Sunday, March 3, 2013

Fruit and Repentance


Fruit and Repentance
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 3, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 13: 1-9
 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.
Amen. 

13 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.’ ” [1]  

I'm pretty sure that starting a sermon is the hardest part of writing it. You find yourself getting into patterns and stock openings. This morning I wanted to jump write in because that seems to be what Jesus does. There is some news that comes to him. Some bad news. Some tragic news. Some news about Galileans being killed. Galileans, Jesus' own people, the people of Jesus' Disciples. And by Romans, by Pilate, by those horrible evil occupiers that the disciples and others of Jesus' followers are hoping to be free from, many of them hoping that Jesus will free them from, for that is what messiah means to them, what Christ means to them, and what they are hoping Jesus (salvation) means to them. An end to senseless slaughters like this one, and while performing a religious observance as well. Truly horrible news. You've got to think that they are waiting for Jesus to get fired up, to get Jesus angry, to finally get Jesus on that Jerusalem conquering and restoring warpath they all await, but that is not what we get. We don't get Jesus the revolutionary, Jesus the militant, instead we get Jesus the teacher, taking this tragedy as a teachable moment.
Instead of getting upset, Jesus asks a question in this passage, and I think it is an important one. Here it goes, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?" That question is pretty loaded. Think about it, if the answer to that question is affirmative, which must have been the understood norm Jesus was deciding to challenge by saying his "No, I tell you!" But think about what it would mean if the answer were yes, I could think of 3 main global truths. 1. The punishment for sin is death, therefore the people who died must have been sinners. 2. The worse of a sinner you are the more definite, immediate, and full of suffering is your death. 3. Pilate is the hand of God's judgment. Those are three pretty big statements.
Is that how we think? Perhaps, think about why that is a positive, comforting, brand of religious thinking. It's neat and logical, and makes sense, doesn't it? Seems like tight justice, fairness, that whole bit, but also it makes us feel good, it makes us feel safe, it makes us feel as if we are ok, because hey we are alive. It was them after all and not us who felt the swift sting of justice. With that thinking, you can feel pretty good, feel pretty safe, until you die, until it is you, but that's not today after all. The other thing it lets you do is compare yourself. You get to compare your bad stuff against others. You can always find someone who is worse than you. Well I may be bad, but at least I'm not like so and so down the street. I may have not prepared for this test, but hey at least I didn't cheat on it. I may have taken a pack of gum, but at least it wasn't money,  I may have gotten in a fight once or twice, but at least I haven't killed anyone. I know those aren't the best examples, but you see what I mean. Maybe smaller examples would be better, more at home and more hard hitting, so I hold a grudge, at least I didn't do what that person did all those years ago; so I gossip a little bit, at least I'm not the one out there doing that; yeah I may It's easy to compare in that world, to compare and become complacent. There is such a thing as enough, in that world. Is that what Christians think God is about still these days? Is that sometimes what we think? Does is show on our faces? Is that where our mind goes in the face of tragedy? Is that why Jesus pipes up and asks the question to the disciples? Would he to us? Does he to us, often?
The thing is, Jesus answers that question in the negative. He answers his own rhetorical question. I ask myself how long of a pause was there in between. As a teacher when I ask a question I usually give a little time for it to sink in. A little time for the outspoken kid to jump into my trap, was Jesus waiting for old loud mouth Peter to chime in? No luck, how long does Jesus wait? Then he says, "No, I tell you." Then he brings up another major disaster, and asks the same question? "Do you think they were worse defenders than others living in Jerusalem?" And again, "No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."
Here is where tend to grow uncomfortable with Jesus. Repentance talk is bad enough, you know, hey change. How does that feel? But then Jesus goes to the other place, the place of perishing, the end of the road, the day it all comes due, the day of reckoning, the end of the fiscal year, the end of the term, the deadline, when you run out of turns, game over, without the chance to put in another quarter to continue, no more second chances, the music's over turn out the light, stick a fork in it, strike three, April 15th, game day, exam day, which is where I've been this week, or hey, sequester. . . that's the Armageddon word being thrown around recently. Perish, unless you repent, and change, that is all she wrote, the fat lady has sung. We are always uncomfortable with this, especially in such black and white terms. It is so final. We don't like final, not for us, not now, all the people we see ourselves as better than must go first. Right? Right?
Jesus goes on to tell a 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.’ 

So not that we have looked at some of the context here, let's look at what is going on in this parable. He seems to go into more depth on the perishing, but not much comfort in it is there. We have to add now to all the images of the end. . . the axe through the tree. We gave it time, we gave it fertilizer, we gave it every opportunity, now cut it down. Yeah, Jesus we get it, repent or it's over.
Would Jesus need to illustrate such a point? Although it is uncomfortable for us, we understand the concept of everything being over, caput, capish? We get that. IF they truly felt about the reward for sin being death, they really didn't need this teachable moment, but Jesus does it anyway. There must be more. Wouldn't you know it, there is. . .
Jesus was refuting those three perceived truths about the world. Remember the safety we found in believing ourselves better than others, and in such a way safe. Now he has taken that away, but what does he replace it with? Look at the image he chooses. A fig tree, and whether it bears fruit. This is important.
Bearing fruit turns the game around doesn't it. No longer is it about, hey well I may be bad, but I'm not as bad as so and so. Now it comes down to hey you're a fig tree, do you bear fruit or not? Not are figs better than oranges. Not whether figs sell as good as bananas, not whether you like Fig Newtons or those Apple Newtons they tried to sell a bunch of years ago. I remember them, they were always there at my grandparent's house, sitting on the counter behind the TV that spun around to face the kitchen and the living room. No now the standard is, you are a fig tree, do you produce figs? If so great, if not let's get in gear. Now this becomes about how great you can be, not whether you had a few missteps along the way. It's no longer about doing enough. Have you ever noticed how living according to law is living by a bunch of minimums, but living according to virtue is infinite. There is no limit.
Just to illustrate the point further, directly after this conversation, Jesus heels a woman, who had been possessed by a Demon for 18 years, but he does it on the Sabbath. The Pharisees are shocked and upset. Jesus calls them hypocrites, but think of it from their perspective. They have based their goodness on this, their better than others, if that standard would be taken away how good would they be, how comfortable in their sinless status would they be? Instead here Jesus makes them stand instead on their fruits, and they don't like it. They are no longer comforted by their religion.
A couple of weeks ago I talked about Edmund Spenser's story about the Red Cross Knight, and how he faced the wood of error where everything seemed to be right but ended up being wrong. His errors lead him to the cave of despair. This is what the guardian of that cave says to him:

"Wretched man! you are the cause of this man's death. It is only just that you should pay the price of his life with your own. . .  Does not justice teach that he should die who does not deserve to live? . . . "What is the good of living?" said Despair. "The longer you live the more sins you commit. All those great battles that you are so proud of winning, all this strife and bloodshed and revenge, which are praised now, hereafter you will be sorry for. Has not your evil life lasted long enough? He that hath once missed the right way, the farther he goes, the farther he goes wrong. Go no farther, then--stray no farther. Lie down here and take your rest.

Doesn't this sound familiar this morning to our three truths? The problem in the cave of despair is giving up and committing suicide  by being overrun by guilt. Our hero is about to succumb to to it, when he is rescued by the lady Una, again, who represents Christian Truth. She says to him:

"Fie, fie, faint-hearted Knight!" she cried. "What is the meaning of this shameful strife? Is this the battle which you boasted you would fight with the horrible fiery Dragon? Come, come away, feeble and faithless man! Let no vain words deceive your manly heart, nor wicked thoughts dismay your brave spirit. Have you not a share in heavenly mercy? Why should you then despair who have been chosen to fight the good fight? If there is Justice, there is also Forgiveness, which soothes the anguish of remorse and blots out the record of sin. Arise, Sir Knight, arise and leave this evil place."

This works, it pulls him out of it. Look at what she says. "Is this the battle which you boasted you would fight with the horrible fiery dragon? Why should you then despair if you've been chosen to fight the good fight?" Stop thinking about your sins and your past, stop comparing yourself to others, stop thinking that way, and be about your quest, your duty, your call. You are a fig, bear fruit. It is such you will be judged on, and on failing to do will you perish. There is comfort to be had, but it is from duty and call.
So we don't ask what others are doing? How others behave? We don't compare ourselves, instead we have to ask ourselves what kind of tree we are, and then get busy bringing that tree to fruit. Or to translate, we have to ask what is your calling, and when do you start living it, for each and every one of us has one, though they each may be different, and since they are different it is not to others you should look, but instead to the gardener. May the gardener help us all. Amen

 

 



[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 13:1-9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.