Monday, February 29, 2016

The Suffering of Untimely Death - Lent 3, Feb 28, 2016

Christians don’t always know what to do with untimely death. We’re pretty good at handling death when it seems “timely,” that is when it happens to someone or something who is quite old, and lived a good life, and maybe has been suffering. At those times, we turn to our Easter faith, and we celebrate that the one who died has new life after death. We turn to our Bibles and we find verses that say things like, “God’s reward for righteousness is a long life,”  which we find in several places in the Old Testament. But when death is “untimely,” when it happens to someone who’s young, or it’s the result of some tragedy or trauma, when it comes out-of-the-blue, and at the wrong time, we don’t really know what to do with that. When someone dies, and it seems that their life is not yet done, it sends us into a quandary. Were they being punished for something? Or is life completely random and there’s no meaning to anything? Was God not watching over them? Or does God not actually protect us from terrible things that go on in the world? If they died, does that mean something might happen to us? When an untimely death happens in our lives, it’s normal for us to go through an existential and theological crisis. And as Christians, we turn to the Bible to see if there’s something that can help us understand.

And so we come to the readings for today. Now before I get into what the readings *do* say, I want to be clear about what they do *not* say. First off, Paul in our reading from 1 Corinthians, is *not* saying that untimely death is God testing us. The first letter to the Corinthians does not have the same theology as the book of Job. While Paul does say that people experience testing, this testing does not come from God. This is a testing that comes from the world, and from the circumstances that people happen to go through in their lives because we’re in the “ends of the ages,” and terrible things happen in these times. In no way is Paul saying here that God sends death or suffering or illness to test us. God helps us to get through these terrible things, through these tests from the world, and God may not stop them from happening, but God definitely does not send them.

The second thing that the readings do *not* say is that untimely death is a punishment for some sin or another. In fact, in the Gospel reading from Luke this morning, Jesus outright rejects that line of thought. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” These Galileans, faithful Jews who had gone to the Temple in Jerusalem, were slaughtered by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers as they worshipped and their blood was splattered across the same altar where the Temple sacrifices were made. Were they being punished by God because somehow they has some terrible hidden sin that only God could see? “No, I tell you.” Jesus says absolutely not. “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.” Jesus is very clear. Unexpected and untimely death is not caused by our sins or failures in life. And I’m very emphatic about this, because sometimes I have heard people who are facing the possibility of an unexpected death say, “Well, I guess God is testing me.” Or, “I don’t know what I did to deserve this suffering.” Or even, “Pastor, why do you think God is punishing me this way?” No, I tell you. No, no, no. God is not a sick and twisted, sadistic deity up in the sky who enjoys seeing us suffer for what we’ve done. God does not test or punish us with suffering as payback for our sins.

So why *do* these things happen? Why *do* we suffer these untimely deaths? Well, first, why they happen, and why we suffer when they happen, are two very different questions. Why they happen is because God created us to grow and become people, and so God gave us the freedom to make choices about how we live our lives. God refuses to control our every step and movement and decision because God has determined that we are not slaves. That means, though, that, because we’re all connected with one another, the choices that others make affect our lives and vice versa. And so, in the Gospel reading, the Galileans who suffered an untimely death did so because Pontius Pilate made the terrible choice to kill them. And the people who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them died because the ones who built the tower didn’t take the proper time and care to build a tower that wouldn’t fall. They died because of shoddy workmanship. Sometimes our own choices in the past have consequences for our death, like if we chose to smoke and die of lung cancer, or if we chose to eat nothing but fatty meat and die of a heart attack, but they’re not punishments. They’re just consequences. If I didn’t know I was allergic to peanuts and then I ate one and went into anaphylactic shock and died, that’s not a punishment. That’s just a consequence. Those poor boys who died on the bobsled track a few weeks ago - they weren’t being punished for their decision to slide down the track after hours. That was just a sad, tragic consequence. So, *why* untimely death happens is because all death is the consequence of living, untimely or not. Untimely death is the price we pay to have freedom of choice for all of us.

But the question of why do we *suffer* untimely death is a different one. As I said at the beginning, there are some deaths that don’t bother us. They are timely. We accept them as a natural, if regrettable, part of life. But there are some deaths that cause us to suffer because they happen at the wrong time. We might say they happen “too soon.” And here we turn to the story of the fig tree that I just read. Most people see the fig tree as a metaphor for ourselves - that if we go for several years without producing fruit then we’re going to be cut down, and they see the landowner as God, and Jesus as the gardener. And this is the standard reading of the text, even if it does lead us to some confusing conclusions about the Trinity. But there’s another way of understanding this story. First there’s the interesting contrast between the landowner and the gardener. The landowner clearly knows a little bit about fig trees - he knows that fig trees produce figs. But he doesn’t seem to know that fruit trees actually take three years to produce fruit for the first time. They don’t do it from the get-go. They need time, and they also need care. They need proper watering, and proper fertilizing. But the landowner doesn’t seem to know this. The gardener does, which is why he appeals for more time for the fig tree. But not the landowner - he just jumps to conclusions about the productiveness of the tree.

And when it comes to looking at our lives or the lives of those around us, and judging the productiveness or value or meaning of a life, which we do when someone dies an untimely death, we are far more likely to be the landowner judging the productiveness of our own lives, and then we suffer because of it. We suffer when it comes to untimely death because we think the life of the one who’s dying wasn’t long enough. It wasn’t filled with enough meaning. It didn’t produce what it was supposed to. The biggest regret that people express when they’re dying is that they didn’t spend enough time doing what was meaningful and they didn’t live out their purpose in life. But simply adding days or months or years to our age is not the purpose of our lives. We were not created by God so that we could just exist for as long as possible. We were created for more than that. Specifically, God created us to love and to receive love from one another. We were made in the image of God, and God is love, so we are made in the image of love. Love is what gives meaning to our lives - loving others and receiving love, these moments of love are the fruit that we are supposed to bear. We are supposed to produce love. 

And love is something you can do at any age. Young or old. If you have loved others and been loved in return, your life is full and you aren’t “wasting the soil,” as it were, no matter how short or long your life. On the other hand, if we’ve never loved or been loved a day in our life, we could live to be 110, and we would still feel that our death comes too soon. We would still cry out when the landowner comes with an ax to cut us down. We would still feel that our life has been a waste.

  The waste of a life without love is what causes our suffering untimely death. This waste is what Jesus calls his listeners to repent of - the waste of living lives that have no love. Repenting means turning away from something, and turning to a new path. Jesus tells his listeners to turn away from believing that God punishes us, to turn away from living lives that are anything other than love, otherwise we will suffer when our death comes, not because God’s punishing us but because that’s just the consequence of living lives without love. Jesus calls us to turn away from believing that long lives are the purpose of life and to turn to believing that the purpose of our lives, long or short, is love.

If you fear that your life has been a waste because you haven’t loved or if you fear that you’ll suffer when your death comes unexpectedly, it’s not too late to change that. You have access to love always, and right now. You see, in the story of the fig tree, the gardener responds to the landowner who wants to cut down the fig tree by saying, Wait. Wait one more year. I will care for the tree - I will show it love, and then we will see what happens. God is our gardener. God is the one who cares for us and shows us love and nurtures us until we bear the fruit we are designed to bear - until we love others in return. So, in truth, our reality is that there really is no wasted life or suffering from untimely death because God has loved us and continues to love us. That is enough. Whether we live three years, or 40 years, or 65 years, when those years are filled with love for one another, and more importantly with God’s love for us, we do not suffer when death comes because we have already lived lives worth living - we have borne the fruit of God’s love for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.  

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