The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Third Sunday in Lent
A dear, long-time friend visited me the other week. He usually comes to Milwaukee in warmer seasons. This year he wanted to experience a Wisconsin winter. You see, he lives in the south – Richmond, Virginia, where snow rarely falls – until this year: three massive snowstorms of over 18 inches each time. I should have told him to save his money and stay there. Instead I said, “Tim, you people must not be living right. I don’t know what you’ve done. It’s Lent. If I were you I’d repent.”
“He’s just not living right.” My mom and aunt would say that when they didn’t know why someone was having such bad luck – “he must not be living right.” Someone is diagnosed with lung cancer. Did they smoke? Got to find a reason. A marriage breaks up – who’s at fault? A close friend commits suicide. What could I have done differently? What did I miss? If we knew we think we could ease our anxiety, but nothing would change, even if we could know why – or who is to blame.
Some Galileans speak with Jesus about a matter troubling them. A few of their kin had gone to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices for their sins. While in the temple, Pilate has them slaughtered. Their blood is mingled with animal blood – a brutal desecration and indignity to God and the Jews. But that’s not what bothers these Galileans. They are thinking, “What terrible sin did they commit? Must not be living right. Thank goodness we haven’t done what they did – whatever it was.”
Jesus has their number. “No, they weren’t worse than you, and you’d better repent or you’ll perish as they did!” That’s not very reassuring, is it? Then Jesus tells a story. Eighteen workers were crushed to death when a tower toppled. “Did God punish them because they were the worst sinners in Jerusalem? No! Repent so you won’t perish as they did.”
Next Jesus tells a parable. A fig tree is not bearing fruit – hasn’t for three years. The owner shows up and tells his gardener, “Chop it down. It’s just taking up space.” But the gardener begs for one more year. He’ll tend, water and fertilize the tree. “Then let’s see what happens.” End of story – and we are left hanging – did the owner relent?
And how do you hear these stories? Is Jesus threatening – warning us – “Shape up so God won’t get you?” Some will hear it this way. Yet I think we can hear Jesus’ words as grace, a wake-up call – a time-out from distractions that take us away from examining our souls and inner life. Don’t worry about ranking someone else’s sin compared to your own. We do tend to hold others to a higher standard than the one we live. The point is – “Do you and I need to repent?” Jesus thinks so.
So don’t think this parable is just about a fig tree. It’s about us – Jesus’ committed, loyal followers. Are we bearing the fruit of God’s reign in our lives? Look inside for a moment. That’s where it all begins.
Repent – not always an attractive command for us, but a needed one. Repent first turns us inwardly. So linger there. Hard to do – so many distractions and voices inside help us avoid self-examination in the inner world: “But Jesus, what happened that our friends got slaughtered? Jesus, why is there so much suffering – evil in this world? Jesus, what’s going to happen with the church – our church in the heart of Milwaukee? Why are fundamentalists so mean? Why won’t liberals obey scripture?” – and on and on. Jesus’ answer: “Repent.” In other words, Jesus is basically saying don’t go sniffing around in someone else’s vineyard, when you need to be taking care of your own.
So – repent. Be honest. What do you find in there? You might look to see if you are growing closer to God – or if you are moving farther away. You could be perishing and not know it. That’s what happens when we live apart from God. Do you notice any obstacles that are keeping you from God? Is there any anger, hurt, jealousy you feel toward someone – a deep desire to get even? You know that stuff eats us away – not the other person. Cling to it and chances are good you are perishing. As the Chinese proverb says, “The one who opts for revenge digs two graves.” Do you love others as Christ does – or just ones you approve of and like? Can seeing with Christ’s eyes take us off the perishing list? We look at others as Christ does, certainly. You know, each of us can do selfish deeds – and we can live generously. Which do you see gives life – which diminishes life?
And that’s not all we find. We repent so we can see again the great love and forgiveness God has ready for us. That’s how we bear the fruit of God’s life, right here where we are planted. Otherwise, we’d just be taking up space.
Jesus isn’t just a carpenter, a teacher, a healer, a name we use to end our prayers, or the object of adoration. He’s a darn good gardener, too. He’s for us and with us, to make us healthy, whole, alive – in God’s reign if we cooperate. By His love for us and through us through us, God brings heaven closer to earth. Whatever may happen to us along this journey, that my friends – we’ll be just fine – for you see we do have a gardener working with us, Jesus Christ, and as long as we work with him, you must be living right.