When I was graduating high school, my mom told me a story of how they thought maybe when I was little, I’d be an engineer because I would take apart things. Such ideas were quickly moved on from when they realized that didn’t put things back together, just took them apart. I assume I either wanted to know if I could dismantle this thing or, I wanted to know the pieces and how they work. I didn’t need it to work. I don’t think this was encouraged when I was young, I don’t remember there being piles of disassembled toys floating around.
But, I think the desire remained. Less about objects and more about the world, systems, organizations. The restaurant I worked for was owned by a local company with a national reach. I regularly asked questions that my bosses didn’t seem to want to answer about why certain decisions were made, if this really was the most efficient use of our time, where in the organization structure was that a good idea? I am very curious, I also have a lot of opinions, which wasn’t my job.
I’ve asked this recently, too. Like a toddler trying to understand the world as it opens up to them, I too ask why. When someone talks about the structural damage COVID can do to some people’s hearts I want to know why and how and certainly not, we don’t know. Why do some people of generally the same demographics come out with very different symptoms and long-term consequences? Why do some people get sick and others don’t?
We like reasons. We want to be able to look at large gatherings last summer and say, “Yup, that’s what happens. That’s why.” When we ask “Why did this happen,” easy answers like that are really nice.
This is what I think the group that gathered before Jesus was hoping for. Pilate, who we really only think about when in relationship to Jesus’ arrest, but Pilate was a person who existed beyond that moment. And despite the way we generally see him, he was vicious and cruel. And being appointed to Judea wasn’t because people like you. It’s where someone was sent in hopes they would be forgotten. When Pilate was finally recalled from his appointment, the Emperor demanded his death.
That Pilate was the one these folks were talking about when they asked Jesus, why? Why were these folks killed? why so brutal? why when they were in a moment of sacred-ness? why?
They wanted easy answers, and they wanted answers that would alleviate their fear. Were they more sinful? They must be more sinful. How did they offend God? There must be something about them that’s different than us… so that it’s not going to happen to us. Or how we prevent it.
And Jesus reminds them about a tower that fell. Death is precarious, arbitrary, a mystery. Which, when we’re really honest, we know. We know that it isn’t just the people who were reckless that got sick, some of the most careful people we know were too. Some 90-year-olds lived and 40-year-olds died. There seems to be no rhyme or reason. Because it could have been me, or you. And we ought to be careful with that saying, “but by the grace of God,” as if those who suffer don’t have God’s grace, which isn’t true.
And we do this, even if it’s not really about us at all, we want to understand, we want to know what things mean, we want to know if it makes sense, the things happening in the world around us. Why would someone be shot by the police, what makes one person more likely than another? What did they do, what must they have done? Because you make have heard someone say, well, Eric Gardner was selling illegal cigarettes, or George Floyd was passing counterfeit bills, or Brianna Taylor used to date a drug dealer, or anything, right? But we can look at the people of color who have been killed, and sometimes we look at what makes us different, what they did, how we can guarantee that we’ll be ok. Or that this all makes sense somehow… but it doesn’t make sense, when a child, or an adult, is shot for walking down the street, Tamir Rice playing in a park, Elijah McClain walking down the street while having autism, or Sandra Bland driving, it just seems so precarious. We could easily focus all the reasons that make us different, that make an excuse, that make us unique.
It’s what has made mass shootings so devastating and so easily forgettable on a mass scale, we can always look at how different we are from each of the person who was in whatever concert, synagogue, temple, theater, school… but it also gives us the most honest way we can see why Jesus answered how he did.
Jesus’ answer to why is… a fig tree and is found in his lament over Jerusalem. Repent.
And repent is a hard word, a very church-y word. It has been proclaimed from fire and brimstone pulpits and into the faces of people whose lives have been deemed unsuitable. I’m not sure if it’s a word we should reclaim, or a word that we should replace. It means to turn. So often when repent is used against people, it’s to turn from something their doing.
In the book we’re reading for Wednesday nights, Richard Rohr tells the story of Caryll Houselander who found herself on a train, overwhelmed by presence of Christ in the faces of everyone around her. And then for days as she walked the streets of her city, the face of Christ in each person.
Maybe, to turn to God like we are so often called to is to turn to our neighbors, clinging to the belief that God is incarnate in all that was spoken into creation. Maybe, to repent is to turn from the idea that we are closed off, separated from each other, what makes someone more or less deserving suffering, and turn to each other, turn to community, turn to what binds us one to another, turn to the Christ that is in each of us that connects us. To turn to the face the fact that it could be any of us, and in being connected by Christ, it is each one of us. We can see the God who is in each of us, in the face of another, we then can see ourselves in the face of each other.
So it isn’t about what one who got sick, or the one who was who gets hurt, it isn’t about them, it’s about the God who made each of us, who connects us one to another, who creates a beloved community in which we are to look out for each other. Jesus is calling us the fig tree. and our fruit is the work of kin-dom building, working for a world that looks like the one God was creating, created us for, The fruits of justice and mercy and compassion. It’s the fruits of community, it’s the fruits of overturning systems like those that were controlling the folks, turning from the religious powers that were stifling the faithful in Jerusalem and all of Judea, turning from the political powers of Rome that kept peace at the end of the sword, that kept the people oppressed as a means to keep them quiet, to keep them still, to keep them from speaking up in the face of injustice. Because as it is true now, it has been true, in the face of change and fear, we, humans, turn inward, to our families, to ourselves.
We are the fig tree, our fruit, like all fruit, is meant to be shared. Fruit is meant to support the needs of others. And when it doesn’t, when the fruit is no good, what good is the tree? And yet, if we are the tree, hope hasn’t been lost. The fig tree isn’t abandoned–it will be given fertilizer and the best sunshine and extra water, but not too much water. It will be checked on, talk to? It will be given every opportunity to bear fruit. We’re nourished, supported, cared for tenderly, given everything we need, more than we need and maybe more that we deserve to turn to each other, to turn back to the world, to turn to community, to repent, to turn, to be in community with everyone, with those in need, with those who seem so unlike us, with those we’d rather distance ourselves from, with those we’re hoping we can stay separate from.
Lent is filled with hard stories, sometimes because we know them so well and sometimes because they make such a strong call on our lives as individuals and faith communities. Lent is a time of reflection and repentance, turning around, turning toward, setting right to set the course for the rest of the year ahead, because in a year we may need to adjust out course a bit again. No shame in that, the liturgical year is designed for it.
But it isn’t just about you, or me, or even this community. It’s about all that bear the divine spark, that are filled with Christ, that bind us to each other, that turn our questions from why them to how do we help to set the world right? What is the fruit we are being nourished to bear and share with the world around us?