces, in the “molecules filled with holy”1 – and in the fruit that we have yet to bear this year, this season, this life.

As you prepare yourself for Easter, in these, the weeks of Lent, whether you’re standing on the level ground of confident faith or if the earth beneath you is shaking – you’re here. Wherever God is, you’re here. Thank God. Grow. And bear fruit.

1 Chris Rice.