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Strange But True
March 3, 2013
03-03-2013 Sermon Oh, dear. This is not, I suspect, a beloved passage for most of us, nestled in our memories alongside The Lord is my shepherd and Love is patient and kind. No, these verses are difficult and troubling and frightening – seemingly out of step with the good news of the Gospel we seek when we open our Bibles. But Luke includes these verses in his Gospel, and the church includes them in the lectionary readings for Lent, and neither of those inclusions is accidental or careless.
The novelist Graham Greene has a character in one of his early works say, “You cannot conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” In this difficult, troubling episode in Luke, what is Jesus telling us about God’s mercy – in all its appalling strangeness?
We might not, on first reading, think there’s any mercy to be found here. The story begins on a horrific note and does not let up. Some unidentified people recount an episode staggering in its cruelty – Pilate has ordered the slaughter of pilgrims on the very grounds of the Temple so that the blood of these devout worshipers flows into the blood of the sacrificial animals they were offering to God. Certainly those who tell of this slaughter expect that Jesus, a devout Jew himself, will condemn Pilate in the strongest terms and reassure them that they are safe in God’s protection. But he doesn’t. He says nothing at all about Pilate’s action, responding instead with a sharp theological question to which he provides a sharp and unwelcome answer. 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.
No reassurance there. But it gets worse. Jesus himself offers another example of sudden, tragic death, this time through a natural disaster – a tower has collapsed, crushing 18 citizens of Jerusalem, and, of this event, he says the same thing – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.
Jesus knows, no doubt, that this group gathered around him thinks precisely that those who died somehow deserved such a fate, for he lives in a culture that measures guilt by tragedy, (Kilgallen, p. 63). The people of Israel believed that pain and suffering, sorrow and affliction, were visited upon human lives by God as punishment for the sins of either the affected individuals or their ancestors. And such transactional understanding is not a relic of past times, but persists among us still. Do we think the people of Syria who are being murdered by Bashar al Assad are worse sinners than those who escape? Do we think the man lost when his bedroom disappeared into a sinkhole was a worse offender than all others living in Florida? Surely, these people must have done something wrong. We secretly – or perhaps openly – prefer to live in a world that draws straight, clear lines between the flawed lives of sinful people – those sinful people over there living lives so different from ours – and their demise. We can understand the sort of calculus that ties tragedy to God’s judgment and good fortune to God’s favor. We can live within that calculus. In his commentary on this passage, John Calvin writes:
We not only censure with excessive severity the offenses of our brethren; but whenever they meet with any calamity, we condemn them as wicked and reprobate persons. On the other hand, every man that is not sorely pressed by the hand of God slumbers at ease in the midst of his sins, as if God were favorable and reconciled to him.
The people gathered around Jesus may have started their day – we may have started our day — with the sort of world view and theology Calvin describes, but we are not allowed to remain there. With his pointed questions and his insistent call to repentance, Jesus severs any causal link between sin and suffering, disrupts any transactional understanding of fault and calamity. Rather he makes plain that life is fragile, death is coming – through cruelty, through accident, through any number of human and natural agents. Repentance alone keeps death from being a final perishing.
But generation after generation, century after century, we read this passage and struggle with it. We struggle with it largely because we live, inescapably, in a world of cause and effect. Flip up a switch and the lights come on. Drop a ball over the second floor railing and it falls to the floor below. Shift the car into reverse and back out of the parking space.
And thank God for that structure to the world because we could not survive the chaos of never knowing whether the lights will work, whether the ball will fall downward or fly upward, whether the car will move backward or forward when we put it in reverse. It is a mercy of God that the world operates by consistent and reliable laws.
But – as Jesus teaches here — the cause and effect structure does not apply to human sin and divine punishment. And thank God for that, because we truly could not survive an honest judgment and subsequent punishment of our sin. It is a great mercy of God that we are judged by the One who loves and redeems us, the One who waits for us to repent and return.
And so, Jesus calls us to repent. Not so we can earn God’s mercy, which is given as the free gift of grace, but so we can see, recognize and live into that mercy.
The need for repentance is a consistent theme in Luke’s gospel. Earlier, he records Jesus saying, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (5:32). In our passage today, Jesus makes plain that all are numbered among the sinners for whom repentance is not only appropriate but imperative. All those who gathered around Jesus that day were called to repent. All of us who gather around Jesus’ table this day are called to repent.
We resist repentance for any number of reasons. But I think one of the most persistent and pernicious of those reasons is our fear that true, deep repentance – a commitment to turn around and follow Jesus instead of continuing to follow the world – will change us beyond what we are willing or able to imagine and endure. We know who we are as sinners, and while we may not entirely like or at all admire who we are, there is at least the comfort of familiarity. We hesitate to undergo what we worry will be a transformation into someone entirely different. If our lives are going well, and we’re not among the number being slaughtered by a tyrant or crushed by falling debris, it’s even harder to admit our need for repentance.
And so Jesus tells a parable about an unproductive fig tree. This is a compelling little vignette, isn’t it – a vineyard owner at the end of his patience with a fig tree not only failing to provide figs, but occupying space and using resources that could be redirected. There’s a question of stewardship here – at what point does forbearance become irresponsibility? The gardener advocates for the fig tree – he suggests a regimen which might allow the tree to fulfill its promise. And the gardener is willing to do the work — not to transform the tree into something strange and new, but to help it become what it was created to be – a fig tree which produces figs.
Repentance does not transform us into something strange and new. Rather it frees us to live fully into our blessed identity, to become truly ourselves. Sin distorts our reality as sons and daughters made in the image of a loving God. When we choose to cling to those distortions, we are barren fig trees – occupying space without fulfilling our purpose. Repentance reorients and redirects us so that we can begin to flourish under the care of a gracious gardener.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writes: The gospel will not ever tell us we are innocent, but it will tell us we are loved.
That, finally, is the message of these verses which, on first reading, seem so difficult and troubling. We are loved. Jesus brings a love so great that it calls us away from perishing into repentance, away from calculation into grace, away from barrenness into fruitfulness. When we repent, we turn toward the strange but ever true mercy of God which claims us as God’s own and nurtures us that we may not perish but may have everlasting life. Amen.