An Answer to the Puzzle

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent [Year C]

Luke 13:1-9 and Isaiah 55:1-9

What is your Wordle score today? Have you posted it, with its cryptic little pattern of green and yellow squares? One of the biggest trends to hit the world in the past several months, the Wordle game, which is now posted daily, like a crossword puzzle, by The New York Times, allows you to guess a five-letter word in six attempts. Getting the right word in four attempts is pretty good. Three is above average. And getting it on your second or even first attempt is really blind luck. You may be proud to know that our very own Richmond ranks in the top ten cities in terms of Wordle scores. Based on what I see on Facebook, I think some of the members of this congregation are helping us get there.

The growth in popularity of Wordle is staggering, and if by now you haven’t given it a shot, chances are you know someone who has. At the beginning of November 2021 the game had 90 players. By the start of February it had grown to over 2 million, and I’m sure there are even more now. Its popularity has spawned countless offshoots of Wordle, all built on the same premise of guessing something each day with only a few attempts. Quordle lets you guess four five-letter words simultaneously, which is like Wordle on steroids. Worldle gives you a silhouette of a country each day and six attempts to guess it. Heardle, a sound-based game, lets you guess a song each day, but it only gives you about a second of it at a time. There is Birdle, Lewdle, Bardle. Taylordle is for Taylor Swift fans. Perhaps the one for the biggest nerds of all: Tradle, which lets you guess a country based on the breakdown of its total exports.

Whether it’s Wordle or something else, all this is to say, we humans love our puzzles. We love riddling things out and finding patterns in things. And we’re generally good at it. It’s one of our greatest strengths, one of the hallmarks of being made in the image of God. The keen ability to discover patterns and tease out methods to the universe’s madness is what allowed us to put men on the moon and create a COVID vaccine in less than a year.

But the natural urge to find meaningful patterns in things does more than that. Sociologists and psychologists know that humans have an inherent need to “storify reality,” as Joe Pinsker writes in the Atlantic this week.[1] That is, we instinctively look at things that happen in the world or that happen to us and we try to make sense of them by mapping them into a narrative. We look for those patterns, those causes and effects, ups and downs.

That is what is happening when Jesus is approached this week by people wondering about a recent tragedy in the news. They are trying to storify their reality. Background details are fuzzy, but apparently some Jews from Galilee had been murdered by Pontius Pilate and then, as if that weren’t barbaric and mean-spirited enough, he had mingled some of their blood with the sacrifices to a pagan god. Everyone would have probably been talking about this, kind of like how many of us are talking about some of Vladimir Putin’s brutal attacks on civilians in Ukraine. These people talking about it with Jesus  and their little brains have been going and they wonder if there might be a pattern. Did these people die this awful way for a reason? Is there some method to this madness? Were they, for example, somehow worse sinners than other people and they were just getting their due?

destruction in Mariupol, Ukraine

And Jesus responds to that question by citing another recent tragedy in the news— the tower over in Siloam that fell unexpectedly and killed some people. It was a cruel, unexpected event—so cruel and saddening that there must be a reason behind it. But no, he says, they weren’t any better or worse than anyone else in Jerusalem.

He doesn’t say it specifically, but the message is there for us to hear: sometimes bad things just happen. Sometimes tragedies occur—whether the big, momentary ones like a tower falling or the long-drawn out tragedies like a virus that spreads and mutates and takes out lives and changes others over a long period of time. There are some things that just don’t have an underlying pattern, and human suffering is often one of them. Even with a loving, active God at the heart of the universe, human suffering is, for now, a part of our existence, and no matter how many attempts we’re given we won’t solve its riddle.

This is hard. I can imagine that the people who asked Jesus that question were a bit perplexed, if not terribly disappointed, that day. After all, if anyone could riddle out those tragedies, it would be him. Knowing that there is grand reason behind something, hoping there is a greater design behind all the hardships we face, might help us live our own lives better or face the inevitable dark day. This is why conspiracy theories are so popular. They offer some kind of plan or system for chaotic and troubling times.

There have been times when I’ve been especially unnerved by other people’s suffering, and have wondered, as I’ve pondered their situation from a relative distance, how there could even be a loving Creator. A story is told of a young Steve Jobs, founder of Apple products, who once, at age 13, asked his Sunday School teacher about the starving children on the front of a Life magazine cover. “Does God know about this,” he asked, pointing to the photo, “and what’s going to happen to these children?” Apparently whatever the pastor said did not satisfy the young Jobs and he left church and God, never to return again. That seems drastic to me, especially because he didn’t ever seem to give his life to helping those children, but I can understand that frustration.

suffering that is very hard to understand

That’s what Jesus is dealing with this morning. Questioning things about our faith is OK, for sure, but in the end we are in really tricky territory, he says, when we start riddling and postulating things about God and suffering especially when it’s suffering we’re not directly involved in. Because when we do that we’re essentially just using other people as bullet points in our internal debates about God. And people, Jesus reminds us, aren’t bullet points. They are people we draw near to, to listen to, to pray with, and when we do, we find we are changed. We often find they actually have a deep and abiding faith in a God who loves them in spite of what we perceive they are going through.

That’s the gist of this parable of the budless fig tree that Jesus tells which is intended to nip any conspiracy theories about God in the bud. It’s a fig tree that hasn’t produced anything in three years. Maybe it’s because he’s planted it in a vineyard rather than an orchard, but who knows? In any case, this landowner is tired of its lack of fruit and so he wants the gardener to cut it down. It’s wasting space. It’s wasting nutrients in the soil. What it is is a suffering little fig tree.

But the gardener steps in and says let me take care of it. The gardener is merciful. He sees potential in the tree. He is not as concerned about the soil or even the grapevines it shares it with as he is with the tree itself and its value and the fruit it may give. The gardener wants to give it some more manure, to put a little more effort into it, irrigate around the roots, let the water drip down some more.

Good gardeners, I’ve noticed are like this. I’m not. I have a garden plot at home and it’s about this time of year when I’m wondering what needs to be dug out and what needs to stay. What I’ve learned is that sometimes it’s really hard to tell, especially early on, which perennials are going to send up shoots this year and which ones aren’t. Or which ones might be dormant now but shoot something up next year. To know I have to get really close, or just be patient. I have to dig around, be willing to get my hands dirty, something that landowner is not really willing to do but the gardener is. It’s a gardener willing to get up close to the suffering tree.

The parable is Jesus’ lesson that when it comes to God and God’s interaction with the world there is no pattern other than God wanting to be near it and see potential where we often don’t. Human suffering cannot be calculated or mapped out or placed into any grand story or theory that will make sense. I’m not even sure it makes sense to God. That is, God seems less concerned with giving us a grand explanation about why bad things happen as he is with just experiencing bad things with us. God is a gardener who wants to be close to the suffering. He wants to give another chance for growth and fruitfulness even when things have not gone well. He wants to shift our question from “Why has this happened?” to “How can I grow from this now that it has happened?”

That is the act of repentance, and to do that he will provide us with whatever we need, even when our branches are bare to help us grow and survive and give something back to the world. On the cross he shows his awesome commitment to this, his commitment to enter and be with unjust, inexplicable suffering of the world. We stand before his cross as we stand before God. That is, we stand before God primarily not as people who need answers but as people who need mercy, as people who need healing, as people who can turn and repent because we are broken too.

Productive fig tree, (Jasper Martin, 2022)

And God loves broken people. God loves situations that feel drained of life and hope. There is no pattern to it, no logical reason for that. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are God’s ways our ways, the prophet Isaiah reminds us this morning. He says come to the waters everyone who thirsts, You don’t even need money! Come and have wine and milk without a price! God just loves broken people, seeks them out—people who feel they can’t grow, people who feel they have little useful to contribute, communities who feel they’re banging their head against a wall, families who feel they’re a lost cause. God believes in the fig trees no one else does.

And if God does, then the church should too. In all our ministries, outreach, conversations, relationships, we imitate that gardener, getting close to those who need some care and attention, not judging them, not approaching them as puzzles to solve but as people to love. Like the way our Stephen Ministers sit and listen attentively to people who are hurting. Like the way our confirmation mentors offer an ear and maybe some lived experience now and then with no other goal but to accompany them the confirmand on the faith journey. And we approach ourselves that way too, as a fig tree that needs a bit more time, a bit more TLC.

Because at the end of the day, the way God approaches us is not some hidden discovery we have to ponder and decipher. It’s not a secret, it’s not a mystery but it’s always a surprise, like a cross that stands open to the sky. You see, when it comes to how God deals with us and what Jesus’ love is like, the answer comes down to one five-letter word each and every time. I’ll give it to you now, with the letters in order. Make sure you share it with everyone. Are you ready?

It’s G-R-A-C-E.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Our Brains Want the Story of the Pandemic to be Something It Isn’t,” in The Atlantic. Joe Pinsker, March 10, 2022

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