Sunday, March 7, 2010
The Circle of Care
Third Sunday in Lent Luke 13:1-9 (NRSV)
The parable of the fig tree
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "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. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them -- 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." Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.' "
Today I feel very grateful to God for the timeliness of the gospel reading. For today, Luke’s gospel deals with the timeless question of why do bad things happen to good people?
I’ve heard lots of people asking this question in the wake of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. As a result of technology images of the devastation wrought in both of these locales is brought directly into our homes 24/7/365.
Some have tried to justify the horror of these natural disasters by casting blame upon the victims. Perhaps if the people were more holy, God would not have killed so many. Perhaps if the people were less poor, they would have a safe place to live. Perhaps if the people were smarter, they would have evacuated before it was too late.
It is at times like these that I am reminded just how much we, as human beings, need to be in control. We fear circumstances that can not be easily explained and we have difficulty learning to live with sacred mystery.
In the case of the recent earthquakes and tsunamis, I wonder if Jesus would not have said—as he said to those in his day--"Do you think that because these Haitians or Chileans suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other people? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Wow! These are strong words from Jesus, aren’t they? In essence, he says that there are times when terrible circumstances befall a person for reasons which are unknown to the human being experiencing the tragedy.
For example, why did Pilate martyr the Galilean pilgrims? Why did the Tower of Siloam collapse killing innocent people? Why did hundreds of thousands of people die in Haiti? Why were so many people washed away in the Chilean tsunami never to be heard from again?
Ah! Sad and terrible things happen my friends. Once when I was suffering through a particularly awful circumstance Spirit taught me a lesson. I learned that sometimes bad things happen because of my own sin. Sometimes bad things happen because of the sin of others toward me and sometimes bad things just happen!
It is category number three that is most difficult because we are such control-freaks. It really distresses most people to realize that we can’t control every minute and every interaction that occurs in our lives.
In response to all of this I hear Jesus saying to us today, “I tell you; unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Do you realize that Jesus says this sentence two times in just nine verses? It seems that we have often missed the point, asking the wrong question altogether! We ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and Jesus reminds us that there are no truly good people—for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and therefore, all need to repent in order to be saved.
See, the central issue in today’s text is not the reality of calamity, disaster, disease, suffering, trial, tribulation, and trouble. Rather, the crux of the matter is—Have we truly repented of our sin?
During this Lenten Season, we have been called as individuals and as a community to engage in prayer, fasting, and confession of our sin. During the long march to the Good Friday cross, we are all invited to look deep within ourselves and ask the question, “Am I bearing good fruit for my master?”
Jesus tells a story in which a man went to his vineyard to harvest some figs. Upon arrival he found no fruit, became angry, and asked the gardener to cut the unfruitful tree down. The gardener requests one more year to fertilize and water the tree to see if it will bear fruit.
Now, you may notice that the story ends here. I don’t know about you, but I am left wondering, “Did the man spare the tree? Did the gardener really attend to it? Did the tree bear fruit the following year? Ultimately did the tree survive, or did it get thrown into the fire?”
All of these questions are left unanswered and thus are also left to our imaginations. What we do know is that a parable is an earthly story meant to convey a heavenly meaning. So what is the meaning? Why did Jesus tell this particular story in order to convey the message that suffering is not God’s punishment for sin?
Well, I don’t want to pretend that I have a definitive answer for this question. I can only share with you a little bit of my own process as I read the story.
Perhaps Jesus told us this story to remind us that as God’s people, planted in God’s vineyard are expected to be fruitful! When I was a little girl I learned that the fruit of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
When God inspects the “tree of our hearts” each year does God find such fruit growing? If not, I imagine that God would be pretty disappointed.
Perhaps Jesus told us this story to remind us that we are God’s gardeners. As Christians might it be that we are called to notice people and places that are unfruitful and to work diligently to offer those things that might turn the situation around? Could it be that God has commissioned us to fertilize others?
I love this vision of God’s people at work bringing life giving nurture and sustenance to those who are in need. As we bring love, joy, and peace to others we tend the physical, mental, and spiritual trees of our neighbors, friends, and co-workers. As we feed the hungry, give drink the thirsty, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned, care for the widow and orphan, bring cheer to the depressed and destitute, and offer peace in the midst of conflict, God uses our hands to God’s work in the earth!
Finally, perhaps Jesus told us this story to remind us that we can be both the tree and the gardener at different times in our lives. Therefore, we ought to offer care, compassion, and empathy to the suffering—rather than judgment and condemnation.
Since it’s Lent, I feel free to confess to you—my brothers and sisters in Christ—that there have been days, weeks and/or years where I have felt pretty unfruitful. There have been times when I have had to count on the loving, compassionate care of others to cheer my weary soul. There have been occasions in my life where I have been dependent on the prayers of others, because I simply could not pray for myself.
It was in those times that I was most grateful for my community of faith who rallied around me, praying for and loving me until the fruit returned to my tree.
In return, once I began to produce the fruit of love, joy, peace, and repentance, I was able to offer the same care to others.
Isn’t that wonderful! The Kingdom of Love is so amazing! And God’s world is so wonderful!
Although we all suffer at times, we don’t all suffer at the same time. Because this is true, we are able to help each other in our times of trial. This is what being a Christian is all about.
Jesus suffered as he bled and died on Calvary’s cross to save us from our sin and gift us with eternal life.
We are invited to enter into that suffering with Jesus during the Lenten Season, recognizing that when we suffer we are drawn near to the heart of God and as we alleviate the suffering of others, we are drawn nearer still.
It’s a beautiful and eternal circle of care that will have no end until that great day when Jesus returns in His glory.
Until that great day, let us fast, pray, confess, and serve others without judgment.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Won't you pray with me?
God, I confess that there are times that I have believed that my suffering was your punishment. It has made me angry and hardened my heart toward you. Please forgive me for failing to trust in your unfailing love. I believe that you do Love me and that you proved it when you gave Jesus to die on the cross to save me from my sin and gift me with eternal life. I am glad that Jesus did not stay dead, but was resurrected on the third day, just as He promised! Your Love toward me is amazing and I ask that you would fill me with your Holy Spirit so that I can share our love with others. I pray this in Jesus' Name, Amen.
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