Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 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? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6 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. 7 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?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Good morning. By a show of hands, how many of you filled out brackets for the NCAA basketball tournament? Okay, now how many of you couldn’t care less about March Madness or most other sporting events, and really don’t like it when I begin a sermon with a story from the wide, wide world of sports? Be honest.
Thanks! I appreciate your honesty.
To those of you who don’t like sports, I apologize in advance for this next story. I promise, it’s short, and it’s not filled with a lot of technical details. Please bear with me!
I have a good friend named Dave who played big-time college football. He was an offensive lineman and he was really good, but he wasn’t quite big enough or good enough to make it to the NFL. He had some really good coaches, too. He said his line coach never yelled at him during a game, even if he missed a block, even if the quarterback was sacked; the coach never yelled at the team.
Instead, the coach would ask a simple question: What did you see?
The question was never, “Why did you miss that block?” Or, “How could you be so stupid?” The coach wanted to fix the problem, not shame the players. He needed to diagnose the problem, and then fix it. As a result, Dave said, he and his teammates didn’t beat themselves up. They remained focused on the game they were playing, rather than the mistakes from a few plays ago.
In our reading this morning from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus discusses sin and suffering. He discusses two examples of human suffering—the cruelty of Pontius Pilate and the fall of the tower of Siloam—and then he says twice: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Finally, Jesus tells a parable about a man who planted a fig tree in his vineyard, but for three years, the tree has borne no fruit, so the man asks his gardener to chop down the tree.
There’s a lot of language that seems to suggest that God’s judgment is right around the corner; that sinners are about to be judged. The parable of the fig tree gives us a sense of urgency. I hear echoes of John the Baptist, when he admonished the crowds who had come to be baptized:
Bear fruits worthy of repentance…. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Luke 3:8-9).
But if we focus on the sin and the judgment, we run the risk of missing the larger point of this passage: It’s about repentance. If we focus on the judgment, we don’t ask wrestle with deeper questions. We don’t ask: What does it mean to repent?
Too often, we reach for the simple, shallow answers. Stop doing that bad thing that you’re doing, and then feel sorry about it. And hey, we have a corporate confession of sin every Sunday, followed by an assurance of pardon, and we’re good to go, right? That’s not so bad, is it? If only it were that simple.
In fact, one of the reasons that we have a corporate confession of sin—and an assurance of pardon—is that repentance is not simply about personal sins. Nor is it simply about feeling bad because we have sinned as individuals. Yes, those can be a part of repentance, but we wouldn’t have things as part of the worship service if it weren’t also about us as a community of believers—it’s about how we respond to sin as the Body of Christ:
Repentance refers to individuals and communities turning away from things that violate God’s purposes (such as idolatry, injustice, and exploitation) and turning towards faithful living centered in worship of the most-high God and in the practice of justice, mutual commitment, and other values of living in covenant.
Repentance is about individuals and communities. Turning towards faithful living, as communities; focused on God; practicing justice, mutual commitment and living in covenant with God and with one another. This is about loving God completely, loving one another completely, welcoming the stranger in our midst, and reaching out to the community around us—as the Body of Christ.
I know that you folks believe in these practices and we work to live into this call. But sometimes we drop the ball. I think sometimes, we’re afraid of what it means to truly and completely live into this. We have a lot of fear.
And fear interrupts faith.
I think we begin with our own fear of not living up to God’s expectations. Sometimes we fear that we’re not living into Christ’s call to love one another. Or we fear what we might lose if we drop everything and follow Jesus. That’s why we like the shallow readings of stories like this. It’s easy to spin this story into a text about sin and suffering. And sure, our own sins might be bad, but if we make this passage about judgment, we compare our own sinfulness with our neighbors. Somehow, we always come out ahead in those comparisons. Those other jerks are so much worse than me; I’m sure God will forgive my little sins, but I know they’re going to the fiery furnace!
When we respond in fear, we grasp at shallow interpretations of scripture, and then we leap to the wrong conclusions. We minimize our own sinfulness as we call out our neighbors. As Admiral Ackbar said in Return of the Jedi: “It’s a trap!”
It’s a trap when we compare our sins to those of others and it’s a trap when we allow our fears to overtake the disciplines of prayer and careful study. And giving up chocolate for forty days doesn’t free us from that trap.
Jesus specifically instructs us to change how we see other sinners: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 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?” If we’re focused on other sinners, then we’re not watching Jesus; we don’t see where he is or who he’s healing. If we’re focused on our own fears, then we’re not watching Jesus; we don’t see where he is or who he’s healing.
We should be judged for our failure to follow Jesus. But we’re not. Not yet, anyhow. The parable of the fig tree offers us the hope of another chance—if we repent. That’s how we break out of the trap. It begins with seeing.
Seeing is very important in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus sees the Widow of Nain, and then raises her son from the dead. Jesus sees the tax collector, Zacchaeus, through a crowd of people. In the story of the Good Samaritan, which only appears in Luke’s gospel, the Samaritan is the only person who truly sees the suffering traveler. Repentance begins with seeing.
In the beginning of this gospel, Mary, who is expecting the birth of the baby Jesus, sings a song of praise to God, who shows mercy to those who fear him, who brings down the rich and the proud, and who uplifts the poor and needy and feeds the hungry. That’s what the kingdom of God looks like, and it begins to break into our reality with the presence of Jesus.
Jesus teaches us to see.
Jesus teaches us to see the nameless and faceless poor in this community.
Jesus teaches us to see the person who makes us feel uncomfortable, who looks funny or acts strange, and see that person as a beloved child of God.
Jesus teaches us to do his work in the world. He teaches us to uplift the poor, visit the prisoner, care for the sick, and feed the hungry.
First, we have to see all those who need our assistance. We have to see them as Jesus does, as beloved children of God. We have to see past our own fears and our own selfish desire for God to judge others. We can only do that as a community of faith. When we reduce repentance to an individual practice, we limit our ability to see.
I think true repentance looks a lot like a 12-step recovery program, like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. Recovery is more than just sobriety. Recovery requires rigorous self-examination. It requires the addict to acknowledge all the harm he or she has done, and, wherever possible, the addict must attempt to make amends.
All of that is done in community, where each member can offer support to one another. In those mutual relationships, each member invites other members to help to be a part of the process of self-examination. If I’m a member of a 12-step group, I share my self-examination with other members, who may encourage me in the process, or may call me out if they believe I’m not making the effort.
I don’t want to overstate the similarities between church and recovery groups, but I think the process of recovery is a parallel to the process of repentance. Like recovery, true repentance is an ongoing process. True repentance begins when we see with clear eyes, unclouded by fear or selfishness. In this season of Lent, let us commit to this process of rigorous self-examination as individuals and as a community. Thanks be to God. Amen!