13 March 2007

Sermon, Third Sunday of Lent

Texts: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 103:1-11; Luke 13:1-9

Our Gospel passage for today is a text that I am uneasy with. I have a definite preference for Jesus as warm, fuzzy friend, Jesus as comforter, Jesus as the nice guy. This is, admittedly, false. And yet, I am not quite ready to let this image go. So when passages like today’s Gospel force me to listen to stories and parables that I don’t like, I am confronting not only the text itself but also the images of Jesus and God that are my own creation.

The first part of the Gospel recounts the story of Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem who are martyred by Pilate at the Temple, “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” Not a pretty image. Jesus goes on to mention the people “who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them.” Again, not a pretty image.

And his response to both of these events is to say: “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Perish as they did.

Make no mistake; this is a message to us, to me and to you, despite the historical, cultural and religious distance of the examples. This message is not about dying in the same circumstances, but about being taken from this life unpreparedly. Jesus reminds his listeners that these tragic deaths were not a consequence of greater sins and offenses, but that tragedies happen to those who are good and bad alike, and this is all the more reason to repent.

For, when Jesus tells us to repent, we are being called to be aware, to be ready for what may come without warning. In the Great Litany, most often used during Lent, we pray: “from dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.” Jesus is not saying that by repenting we will not perish, but that we will, one day, perish in a different way.

Although it seems like this story (and this sermon, for that matter) are focusing rather morbidly on death, that is not what all of this is about. By reminding us of our limitations as human beings, and particularly that we are finite beings, we are being called to live more fully in the present time. And that brings me to the second half of the reading from Luke.

Despite the initial, summary judgment of the fig-tree – rejected as a failure – the parable offers a message of hope, for the gardener proposes to do something unusual, to take the last possible measures. The fig-tree has been granted a reprieve.

The “sin” of the fig-tree is not that it did something bad, or even that it did nothing – it has been growing for six years. During the first three years, Levitical Law forbids eating the fruit of the tree, and three more years had passed, during which the owner had looked in vain for fruit. The tree had not born fruit in six years, since it had first been planted, but it had been doing plenty: growing taller, digging its roots deeper into the ground, sending out leaves and branches.

And yet, the tree was expected to produce fruit. The fault, then, of the tree is that it is not doing what it is called, meant and intended to do.

Likewise, the question that we must face in Lent is not, Can I make it to Easter without eating sweets? Or, how can I manage to stay awake without my regular fix of caffeine? But, Am I doing what I have been created and called by God to do?

A fig tree is good when it does what it is created by God in its nature to do: to bear fruit. By bearing fruit, it fulfills its particular and God-given purpose in the world. It would be awfully easy to transfer this directly to human beings and declare that each of us, individually and collectively, are expected to bear fruit (in a metaphorical way, hopefully).

I think that is too simplistic. God created each one of us with our own set of gifts, skills, weaknesses, and strange quirks. Before I can ask, Am I doing what I have been created and called by God to do? I must first ask what it is that God asks particularly of me. And the first step to asking what it is that God created and called me to do is to take stock of what I have to work with – and what I have to work on – (because believe me, we all have both).

God has expectations and demands of us. This is sometimes hard to hear in a society that prizes individualism, autonomy, and independence. The reality that we claim as Christians is that we are not autonomous individuals, but that we are dependent on God’s grace, love and mercy and ultimately that we are subject to God’s judgment.

God asks – demands – of all of us three seemingly simple things: to heed his call, to bless his name, and to be faithful to his purpose for our lives. This is what we are all to do in order to live more fully. But we are also uniquely called: to teach, to heal, to give time, to feed the hungry, and even to study and learn.

Making an honest assessment of ourselves continually is one small part of living, as Jesus asks of us, a repentant life, ready for whatever may come. Your calling now may not be how God calls you in five or ten years; being ready requires that we pay attention to how we grow and change and how our calling evolves with us. From this assessment, we can begin to discern what God is creating and calling us to do now, and from there, we can begin to do it.

Toyohiko Kagawa, a Christian and a lay leader in Japan during the early part of the twentieth century, wrote in a poem:

I read
In a book
That a man called
Went about doing good.
It is very disconcerting to me
That I am so easily
With just
Going about.
The story of the fig tree - and the story of this poem - invite us to consider what we would do with the gift of another year. What will we do with God’s gift of time to us? Will we be satisfied with just going about as usual? Or will we instead take the opportunity to discover how we can live into God’s call more fully, more faithfully, and – perhaps – more fruitfully?