Luke 13:1-9 Sunday, February 28, 2016
13 About this same time Jesus was told that Pilate had given orders for some people from Galilee to be killed while they were offering sacrifices. 2 Jesus replied:
Do you think that these people were worse sinners than everyone else in Galilee just because of what happened to them? 3 Not at all! But you can be sure that if you don’t turn back to God, every one of you will also be killed. 4 What about those eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Do you think they were worse than everyone else in Jerusalem? 5 Not at all! But you can be sure that if you don’t turn back to God, every one of you will also die.
6 Jesus then told them this story:
A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. One day he went out to pick some figs, but he didn’t find any. 7 So he said to the gardener, “For three years I have come looking for figs on this tree, and I haven’t found any yet. Chop it down! Why should it take up space?”
8 The gardener answered, “Master, leave it for another year. I’ll dig around it and put some manure on it to make it grow. 9 Maybe it will have figs on it next year. If it doesn’t, you can have it cut down.”
Air strike on Yemen market kills 30
Many killed in Afghanistan bombings
Zika and Ebola outbreaks continue
Students and teachers fight for school funding
Driver dies after debris goes through windshield
Snow from Idaho cabin roof buries 3 children; 1 dead, 2 in hospital
Cyclone Winston made landfall on Feb. 20 on Fiji, leaving 29 people dead and 13,000 others stranded and living in temporary shelters.
Kansas gunman killed 3 after being served restraining order, sheriff says
China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea
2 stabbed at KKK gathering in Southern California, police say
Car bomb kills 2 in Syria hours after cease-fire began
Indiana woman, 66, fights off robber in home
3 girls charged with putting red pepper in teacher’s soda
Methane leak largest in history
Marine beaten, robbed, and left for dead in Washington DC
US flexes muscle, tests ICBM off California coast
Strong winds blows train off the tracks Lead found in school drinking fountain
Those are headlines from the past week. So many people hurt though no fault of their own. Bad news is old news, in that Jesus shared the same kinds of headlines with his audience. Pilate had some people killed in Galilee while they were going through their usual ritual of offering sacrifices. Some people in Jerusalem were killed when a tower collapsed. Nobody did anything wrong, but they ended up dead or injured. Families lost mothers and fathers or children.
Some preachers like to say that God sends storms and guns as punishment for sin. Some preachers like to say that anything bad that happens is deserved for reasons unknown to us. Remember 9/11 when one preacher said the destruction of the twin towers was punishment for people being gay? That kind of thinking comes naturally because we like to think that bad things happen to only bad people, that natural disasters and acts of war happen for very specific, identifiable reasons.
That is partly true, of course. The twin towers came down because of the sinful actions of the perpetrators of the plot to cause death and fear and because of the sinful actions of the pilots who flew the planes. And the perpetrators saw Americans as evil in the first place. Sin begets sin. We can’t separate sin entirely from suffering.
How many of our illnesses are caused by the sin of over consumption, of sloth, of pollution? When Rita Hart and I were campaigning in Clinton, going door to door, we saw some sad stories of victims of sins. One neighborhood that shared a fence with ADM had half its houses boarded up because ADM was encroaching. Of the houses that remained, many of the residents had cancer caused by benzine, a chemical that is used in the processing of grain by ADM. So, yes, sin causes suffering, but it’s not always the sin of the victim.
Jesus follows those two hard-luck headlines with a warning: Repent or you’re going to end up dead, too. What did Jesus mean–was he talking about literal death or was he talking about a life that was empty? I’d like to share part of an article from the most recent issue of Christian Century, a magazine to which I subscribe. I think this story illustrates what Jesus was explaining so many years ago. This is taken from an article by Norman Wirzba; 1
Several years ago Mark Eddy and his family became part of the small college community in Georgetown, Kentucky, where I was working. My family invited them over for dinner, and we discovered that we shared interests. Mark played bluegrass music, and I hoped he would teach me to play the banjo. I even dreamed that we might someday form a band. But it was not to be. That first fall, Mark’s nagging cough got worse, and medical tests showed that he was in the advanced stages of cancer. His doctor told him to tell his family the awful news. Mark said that gathering his children around his bed to tell them he was going to die was the worst moment of his life.
Before joining our community of work and church, Mark had been a clinical therapist, but the work depressed him. He didn’t like himself or the people he served. Mark admitted he had become difficult to be around. But teaching college students was different. Mark felt he had finally found work that was life-giving and fulfilling. He had come to feel more alive than he had in years.
Our church community realized that Mark’s family would need a lot of help. Being new to our area, they had not had the time to establish the networks of friendship and support that would help them face major practical matters. How would his wife, Lisa, keep her new job as a middle school teacher while attending to Mark’s needs? How would their sons Paul and Matt make the transitions into their new school while dealing with a father who was dying? Should their eldest child, Karen, come home from college? Who would do the shopping, driving, cooking, and cleaning? Who would help when family members were exhausted?
So many people made offers of help. Some brought food. Some brought gift cards so that the family could buy what they needed. Some drove the boys to and from school activities, while others drove Mark to his visits to his doctor. Some sat with Mark so he would not have to sit alone. People who barely knew the Eddys adopted them as family members and committed themselves to sharing the family’s worry and fear, but also to sharing hope. It was beautiful to see a community of love develop around this family, but it was also very hard. Seeing his family grieve, staying with the family through ups and downs, and watching a man die—it was a lot to bear.
One Sunday morning not long before his death, Mark stood up in front of our congregation at Faith Baptist Church and read from a journal entry written several years before. Though physically well at that time, he had been living in a lonely hell.
Or maybe all of this—the anxiety, the emptiness, the vague illnesses—are all due to a common underlying factor: I dislike almost everything about my life, this town, this house, this job. They bore and disgust me. I have no friends and no group of people other than my family that I feel a part of, valued by, where I fit in. I dread getting up. If I am ever to be happy it will have to begin to happen soon. But I don’t feel any closer to that goal than I was ten years ago.
For ten years Mark had been functioning physically but was minimally alive because he was suffering from a sick heart. He was withdrawn, angry, sad, and anxious. He didn’t like people and didn’t want them to like him. He was angry at God for not helping him and had became an atheist.
Mark’s healing began when a psychiatrist helped him understand his depression. Antidepressants enabled him to feel some love and happiness, but he was still angry and anxious. He started to pray again. Gradually he began to see that God was calling him to restart his life as a college teacher. He realized that he needed to turn outward to help others rather than remain locked within his own pain.
The next time Mark stood before our congregation, he had an oxygen tank tucked under one arm. “I feel better than I have felt in years,” he said. “I can’t thank God enough for that.” How could this be? The cancer was not gone. Yet Mark testified to a miracle:
When it became known that I was sick, I found myself surrounded by the light of love from people who hardly knew me. My family was flooded with prayers, food, cards, and the assurance that we were not alone. . . . It was as though there were a thousand arms of love reaching out to us. I knew it was the presence of God. I felt that I’d been overtaken by the kingdom of God and allowed briefly to look inside to experience just for a moment the love and joy of Christ’s kingdom.
Mark believed himself to be forgiven and newly empowered by God’s love made real in the kindnesses of ordinary people. The darkness and the pain were gone. Love made it possible for him to be a father and a spouse, cherished by his family, and to be a valued friend who, though visibly dying, could encourage and give hope to people who had only recently come to know him. Mark could not have imagined that an ugly cancer would make his life and his world beautiful again.
I think this is the kind of repentance, the kind of turnaround Jesus was promoting. Bad things happen to us, not because we are being punished but because that’s just the way life is. So, where does God enter the picture? God is obviously not preventing bad things. God has not protected any of us from hurt or sin or illness. We have witnessed miracles, but we’ve also put up with disappointment. This story of Mark is the story of how God works: God sends love. God does not punish us. God comes to our rescue instead. God walks with us, God sends relief in the form of friends and family, in the form of care, in the form of solutions to problems.
The other part of today’s reading is about the fig tree. That fig tree was about to be cut down, but it got another chance to produce fruit.
Think again of the story of Mark, dying, who received, through love, a chance to be a good father and husband, a good teacher and a good friend. God does not give up on us. That makes me so happy. If it were otherwise, if God punished me for every sin, I would be so miserable, so beaten down, I would have so many bad things happen to me that I wouldn’t be able to leave the house. But I’m not punished, except by my own foolishness. God sends love. In my case, God sent love in the guise of a loving family and a bottle of Prozac. God did not punish me. Granted, I had the bad luck of having a fairly common disease, depression. But it was not sent by God and God did not punish me for being sick. God stuck with me, shoved some Bible verses in front of me, gave me three children who continued to show their love and a husband whose loyalty was unparalleled.
If God sends love, why do we need to repent? I thought about this. How does repentance play into this rescuing gift of love. Why do we need to repent? God sends God’s love unconditionally. I think I’ve figured it out. It’s like UPS or Fed Ex leaving a package on your porch when you never go out on that porch. The package is not good to you until you open the door and take the package inside and unwrap it. When we repent, we empty our hearts of evil and open the door to God’s love. A heart full of evil, sin, anger, jealousy, despair, call it what you will cannot make room for love. But a heart, a person who repents opens the door to let love in. And love changes our suffering, our misery. We are able to see the good things around us, we are able to put the bad things behind us and we grow stronger than than the bad luck that befalls us.
So, yes bad things happen all the time, to all of us. Yet, God sends the one thing that helps us survive, recover, endure, and grow: love. It sounds too simplistic, too easy, too sappy. But it’s true. Love is contrary to everything the world teaches us. The world teaches us survival of the fittest, may the best man win, only the strong survive, We know, though, that love can change bad to good and that love can strengthen us more than than laws or guns or guards.
During this season of Lent, we are clearly and intentionally called to repent. Repentance is not a “get-out-of-hell-free” ticket. Repentance is a “welcome-to-my- Kingdom-on-earth” ticket. God modeled love for us by giving us Jesus. Repentance is our acknowledgement of that love.
Let us pray. God, I am sorry for my sins. Thank you for throwing them out the back door and letting love come in the front door. Amen.