Lent II; March 12, 2017
Luke 13:1-9, 31-35
In Clarinda, Iowa we have a big parade every year on the Friday evening of Thanksgiving. It commemorates the time the county courthouse burned down and fire departments from all around responded, and so there are fire trucks and floats and horses and, at the end, Santa Claus. And everything is decorated in lights. The parade is after dark, after the strings of lights over the Square are illuminated, and so every float and every truck and even every horse has to have at least one string of lights.
The church I was serving participated one year by putting a Nativity scene on a flat-bed truck; several of us rode the truck and sang carols. Trinity, the other Presbyterian Church in town, participated a different year by having the Pastor and some others in the parade. They have an elder who is a major farm implements dealer, and so they all rode on a – wait for it – manure spreader.
The image is just right. The Gospel isn't always appealing; it often seems like the thing that needs to be rejected. But spread around it is exactly what the world needs for growth.
These readings are all about repentance: turning away from the wrong way of life and turning to true life. The first two parts of the story upset me a bit. Well, Jesus' point is a good one: just because you were the Galilean killed at the altar doesn't make you any more a sinner than the Galilean who wasn't. Those killed in a building collapse were no worse than those who were spared. But still, the warning bothered me: he's not telling me that if I repent that will prevent a building from falling on me, is he? Then I said to myself, "Don't be so literal."
The reality is that, for the most part, we human beings live with an expectation of reward and punishment. If I play by the rules, eat my oat bran, and fill out my 1040 form honestly then the universe will reward me. If you are poor or get cancer then you must have done something to deserve it. A man I know who has had more than his share of troubles told me his philosophy: he doesn't ask, "Why me?" Instead he asks, "Why not me?" Life has its troubles and uncertainties; who is he to be spared from them? Who am I? Who are you?
So take the point of Jesus in this to be that you never know when the government is going to crack down on dissent and you'll end up bleeding along with your sacrifice or when a building inspector will wink at a small mistake and a tower will fall on you. So repent now. Not tomorrow, but now. And at least two of the scholars I read on the subject (Alfred Plummer and William Barclay) pointed out that the command, "Repent!" is plural. They took that to mean that it isn't enough for individuals to change our ways. Unless a society changes its priorities, that society is doomed.
There's the warning; there's the ghost jumping out of the closet and yelling, "Boo!" The other two stories for today fill in the rest: what does Jesus mean by, "Repent"? It's not just, "Stop smoking." It's not just, "Lose twenty pounds." And it's not just, "Stop pumping so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; do something about the proliferation of guns." Sure, let's do those things. You know that I'm a big advocate for individuals making choices to live healthier and for our society making choices that will benefit our grandchildren. But simply making those changes trims the branches; it doesn't get at the root of the problem.
The root of the problem is that God has come to us time and time again, that God has shown us over and over again what is right and true and good, but we prefer to do it our way, thank you very much. I want to be good and then have the universe give me the proper reward for my goodness. We as a society want to be great and powerful and wealthy and have the world fear and respect and envy us. I don't want some gardener spreading manure on me. We don't want to come together under the wings of God. Jesus laments over Jerusalem, but the problem isn't just Jerusalem; the problem is that all of us would rather stick with what we know and understand than gather together under the wings of that heavenly chicken.
Yet: there Jesus is, thinking about Jerusalem, speaking for God, and saying, "Here I am, ready to gather you under my wings." There is Jesus, predicting that someday Jerusalem – and all of us – will say, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." Well, it happened once on the first Palm Sunday, when people waved branches and spread their coats on the road and cried out, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." And we say those words nearly every time we celebrate the Lord's Supper. The hope and the promise is that someday the entire world will see Jesus, see him for who he is, and will cry out, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." I don't see it happening in my lifetime, but God may surprise me.
In the meantime he dumps manure on us. In this case, though, it is the dung of his own body and blood. Christ, the Holy One of God, the One through whom the worlds were shaped, the glorious Word of Creation and the greatest Teacher of life in human history, allowed himself to be made the offal of salvation. The great truth of God would be hanged, broken, on a Cross, and the sword of a soldier would pierce his side so blood and water flowed from it.
In the story of the barren fig tree, when the gardener pleads with the owner to give it one more chance, it is clear that the human race is the fig tree. And God is the owner. Jesus Christ is, of course, the gardener who tends the tree and digs around the roots and fertilizes it with the best manure. The powerful secret of the story is that the fertilizer is his own body and blood. Christ is the gardener; Christ is the fertilizer, and the fruit that he expects is the work of Christ. Christ has done this; Christ continues to do this; Christ will do this. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master