First Congregational Church
March 24, 2019
Third Sunday in Lent
“When Being Slow Is a Good Thing”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I usually don’t do this, but I’m telling you all to buckle up. I’ve not ever come across this story before, and I’m sure there will be a response to it - of some sort. I met a talking fig tree once. Actually, it wasn't the tree that talked, it was the figs. They would spend all day talking to each other as they grew on the tree. One of the figs, who's name was Justin became a very close friend of mine. He was rather difficult to understand, so sometimes I had to ask the other figs what he was saying. One day, I was talking to him, and he came up with a phrase "your magic-nation', and as usual, I had to ask the others what he had said. "Don't worry," said another fig, "Justin the fig meant 'your imagination'."
Cutting to the chase, our scripture passage this morning, without context, is like left-over post-it notes, after the paper is written, and not wanting to lose them, the Gospel writer inserts them where they seem to make the most sense to him - sort of like some of my own sermons. I go out on the preverbal limb in suggesting that maybe Luke hopes that one of these pieces will make sense to someone who suddenly comes back to the present, after leaving the mental grocery list and the after-church events of their mind. But the more you know about the background, the more the pieces seem to fit - at least with each other.
The passage is actually two: verses 1-5 and 6-9. The first part of the passage refers to two events that were probably well-known by the ancient audiences. Although the details have been lost over time, apparently Pilate Antipas ordered an attack on some Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem. We don’t know why the Galileans were massacred while at worship, but the passage is rather poignant in light of the recent shooting at the mosque in New Zealand. Pilate, however, went a step further in his brutality, mixing the blood of the dead Jews with the blood of the animals that were sacrificed that day by the priests.
The second event - in the first section - refers to a tower in the wall around Jerusalem that apparently collapsed without warning and crushed eighteen ill-fated Jerusalemites. These two events, along with a little parable that Jesus tells, seem to be part of that which took place within a single day - as Luke tells it. Jesus was talking to the disciples, with thousands of their closest friends listening in, and just perhaps, as Jesus was using the two current events, he saw a far off fig tree, crafting it into a sermon illustration - rather than looking something up on sermon-illustrations.com.
Luke 13:1-9 Repent or Perish
13 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
Thank you, Dawn. So I was at Watson Benzie a few months back, probably doing the oil change thing, and they had a white Viper in the showroom with a note on it that said, “Do Not Touch.” I knew it was probably expensive, but not $90,000 expensive. Still, I knew that if I touched the car, being who I am, knowing that Murphy’s Law lives in the house next door to the parsonage, if I were caught, I’d get to wear the green badge of embarrassment and shame for a long time. So I didn’t touch it.
I was back at Watson Benzie on Thursday, and while they were working on my car, I got to thinking about that Viper and the note. So I went to the sales guys, and asked them what percentage of people they thought had touched the car. I was flabbergasted that the answer was “most of them.” Most of them! They said that they put the note on the car mainly as a cautionary memo for parents with kids who were likely eating the popcorn they make there. They also said that they told a lot of people that they could go ahead and touch the car. But still. The car belonged to the dealership and they asked the public not to touch it. Temptation abounds.
I was at Munson hospital on Friday, and when I got off the elevator, there was a sign at the entrance to the unit where Andy Mollema is staying, saying that there was a procedure in progress. Other people waiting to see Andy had been there 40 minutes while this procedure was going on. Other people had said that they had looked through the door, but didn’t see anyone around. The temptation to pull out the Reverend card and poke my head through the door, beyond the door, to see what was going on, was huge! But I didn’t even go up to the door. I never did find out what exactly happened, but I surmised it was a situation that needed all hands on deck and a couple of crash carts that sat outside one of the rooms while people were quickly cleaning up what looked like the aftermath of a tornado. When I thought about what it would have been like for any of the staff, having to fend off curiosity seekers while trying to save a person’s life, especially if it was the life of someone I knew or loved, I realized how sad my curiosity was.
I paint these pictures not because I’m looking for accolades for good behavior, but to point out how common-place temptation can be with such innocuous seeming issues - within the big scheme of life. In either case, had I succumbed to the temptation, I would have been justified in any reprimand that I might have received.
But the Galilieans and the Jerusalemites didn’t do anything to deserve their fates. God didn’t cause bad things to happen to those people - good or bad people - things just happen. Life happens. But then, Jesus tells the disciples and other listeners - not once, but twice - that they need to repent, or they, too would perish. So what’s up with that?
Ironically and unknowing how relevant it would be, I snuck in the 2002 version of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine this week, too. I’d never read the book or looked at the comic book version or seen either of the other two movie productions, the two television versions or listened to any of the five radio interpretations. So I still don’t know if all those other versions carry the underlying reason for wanting to time travel - to change history.
The young scientist who creates the machine does so because his fiancé is killed in a robbery. When he goes back in time to change the circumstances that led up to that event, the fiancé still dies. So he goes some 800,000 years into the future to get the answer to the question: why can’t we change history? Surely people would evolve enough to discover either the answer to the question or how to change history or both. Why will bad things continue to happen to people, regardless of what they do or don’t do? In the end, the broken-hearted scientist learns that sometimes things happen, and there is no cause and effect. It is just part of being human and living.
But then there is the fig tree parable, and it would seem to support the idea of punishment for anyone or anything that is unproductive. The tree is trying to grow. It’s given that hallowed time of three years, and nothing’s happening. Did it receive enough water? Did they even give it anything to eat, i.e., fertilizer? Some Bible versions call it manure. If it isn’t given the right help, then the tree is not at fault for its lack of fruit. If there was not proper care of the tree, then it was the vineyard owner who was responsible for the barrenness of the fig tree - not the tree itself.
Of course, it’s a parable - meant to impart wisdom - so we can’t count on any back story to help in the understanding of this passage. But it does give us plenty of room for contemplation.
This season of Lent, the season of confession and truth-telling and contemplation opens the opportunity for self-discussion: have I jumped to conclusions that I didn’t realize had extenuating circumstances? Have I easily, automatically, unknowingly judged an individual or situation to be a certain way before understanding the reasons and events that brought that person to their present place? I’ve heard a son talk about his mother at her funeral, whom people often thought to be drunk, except she had narcolepsy - a sleep disorder that causes overwhelming drowsiness. How might I have wrongly judged that person myself?
Jesus’ words are rather stark and harsh: repent or you, too, will all perish. We’re so used to the Jesus that is inclusive and loving. And I’m guessing that we all like that Jesus. But being the good, church going people that we all are, how does this passage speak to us in ways that make a difference?
There was an article that came my way this week by a pastor named Chris Katzer, called, “I’m Sorry Church, My Hope Is Gone.” There was a sentence in this blog entry that got right to the heart of its message. “What we have in so much of American Christianity is beyond simple human error, imperfection, or oversight, but a callous lust for personal gain and all the blatant disregard for people and integrity that comes with it.” In other words, it is a disingenuous claim to follow Christ and not act like it.
At one point in the blog entry, Mr. Katzer wrote, “The bar my family attends for food and drink, the cubicles in which I work to live and breathe, the nature in which I roam, the secular in which I live, all are far more spiritual, holy, and pure, at least for me.”
Mr. Katzer’s words are harsh, but I would venture to guess that they ring true for some folks. And that’s really sad. What’s more sad is the part I have perhaps played in contributing to this situation. And I use the word I to mean we.
There is a phrase that says, “Therefore but by the grace of God.” What it means is that in any other circumstance, I could have been the one in that car crash, the one whose child overdosed, or any other bad thing that happens. But when we use that phrase, there is a certain separateness implied. I’m not like that person. Except that I am. We all are.
I remember hearing that sarcasm is actually hostility disguised as humor. In an article in Psychology Today, Clifford Lazarus points out that despite smiling outwardly, most people who receive sarcastic comments feel put down and usually think the sarcastic person is a jerk.
The first two sections of our passage - standing alone - could make a good enough sermon - lifting up the fact that no matter what happens, God is with us - in each and every moment - we are never alone. But then there is the parable about the fig tree, and that gives us the need to look deeper, to see our part in helping others heal and bloom in Christ.
I’m not implying that there is rampant naming and blaming and shaming going on here. But I do think that we can be more thoughtful, more deliberate about leaving this place in as good condition or better than when we found it. We have done that to a large degree in the physical aspects of this church home, but how is our spiritual legacy doing? It’s great to see our friends here, and I hear lots of people talk about how friendly our church is. But we let us remember to water and feed the new folks that come to us, including them and making spaces for them, noticing when someone sits alone and trying to discern whether they want to stay alone. When that happens, and life happens, we will all have not just one or two, but a whole family to come around us to support us and love us. As it has been, so may it be.
God of grace, thank you for always giving us opportunities to repent, to start again, to remain humble people after your heart. Thank you for the rains that fall on the just and the unjust, because we are well aware that sometimes, we are the unjust. Forgive us, God, when we don’t live up to the high calling you have on all of us, to further your kingdom - not just in breadth of location, but in the span of time. Thank you for those who have gone before us and for each one you send to us - today and in all the days ahead. May we all know, deep in our hearts of not just your love and joy, but your grace and mercy. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.