Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] 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.’ ”

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

Can you even imagine? Come buy wine and milk without money, without price. All who are thirsty come to the waters. Do these words cause fear or scarcity? Or do they do the opposite? Are we more open to being generous to ourselves and to others? As people who are called to bring the kingdom in which God reigns on earth as it is in heaven, how do we live this out in our own lives with our own resources? 

During the pandemic the percentage of people experiencing severe food insecurity bolted up to over 30% of the global population according to The World Health Organization. That translates to 2.3 billion people!  Can you even imagine? 

We are in a rare time in history where most of us have some sort of trauma from the past few years. We who are marked with trauma use most of our energy and creativity just to survive. Anything above survival is a luxury. Have you found it harder to be creative or do the daily tasks you used to do before the pandemic? 

Isaiah 55:1-9
This scripture is about the word of God feeding, and nourishing, and it uses one of most basic needs as an illustration. In the Ancient World an edict was initiated when a new King took the throne. It was a time when all debts were forgiven and a banquet was held in celebration of this new gracious ruler. The imagery we see painted in Isaiah is what God’s edict looks like. All are fed and all are welcome. We are given this image of who God is, so we rejoice and praise, and live this outrageous truth of who God is. In doing so others see God.     

We’ve all heard the phrases, “working for a living” or “a living wage”? On this side of eternity, the system in which many are fed is by “working for a living.” In God’s kingdom we do not work to live. We live because of the work that has already been done in the person and divinity of Jesus the Christ. 

In God’s vision you don’t have to work to live. The things you need are given to you because you are a part of this kingdom and our God is generous and gracious. We were never meant to be machines who work to live. We are humans who were created to experience abundant life not only on the other side, on this side of eternity as well. We are called to live in a way that illustrates who we follow, who our God is and what kingdom we belong to. The Bible paints a picture of eternity so we not only taste and see, we live an abundant life on earth as it is in heaven.

Luke 13:1-9 
Oftentimes we hear Christians lamenting: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” What if there are no “good people” or “bad people”? What if we are all humans trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got, and sometimes it still falls short?

As humans we try to make sense of the things that terrify us. If we can make sense of these things, we can understand how to avoid them. As we avoid them there is a pride that can bubble up in us because we convince ourselves we are saving ourselves from hardship and tragedy. And yet… bad things still happen to all people.

Our scripture splits into two sections. In 13:1-5 two recent tragic events are being discussed. Eighteen Galileeians died from a building collapsing on them, the other Galilians were slaughtered by the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. People are asking one another and Jesus, “Who were the worst sinners?” They all died in such a tragic way.

Equating tragic events as God’s divine punishment is toxic theology. As humans we try to decide for ourselves, if death is a tragedy or understandable consequence. When someone dies, usually the first question we ask is “How?” Old age, drug use, “unhealthy” habits usually make us feel more understanding to the consequence of death. However, if a person died from cancer, getting shot, or murdered we shutter a little bit in terror. That could have been me. That could have been someone I love. Sometimes there is nothing we can do to avoid tragic events. 

Are you ready for some good news? Jesus explains that the more pressing question is the eternal wondering of our living and dying. As resurrection people death isn’t the end of the story, so he asks us to wonder how do we live now? Instead of wondering whose sin caused this tragedy, Jesus invites us to wonder how we are repenting and turning from sin in our own life now? And not so that we win keys to heaven, so we can live a life like a tree planted in good soil with a loving gardener and enjoy the fruit of this existence on this side of eternity. 

The second section Luke 13:6-9 discusses the fruit tree, and how it is not bearing fruit. The owner wants to cut it down, yet it is the gardener who invites the owner to give it one more year to bear fruit. There is an immediacy conveyed. God is giving to us the sunlight we need, the soil, the rain, and manure. What gets in the way of our growth? 

Sin is like a child holding a knife with the blade side in their palm. We cannot rush up to the child and yank the knife out of their hand because they will get cut. Instead, we may rush over to them, kneel beside them and say, “you are holding something dangerous in your hand. Can you give me the knife please?” God approaches us with more grace and love than we can imagine and says, “you are holding onto something dangerous. Are you willing to give it to me?” Repenting is not about being a good person so God will love us more. It’s God’s way of wanting to protect us from things that look to harm us. 

In today’s Gospel lesson, some folks come to Jesus to talk about sin. Unfortunately, they don’t want to talk about their own sins, but about the sins of others. And Jesus tells them that they should confess their own sins and leave others out of it. 

It’s important to remember that earlier in the Chapter 12 of Luke ends with several judgment stories in which Jesus warns his hearers to watch out for signs of the last days. It is natural that they should wonder, “Hey Jesus, did you hear about how Pilate marched into the Temple and killed those pilgrims from Galilee because he thought they were rioting? Why did God let that happen? Was it because those people were sinful and were being punished?”

We all understand this question. All ministers have gone to visit the hospital after someone has had a heart attack, or a terrible auto accident, or a diagnosis of cancer, and the question comes, “What did I do to deserve this?” It seems that any time there is a natural disaster, some TV preachers decide they have to figure out what sins the people had committed that caused God to punish them. And twice Jesus responds to that kind of thinking with, ‘”No, I tell you; but…” Those “buts” are the most important words in this text. They signal a turn, a turn away from worrying about the sins and fate of others; and a turn to thinking about our sins and our own fate in life. “Unless you repent, you will all also perish!” Jesus turned the crowd away from a discussion of other people’s sins and turned it to a focus on their own need for change and repentance. The theme of our text is “turning to and fro with God;” turning from fear—to faith, turning from sin—to grace, turning from the world—to God. And focusing on the sin or saintliness of others distracts us from paying attention to our own journey with God. Maybe that’s why we do it.

In the early twentieth century, The Times of London, a newspaper read all over England, and all over the world; invited famous writers to answer the question: “What is wrong with the world?” In response, they got many long essays spelling out both the problems and also, as a bonus, the writer’s assessment as to who was to blame. 

God, the Devil, the Church, the Communists, the Fascists, White people, Black people, Asians, Hispanics, the Jews, the Germans, the Italians, the Chinese, the Muslims, and the Americans. It was women, men, ” The Older Generation” and “These Young People Today.” GK Chesterton was a famous writer of the of books and articles on Christianity. In answer to the question, “What is wrong with the world” He wrote: Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely, GK Chesterton.

Jesus’ call to us today is to turn from blaming God, or the world, or others, for what’s wrong with the world. Christ invites us to turn to look at ourselves instead, and then to turn and look to God for help and salvation. That is really what the word we translate into English as repent means; it means to turn, to turn from one way of thinking to another, to turn from going one direction in life to going in a new and different direction.

The life of the Christian is a life of daily repentance, a life of constant turning from the world to God and then turning back again from God to go into the world. The result of this turning is the fruit we bear, the acts of love and kindness to others that our lives produce. Jesus’ parable of the fig tree reminds us that a life of turning to God and then back into the world will produce fruitful lives of generosity and love. The reprieve given to the unfruitful tree reminds us that God is a God of grace, and forbearance, and steadfast love, our God is a God of second chances.

And we all sometimes need this reminder, because all of us are sometimes much more focused on the awfulness of the sins of others while minimizing the sins of ourselves. We have an unfortunate tendency to believe our sins are easily forgiven, but those of others, well, “…not so much.” 

In his series of novels about the small town of Harmony, Indiana, Phillip Gulley is a Quaker pastor often reminds his parishioners that, “every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”  Those of us who remember Luther’s words about being “saint and sinner at the same time;” are often guilty of acting as though our saintliness were better than that of others and our sinfulness not as bad. We appear to believe that if it were only our sins that mattered, then Jesus would not have had to die on the cross; just a good, stern talking to would have taken care of it. It was the sins of others that caused Christ to die. And Jesus says to us, “No, I tell you, but… “

Lent is a time to repent of our own sins, not the sins of others. Lent is a time to plow up the ground, prepare the soil, heap fertilizer onto our souls; seek the Lord’s will and way, and trust in the Lord’s love and forgiveness, of us and of everybody.

Now news of the events in Ukraine have dominated the news cycle and occupied our minds for weeks. Most news stories represent Ukraine as the righteous one and Russia as the enemy, with Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin pitted against each other like a modern day David and Goliath. These stories fail to capture that the ones fighting the war are not so easy to paint with such broad strokes.

Among the Russian soldiers are young people who have spent the last 8 years consuming propaganda, which led them to believe they would enter Ukraine as liberators, not as invaders. They expected to be greeted with cheers, not violent resistance. When these Russian soldiers learn the truth, some regret ever invading Ukraine. But their message cannot get back home. 

Anti-Russian news broadcasts, rhetoric, and protests are against the law. Even Ukrainians who call home to family in Russia are crushed when their own families choose to believe the propaganda instead of their own stories.

When we take the time to take a closer look at others, even our enemies, we learn that the line between right and wrong, good and evil, blessed and cursed is not as clear as we might have once thought.

Jesus has to let his followers know that repentance is for everyone, just as grace is for everyone. We’re all in the same dilemma: the good, the bad, and the ugly. And we could all probably use a little work around the soil of our lives—maybe even a little manure for growth.

As Pastor Nadia Bolz-Webber has so famously said, “God’s grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin…. it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own crap.”