A Sermon for 28 February 2016 – Third Sunday of Lent
A reading from the gospel of Luke 13:1-9. I know it may seem like we’re going in reverse order as we move back to the first verses of chapter 13 today. The lectionary takes us on an interesting gospel-ride during this season of Lent. Though we’ve already considered what happens after it with a warning from some Pharisees regarding Herod’s growing disdain for Jesus, Jesus has been preaching up a storm. And, according to the gospel of Luke, the crowds have been getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Suddenly, the following takes place. . . . Listen for God’s word to us.
“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”’ ”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
I still remember the night in fifth grade Wednesday night bible school when our class had a substitute teacher. If you’re in school now, or if you still recall such days; then maybe you know what often happens in classes with substitute teachers. . . . That night, we did everything as a group of slightly obnoxious fifth graders, to throw off our substitute teacher. He was the new pastor from the Presbyterian Church in the small community down the road from ours. We had never met him before. He was young and wound just a bit too tight, which made him fresh meat for our sharp-minded class. That night, something came over four of us in particular. For the better part of the hour, we had his head swimming with our what if interruptions. He was getting more and more frustrated, because he just wanted to get through the lesson. We sensed it. We kept on firing off questions until he finally threw up his hands in anger and drew a firm line in the sand. He wasn’t budging. We knew we had got to him. He never returned to sub for us again. I’m not proud of the incident, but I certainly learned that night how a group quickly can lead a teacher off course.
In our text for today, Jesus gets interrupted. Thousands have gathered to hear him teach. They’ve come to soak in his words like thirsty sponges. And it’s good stuff. “Beware of the yeast of the phonies” (Luke 12:1). “Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat . . . or wear . . . but strive for God’s kingdom and you’ll get the rest as well” (Luke 12:22, 31). “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Jesus was out there preaching with impressive passion. He was proclaiming the providing love of God. Then – someone abruptly interjects, “Hey Jesus, have you heard about the Galileans Pilate killed while they worshipped?” . . . Now, this is one of those totally off the wall comments that seemingly has nothing to do with the topic at hand – at least not in anyone else’s mind but the one who spoke it. A whole lot of teachers would react by laughing off the interrupter. Some might ignore the comment all together. Others might shame the person into silence. Substitutes often end up totally frustrated. Not Jesus. Instead he goes with it. Perhaps seeing it as a perfect opportunity to further his point – even if the example provokes anxiety in other listeners.
You see, the common conviction of the day was that suffering was a sign of God’s displeasure. The whole system of Greco-Roman gods – which was the system of belief held by many of the Gentiles of Jesus’ day – their beliefs were based on it. They believed the gods to be moody entities who needed to be appeased by the little people whom they had created for their own whims. Jesus’ response to his interrupter leads us to believe that the one asking implied that those Galileans must have been really bad. Why else would such a sacrilegious end have come to them – being slain by Rome’s puppet Pilate while they offered sacrifices in Jerusalem’s Temple? The interrupter imagines that those Galileans must have done something wrong. Something that transgressed so badly that they were brought to such a horrible, abrupt, end. . . . We know about such rationing because it’s still found around us today. Too often people blame the victim for whatever circumstance befalls. Remember after 9/11, when a nationally-known preacher said that the catastrophe was God’s judgment on us for becoming the perverse nation he believed we had become. Then a few years back when Haiti had that terrible earthquake, remember the retired professional athlete who posted on his blog that the Haitians deserved what they got because they lived in such rubble to begin with? Layers of ignorance ooze from sentiments like these. We know better than to believe that such suffering is a mark of wretched sinfulness. . . . Now, don’t get me wrong: we do bring plenty of pain upon ourselves and the rest of our world – awful actions about which God has warned. Hildegard, the infamous German mystic, theologian, healer, artist, musician, and church reformer of the Twelfth Century, was saying all the way back then that the natural world will not tolerate human beings living out of balance with it. We’ve had plenty of experiences in the past twenty years to show us how true Hildegard’s Twelfth Century wisdom is. But it’s not God doing anything to us as punishment. . . . Jesus beautifully takes the interruption as a time to correct the popular, though off-base, notion. The truth is that bad stuff happens – to anyone and everyone. Sometimes Galileans get slaughtered – it’s no fault of their own. Sometimes a tower of the city wall suddenly collapses; as Jesus pointed out about another innocent eighteen. They didn’t bring it on themselves. It’s not like that. Sometimes suffering just happens – it’s not punishment from God and it’s not due to a person’s sinfulness.
Not only does Jesus grab the gift given by those who interrupted his preaching, but he also uses the time to re-direct those with ears to hear. He launches into his favorite teaching method. He begins to tell a story. The one about the fig tree. . . . Once upon a time there was a tree – a fig tree. It was planted in a vineyard for the purpose of – well bearing figs, of course. Why else are fig trees planted? So there’s the tree. Summer turns to winter. Winter to spring. Three years the tree matures. However, there’s one problem. The tree is trouble. Not once does it do what it’s intended to do. Three years; no fruit! Now most fig farmers are pretty decent people. They’re patient and persistent. But three years – three fruitless harvests is a long time. If you’re not one to work the land, then imagine your car. If, for instance, we had a car that for three years wouldn’t work; well, no doubt about it: we’d sell it in an instant. Now when we take it in to get rid of it and the car man says, “Wait; let me tighten a hose or two. Add some oil. Maybe even give it a new gallon of gas.” Before we’d buy another, it’d make sense to see if we could get the old one running. Who among us wouldn’t give it a chance? . . . The owner of the fig tree allows another year. Hoping that perhaps this will be the remedy. The tree finally will bear fruit.
That’s Jesus’ message: come on guys. Bear fruit! After all, it’s why you exist. How many years are you foolishly going to let the fig farmer find you fruitless? It’s like he’s trying to wake them up. Don’t waste a single moment. Especially in light of the Galilean tragedy, bear fruit NOW. . . . Someone tries to throw off Jesus with the horrifying story of a group of Galileans being murdered as they worship and Jesus just seizes the opportunity to vividly remind us that we have absolutely no idea. Life – at least on earth – is fleeting. We’re not guaranteed tomorrow, or the next day, or another year. BUT. We do have this moment. This exact instant to be as we are meant to be. To bear the fruit God wants from us. To birth LIFE into the world with our every breath, through every word, every deed.
I hope you noticed that Jesus’ parable is unfinished. “Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down . . .” (Luke 13:9). That’s it. Here ends our reading of the Word of God. . . . I want to know what happened to that fig tree, don’t you? I mean, I wish Jesus would’ve told us. After the gardener tended it; a year later. Did it make it? Was all well and good? Or did this unproductive little tree find itself fatefully falling to the ground? He never said. That’s the beauty of parables. . . . The answer is up to us. We are left to write the ending. . . . The answer is up to us: what are we going to do with this very moment? Today? Will we bear fruit or not?
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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