Third Sunday in Lent: March 24, 2019
Year C, Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
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Growing up I watched a lot of TV. One of the programs was the Rifleman. I alternately liked it and was scared of it because of the opening scene with the gunfire. There are times even now, I’ll still watch the Rifleman when I find it on a station. I don’t really know why, but I imagine it’s because it permits a brief moment into my childhood more than anything else.
Often the view of Christian faith that we see in these old shows very law-centered, very law-based. You hear a lot about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and almost nothing about grace and mercy and forgiveness. Even when they talk about forgiveness it has to be earned.
Conflict and revenge are, of course, a whole lot more entertaining than grace and forgiveness, at least in movies and on TV shows. Where would Westerns be without angry men seeking to shoot one another as a point of honor?
But still, I do occasionally yearn for a minister who sounds like a preacher of grace and salvation. Maybe Reverend Alden fits the bill in Little House on the Prairie, I’m not quite sure.
In today’s Gospel, the people who come to talk to Jesus about the “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” would have fit right into the old west. Perhaps the people not only wanted to know if Jesus thought that the sins of the Galileans had caused their killing—they also wanted to sort out whether Jesus might call for some sort of revenge and rebellion. He did not. He invited them to turn their minds away from the possible sins of the Galileans and their murder by Pilate. Jesus led them to think about their own sins and their own death and where God might be in all that. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.”
Then he doubled down by pointing out another tragic situation where many people died – an industrial accident when the tower of Siloam fell and eighteen people were killed. Jesus asks the rhetorical question, “Do you think they were the worst offenders in Jerusalem?” before answering it with the same words as before – “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
The people listening to Jesus would have assumed that the Galileans and the eighteen people had done something to deserve what happened to them – that they had done something wrong. They must have sinned and that was why those terrible things happened. Surely, it was God’s judgment against them.
While that probably seems wrong and perhaps even cruel to us today, this way of explaining tragedy persists today.
You may remember that almost immediately after the deaths of first graders – first-graders – in Newtown, Connecticut – a self-proclaimed Baptist, Christian church blamed the mass shooting on Connecticut’s same-sex marriage laws and issued a statement literally saying that they, the church, “sang praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment.” If you’re like me you probably have an uncharitable thought or two about that particular group, but you probably also think, “well, they’re wacky – not everyone thinks that way.” And that is generally true, at least with respect to that kind of horror.
But what that statement does underscore is a belief that there is a very literal cause and effect type of thinking about God’s justice. And it’s not just fringe, religious groups that employ or espouse that kind of thinking. Most of us have a very human need to make sense of tragedy – to make sense of something that is so senseless – so we sometimes engage in this same kind of reasoning.
And we don’t just blame others. We blame ourselves. I have been with so many people that ask, “Why is this happening? And under that question, “What did I do to deserve this? What does God want from me? Where is God?”
This equation of sin equals judgment equals suffering or tragedy, and it is God’s punishment, just doesn’t work.
We live in a time when compassion is difficult to find, especially in the public arena. Fear and distrust seem to multiply many times over. And thus the prophets and Jesus were sent to the people to tell them to repent for the judgment of God is at hand. And what does Jesus do in a time of fear and distrust – he tells a parable.
A man has planted a vineyard. For three years the fig tree yielded no fruit. Finally, the owner of the vineyard decides to cut it down. But the gardener says, wait. “Please give me one more year. I’ll tend to it, till the soil, fertilize it. Please, just give it some time. I’ll take responsibility for it.” And the tree lives on.
This is how God deals with those who need to repent – with us. When we bear little or no fruit, and we (or others) believe that God should cut us down, God intercedes for us, sends Jesus to us. Jesus, the gardener, says, “Have mercy. One more year.”
When we look for God in the tragedies around the world and in our lives, this is the mark of God’s presence – not as the instigator of suffering, but as the one who brings mercy.
I can’t help but look to the story of Les Misérables and Fantine. Fantine suffered terribly. People around us suffer terribly. Why? I can’t answer that question. But I do know that in the redemption offered to Valjean by the Bishop, Valjean, in turn, offered that redemption to Fantine. But of course, the redemption can really only come through Jesus.
The truth that this parable holds for us is that we stand before an infinitely loving God.
Lent is our time of spiritual preparation. It is like the fig tree that will ultimately bear new life, centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lent is a time for us to garden, to care about the life of our own fig trees. To strengthen ourselves. To come to God’s table and eat your fill today. To receive nourishment and bear fruit that nourishes others.
During this time of Lent, as we are brought face to face with our own shortcomings, our lack of fruit, we are being showered with God’s mercy and love. And the more we recognize the fig tree in ourselves, the less we fear God, and the more we understand that it is only by God’s mercy and grace that we carry on.
This place where we are right now is a holy place. It is holy ground. And not just because of the stained-glass windows or the beautiful wood. It is holy ground because God’s love is made manifest in this place. It is a place where we are continued to be called forth to show God’s compassion.
I call upon you to remember how you have been loved by God, right here, in this community, on this holy ground. Unlike the television shows that show only a God of vengeance, we are in a holy place where God’s compassion, God’s judgment and God’s deliverance of God’s people is our present and our future.
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