March 3, 2013/Third Sunday of Lent
The late William Sloane Coffin, who was the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, a civil rights activist, a profoundly gifted preacher, teacher and writer and who has become for me a mentor of faith, lost his 24-year-old son Alex in a terrible car accident. Ten days after his death he delivered a sermon that is more commonly known as A Eulogy for Alex. The following is an excerpt from that sermon.
When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister's house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, "I just don't understand the will of God." Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. "I'll say you don't, lady!" I said.
For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths — I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I've been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist — yes, even an Eternal Vivisector. But violent deaths, such as the one Alex died — to understand those is a piece of cake. As his younger brother put it simply, standing at the head of the casket at the Boston funeral, "You blew it, buddy. you blew it." The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.
“God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.” This is not the response that Jesus gives to the people who ask him about two tragedies in our gospel passage this morning, but I think the intent of the words is there. If you were really listening to the scripture as it was read, or if you read along carefully in your own Bible, please feel free to look at me as if I’m crazy right now. Go ahead. Give me the look. It’s okay. I’ll wait.
I know what I just said sounds off because at first glance there is nothing in this passage from Luke that would suggest that God’s heart breaks at the tragedies that befall us. If anything it sounds like Jesus is saying bad things happen to people who bring it on themselves, and if you don’t change your ways it’s going to happen to you too.
David Lose wrote in his weekly preaching article that when it comes to this passage there should be a warning label. Approach with caution. And I admit than when I read through the passages for this week, my first thought was “Maybe I should just preach from Isaiah.”
But warning label aside, here we are. In the verses before these Jesus has been speaking to the people around him about their inability to read the signs of the kingdom. They can look at the sky and figure out the weather that is coming but they don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times. They need to settle up with their opponents or else it’s going to be them who lands in prison, having to pay off every last penny they owe. So Jesus is already on the topic of judgment when he is told about a tragedy that has happened.
It would seem that a group of worshipers had gone to make their sacrifices and they were killed by Pilate. Even as they were fulfilling their religious obligation, even as they were making their own sacrifice they were sacrificed. And in what is a particularly gory sentence, the blood of all was mingled together.
Jesus asks 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.”
Then Jesus brings up another tragedy that has happened; when the tower of Siloam fell on 18 people. Jesus asks again, “Do you think that they were worse offenders then all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
If the people listening to Jesus were hoping he’d give them answers that made them feel better, they weren’t getting their wish, were they? Two tragedies – which as I understand, our only knowledge of them comes from this passage – one done by human hands, one a natural disaster. But the underlying question is did these terrible events happen to people because God was punishing them. Was it God’s will that these people die because they were worse sinners than others?
At first glance it seems that Jesus’ response somewhat confirms that, doesn’t it? Repent or perish as they did. But is Jesus talking about a personal morality or is he really trying to get them to understand sin as a state of being? Because the word repent isn’t just about confessing a litany of transgressions. It means to turn around. When we repent we turn around, we change direction, we reorient ourselves to God. On the first Sunday of Lent I spoke of Jesus saying no to the devil in the wilderness. But along with that no, he said “yes.” He said “yes” to God. He said “yes” to a life of faithfulness. So it would seem that when we repent, we’re not just making a declarative statement about what we say “no” to. When we repent we say “yes.” We say “yes” to God.
But I think the problem is that we most often live our lives in a state of “no.” I think that’s what Jesus is trying to point out to people in these verses. I think those listening to him were more concerned about avoiding divine retribution than they were about living into the love and grace of the kingdom. That’s why Jesus has been challenging them so intensely. It seems that he’s trying to make them understand that they don’t get it. You don’t get it. You don’t get that the kingdom is right here. You don’t get that it’s not about who sins more than whom. You don’t understand that living a life of faith is not just doing everything you can to avoid punishment. It’s not just about saying “no.” It’s about saying “yes.” Repent. Turn around. Reorient. Change your direction.
Then Jesus tells them a story about a barren fig tree. The man, the owner of the fig tree, sees that it bears no fruit. So he wants to have it cut down! It’s wasting soil.
But the gardener asks for one more year. One more year to dig around it and add manure. One more year of cultivating and tilling. One more year of patience. If the fig tree doesn’t bear fruit after a year, then cut it down.
The traditional interpretations I’ve heard of this parable is that God is the owner and Jesus is the gardener. God wants to wipe out the barren tree. But Jesus asks for more time. Jesus is the one standing between us and an angry, vengeful God. If we live as if our lives are about saying no, then this interpretation fits quite nicely. But if we’re about saying yes, then it no longer works.
I don’t believe that God is the owner who wants the tree cut down. I think God is the gardener. I think God is the one wants to have more time with us, more time to cultivate and till and love. I think this parable is more about divine patience and grace then it is about rooting out what doesn’t bear fruit. I realize that this interpretation begs the question, “who then is the man?” I don’t have a definitive answer. But I wonder if it’s us.
What we don’t get in this story is an ending – happy or otherwise. We don’t know what happens. We don’t know if the fig tree begins to bear fruit or if it’s cut down. We just know that because of the gardener’s willingness to be patient and to do more work, a different future for the tree is now possible.
Isn’t that true for us as well? Ultimately I believe that the future is in God’s hands, and those are certainly good hands to be in. But even saying that, I think Jesus’ words remind us that we have a choice about whether we’re going to say yes or no. Are we going to say no? Are we going to live as though God is just waiting to smack us down? Are we going to constantly see the terrible things that happen in life as proof of God’s punishment for our sins? Are we going to believe that God’s will is merely about hurting us when we’ve been bad? Or are we going to say yes? Are we going to live boldly into our faith, knowing that we all sin and mess up and fall down and fall away, but that our mistakes don’t have the power to diminish God’s grace? Our mistakes don’t have the power to diminish God’s grace. Indeed it is that very grace which imbues the world with God’s love. May we continue to find the courage, during this season of Lent and in every season, to say yes to God. May we continue to trust and imagine that there is a different future for us all. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”