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.’”
Pastor Marc's sermon on the 4th Sunday in Lent (February 28, 2016) on Luke 13:1-9. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
Two weeks ago, before I went away on a short vacation, I wanted to make sure that Doris (our parish administrator) had all she needed to start this Sunday’s bulletin before I came back. So I started my typical sermon writing routine early. I found read the lessons, opened up my commentaries and other scholarly works, wrote a reflection for the back of the bulletin, and fired up a few podcasts to get a taste of what others were saying about today’s text. With my creative juices well lubricated, I had a mental outline for my sermon, matched it with an appropriate sermon title, and sent it Doris’ way. But when I came back from vacation, looked at the drafted bulletin, and saw my sermon title: I have no idea why I picked this title. In just a few short days, while I was out of state in a new place and a new context, I came back having lost a sermon that I originally drew up. I lost that memory for a sermon that I’ll never get to share.
That kind of loss of memory - that loss of a story - is evident in our text from the gospel according to Luke today. Jesus, in chapter 12 and 13 is teaching to a large crowd. He talks about God, about faith, about loving others and every time he speaks, he adds these little stories, theses parables, to illustrate a point about God and love. And today’s reading from chapter 13 matches this pattern. Jesus is in the crowd when he receives word about something incredibly violent - where Pilate, the Roman governor of Jerusalem, killed Galileans - people from Jesus’ own neighborhood - and mixed their blood with sacrifices to other gods. Jesus takes this story - and adds to it, pointing to another catastrophe where people were killed when a building, the tower of Siloam, collapsed. We, today, don’t know anything more about these stories. We don’t know who Pilate killed, why he did it, or what sacrifices he performed. We also don’t even know exactly what the tower of Siloam was - just that it was in Jerusalem. But these were events that the people around Jesus knew. When the gospel according to Luke was written a few generations after Jesus told this parable, those who heard Luke for the first time still knew what these events were all about. There was no need for details because everyone remembered - or knew about - Pilate and Siloam. It’s like, today, if we say 9/11, we know what we’re talking about. Or, if I hear the word Columbine, I’m instantly launched back to my high school self, sitting in my high school cafeteria, watching tvs showing students running from that high school shooting just down the road from where I grew up. There are events and catastrophes that we just know. We don’t need to describe them to relive our experience of that time, that event, or its aftermath. We just need to say their name.
And that’s what Jesus is doing here today. He’s taking catastrophes that everyone knew - that everyone had an emotional response too - and he’s bringing them to the front. And once we’re reinvested - once we relive those catastrophes - Jesus then repeats this one line: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Two incidents of death: one sponsored by the government, the other tragic and random. Two groups of people killed not because they were evil, or disobeyed God: they were just there when death happened. And Jesus gives a warning to repent - a warning to turn back to God and wrap their minds around that God who is talking to them right now - so they won’t perish. But I don’t think this is Jesus telling the crowd that he has a way for them to escape the end. Jesus isn’t selling them a new prescription or a new technology or a new way of life that will allow the crowd to sidestep death. Jesus is pointing out that dying is part of life. And death can show up quickly, unexpectedly, and without rhyme or reason. Death happens - but life happens too. Jesus, today, isn’t offering us a way to run away from death. Jesus, instead, is offering a chance at life. A life right now because if death is part of our reality, than life should be too. In the face of catastrophes - in the face of tragedies that shouldn’t happen - God’s response isn’t to run and hide. God’s response is to bring life. A life that matters. A life that makes a difference, a life that sees evil, pain, and death, but still loves the world anyways.
A life that lives. A life that loves. That’s what Jesus points to. That’s what bearing fruit is all about. Fruit is pretty to look at, smells nice, and looks good as a centerpiece in a table - but if no one eats it, enjoys it, grows stronger and better because of it - that fruit isn’t doing what fruit is designed to do.
But this life that loves, this life that bears fruit, can’t happen on it’s own. A life that bears fruit for others needs God too. A life that matters needs what God can provide - like a community that’s committed to praying for each other, committed to knowing each other, committed to caring for each other when a crisis strikes. A life that makes a difference needs a God who offers everything, even the building blocks of God’s son’s own - to those who live in the world. A life that loves needs a savior who will always be with us, offering us nourishment, help, and his presence - our spiritual and physical manure that can feed our roots as we go out to love a world as much as God loves us.
2000 years from now, if some future archaeologist stumbles on a recording of this sermon, locked on some dusty old web server somewhere, the words 9/11 and Columbine might mean the same to them as Pilate’s Sacrifices and the Tower of Siloam mean to us. But the life Jesus gives us is the same life given to them. We all have the opportunity to see the world, to see it’s evil, it’s pain, it’s death, and love anyways. That’s our eternal calling. That’s part of this gift of new life given to us not because we are great, or perfect, or because we’ll always remember every single prayerful thought that God gives us. No, this life is ours because Jesus didn’t run from death. He went to that Cross and gave us, gave everyone, gave this entire world - a life that doesn’t just live by running away from death. Instead, Christ gave us a life that can love. And if Christ gives us a life that loves, how can we do anything but?
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