Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
March 24, 2019
Life should be fair, but it clearly isn’t.
- When the Manafort verdict came out, a Brooklyn defense attorney noted that a recent client received more time in prison for stealing $100 worth of quarters from a laundry mat.
- Recent news reports wealthy parents buying their children into elite schools.
Fairness and justice are deeply held values. Without some degree of fairness, the moral center collapses. And yet, no matter how hard you try, it is impossible to achieve perfect fairness.
The world is a messy place and sometimes bad theology gets in the way and makes it even worse. Jesus is addressing the doctrine of fairness run amok. I would like to believe if I lead a good life; seeking to be ethical, give back to the common good through service, and generally living by the Golden Rule of doing unto others as I would like them to do unto me; that I would be rewarded. I don’t want a big reward. I don’t need a million dollars. Don’t give me a trophy. I would just like to be healthy, have enough to live without fear, and I would like to have work that makes a difference in the world. That doesn’t sound too selfish or outrageous, does it? Yet how many people really get even this modest and reasonable reward for living well?
Some of my favorite scriptures lead me to think life should be fair. I love Psalm 1, “The righteous are like a tree planted by the water, given fruit in season…the wicked are like chaff blown and tossed in the wind.” I remember the first verse of scripture I learned. I was given a pencil in Sunday School. I was lime green, with gold letters saying, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Eph. 4:13).” To this day, when I smell the eraser shavings, I feel this surge of hope. If I can erase words, what else could I accomplish? (and then I sneeze!)
This blends into an ethic; work hard, play by the rules, and life will turn out OK; because God is fair and just. But what do we think when things don’t work out? In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is referring to an atrocity committed by Herod, where he slaughtered a group of Jews for offering religious sacrifices he had banned. He had them killed for enacting their most sacred duties to God. When Jesus asks if they were sinners, everyone would answer, “Of course not. They were martyrs.” In Jesus’s second example, Jesus says what about people who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a building collapsed on them? Did God put a group of sinners together and cause it to fall just on them, while miraculously protecting the saints, who were unscathed? Apparently not, the rain falls on the just and unjust alike. Good people die in floods, airplane crashes, and from cancer at the same rate as bad people. Also, lots of people get hit by buses. We should do something about that. Life leaves us feeling like Job, who suffered unfairly, and I don’t like that.
It’s tempting to question God when the world is disturbingly unfair. Why does God allow so much evil and suffering to occur? Surely God can do better than this!
Kate Bowler, is a pastor diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. Her journey led to writing the book, “Everything happens for a reason, and other lies I have loved.” Bowler reflects deeply on the simplistic and maddening things people say to her about suffering. She knows they mean well and want to offer comfort. But words it can be dismissive, or judging. Here are a few examples, followed by her tart commentary:
Its going to get better, I promise.
Well Fairy God mother, when things get worse, that’s going to be a tough row to hoe.
I had a friend with cancer and they got better when they tried…
“I thought I should listen to my oncologist, …, but it turns out I should be listening to you. Please tell me about the secrets that only one flaxseed provider in Orlando knows. Wait, let me get a pen.”
Everything happens for a reason.
“The only thing worse than saying this is pretending you know the reason. I have had hundreds of people tell me they know the reason for my cancer. Because of my sin, because God is just, because God is unjust. Because of my aversion to Brussel Sprouts…. When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to give them a life preserver, is to give them a reason.”
Don’t judge yourself if you have said these words, I have too. We mean to bring comfort, but it is hard to get what people need and feel, so we have to ask and listen. Sometimes these phrases are an attempt to protect ourselves from suffering. It’s hard to spend time with people who are suffering. It brings us close to our own fears and anxieties about pain and death and the unfairness of life. We get anxious and say platitudes to offer comfort. We are really trying to take care of ourselves, and often miss what is happening for the person who is suffering. Bowles suggests we keep it simple. Let people know you care and ask them what they would like. Bring them a small gift. Ask what they would like to hear about. Be willing to sit in silence, and hold their hand if appropriate. Make a human connection.
Rule number one is always this. Don’t try to make sense of what people are suffering. Trust that they can do their own work. Even if they ask you, “Why is this happening to me?” Don’t take the bait!” Say you don’t know, and but you believe that God’s loves them. And better yet, just love them.
I’ve had my own long journey with these questions. I have had Crohn’s Disease, an auto-immune disease in the colon, which has lead to six surgeries, more than a dozen hospitalizations, living with a illiostomy bag twice, one near death experience on a ventilator, and lots of questions. None of this entitles me to the ultimate explanation of suffering in the world and the nature of God. I can only say how I have gotten through it and what God means to me.
My first rule is to stop blaming myself. Whenever I have a flair up, I question myself. Did I not manage my stress properly, did I eat too much, what did I do wrong? Occasionally, I did step away from my best health practices, but other times, it is just random. I tell myself to stop searching for answers and assigning blame. Do what I need to do to be well, and then accept the present. This is just what is right now.
At times I get angry and feel like it is unfair. If only I didn’t have Crohn’s Disease, I would have more energy, and I could do more and be more successful. I would have written several books by now and maybe reformed the wider church. But maybe I would be a less humble person. Maybe I would be a more healthy, energetic, egotistical jerk. Perhaps Crohn’s Disease has made me kinder, less controlling and more accepting of others. I’m not saying God gave me Crohn’s Disease to make me a better person. That would actually tick me off, and I don’t think God is a jerk. I might want everything to happen for a reason. But some things just happen. The cause may be in our genetics. We are temporal, flawed and mortal beings. I accept my body is imperfect, and life isn’t fair. But that doesn’t take away the reality that life is incredible. I have been on the receiving end of so much kindness and compassion. It has been 15 years since I have endured surgery and it feels like a wondrous gift.
The purpose of theology is, in part, to understand suffering, evil and tragedy in the world. We often start with the question, “What is fair and just?” But what if we start with a different question? “Who is God? What is God like?” I think that is what Luke is telling us in this parable about the fig tree. I think the owner of the vineyard is an allegory for our inner voice of judgment. “You aren’t producing like you should. You are falling short. You don’t deserve the soil you are taking up.” We fear that God will judge us, and we will lose God’s favor. We will become poor and destitute. People may stop loving us. We don’t matter unless we produce.
I think God is the gardener in the parable. God is the one who says, “Be patient.” “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” And a year later, I think God will still be looking for another way to help us flourish. God is the constant gardener. After all, humanity starts in a garden. God is the sower of seeds, the one who makes the tiny mustard seed become great, the one who makes blossoms in the desert. Christ is the vine and we are the branches.
Friends, life is often hard, unfair and unjust. But God is not punishing you. Nor is God leaving you behind. I can’t tell you that everything will work out, or every story will have a happy ending if you have faith. But I can share my deep hope that God is like the sun, who rises with each new day and shines upon us. Nothing shall separate us from the God of life and love.