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

Monday, February 29, 2016

Where God Isn't

2015-02-28 Luke 13:1-9
Where God Isn't
 I've heard it said that 90% of the things we worry about never happen. 
    And the people who worry 90% of the time say,  
    "You're welcome." 
    "If I had a few more sleepless nights, maybe I could have taken care of the other 10%."  
    A little worry is a good thing, because it motivates us to be prepared. 
    "Be Prepared."  
    Prepared for what? 
    For anything. For everything. Stock market crashes. The zombie apocalypse. 
    That's what smart, responsible citizens do. 
    We prepare. 
    But what about that other 10% - the things that nobody could possibly prepare for? 
    What about the stuff that you don't even know enough to worry about? 
    Do you ever worry that you're not worrying enough? 
    Do you worry that if worry is your superpower, you're not fulfilling your destiny? 
    Where is God when not even our worry can protect us? 
    Where is God when God's not there? 
    There was a car wreck on Alcoa highway.  
    A car veered over the median. 
    It hit a car, went airborne, and rammed head-on into another. 
    A young mother and her child, who just happened to be driving along, being good drivers, being good citizens, being good people, were killed. 
    Kristen called me from the road. 
    She and our girls were on that highway, coming to church. 
    They were just past the wreck when it happened. 
    That kind of thing always makes you think, what if? 
    What if they had been 30 seconds earlier?  
    What if they had been on the road at the wrong time? 
    Was God on their side?  
    Why wasn't God on the other side of the road with the young mother and her child? On her side? 
    Where was God? 
    Where is God? 
    Where is God when God's not there? 
    In the scripture today, Jesus gets asked this question. 
    Now please, bear in mind this is not the only place in the Bible that talks about where God is when tragedy strikes. 
    If I were trying to comfort someone, I would not start with this passage. 
    But it IS one place where Jesus gets asked the question directly. 
    Where was God? 
    Jesus starts by teaching about a couple of places where God isn't. 
    And then it tells us in a sort of roundabout way where God might be. 
    It's a hard question, and Jesus gives no easy answers. 
    Where is God NOT? 
    "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 playing de-fence. 
    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, and we ministers get to 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 smile and say, "Tsk, tsk, tsk. If you really knew God… like I know God… you wouldn't ask such silly 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, saying that this was the perfect time to start his twelve-part sermon series on the problem of evil. 
    All these are just defensive lines aimed at protecting God. 
    "Don't question God."  
    Well, why not? 
    Dig a little deeper and you see that not only are these pointed at keeping God safe, but also keeping God's defense team 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. 
    I'm not advocating it. Just reporting it.) 
    We're don't defend God as much as "OUR" God. 
    Think about it – if ANYONE could have explained why these bad things happened to these good people, it would have been Jesus. 
    And he didn't. 
    So why do we? 
    The other thing Jesus didn't do 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 – she's on television), 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. 
    That's how you keep your job. 
    Same with religious people wanting a conviction. 
    We want to keep our job, or our status as GOOD, Christian people. 
    They wanted Jesus to play prosecutor, too. 
    They wanted him to say that the people who were murdered during worship were punished because they were sinful. 
    Or their liberal nation was sinful. 
    Because there were refugees.  
    Because the Romans had taken away their guns. 
    Because too many sinners were living strange lifestyles and never came to church. 
    Well, maybe not, but you get the idea. 
    Easy answers always want to blame the victims. 
    Easy answers don't want to uncover the truth; they just want a conviction. 
    Offense or defense, it's still a game. 
    Jesus doesn't play. 
    He calls out the players, 
    "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."  
    In other words, stoppit, y'all. 
    Case closed. 
    Game over. 
    Story time. 
    As he does so many times when he's close to touching the holy, Jesus tells a story. 
    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 lonely and misplaced from the start. 
    The fig tree thinks, "Why am I here? 
    Why can't I be over there, with all the other fig trees? 
    Why did the owner make me so weird and out of place?"  
    Have you ever felt like that? 
    Three years later, the owner comes, and finds no figs on the fig tree (again), and tells the gardener,  
    "Cut the dang thing down. 
    Why is it taking up space, why is it wasting earth?"  
    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 a one-to-one interpretation to a complex story. 
    It's a parable, not a solution. 
    Parables make you "hmm," more than, "Ohhh." 
    They're hard. 
    But I do think the one character in the parable that we can all identify with is the little, confused and unproductive 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 plop me in this awful place? 
    Why did God drop this situation on top of me? 
    What kind of fruit could God possibly expect me to produce from dirt 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 essentially told the blamer-gamers, "Shut up, you're giving me a headache." 
    "Repent! Or you'll perish, too!" 
    He told a story. Without an explanation. 
    There are some waters not even Jesus will walk on. 
    So 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 only stories can go. 
    Maybe we're supposed to be left with the wonder and awe that even though tragedy happens – we're still here. 
    Maybe that's where God is. 
    Maybe God's whole point is to make us think, make us count our days, count our hours, and minutes and seconds. 
    Maybe God's point is to redirect our questions from.  
    Instead of asking, "Where are, you, God?" to praying,   
    "Here I am, Lord. What kind of fruit do you want me to bear?" 
    "What can I possibly do? Here? Now?" 
    Which takes us back to the little fig tree. 
    Poor fig tree, all alone, with its bare branches, doesn't get any assurances. 
    But it gets some tending. 
    But it does get dug around. 
    It gets yet another year of manure (thank you very much), kind of smelly, but a reprieve nonetheless. 
    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 "organic fertilizer" of another year. 
    God is the fertile ground, 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 or the weapons blazing. 
    God is not in the easy answers. 
    God is in the life that's left behind – confused, alone, but living still. 
    As you prepare yourself for Easter, in these, the weeks of Lent, whether you're standing on the firm ground of confident faith or if the earth beneath you is quaking – you're here. 
    Wherever God is, you're here (thank God). 
    So, grow. 
    And bear what fruit you can.