What Do We Do With Pain And Fear?
A sermon on Luke 13:1-9. For an audio recording of this sermon, click here.
Photo by Marianna Smiley on Unsplash
This past Sunday, Shelli Skeels opened our Council meeting with a powerful devotion about living in a time of anxiety.
She shared an inspiring reflection from C.S. Lewis written in 1948 under the threat of the atomic bomb,
and she compiled scriptural reminders of the call to find our peace and trust in God,
but perhaps most importantly she invited us into a space of honesty and vulnerability about the emotional toll we are all carrying.
Because no matter what our COVID story has been, and no matter what our current reality, none of us can entirely escape the strain of pandemic, and global suffering, and the threat of nuclear war.
This Sunday marks two full years since our congregation first went to entirely “remote” worship to reduce COVID spread.
In those 2 years, despite more than 900,000 COVID deaths in our country alone, the pandemic has been only one of many sources of intense stress and grief.
With the Syrian refugee crisis not yet anywhere close to resolution, we saw the eruption of horrific violence in Nigeria, and then the evacuation crisis in Afghanistan, and now the new flood of Refugees from Ukraine.
Here in the U.S., we have witnessed the eruption of racial tensions that have been long boiling under the surface, experienced horrifying scenes of violence in our Capitol, tracked death tolls from wildfires, hurricanes, and tornadoes, and seen trans children and their parents become the targets of draconian laws in state after state.
And now… in Russia, a power-mad dictator with access to a nuclear arsenal seems hell-bent on escalating war despite resistance from most of the rest of the world.
How can we not be distressed… and heartbroken… and deeply, deeply anxious?
As I read this week’s gospel story it is easy to identify with the people who brought to Jesus the story of slaughtered Galileans.
I, too, want him to explain atrocities and innocent suffering.
I, too, want him to condemn oppressive and violent leaders.
I, too, want him to make a chaotic and dangerous world feel less terrifying and heartbreaking.
I bring to this story all the grief, and fear, and distress of these last two grueling years… and I do not find the pastoral comfort that I am looking for.
To begin it sounds encouraging. Jesus refuses to engage in victim blaming.
But then his words of comfort turn to warning: “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Seriously Jesus?! Take a pastoral care class, Dude. When people are hurting and afraid, it is not the time to deliver dire warnings?
It feels heartless and cold. It feels so unlike the Jesus who consistently sees the pain of the outsider, and disrupts the Sabbath laws and status quo to ensure that people’s needs are met.
It seems so out of character that I have to believe there is something else going on, some current under the surface that is threatening the kingdom of grace that he is seeking to establish.
When I bring that enquiry to this story, I realize that there is a different way to read the motives of the people reporting of the massacre.
Maybe they WANT him to blame the victims after all.
Maybe their report is less about horrified heartbreak and more about personal fear.
Maybe they want Jesus to reassure them that they are NOT vulnerable to such suffering and violence.
Maybe the comfort they are seeking is the comfort of insulation and separation.
If so, then Jesus’s response makes sense.
He is refusing to comfort the comfortable at the expense of the afflicted.
He is teaching those who would be his followers that he has no patience for self-protective responses to other people’s tragedies.
He is proclaiming that you CANNOT stand at a safe distance from suffering. The pain of the world is unavoidable. It is your reality as much as the people who are hurting right now….
That’s why he tells them to repent.
Now the Puritans did a number on American Christianity and the way we hear the word “repent,” so let me do a quick refresher on what this means.
In the original Greek, the word “repent,” metanoéō (μετανοέω), does not mean “feel bad about your sins and commit to a life of moral purity.” Rather, it means change your mind:
Meta – change (like in metamorphosis)
Noia – thoughts.
Jesus is telling the people that they need to change the way that they think about the big, scary, painful events in the world that make them want to pull away and insulate themselves with reassurances that it won’t happen to them.
Because it might. Life offers us no guarantees.
But we have a choice about the way that we think about these dangers, and the way that we think about them will determine the way that we respond.
That choice is described in the parable.
As with any parable, there are many different ways to read this short, enigmatic story. I want to propose that we read it in a way that addresses the presenting problem: the question of how to respond to a hurting world.
In this reading, the fig tree represents the obvious brokenness of the world.
Creation was made to be good, to foster peace, and diverse beauty, and bounty for all people and creatures.
But it is not producing that fruit, at least not consistently.
There are presumably some plants in the vineyard that are bearing fruit, but not the fig tree. There is no beauty. There is no bounty. The fig tree represents everything that is painful, and ugly, and threatening in the world. It reminds us of weakness, and vulnerability, and barrenness.
So, the question arises, what is to be done?
One option is for the owner to cut his losses.
Don’t invest any more money or effort into hopeless causes. Free up the space and resources for something else. Purge the things that don’t add to my well-being and benefit.
And, before we villainize this vineyard owner, I want to say a word in his defense.
He’s not necessarily being heartless. We all have to make decisions about what to do with limited resources - including the resources of our attention and even our compassion.
Compassion fatigue is a real thing. Constant exposure to the pain and brokenness of the world can be corrosive of hope and joy.
But I have learned from my own journeys through the valley of despair that sometimes compassion can actually be what heals us.
I have shared with this community before about my experience of living with Major Depressive Disorder, including how my first depressive episode followed my dad’s suicide when I was 19.
My grief was deep. My pain was overwhelming. And I did not have many tools to cope with my depression.
Since then, I have found wonderful therapists who have taught me important mental health skills, and I have worked with a psychiatrist to find the right medication to help balance my brain chemicals. I am a strong advocate for qualified mental health care for anyone facing depression or any other mental health condition.
But, as a 19-year-old college student who didn’t know what was happening in my brain and body, I only knew that I was slowly being suffocated by my own grief.
And the only thing I could think do so way to focus on someone else’s needs so that I would not be consumed by my own.
I joined a prayer group for poverty-stricken residents of the shanty-towns around Sao Paolo, Brazil. I had never heard of Sao Paolo before. I had no personal connection to the hurting people there. But I learned their stories, and I prayed for them…
and I started to see the world around me again, instead of just being turned in on my own pain.
I don’t know if my prayers for the people of Sao Paolo did them any concrete good, but I know that they healed my heart by making me feel less alone in my pain.
And I wonder if that lesson about compassion is something that the gardener in Jesus’ parable understands.
It would explain why he volunteers his care for the fruitless fig tree.
He is under no obligation to nurture it. The owner has told him to rip is out.
But he steps forward to advocate for the hapless tree. He commits his own labor. He promises to quite literally get his hands dirty digging in the dirt and spreading manure.
Rather than seeking to distance himself from what is broken, he looks for ways to heal it… and I wonder if, in doing so, he makes that brokenness less frightening.
For those of us who are struggling to know what to do in the face of so much brokenness in the world, I want to offer one important note about the gardener’s compassion: he gives himself to the work of healing knowing full well that it might not work.
“If it bears fruit next year…” the gardener says. It might not. His compassion isn’t about results.
The fruit isn’t really the point for the gardener; it’s the willingness to try, to get his hands dirty in the mess.
I would like to close with the quote from C.S. Lewis that Shelli shared at last week’s Council meeting, because I think it offers us the perspective to be able to turn toward a hurting world with compassion, even when we know our compassion might not be enough.
Lewis writes, “The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts…. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
The needs and the threats of the world are real, but they need not dominate our minds. They can, instead, lead us into compassion.
Thanks be to God.
 Excerpt from “Living in an Atomic Age”