A fig tree and a burning bush walk into a homily. . .

Richard Misrach, “Desert Fire #81” (1984)

This homily for the Third Sunday of Lent is a double feature. The lessons from the Episcopal lectionary, Exodus 3:1-15 and Luke 13: 1-9, are not thematically connected, but I felt both stories demanded attention.

Today’s gospel shows Jesus and some other folks talking about the local news. It’s something humans have always done, shooting the breeze about unusual or dramatic events. We don’t expect our conversations around the water cooler or wherever to be recorded for posterity. But 2000 years later, we’re still hearing about some Galileans slaughtered by the Romans during a sacred ritual, and eighteen unnamed victims killed by a falling tower.

But there’s no film at 11. We are given no further details. Some scholars speculate that both incidents involved the Zealots, Jewish rebels who may have been killed by the Roman soldiers during acts of resistance. Perhaps some Zealots were staging a demonstration in the Temple when the Romans struck them down. They died in the very spot where animals were being sacrificed in an atonement ritual. The image of their blood mingled with the blood of animals sacrificed on the altar was a horrific mixture of violence and the sacred. People wondered, if the animals were dying for the people’s sins, for whose sins did those Galileans die? Could it have been their own?

As for the Siloam tower, could it have been a rebel stronghold destroyed during a Roman siege, another case of those who live by the sword dying by the sword? Or maybe it collapsed in an earthquake, a so-called “act of God.” Or maybe it was built by crooked contractors who used shoddy materials. Or maybe it collapsed for no apparent reason at all.

Whatever the causes of those tragedies, people wanted to make sense of them, so they could continue to live in a predictable universe where events have reasons and everything can be explained. If we’re unwilling to live in a universe of absurdity or blind chance, we need to know why bad things happen to good people. And one of the easiest answers is to say that maybe good people aren’t so good. Maybe in some way they get what they deserve, like people’s bad habits catching up with them, or our collective addiction to oil bringing the climate apocalypse down on our heads. Or maybe human suffering is somehow God’s will, even if we can’t say why.

Jesus quickly dismisses this kind of simplistic blaming of the victim. He says there is no simple correlation between sin and suffering. The victims of those tragedies were no worse offenders than anyone else. The problem of reconciling human suffering with the providence of a loving God remains complex and ultimately insoluble in human terms. Jesus recognized that. And 2000 years later, we are still puzzled by the question of “why?”

But Jesus was not that interested in a theoretical discussion about the problem of suffering. He wanted the people in that conversation to consider their own situation. Did they think their story needed to get different? Were they prepared to change their life?

“Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

What does Jesus mean by this? Without knowing the actual details of those ancient news stories, it’s hard to say for sure. If both incidents involved acts of armed rebellion, repentance could mean a refusal to participate in a world of reciprocal violence. Stop living by the sword, or else. More broadly, it could mean that we should stop describing the world as a place where God dishes out suffering or endorses any form of human violence.

Jesus could have meant many other things as well.  Renounce your self-righteous pride, and stop demeaning those who suffer as less good or less deserving than you are. Never presume your own innocence. No one is without sin, whether it’s personal sin or collective sin. The world’s troubles are not somebody else’s problem. Like it or not, everyone is implicated in a world of interrelated causes. And don’t treat life’s blessings as rewards for good behavior. They are gifts freely given by a generous and loving God, and you should receive them humbly and gratefully.

Stop trying to make the world controllable or predictable with simplistic explanations. Life is complicated and sometimes it’s sad. You can’t always have it go your way or have it make sense. You have to live by faith in love’s bigger picture.

In other words, if any of you think you can live in this world without grace, without mercy,
you have perished already.

Jesus ends this challenging conversation with a parable of mercy. A barren fig tree is taking up valuable space in a vineyard, sucking up nutrients and moisture needed by the grapevines. “Time to cut it down!” says the owner. But the gardener pleads, “Give it a little more time. I’ll add some fertilizer to help it along. That may make all the difference. If there’s still no fruit next year, then you can cut it down.”

That’s how the parable ends, but when next year rolls around, I suspect that the gardener will be telling the owner the same thing: “Just one more year. I know it can be fruitful. It just needs a little more time, a little more nourishment. A little more tender mercy.”

Now let’s leave that fig tree, and travel further back in time, 1400 years before Jesus, to see a very different kind of plant: a bush in the wilderness of Sinai—a bush which burns, without being consumed.

I saw a burning bush once, not in Sinai, but in the hills of Palestine. I was walking on a trail near Ramallah in the West Bank, when I saw a shepherd leading a small flock through a ravine below me. About 30 yards beyond him, a bush was on fire. I never found out why. But having imbibed the story of Moses since childhood, I could only experience this inexplicable reenactment with a sense of wonder. It was a gift, and I received it gratefully.

I heard no voice. For me, only the story speaks now. But for Moses, the voice came from the midst of the fire: “Moses, Moses!”

The Scripture does not tell us whether Moses is surprised, shocked, or frightened by this sudden intrusion of the divine into the routineness of a shepherd’s day, though we might imagine all of those things. All we know is that Moses responds as if his life were made for precisely this moment: “Here I am,” he says.

God calls, Moses responds. No matter how unlikely or uncanny this encounter between divine and human may be, no matter how unprepared Moses might feel for such a meeting, his whole being rises to the occasion. Before the voice even identifies itself as the God of Moses’ ancestors, Moses experiences the kind of recognition described by the mystics, an awakening to a reality so profound, so insistent, so real, that it seems to make perfect sense despite its utter strangeness.

Nobel laureate Derek Walcott wrote a poem, “Love after Love,” about the sudden recognition of your inmost reality, your deepest truth, which was there all along even though you hadn’t quite known it until it suddenly greeted you face to face:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again
the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart. . .

That is what I think Moses must have experienced, must have suddenly known, when he heard his name called from the midst of the flaming bush. That voice, however uncanny and unfamiliar, also produced a sense of recognition. Oh! it’s you, isn’t it. It’s you. The one who knows me by heart!

And Moses, however surprised he may be to meet at last the stranger who has loved him all his life, consents to the encounter with his response: “Here I am.” That couldn’t have been easy, for the divine stranger in the burning bush was not the gentle presence in Derek Walcott’s poem. Whatever Moses knew about God, he believed that it was a fearful thing to look divinity in the face. Mortals were not wired to handle so much voltage. So while Moses listened to the voice, he was afraid to stare into the fire.

So what happens next? As we know from our baptismal covenant, when God calls our name, that is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a new life, a life where something is asked of us. Vocare––to call––is the root of vocation. To be called is to be given a vocation. When God calls us, it is to do the holy work of repairing the world.

That work takes many forms, as each of us must discover as we practice our own vocation in a world of such great need. In Moses’ case, his work was to speak truth to power, stand up to the tyranny of Pharoah, and lead God’s people out of bondage to the land of promise.

That was a huge and intimidating assignment. Moses balked at first. “Who am I to do such an impossible thing?” But God was insistent. When God gets an idea, it’s no use saying no. And there’s no turning back. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

Every time we gather in God’s house, the bush burns and the flames speak. We hear the voice of God, the stranger who has loved us all our lives, who knows us by heart, calling our name. But we don’t get to stay by the fire forever, gently warming ourselves in the loving presence of the divine. Mary Oliver’s poem, “What I have learned so far,” makes this point perfectly:

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause?

The poet goes on to say that our only choice is “indolence, or action. / Be ignited, or be gone.”

The voice in the flame is the voice that ignites us and sends us forth, to do the work God has given us to do. Some of that work seems feasible enough. As the Prayer Book says, “tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous.” But some of the work of loving our neighbor and repairing the world can seems overwhelming, even impossible. When we hear words like “racism,” “mass killings” or “climate change,” we cringe at their magnitude. Like Moses, we are tempted to cry, “Who am I to make a difference?”

And what does God say then? Do not be afraid. I will go with you.

Okay, Moses says. But if we’re in this together, I need to understand something about who you are. I need to know your name.

And God says to Moses, “‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh.” It is a strange and mysterious name, whose precise meaning has eluded translators, scholars and theologians ever since. Robert Alter, whose recently published and profusely annotated translation of the Hebrew Bible should be in every library, says that “I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be” is the most plausible rendering of the Hebrew. But he suggests that its linguistic ambiguities could also produce variations such as “I-Am-That-I-Am,” “He-Who-Brings-Things-into-Being,” and “I-Am-He-Who-Endures.”

But whether the preferred translation stresses the being of God or the doing of God, whether it evokes the eternal source and essence of reality or the ongoing providential activity woven into the causalities of time and history, God reveals to Moses that whatever happens in this finite world or in this transitory life, God is. God endures. God will be. God will be with us.

However dark the night of violence and death, however deep the waters of catastrophe, God is with us. The God who endured the cross and grave, the God who makes a way where there is no way, will share our journey and deliver us to the place of promise.

For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress. . .
[the] soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.

This is not a prescription for passivity, as when people say stupid things like “God will take care of climate change, so why worry?” No. Passivity in the face of human sin and folly is not faith. It is complicity.

To those who are called and ignited by the Spirit’s fire for the work of repairing the world, God’s promise to be with us produces not passivity, but courage and action. Come what may, whatever sorrows, tragedies or defeats may await us: ‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh. Heaven and earth may pass away, but the Holy One remains, arms open wide, to welcome us to our abiding home, the loving heart of the divine mystery.

Or as Jesus put it, “I am with you always, even to the end of time.”

 

 

 

Related post: The voice that allows us to remain human

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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