Sermon Luke 13: 1-9; 3rd Lent – February 28, 2016

 

fig tree 2

Our Lenten journey continues. We’ve talked about the spiritual practices of giving and prayer, and today I would like to explore repentance with you. Now talk about a counter-cultural practice! We live in a day and age and part of the world where being unapologetic seems to be the only way to show strength. Has anyone watched politicians in the presidential primaries lately? Mistakes and missteps are being explained away, sometimes even thrown back onto the ones who were offended – it’s all their fault. No, we don’t acknowledge we made mistakes. I did it my way, everybody else live with it. We don’t repent. And why should we?

Well, we see the effects of a non-repentant society all around us and in this world. We seem to be more polarized than ever, congress in this country can’t get anything done, and world politicians in this country and worldwide snarl at each other. We forget how to live with each other and search for solutions that benefit all instead of just a few.

Repentance is at the heart of the gospel, the good news. John the Baptist, the one who prepares the way of Jesus, calls, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is near!’ Jesus, after his baptism, travels the lands, calling the people to repentance. And repentance is also at the heart of today’s gospel.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is confronted with an extremely widespread opinion of his day.  We hear that there were some who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices, an atrocious act, not only from a humanitarian standpoint, but atrocious before God as well.  And Jesus’ response: Do you think…?  Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?

And Jesus picks up on an opinion still many in this world today share: that bad things happen to bad people only. To use a word from Eastern religions, it’s bad karma. Jesus asks: What do you think?  But it’s a rhetorical question. Jesus goes on to answer this question:  No.  It may be the prevailing opinion, but God thinks differently.  This is not how God’s kingdom works.  But I tell you, Jesus continues, unless you repent, you will perish just as they did. Unless you repent…

Now the word for repent we find in the original Greek of the New Testament is metanoia.  And quite literally, it means change of mind, or change of thinking.  And this presents Jesus’ words in a whole new light: Do you think bad things happen to people because of their sin?  No, but unless you change your thinking, you will perish like them also.

Now I happen to think that Jesus is not only challenging the predominant opinion of his day about bad things happening to bad people – or the descendants of bad people – only.  Jesus is doing more: he is challenging human opinions and assumptions in general. Do you think that…some people are better than others?  That those with especially virtuous lives get a place next to God in heaven?  That, if we only work hard enough and bring the right sacrifices, we can earn our salvation? Well, think again.  Repent.

Human assumptions and opinions are limited, no matter how much consensus there is.  And: human assumptions and opinions are not only limited, but often limiting as well, and stand in the way of opportunity; they may even stand in the way of God’s amazing work among us and all creation.  If we are too preoccupied with our opinions, and stubbornly cling to them, without repentance, without giving God the chance to change our minds, there is no new life, no growth.

It is no coincidence that Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the fig tree, a story which is challenging general assumption in more than one way.  First of all, the barren fig tree is but a symbol of what happens if we don’t repent, if we don’t change our thinking, if we don’t open our minds to be changed by the endless and amazing possibilities of God.  There is no new life, there is no fruit.  We are so preoccupied with ourselves and our limited experience of the world that all energy is spent on ourselves, but we don’t put out that which nourishes others.

Now the owner of the fig tree in the parable already has shown quite some patience with this tree.   One of the Mosaic laws concerns fruit trees.  After a tree is planted, for three years any fruit that it might produce is considered ritually unclean and can’t be consumed.  We can assume that the three years of barrenness of the fig tree in the parable occur after that initial three year period, so there we have a tree that has not produced any fruit whatsoever for 6 years.  And fig trees are quite lecherous trees, they consume lots of nutrients and water, often causing other vegetation around them to die.  And under normal circumstances, that’s not an issue, because fig trees, once grown, are almost like weeds, producing fruit abundantly; I mean, if you read through the Bible, fig trees are everywhere, it was the predominant fruit in the Middle East.  Why, even Adam and Eve made their first clothing out of fig leaves.  But a fruitless fig tree is a freeloader, a good for nothing, except for firewood.

The owner of the tree in the parable has a lot of patience, because a) it is unusual for a fig tree to be barren to begin with, and b), he’s given this tree 6 years.  The listeners in Jesus’ days probably were thinking, this doesn’t make any sense!  Why hasn’t the owner given this tree the axe much earlier?  That would be common sense, that’s what we think.

Repent.  Think again.  God’s kingdom doesn’t work that way.  God is righteous and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  Where we with our human assumptions judge quickly and harshly, where we readily give someone the axe who has disappointed us,  or where we think God ought to give someone the axe – God patiently waits and hopes.

But Jesus even tops the patience of the owner with the patience of the gardener.  After six years of dealing with this parasitic tree, the owner’s ready to chop it down.   And the gardener says: give it one more year.  I will do everything in my power to nurture it.  I will dig deep and get down to the root of the problem and try to fix it.  I want to give it another chance.  And, remember, the fig tree is a tree that doesn’t need any special care, but is like a weed.  The gardener is offering to nurture the weed!  He wants to go the extra mile, he sees something in this tree, some hidden potential that makes it worth the while and the sacrifice.

The listeners in Jesus’ day were probably thinking, why on earth does the gardener go the extra mile and beyond?  It’s a waste of time and energy!  That would be common sense, that’s what we think.

Repent.  Think again.  The grace of God revealed in Jesus, and especially Jesus’ seemingly senseless act of dying on the cross, offers the ultimate chance for all those seemingly hopeless cases – and, by default, offers the ultimate chance for all of us.

Repentance means to open our minds to this mind blowing love and mercy of God – and then, to live accordingly, to live this love and mercy ourselves. And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us…

For even the gardener realizes that, especially after a period of special care, the tree ought to bring fruit.  Grace and mercy lead to the responsibility of doing something with those gifts.  The tree has to stop just consuming all nutrients for itself and live for itself, but has to start giving itself away, for the nourishment of others.

One scholar once pointed out, bearing fruit is not a fruit problem, but a root problem.  If a tree is rooted in the wrong ground or in the wrong way, that will have an effect on the growth and the fruit.

The root of all we say and do is in our thinking, our attitude.  So in order to bring the best and healthiest fruit possible, we have to dig deeper.  In order to bring the best fruit possible, we need to repent, we need to think differently, we need to think outside of the box of our limited and limiting experiences and assumptions, we need to make an effort to try and see the world through someone else’s eyes, we need to acknowledge our mistakes and reach out to people we have hurt, asking for forgiveness. It’s about attitude change, not just about doing one more or one less thing.  It is about embracing the endless and amazing possibilities of God.  It is about believing that God, indeed, has endless patience with us – and others, for that matter – and continues to go the extra mile and beyond for our sake.

The kingdom of God is built on repentance and thus is so unlike all the reigns of this world. So as I invite you try repentance this Lenten season, I don’t mean for you to fall down on your knees and self-flagellate. Just start with the following: when you think you got something – or someone – figured out – think again!

 

Amen

 

 

 

Our Lenten journey continues. We’ve talked about the spiritual practices of giving and prayer, and today I would like to explore repentance with you. Now talk about a counter-cultural practice! We live in a day and age and part of the world where being unapologetic seems to be the only way to show strength. Has anyone watched politicians in the presidential primaries lately? Mistakes and missteps are being explained away, sometimes even thrown back onto the ones who were offended – it’s all their fault. No, we don’t acknowledge we made mistakes. I did it my way, everybody else live with it. We don’t repent. And why should we?

Well, we see the effects of a non-repentant society all around us and in this world. We seem to be more polarized than ever, congress in this country can’t get anything done, and world politicians in this country and worldwide snarl at each other. We forget how to live with each other and search for solutions that benefit all instead of just a few.

Repentance is at the heart of the gospel, the good news. John the Baptist, the one who prepares the way of Jesus, calls, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is near!’ Jesus, after his baptism, travels the lands, calling the people to repentance. And repentance is also at the heart of today’s gospel.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is confronted with an extremely widespread opinion of his day.  We hear that there were some who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices, an atrocious act, not only from a humanitarian standpoint, but atrocious before God as well.  And Jesus’ response: Do you think…?  Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?

And Jesus picks up on an opinion still many in this world today share: that bad things happen to bad people only. To use a word from Eastern religions, it’s bad karma. Jesus asks: What do you think?  But it’s a rhetorical question. Jesus goes on to answer this question:  No.  It may be the prevailing opinion, but God thinks differently.  This is not how God’s kingdom works.  But I tell you, Jesus continues, unless you repent, you will perish just as they did. Unless you repent…

Now the word for repent we find in the original Greek of the New Testament is metanoia.  And quite literally, it means change of mind, or change of thinking.  And this presents Jesus’ words in a whole new light: Do you think bad things happen to people because of their sin?  No, but unless you change your thinking, you will perish like them also.

Now I happen to think that Jesus is not only challenging the predominant opinion of his day about bad things happening to bad people – or the descendants of bad people – only.  Jesus is doing more: he is challenging human opinions and assumptions in general. Do you think that…some people are better than others?  That those with especially virtuous lives get a place next to God in heaven?  That, if we only work hard enough and bring the right sacrifices, we can earn our salvation? Well, think again.  Repent.

Human assumptions and opinions are limited, no matter how much consensus there is.  And: human assumptions and opinions are not only limited, but often limiting as well, and stand in the way of opportunity; they may even stand in the way of God’s amazing work among us and all creation.  If we are too preoccupied with our opinions, and stubbornly cling to them, without repentance, without giving God the chance to change our minds, there is no new life, no growth.

It is no coincidence that Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the fig tree, a story which is challenging general assumption in more than one way.  First of all, the barren fig tree is but a symbol of what happens if we don’t repent, if we don’t change our thinking, if we don’t open our minds to be changed by the endless and amazing possibilities of God.  There is no new life, there is no fruit.  We are so preoccupied with ourselves and our limited experience of the world that all energy is spent on ourselves, but we don’t put out that which nourishes others.

Now the owner of the fig tree in the parable already has shown quite some patience with this tree.   One of the Mosaic laws concerns fruit trees.  After a tree is planted, for three years any fruit that it might produce is considered ritually unclean and can’t be consumed.  We can assume that the three years of barrenness of the fig tree in the parable occur after that initial three year period, so there we have a tree that has not produced any fruit whatsoever for 6 years.  And fig trees are quite lecherous trees, they consume lots of nutrients and water, often causing other vegetation around them to die.  And under normal circumstances, that’s not an issue, because fig trees, once grown, are almost like weeds, producing fruit abundantly; I mean, if you read through the Bible, fig trees are everywhere, it was the predominant fruit in the Middle East.  Why, even Adam and Eve made their first clothing out of fig leaves.  But a fruitless fig tree is a freeloader, a good for nothing, except for firewood.

The owner of the tree in the parable has a lot of patience, because a) it is unusual for a fig tree to be barren to begin with, and b), he’s given this tree 6 years.  The listeners in Jesus’ days probably were thinking, this doesn’t make any sense!  Why hasn’t the owner given this tree the axe much earlier?  That would be common sense, that’s what we think.

Repent.  Think again.  God’s kingdom doesn’t work that way.  God is righteous and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  Where we with our human assumptions judge quickly and harshly, where we readily give someone the axe who has disappointed us,  or where we think God ought to give someone the axe – God patiently waits and hopes.

But Jesus even tops the patience of the owner with the patience of the gardener.  After six years of dealing with this parasitic tree, the owner’s ready to chop it down.   And the gardener says: give it one more year.  I will do everything in my power to nurture it.  I will dig deep and get down to the root of the problem and try to fix it.  I want to give it another chance.  And, remember, the fig tree is a tree that doesn’t need any special care, but is like a weed.  The gardener is offering to nurture the weed!  He wants to go the extra mile, he sees something in this tree, some hidden potential that makes it worth the while and the sacrifice.

The listeners in Jesus’ day were probably thinking, why on earth does the gardener go the extra mile and beyond?  It’s a waste of time and energy!  That would be common sense, that’s what we think.

Repent.  Think again.  The grace of God revealed in Jesus, and especially Jesus’ seemingly senseless act of dying on the cross, offers the ultimate chance for all those seemingly hopeless cases – and, by default, offers the ultimate chance for all of us.

Repentance means to open our minds to this mind blowing love and mercy of God – and then, to live accordingly, to live this love and mercy ourselves. And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us…

For even the gardener realizes that, especially after a period of special care, the tree ought to bring fruit.  Grace and mercy lead to the responsibility of doing something with those gifts.  The tree has to stop just consuming all nutrients for itself and live for itself, but has to start giving itself away, for the nourishment of others.

One scholar once pointed out, bearing fruit is not a fruit problem, but a root problem.  If a tree is rooted in the wrong ground or in the wrong way, that will have an effect on the growth and the fruit.

The root of all we say and do is in our thinking, our attitude.  So in order to bring the best and healthiest fruit possible, we have to dig deeper.  In order to bring the best fruit possible, we need to repent, we need to think differently, we need to think outside of the box of our limited and limiting experiences and assumptions, we need to make an effort to try and see the world through someone else’s eyes, we need to acknowledge our mistakes and reach out to people we have hurt, asking for forgiveness. It’s about attitude change, not just about doing one more or one less thing.  It is about embracing the endless and amazing possibilities of God.  It is about believing that God, indeed, has endless patience with us – and others, for that matter – and continues to go the extra mile and beyond for our sake.

The kingdom of God is built on repentance and thus is so unlike all the reigns of this world. So as I invite you try repentance this Lenten season, I don’t mean for you to fall down on your knees and self-flagellate. Just start with the following: when you think you got something – or someone – figured out – think again!

 

Amen

 

 

 

This post is also available in: German