gardening_gone_wrongMarch3, 2013  –  Third Sunday of Lent

Luke 13:1-9,  Isaiah 55:1-9


Today’s Gospel Lesson brings us face-to-face with the “R Word” – Repent!  It’s a word all over the Gospels, “Repent for the Reign of God is at hand.”  John the Baptist proclaims in Luke 3, “The axe is at the root of the tree…”  It is the core of “Sinners in the Hands of the Angry God,” repent before it is too late.   Most of us are here because we have fled that kind of religion, a guilt-based faith in a judgmental God, asking us to step away from things we don’t really feel guilty about, like a drink after dinner, women’s equality, or gay marriage.  The word “repent” loses its impact on our hearts when it comes from the lips of the self-righteous, with the true purpose of control and repression.  If we feel guilty or in error today, we are not going to the confessional or an alter call, we will just go to therapy and work it out.  It is sad we have made this word negative and uninteresting, reducing it to nothing more than the dubious moral scolding.  How might we reclaim it?


Step one is to call its misuse into question, just as Jesus did in the example of Herod’s massacre, and 18 dead when a tower collapsed.  The people informing Jesus of these terrible tragedies are wondering why God allowed this to happen.  Actually they are thinking that maybe these folks were worse sinners than others, so God smote them.  This is the Pat Robertson theology of disasters.  There are no innocent victims.  For every hurricane destroying New Orleans there must be a gay pride parade, for every earthquake there is Roe vs. Wade, every school shooting is the fault of Bruce Willis or Xbox.  Repent and jump on his moral bandwagon.  I think Jesus would probably say, “Don’t you think there are sinners in Lynchburg, Virginia churches too?  Its not like the steeples of liberal churches are collapsing, or Ceasar’s Palace in Vegas, or Wall Street buildings that are collapsing on sinners.


Is Jesus saying that tragedy is random, like the bumper sticker that says, “Stuff” happens?  Does God allow chaos, and if so where is love in that?   Why does God allow psychopaths, like Herod, the Spanish Inquisition or disturbed young men from Columbine to Newtown, to mow down innocent people?  Buildings fall on people, cancer claims the best of us, is this any way to run a universe?  This is the anti-theological challenge from the other end of the spectrum from Pat Robertson, from the vocal atheists like Richard Dawkins.  There basic argument is “Your God sucks.  And by the way, so does your church.”  And let’s be honest and say that we have moments where we are tempted to agree.


Jesus is clear that calamity and sin are not necessarily correlated, but his reply in verses 4-5 is perplexing:

4Or 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? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”


Now wait a minute, on the one hand Jesus seems to be saying that the victims were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in the next breath he says we should repent or the same may happen to us.  Isn’t that contradictory?  Maybe not.


A pastor told me that a member of his congregation came to him in exasperation after the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and said, “That is it.  I don’t believe in God anymore.  I don’t see any reason to be a Christian if this is the way the world is.”  And the pastor said, “Oh great, now there is one more victim of the shooting.”  When the parishioner looked at him in astonishment, he said, “We use the cross as the symbol of our faith, so it should be obvious that there is unjust suffering in the world.  We don’t follow Jesus to avoid the suffering or to be protected from worldly suffering.  We follow because Jesus taught that suffering is redeemed and transformed by our loving God.  Otherwise we are just victims.”


Jon and Rebecca Bond of Greenwich Village had a different response to Newtown.  Instead of shaking their heads in despair and asking, “When will it all end?” they decided to use their experience in advertising and publishing to do something.  They decided to create an anti-violence organization that would appeal to gun owners as well as gun control advocates.  They had worked for alcoholic beverage companies and seen how public pressure from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving had changed the culture around drinking and driving.  They are trying to create a similar cultural shift around gun violence because they don’t believe laws alone will make the difference.


“When you talk to gun owners, if your purpose is to make them feel bad, they will push back,” said Jon, “and you will lose them.  “But,” chimed in Rebecca, “when you reframe the issue as ‘how can we save lives?’ the conversation shifts. Responsible gun owners and non-gun owners both want to save lives. They have that in common. The end goal is to save lives.”

Rebecca noted she knew so little about the issue of guns that she thought a magazine was, well, a magazine that you read.   She added, “Maybe I’m being naïve, but I’m hopeful.”  While my approach would focus more on advocacy for better gun control laws, gun control advocates have not made much headway, and 2500 more people have been killed with guns since Newtown.    Maybe the Bonds will bring a fresh perspective.  The point is they did not act like victims, blaming God for evil and tragedy, and give into fear and despair.  Instead they dare to believe they can do something to make life better with less threat of violence in the world.  I don’t know what the Bond’s religious beliefs are, but they certainly illustrate the theology of redemption.  We don’t face evil by hiding in the shadows hoping it will leave us alone, we shine light and hope to drive it away and to realize hope in the midst of suffering and death.

Let me revisit that word “repent” for a second.  Repent isn’t just a moral command to stop doing bad stuff.  It is also a summons to see the world as God sees it.  Change does not happen just because we decide to obey the rules, but when we start to see life in a new way.  Even good people need to repent in this way.  This is what Jesus wants from us.

I think this is what Jesus is getting at with his parable about the fig tree.  Jesus is not like John the Baptist, with his axe ready at the roots.  Jesus sees God as the patient and faithful gardener.  It takes time for a human conscience to grow into maturity.  We need care, water and sunlight, and a little manure around our roots.  The planter of a fig tree knows that it will take two to five years to bear good fruit.  Growing figs takes some patience to carry out.  In Jesus’s parable it has only been three years, so there is still time before giving up on the tree.  This is how God looks at evil and injustice in the world.  The work is not finished yet.  If we give up too soon, evil wins and we are just victims.  If we keep fertilizing and tending our figs, redemption can still happen.  Love can still win.

This is the Gospel.  God labors on in the human orchard to transform evil with love.  I would think this work would keep God too busy to worry about who to smite or not, as Pat Robertson and the legalists would do.  Evil persists, sometimes even within the church, but that doesn’t need to make atheists of us.  Why not focus on being better gardeners?   There is little time left for smiting or despair when we focus on bearing good fruit.