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Third Sunday in Lent March 3, 2013

My mother died of breast cancer when I was 16 and my youngest brother 10. I never said, “Why me?” I did very little crying because I was the oldest and had to be strong for everyone including my dad. I just gained 40 pounds in the year and a half after she died, stuffing down the feelings of grief and the “Why me?” My younger brother was not so reticent. Right after she died, I remember hearing him groan, “Why me?” Why did my mom have to die? And the answer was always, “There is no answer to that question. We don’t know why bad things happen to good people. It is just the way the world is.”

We were fortunate enough not to have been raised with thoughts about death being connected to sin. Nobody in my family wondered whether mom was sinful and so got breast cancer. Her mom had died of breast cancer as well, so at least a partial answer was heredity. No one thought we didn't pray hard enough for her to get well. No one thought that somewhere, somehow in our family, some ancestor had sinned and mom got the punishment. No one would have believed John 9:2, where the disciples ask Jesus about the man born blind whether it was because of his sin or his parents’ sin. Jesus says neither, but that it was that the glory of God might be shown. I don’t expect that was a satisfactory answer for the man who had been blind from birth, but it was surely a better answer than the man sinned. How could he have done anything wrong anyway if he had just been born?

On Tuesday, a hot air balloon crash killed 19 tourists in Egypt. The country has been in economic turmoil since Hosni Mubarak was removed from power two years ago and the tourism industry has suffered greatly, according to the Washington Post. One could assume that this accident was a result of the unstable political situation in Egypt and all the killing going on. But it was not. It was the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So was Sandy Hook, where no one could possibly believe any of those children had done anything wrong to deserve death. So was the World Trade Center, although I did hear one person say that if only we treated the Muslims better and kept our noses out of their business it might not have happened.

The problem with violence and accidents is that there is no explanation, and people want meaning in their lives. We want to feel like we can control our environment. We want to believe that we can somehow protect ourselves and the people we love. That is why the theology of cause and effect is still around. Pray hard enough, and this person will be cured. Contribute to this televangelist’s ministry, and you will prosper. Those homeless and poor could do something about their situation if they tried. They just don’t want to work. And one of the most insidious of all thoughts, “God gave me this or that disease so I would learn something,” Not God helped me learn something through this ill that has befallen me, but God gave it to me. The problem with this theology is that in wanting to attribute everything in the world that happens to God’s immediate activity, we leave out the freedom human beings have to act and the freedom of the earth to move in accordance with its nature (R. Alan Culpepper).

That is why Jesus in today’s gospel is quick to refute this theology. Some people told Jesus about Pilate’s killing of Galileans who had been offering sacrifices in the temple. Isn’t Pilate awful, they imply. They want Jesus to condemn Pilate and his actions as cruel beyond measure and call down curses on him. Jesus does not dispute that Pilate is evil. But Jesus has another agenda. He has been talking in urgent tones about the coming judgment, telling the crowds that they can interpret signs of the weather but not the fact that judgment is on its way and soon. So he directs his remarks toward that topic instead. The Galileans were no more sinful than you are, but unless you repent you will perish as they did. Unknowing, in an instant, without time to repent. Jesus adds his own example – eighteen people killed when the tower of Siloamfell on them. They, too, were no worse sinners than anyone else. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And he gives them the same refrain, Death can come at any moment, and unless you repent you will stand in judgment before your Creator in your sins.

Jesus wants his hearers to get their focus off other people and their sin or lack of it and focus on themselves and their actions and attitudes. For Jesus, time was short, not only for his own life but for the coming day of the Lord. His ministry in Luke is a call for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. His call is for amendment of life, for turning from worldly ways toward the ways of God and God’s kingdom. His call is for people to love God and love their neighbor. His call is to follow him in proclaiming the kingdom, to be witnesses to the message that Jesus teaches and preaches. It never does any good to look at someone else’s bad behavior – only by looking at your own and repenting of it can any change be made.

Then he tells the parable of the fig tree, which has been unproductive for three years. It is wasting vital space in the vineyard, and another plant that would produce could be put in its place, so the owner orders the gardener to cut it down. It is a perfectly logical thing to do. But the gardener pleads for the tree. Give it another year, he says. I will dig around it and put manure on it and take extra care of it to see if I can help it grow fruit. If it doesn’t produce figs in a year, you can cut it down. Jesus’ story tells of the divine mercy of God in the midst of judgment. The gardener wants the plant to have another year, and the landowner agrees. But Jesus says the offer of time is only open for awhile and then judgment will come. As John the Baptist had said, the ax is placed at the root of the tree, ready to cut it down. But then someone – a loving God – cries, “Wait! I want to give everyone more time to repent and change their ways. I want people to be reconciled with me. I want people to love me as I love them. So I will give them myself in Jesus to teach them how to be, and I will give them more time. I will even give up my life for them. I will risk everything to save the people I love so much.”

A story about God’s judgment is hard for us to hear. Even with a parable of grace thrown in, the thought of God’s judgment can be scary. And many of us do not want to believe in a judging God. We want to believe that everyone goes to heaven to be in the nearer presence of God. We want to believe that those who have sinned and not repented in this life will be so stricken with the vision of God that they will immediately repent and that God will forgive. But if God is a God of justice, then there has to be some kind of judgment on what we do in this life (David Lose). Jesus certainly thought so. He thought that repentance was a necessary prelude to receiving the divine mercy of God. Not just saying I’m sorry but bearing fruits of the Spirit, as the fig tree needed to bear fruit to keep from being cut down.

Where are we in our Christian journey? Are we repenting and bearing fruit, or are we living mindlessly? Each day God gives us is a precious gift of mercy, a time to bear good fruit for the kingdom. But if we repent out of fear of judgment, we will not get very far. We need to repent out of love for the God who loves us so much that the window of time for repentance has been much longer than Jesus believed it would be (Fred Craddock).  We must also remember the parable of the fig tree. We are not alone in the work of repentance and new life (Beverly Gaventa). We have a gardener in Christ to help “activate in us what we are already designed for.” (David Ewart). R. Alan Culpepper says “the challenge of the fig tree is to live each day as a gift from God in such a way that you will have no fear of giving an account of how you used God’s gift”. Lent is a good time to heed the parable of the fig tree. God is a God of judgment and of mercy. We have been given time to turn our lives around through God’s grace and immeasurable love for us. Let us grow fruit in abundance.

AMEN.

   - Rev. Ann Barker


Works cited:
R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke”, New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 270
David Lose, “When Bad Things Happen,” from a blog posted 2/27/13
Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year C (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International 1994), p. 153
Beverly Gaventa, Texts for Preaching, Year C, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 218
David Ewart, “Luke 13:1-9”, “Holy Textures” blog, Feb. 22, 2010, http://www.holytextures.com/2010/02/Luke-13-1-9-year-C-lent-3-sermon.html
Culpepper, op. cit. p. 272