You have to be careful with people, because if they don't know the answer, they may well just make something up.
About two years ago I was with a group on a mission trip to Haiti, and we were flying from one side of the island to another in a little propeller plane driven by a Cuban pilot.
The turbulence was horrible and once we landed we were all thankful to finally be on solid ground again. While unloading the baggage, one member of the group says to another, "I wasn't worried. Our pastor was head bowed in prayer the whole flight."
And I'm glad that when she saw me with my head bowed on that turbulent flight that's what she thought I was doing--because in reality I was putting my head down because I thought that would keep me from throwing up.
Sometimes we make up what we need to hear in the moment--and whether what we make up is the truth or not may not matter--because what we make up may be more comforting than the truth.
There was a group of Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices--this phrase isn't as descriptive as it could be--but what we may assume is that they were murdered by Pilate while on pilgrimage to make a sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem.
And then there were the eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell.
When confronted with such bad things, we want an answer; and whether the answer is true or not may not matter because having an answer feels better than not knowing.
We want to know, "Why do bad things happen?" and so we ask.
Why did Pilate murder those people?
Why did that tower fall?
And how can I prevent the same thing from happening to me and the people I love?
Any answer to these questions will do, just so long as there is an answer, and the more an answer allows me to believe that the same thing won't happen to me the better.
An answer that the masses seemed to cling to explaining the murder of those Galileans and the tragic death of the eighteen was that of retribution for sin--that bad things happen to bad people, that suffering is deserved, that when people suffer, when they are punished, you need not worry about falling to the same fate as long as you keep your nose clean and you mind your own business.
And this is a Biblical enough answer. We read from Deuteronomy that disobedience results in punishment, not only for the disobedient, but the children, even unto the grandchildren.
But Jesus doesn't buy it. Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? When the crowd comes to Jesus pointing fingers, Jesus does not join in but calls the crowd to account for their own infractions.
"But unless you repent," he says.
"Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."
Christ calls us to focus not on what lies outside of our control. He calls us not to accept simple or judgmental explanations that only build up self-righteousness. Christ instead calls us to focus on what we are in control of, which is easier said than done.
Something that I love are nights when sleep comes so easy I realize I am dreaming before I've put my book down. On those nights I place my book on my bedside table, turn out the lamp, kiss my wife--on the lips or the cheek, but if I can't find her lips or her cheek, I'll settle for her shoulder. Then I close my eyes and rest sweeps over me.
Something that I hate is a night when worry preoccupies me. I worry about what people are saying about me, why so and so hasn't been coming to church, and why what's his name wrote such a hateful email and what I should do to change his attitude.
I worry about the environment and why it's so warm and what is this world coming to. And I worry about who is hungry and who isn't and why would there be so much tragedy and when is someone going to do something about it?
It's often enough to keep me up, and sometimes it's even enough to keep me in bed the next morning.
With so much in the world that seems so bad, why not give up?
"Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?" The vineyard owner says to the gardener.
"Sir," the man replied, "leave it alone for one more year; and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down."
The scripture lesson ends with that, an ambiguous ending if ever there was one.
But if we have today, we can all assume we have been spared the ax, unlike the men, women, and children victim to the tragedies of life.
So what will you do with today?
Your churches have been spared the ax, having survived this season of economic downturn. You've been given another year thanks be to God, but should you use God's blessing as an opportunity to return to old ways, or will you be so bold as to seize this day that you have to do something different?
Whatever yesterday was like, disappointments, mistakes, you have been given the gift of today; and today the gardener is ready to work through you, nourishing you by his Spirit, forgiving you your sins by his almighty grace that you might bear fruit.
In this time of Lent, you are called to give thanks to the one who has spared you from the ax and given you the gift of today.
Do not squander this gift by returning to the ways of sin, but be about the practice of examination, not to the examination of your neighbors to fuel self-righteousness, but to the examination of something you can actually change: your own behavior.
The gift of today is for me the chance to become the kind of pastor who prays during a turbulent flight, the opportunity to be not the kind of pastor that I am but the kind of pastor that those mission trip participants thought I was.
The season of Lent is a time to focus not on who is worse or what is wrong with everybody else, for this season of Lent is time to focus on what is wrong with me, with you. I tell you, unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did. Turn away from the ways of sin and death and towards the one who will bring new life.
The fig tree was spared the ax, and if you are hearing this, so were you. But what will you do with today?
Let us pray. O Lord, we have been spared. You have spared us, and in your mercy, you give us the gift of today. Let us not set this gift aside or take it for granted, but instead cause us to return to the ways of righteousness and love. It is in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that we pray. Amen.