Hello all, Tory here. This is the sermon I gave this past Sunday at St Peter and St Mary. For this third Sunday of Lent, the gospel text was 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. He 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 round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
The gospel text today is not an easy one. I don’t mind saying that when I first read it, I thought, “What am I going to do with this?” Even though it’s short, there’s a lot packed in, and it doesn’t make for light reading. First, the setting: Jesus and his friends are on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus is speaking to a crowd, who tell them of the latest atrocity committed by the Roman government under Pontius Pilate, who despite his often somewhat sympathetic portrayal in many of the filmed accounts of Jesus’ life, had quite the reputation for brutality in his day. Fellow Galileans were murdered, and their blood mingled with that of the sacrificial offerings in the temple- an unclean and sacrilegious end. Implicit in their story is the most human of questions: what did they do to deserve this? In characteristic fashion, however, Jesus doesn’t answer their questions directly. Instead, he asks questions of them, in turn: Do you think they were any worse than you are, to meet such an end? Then he offers a story of his own, this time a tragic accident, and asks the same question. Do you think they were worse than any others? In both cases, his answer is the same:
No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Needless to say, this was probably not what they wanted to hear. There is something comforting in the idea that people get what they deserve; such a world would be a simpler place. But Jesus never makes the world a simpler place. Jesus affirms what we already know- bad things happen to good people. The rain falls on the wicked and the good alike. Jesus doesn’t offer them comfort. Instead, he calls them to repent.
Their world was blowing up. It probably didn’t feel like a great time to talk about repentance.
“Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did”- is not an easy message to hear. It is something we might associate with the “angry prophets” of the Hebrew Bible, or that firebrand, John the Baptist. Our popular image of Jesus is more comfortable than this- Jesus is compassionate, not judgmental. But this is, of course, an oversimplification. The fact is, in this Lenten season, we must look Jesus’ call for repentance squarely in the face.
So let’s take a look at repentance. Like many important theological words, repentance has picked up some baggage in the last two thousand years. When we hear “repentance,” we often think of blame, guilt, and punishment. This isn’t quite right, though. Though the call to repentance always carries with it an awareness of sin, it’s actually laden with possibility. Jesus’ call to repent is the latest in a long lineage of prophets, all of whom were called by God to speak the word of truth to an errant Israel. This always came when Israel had violated the covenantal relationship with God that defined its identity. Often, “repent” is followed with “and return to the Lord.” The operative root for the Hebrew word for repent is “to turn.”
I would argue that repentance is more about a shift in perspective than about guilt. Guilt may point us to something we’ve done wrong, but is often disempowering. We can feel guilty, confess our sins to God, and not finish the work of repentance, because repentance requires a change, a re-orienting to God’s way of seeing the world. Repentance is a movement toward God, toward reconciliation. Repentance is inextricable from reconciliation. Repentance, in fact has little to do with guilt, and everything to do with restoring right relationship. Repentance takes place within the expansiveness of God’s grace.
This brings us to the second half of our passage, in which Jesus tells a parable about a barren fig tree. At first, this might seem like a non sequitur. What does this fig tree Jesus is talking about have to do with repentance?
In the story, a landowner has planted a fig tree in his vineyard. However, after three years, the fig tree still hasn’t borne fruit. The landowner thinks that the best course might be to cut down the tree, and allow the soil to be used for a more fruitful plant. However, his gardener urges him to wait another year. Allow me to make some changes, give this tree some care, and see if that makes a difference, the gardener says. After a year, if it is still barren, then you can cut it down.
It’s important to note here that the tree isn’t given a pass indefinitely. It’s being given a grace period, but with boundaries. The landowner and gardener’s decision regarding this one tree also affects the entire vineyard. Far from not caring about this single tree, their concern is broader and more holistic. Their choices have consequences. This tells us something important about repentance and reconciliation.
While the call for repentance comes undeniably from a perspective of divine judgment, the possibility of repentance comes from divine grace. While God’s love is unconditional, God’s approval is not. While unequivocal approval might sound appealing, there is really very little to choose between it and indifference. There is a vast gulf, however, between God’s compassion and indifference. God’s call for repentance comes from God’s deep care for us. We are being held accountable out of God’s love for us, and God’s love for those harmed by our sin.
While Lent is certainly a time for us to engage our personal spiritual lives, our personal practice, I think this parable is best looked at as a community. So the question I want to ask this morning is for the Church- are we bearing fruit?
If we look at this parable, and we assume that we as Christians occupy the positive role in the story, as is often our tendency, it would be easy to cast ourselves as the compassionate gardener, and the unchurched masses as the barren fig tree.
But I think we in the church need to step back and ask ourselves- are we bearing fruit? Maybe we are actually the barren fig tree in this scenario. And if we are the barren fig tree, then the question becomes, what do we need to do about it? What should be our response?
There’s a lot of talk right now about a crisis in the Church. Membership is shrinking, secularism seems to be the order of the day, and and the Church has toppled from its former place of dominance in our society. The conversations I hear are mostly focused on my generation, how to attract us to churches. There’s a lot of lamentation of the the sad state of affairs in which we find ourselves.
My generation, it’s often said, is the least religious in history. While overly grandiose, this statement has a ring of truth. I can speak to why- it’s not because we’re less reverent, less spiritual, more materialistic, or have looser morals than previous generations. The blame can be placed squarely on the church itself. Hypocrisy is not something we are willing to tolerate, and for many, that means they have no intention of ever darkening the door of a church. If we try, we can come up with a long list of things the church has to answer for, so can we blame them? In Jesus’ parable, the fig tree has a year before it may be cut down; the church has had two thousand years. We need to examine our assumption that the church should continue to exist- I clearly think it should, because I plan to devote my life to ministry, but why do I think this?
I happen to think that church is less of a failure and more of an experiment that hasn’t really ever been tried yet. If my church wants my generation to participate, it doesn’t need shiny services or the coolest perks, or the newest music. If the church wants us to show up, it has to show up, too. It has to be church. The call of the Gospel isn’t easy. We need communities of faith, places to do this work together. We need communities where we can bring all of ourselves, our rough edges, our questions, our joys and our sorrows. We need places where we see the love of God reflected in the love of our neighbors, where every action, whether in the passing of the peace, or a helping hand, or in the blessing of body and the blood, is an act of worship. You might say this is an impractical dream, but Jesus calls us to nothing less.
What does bearing fruit look like? Is it the count of members, pledges, and capital campaigns? These things are important, but you and I know that God’s idea of success isn’t often ours. This is a time for us to reimagine what we think church is, and what it can do. In vibrant communities, churches are doing just that, giving care to their roots, but looking outward for new possibilities. In limiting our idea of church, we limit God, or at least our ability to participate in God’s work.
I would like to suggest that instead of seeing our current situation as a catastrophe, we see it as an opportunity. This moment, when we can’t count on everyone coming on Sunday because of simple duty, is an opportunity. What would repentance look like, in this context? Repentance is a radical shift in perspective. Rather than dwelling nostalgically on the way things used to be, we should look around us, at the present moment. With this perspective, bearing fruit looks quite different. We become less focused on the future of the church as an institution and more on the practice of the Gospel in community. Repentance asks us to look at the world, and to see God in it.
It asks, what is God doing, in this time and in this place?
It asks, how can we get involved?