Sermon for the third Sunday in Lent
In September 11, 2001, people watched in horror as the second of two passenger planes crashed into the upper stories of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. Again and again it replayed on the news; with smoke and flames pouring out of the first tower, another plane appeared and curved in to smash the second tower. Thousands died that day, and thousands more were left reeling with grief, fear, and trauma. For so many in that city, the scars remain.
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The skies went strangely quiet, as flights were grounded across the continent. And across the continent, churches filled. In New York City, certainly, but also in Washington, San Francisco, Ottawa, Winnipeg. People who had not been through the doors of a church building in decades found themselves attending Sunday worship, prayer vigils, memorial services. Some went seeking answers—“Why, God… why?”—some simply wanted solace, and to know they were not alone in their fear and sorrow. Some surely hoped to awaken God’s holy and righteous anger. In his address that evening, President George W. Bush assured the nation that the perpetrators of these “evil acts” would be brought to justice, and that, “the American economy will be open for business.” And then he cited the 23rd Psalm—“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me.” God would offer comfort and solace, while we, as a strong nation, set this right.
It wasn’t long before other theological perspectives began to be voiced. A well known television evangelist said that by America’s moral decay, “We make God mad.” “I really believe,” he said, “that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America… I point the finger in their face and say you helped this happen.” In response to that kind of perspective, many sermons were preached referencing Luke 13 verse 4, in which Jesus says, “those eighteen people 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?” Do you think that those who perished in the twin towers were any worse—or any better—than the rest of us? Do you think that God is angered by American moral failure, in other words, and has used those planes as an expression of divine vengeance? No, Jesus seemed to be saying through this text. No, that’s not the way it works.
At least that’s the way that the verse was applied, and not without some good reason. I’m afraid, though, that without attending to the entire passage—including the little parable that follows—it was a somewhat thin reading of the text. Listen. “At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” Though we don’t know the precise incident that is in view, it is quite probable that Pilate had sent soldiers to deal with some Galilean pilgrims who had gone to the Jerusalem temple to offer their required sacrifices. Maybe they were thought to be nationalists, or sympathetic to the Zealots? We can’t know for sure, but can surmise that they were killed by Pilate’s soldiers in the temple precincts. Did you hear about that Jesus? You, who are now so intent on going to Jerusalem? “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…” And then comes a rather unexpected line; one in which Jesus sounds a good deal like John the Baptist: “But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” He then adds another event from the news of the day, asking about those who were killed when that tower collapsed—“do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Again Jesus say very clearly “No,” and again he adds, “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Why does he raise this business of repentance at this point? And what does he mean by saying “you will all perish just as they did”? N.T. Wright makes the point that while many have read this passage as a kind of fire and brimstone warning, that’s not what is in view here. Wright comments, “In line with the warnings he has issued several times already… Jesus is making it clear that those who refuse his summons to change direction, to abandon the crazy flight into national rebellion against Rome, will suffer the consequences. Those who take up the sword will perish by the sword.” If you keep imagining, in other words, that the way to the Kingdom of God is by resisting and then throwing off the rule of Rome, “you will all perish just as they did.” “[W]hen Jerusalem fell in AD 70,” Wright continues, “it was a direct result of refusing to follow the way of peace which Jesus had urged throughout his ministry.”
Repentance, Matt Skinner points out, here and elsewhere in the bible, “refers to a changed mind, to a new way of seeing things, to being persuaded to adopt a different perspective.” Jesus is pointedly and urgently calling the people to see things with new eyes and to adopt his way. The Way.
And then he told them his little 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?’ The gardener 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.’”
Again it is easy to hear echoes of John the Baptist, who had said, “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 3:9) The difference, though, is that the even now of the Baptist has become the “let it alone for one more year” of Jesus’ parable. Yes, there remains an urgency in Jesus’ parable; after all, the fig tree had already had three barren years, and is being given but one more year to bear fruit. But what a gift—what an act of grace—is that one additional year. In fact, rather than seeing this as a parable of judgment, Robert Farrar Capon counts this as one of Jesus’ parables of grace. “It is the vinedresser”—the gardener—“who is the Christ-figure here,” Capon insists. “It is precisely because he invites the owner of the vineyard into forbearance and forgiveness that the barren fig tree continues to live by grace.” Aphes is the word the gardener speaks to the vineyard owner, which in our reading was translated “let it alone”, but could as well be translated “Forgive it.” In fact that very word aphes is one uttered by Jesus from the cross: “Father forgive”—aphes— “them, for they know not what they do.” And so Robert Capon continues,
The Vinedresser who on the cross say aphes to his Lord and Father comes to us with his own body dug deep by nails and spears, and his own being made dung by his death, and he sends our roots resurrection. He does not come to see if we are good: he comes to disturb the caked conventions by which we pretend to be good… He comes only to forgive… [and to do so] on no basis, because like the fig tree, we are too far gone to have a basis.
What begins as a teaching on the need to repent of the kind of saber-rattling nationalism that would surely end in disaster, and to instead follow the self-sacrificing way of peace Jesus embodied, ends up as a proclamation of grace. For all that there is still urgency in his voice, which yet calls for the kind of changed minds and hearts that will bear fruit. But it is wildly gracious, because this gardener is the one who does all the work to make that possible.
I began this sermon talking about 9/11, and so I think it is only fair to ask if this gospel text has something to speak into that event, or into the current war in Syria, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2013 Bangladesh factory collapse. Yes, yes it does. It says that our world is marked tragedies, both natural and of human making. Those whose lives have been lost or scarred in such events were no better nor worse than any of the rest of us. They just were, and to try to make a moral accounting of it as punishment for sin is just not on. What is on is the Gardener, who from the cross looks at those who would see him dead and says aphes—forgive—and through whom, as Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Col. 1:20) For all of the sorrow of 9/11 and Syria and Haiti, in the end even those deaths do not have the final word. The Gardener does.