The Reverend Kathleen Killian
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
For Better or for Worse
Body and Soul
Our readings this morning ask us to take a long look at ourselves, body and soul, for better or for worse, as Moses does in our Old Testament passage. Who am I? he asks. Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?; a Hebrew in Egypt, an alien resident in a foreign land, an adopted son of Pharaoh, a murderer on the run; for Moses had killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. His crime found out, Pharaoh tried to kill Moses, who then fled from the palace into the desert where he lived as a poor shepherd for some forty years until God shows up in a burning bush. Who are you? asks Moses of God, hiding his face in fear.
In our gospel from Luke a fearful crowd tells Jesus about the tragic deaths of some Galileans who were slaughtered by Pilate. Who were they? Did God cause them to suffer so because they were worse sinners than other Galileans? Jesus ups the ante if you will by telling them of eighteen Judeans who had been crushed when the tower of Siloam fell on them, asking the crowd: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? plunging his listeners headlong into one of life’s most unanswerable questions.
From the beginning of time, we humans have sought for an answer, an explanation and reason why bad things happen to good people, to innocent people; heck, why bad things happen at all in God’s kingdom of love. Jesus doesn’t answer per se; he doesn’t deny the presence of brutal and evil oppressive forces. He doesn’t dive into theological discourse and defend God or argue for the deep moral cohesion of the kingdom of love; he doesn’t employ logic, excuse, or divine alibi. He simply says an emphatic no! (οὐχί); No, I tell you, these people were no better or worse than others. Sin had nothing to do with their untimely deaths. Just as the crowd was about to let out a collective sigh of relief, Jesus cuts in: But, he says, unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did. Unless you turn to God, you too, will die.
Jesus goes on to tell a seemingly non-sequitur of a story about a fig tree. In ancient Israel, figs and fig trees were very important as a source of food and for economic reasons, and in scripture are symbolic of prosperity and religious knowledge, even of Israel itself; and in their barren state of turning away from God and the consequence; after leaving the Garden, Adam and Eve covered their nakedness with fig leaves (Genesis 3:7). The particular fig tree in Jesus’ story was barren, having remained fruitless for three years. And so the owner decided to cut it down as it was a waste of soil and sun, rain and care. But the gardener had another idea, that with the help of a little manure and given a little more time of one more year, the fig tree might well bear fruit. St. Augustine considered this manure to be the dung of humility.
But just as the fig tree is about to sigh with relief at its reprieve, Jesus steps in: If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, then you can cut it down.
Like the fig tree, like the Galileans and Judeans, we all have a pull-by-date, an expiry date; or as I like to put it, “a window of opportunity” in which to bear the fruit of the spirit in body and soul, to turn back to God and head straight home.
In his classic book, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell writes that not being alert, not quite awake, is the sin of missing the window of opportunity that is this moment. The urgency in Jesus’ parable lies in direct relationship to this immediacy and fragility of life—to sudden unexpected death—and to the certainty of death. Lent is such a forty day window in which to wake up and smell the coffee; to be humbled by the Spirit’s aerating, pruning, and turning over of the earth of our body and soil of the soul, and to not bear the fruit of sin.
Did the fig tree bear fruit or was it cut down? Will we bear the fruit of humble repentance or perish before doing so? Jesus doesn’t say and leaves the story open-ended.
In Buddhism there is a concept called “mu,” which means to “un-ask” the question when its too small for the truth. In the whole of our gospel passage, it’s as if Jesus says: Mu. Un-ask the question about why bad things happen, ask a different question: for better or for worse, who am I body and soul?; un-ask the question about what will happen in the future; ask a less fearful more fertile one, one that will bear the moment of possibility and change, growth and grace; for the Holy One is in the midst of the world, and we are in the midst of a holy Reality.
As others, I have known this “nowness” of God when all is lost, and the mercy of Christ’s redemptive love in the midst of harm and suffering, body and soul. But God’s mercy is not the same as justice; to pay a debt is just because it is due. But the mercy of God is unwarranted—it is an un-owed act of goodness and a lifting up of what is pressed down. Thus the awful precariousness and strange beauty of our fleeting existence arcs toward joy. Our psalmist sings of this today—my soul thirsts for you, O Lord, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water. But in your loving-kindness you hold me fast. And so my soul is content, as with marrow and fatness, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips. There are countless examples throughout history of those who have known the power of God’s mercy and love in atrocity, rejoicing under the shadow of wings at the last and in the end.
In our Epistle, St. Paul offers us sympathetic encouragement, that any and all of the trials and temptations we might experience are common to us all; for better or for worse, humanity is a common lot. Though Jesus assures us that God does not punish the wrongdoer with death, we also know that wrongful behavior inflict pain and suffering both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls; as do the less obvious assaults of evil thoughts and the seemingly benign tendencies of indifference and inertia
Our readings this morning come at the grievous time of war in Ukraine, and its senseless destruction and violence and killing of God’s children. Over three million people have fled from their homes, refugees now in foreign lands. Such sorrow is overwhelming and understandably we lament and cry out: Why? Where are you God? Who are you anyway? But maybe can we ask a different question: Is it possible to fight against gross and heinous injustice without hating the enemy? For evil would like nothing more than to infest and blacken our hearts with hateful thoughts, words, and deeds. Br. Laurence Freeman (WCCM) considers that even legitimate violence shames us to some degree and needs forgiveness. Will we do the hard work of forgiveness and disarming our hearts, beating its weapons into the plowshares of compassion? Will we become like the fig tree, whose broad shade and sweet fruit is gift for all, a manifestation and sure sign of God’s mercy, love, and new life?
There is an old story about Peter at the gates of heaven. The world has ended, and the window of opportunity is shut and closed. The sheep have been separated from the goats, and all the faithful have entered heaven. As Peter is preparing to close the gates, he sees Jesus standing outside them. Lord, he says, what are you doing? Come inside. Jesus replies, I’m waiting for Judas.
Whoever you are—a betrayer like Judas, faithful like Moses, fearful like the crowd, impatient like the owner of the fig tree, or prudent like the gardener—you are a child of God, for better or for worse, beloved now and forever by the eternal and merciful One—the almighty I am who I am—who is our helper and our hope.
The season of Lent is such a time of being turned and returning to the One, of growing in compassion and humility, body and soul, that we are prepared to die—and that we are readied to live life now!—and bear the fruits of the kingdom of love this day, and in the days to come.