Preacher: Julia Baker Swann
Scritpures: Luke 13: 1-9 & Isaiah 55:1-9
The poet Joy Harjo said, “A poem can hold our questions, hold our contradictions.”
I think one of the reasons I am a poet is because I love to ask questions.
But what I have found freeing about the way a poem asks questions is there does not have to be an answer. Often the questions are unanswerable or just meant to invite more fuller questions.
Sometimes in our lives we ask questions from a place of true curiosity and sometimes we ask questions that are coming from a place of fear.
Over the last years we each have probably asked a lot of questions.
An aching, tired, frustrated WHY as the pandemic drags on.
Over the last week as we watch the horrors in Ukraine.
A groaning WHY.
The constant of climate chaos.
To ask why in the face of all this, the desire to understand, is to be human.
We want to make sense of the nonsensical.
Parts of us think that it is through understanding that we will find peace, comfort, safety.
It is interesting to note with all of our asking of “why”
Jesus did not spend much of his time on earth engaging this fundamental human question.
He actually seems to turn our attention away from it…
In thinking about what Jesus instead turns us to I was helped when I learned of
the Buddhist concept of Mu – M, U
This week through reading the beautiful book “In the Shelter” Irish poet Padrig O’Tuama describes and defines Mu as “un-asking.”
Padrig explains that if someone asks a question that is too confining, too small, or too flat, you can respond by saying Mu.
Which invites them, to as Padrig writes,
“Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked. A wiser question, a deeper question, a truer question. A question that expands possibility, and resists fear.”
It seems in the parable of the Fig Tree Jesus is inviting this idea of Mu.
It seems the spirit of Mu is in the spirit of how we see Jesus show up.
It seems maybe the spirit of Mu is how Jesus is calling us to be, to un-ask.
I imagine the scene we just heard about in Luke like any that we could imagine happening at gathering spaces today. People at a coffee shop, bar or church coffee hour talking about recent events that are weighing on their hearts and minds.
In Luke we are also brought into the recent events ,say the Ukraine, where people are troubled—Pontius Pilate has slaughtered a group of Jews and the tower of Siloam fell, crushing innocent lives.
And we are brought into the why questions they are asking – why did these things happen, why did God allow this?
But actually as recounted in Luke that isn’t the full question people are asking. The people are not asking a question of curiosity and non-agenda but asking a question with an angle of fear, asking Jesus to verify their deeply held belief in a God of retributive justice.
As we hear in v. 13
“Do you think that because Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”
It is easy to hear this and shelve that view. To see that as archaic (concern). Not something we would believe today.
Yes, but what views do you have about suffering. What kinds of narratives from a similar Spirit of these why questions? What might you catch yourself saying in the face of loss as you try to wrap your mind around tragedy…
“All things happen for a reason.”
“Good will come from this.”
“It was that person’s time to be with God.”
Jesus does directly respond to the question asked of him.
Not with affirmation as people were expecting but a clear no and tells the people to repent.
v. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
This is where of course we can follow a trail in our mind seeing Jesus as finger-pointing “you must or else.” Again that retributive justice God.
But I wonder if what Jesus is really inviting with the word “repent” is the spirit of Mu.
To repent means to turn your mind, a mind shift, a change. To set a new direction.
I hear Jesus saying, “hey folks, un-ask these kinds of questions that keep you separated and removed from suffering as something theoretical, as numbing statistics, as a Facebook swipe news story. That keep you in your heads. That keeps you out of common shared human pain. Un-ask them. Mu. Change. Start over. Ask another question that gets your hands dirty, your heart involved. That gets to the real pain.”
So then of course we get to the place of asking, what is the better question?
On one of our first dates with my now husband Thomas, we were out for coffee. I remember I had shared something that I was struggling with. Then Thomas did what at the time I thought was the strangest thing.
Instead of responding directly to what I said with a question, empathy or a comment of advice. He started telling a story.
I was thrown by this but as I listened I realized he was directly speaking to what I had just shared and that this story was a response. He was relating from his quandaries, and lived experience. And that story then became a space opener. It wasn’t advice or a question. It allowed me to listen to another experience that then shed light on my own in such an invitational way.
This is now something I now love most about conversations with Thomas.
Jesus of course does this often. And in this passage he tells the story of the barren fig tree.
A landowner is complaining about a fig tree that hasn’t borne fruit in three years.
The owner goes to his gardener and says “cut it down! Why should I be wasting the soil?”
The gardener implores the landowner to let the fig tree alone for just one more year, to let him add manure and tend it. If it doesn’t bear fruit next year then yes they can cut it down.”
When I first read this story I probably had a similar reaction
As the gathered crowds did:
“What in the world?” Why is this guy talking about a fruitless fig tree?!
That has NOTHING to do with the terrible things we just told him about.
Nothing to do with our questions.”
As I have sat with this passage and my reaction this week. I wonder…
Maybe part of what is perplexing is part of Jesus’s intention, his point of view.
Jesus after all is a transformer, his eyes were on the high mountain top.
And he is trying to shift their mindset.
Trying to shift our mindset.
Shift from conditioned automatic responses and platitudes.
AND Story can do just that, shift our focus.
As I have learned with Thomas
stories are space openers.
So what space does this story open for you. What Mu, un-asking, what repenting, shift-change does it invite from you?
Maybe you see ways parts of you are like the landowner?
Maybe you are keeping yourself distant and just talking about something, staying removed emotionally and tangibly. Maybe you are reacting and wallowing in a despair and a scarcity mindset. Saying. “Oh just cut it down, there is no life of worth here.”
Maybe you feel like the fig tree?
Un-nourished, drained of life. Feeling alone, untended, unencouraged by others. Yearning for attention, for time to be “left alone” to be trusted in your process.
Maybe you are joining the gardener’s flow?
You can actively engage what to others might seem hopeless.
Where are you putting life into something, manure and water? Allowing for rest. Where are you tending something that you might not see the fruit in the barren state, and yet might be waiting to blossom.
Maybe you are feeling resonance with some or all of these aspects of the story.
It is ironic that I am bringing in a question that starts with “why”
But I was so drawn to verse 55 in the Isaiah passage that was read today.
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and you’re labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in rich food.”
I see this imploring exhortation at the heart of Mu. At the heart of Jesus.
Un-ask. Repent. Leave what is not of life behind to engage the questions that gives to us life abundant.
For we are made to thrive. We are made to bear-fruit. We are made to get our hands dirty with the beauty and suffering of the world. We are made to feel and weep and laugh and engage. To go deepest than what we know, to go deeper than the easy question and easy answer.
My parents have a fig-tree in their backyard.
During the winter months it looks really, really dead
But every year it amazes when it seems like overnight bright green flames of growth appear from the knobby gray brown branches.
Within each of us, within everything there is so much that moves unseen.
Jesus is constantly, from tremendous love for us, inviting us to go deeper than what we see. To feel into the pulsing life in a winter branch. To feel into all the thoughts and emotions moving through our bodies and like the leaf, let courageous Love emerge from us in our questions and actions.