Luke 13: 1-19
28 February, 2016
“Take my lips, oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Gospel reading for the day offers a good question for Lent. How then shall we live? What should we do? Though I suppose, in some ways, that is a question that comes up almost daily, Lent or not, when we read, or hear, the news. Do you find the news to be, well, challenging? It can be hard to make sense of why things happen as they do. In fact, the first portion of the Gospel reading sounds almost like a news program. Can you image a first century version of CNN or Fox News? The reporter looks serious, there is a tape playing in the background with emergency vehicles, lights flashing, and emergency workers intent on their business. There is a talking head up in one corner, a police spokes-person, explaining what has happened and what is being done. Evidently there has been another episode of tragic violence. It seems that, in the neighboring state of Galilee a group of worshipers has gathered as they usually do. Except on this day, today, things didn’t happen as expected. The governor objected to the rite, his reasons aren’t clear. But on this day he decided to take action. Maybe he acted to curry favor with the wealthiest of his supporters, maybe he acted out of a sense of outrage knowing for sure that his God didn’t approve of this kind of worship. Maybe he just broke finally under the pressure of his office. In any event, the governor took matters, and an assault rifle, into his own hands. Now some of the worshippers are dead, others seriously wounded, and the governor has escaped into his mansion. Will the police be able to get him out without further loss of life or injury? Are you moved somehow, struck perhaps, by the presence of human evil in the scene? The news moves on as it must. Now we see scenes from the capitol city, Jerusalem. Again there are the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, again the organized chaos of a well-run rescue operation. This time though it is not human evil at work but a natural disaster. Still people are injured, it is suspected that people have died. The reporter tells the story. It has been raining heavily, a storm moving up the coast has stalled dumping rain on the area. A sinkhole has opened up causing an office building to collapse. Some have escaped, others are trapped inside. Rescuers are carefully exploring the ruin, bringing out the injured, and searching for the probable dead. What are we to make of it all? Why do these tragedies happen? Are the victims somehow at fault? Is God visiting tragedy on them? But thank God we are safe, watching the news and not participating in it. Surely God is good. Surely we are blessed because of our relationship with God. But wait. There was no CNN, no Fox News, in the first century and this is not some well-groomed, well trained, commentator. It is Jesus himself. As usual he asks a good question. What do you think?
Were these Galileans worse sinners than others? Or those killed in Jerusalem, were they worse sinners than others? By extension, do you think you are better, more holy, more spiritual, more Godly than these who have suffered? Jesus implies the reverse. No. No, he says. I will tell you plainly, unless you repent you too will perish. Jesus tells us clearly and in no uncertain terms
that all human beings sin. We are no exception. We are all in peril here. We simply cannot judge the spiritual condition of others, or ourselves, based on whether or not we, or they, suffer.
Yes, sure, it is more comfortable to think that those who suffer deserve it. It is entirely natural to ask, when suffering come to us, why me? Am I being punished? The problem is that line of thinking assumes a correlation between sin and suffering. But there is no correlation. And Jesus rejects our attempts to place blame. His point? To ask those questions or make those assumptions
diverts our attention from a most important issue. We each, every one of us, are called to live in penitent trust before God. And that penitence, that trust, cannot be linked to either life’s sorrows or life’s joys. Our life in God’s kingdom is simply not a spiritual game of avoiding loss and currying favor. Without sincere repentance, without real trust in God, all is lost anyway.
We need to always, at all times and in all places, look to God for security. We must put our whole trust in God as we live our lives day to day. Except, well, it’s not so easy is it? In fact it can be entirely hard to continually return to God in repentance, to trust God in both joy and sorrow, even in times of doubt and confusion. And so Jesus gives us a parable. There was a man who owned a vineyard. He planted a fig tree there expecting to gather the fruit in due time. But after several years the tree was not bearing. It was apparently barren. The man told his gardener to cut the tree down. That tree was apparently just a waste of time and effort, not worth the ground it was planted in. Why should it continue taking up space and resources? Did you hear what the gardener said? Sir, let me care for it for one more year. I’ll loosens the soil, I’ll fertilize one last time. Give the tree a chance, you will have gained if it bears fruit and if it doesn’t, well, I’ll cut it down next year. Now, I want to say right up front this parable is not about works-righteousness. We do not maintain our relationship with God through our own effort. (Isn’t that what Jesus is saying in those two news stories?) This is a parable of grace. We are to be reminded that whatever good comes to us is entirely by the hand of God who creates us, who nurtures and redeems us, who fills us and leads us in relationship. At the same time, this parable of grace does present us with a challenge. Yes, God gives us grace but it is not grace without purpose. We are to be fruitful. Or, in other words, our lives are to take on the characteristics God intends. There is a kind of creative tension here. On one hand, yes, there is grace. At the same time it really does make a difference how we answer the question. How then shall we live? When our lives are barren, bearing no fruit, when we fail to live into God’s call to us, God is displeased. Yes, we are assured that God cares for us, God gives us room to grow and become fruitful. Still, God does evaluate our lives, even if not necessarily in the ways we expect. At root it really is good news, challenging news, but good news. God is at work within us creating the change God expects. Can you feel the balance, the tension? God does judge, God gives us the grace to repent and become fruitful in the kingdom. God’s judgment is held in tension with God’s mercy. How then will you live? What is God calling you to do? How will you, by the grace of God, bear fruit? Amen.