By Rev. Sarah Buteux
March 20, 2022
Lent 3, Year C
Isaiah 55:1-13 Luke 13:1-9
To watch this morning’s service click here. The sermon begins at the 38 minute mark.
Some trees really ought to be taken down.
At least that’s what the tree guy tells me. I don’t know if he works for the electric company or the town, but he comes by every so often to survey the great eastern pines that border our property. They are all 5 or 6 stories high, massive conifers with huge, thick branches that can break off in the wind.
We’ve had a few close calls and some storms that have caused us worry. When the snow is thick and heavy or the wind kicks up and those giants begin to sway, it can be scary.
But I’m loathe to part with our pines precisely because they are so old and tall and venerable. I like the way they protect and border our solitude; ancient sentinels that have seen far more in their lives than we ever will.
The electric company will remove them for free. It’s worth their while to strike preemptively, an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure and all that. But instead of parting with them entirely, we pay the tree guy a small fortune to prune them and care for them and carry away the ones that fall in spite of his efforts.
The cost is unbearably high, but we pay it anyway. We have him remove the branches that hang too close for comfort and he’s taken down at least 2 trees that were so sick they posed an active threat to the house.
It always makes me sad when it comes to that, but sometimes you need to take them out before they take out you. That’s just how it is, with trees.
Well, lately, I’ve been wondering if that’s just how it is with people, too.
If someone is actively threatening you or your home or even your neighbors, would it not be better to take them down before they hurt you? It makes me sad just to think about, but wouldn’t it make more sense to take them out before they take you and all that you hold dear?
We are living in perilous times and I suppose my wondering reflects that. I think we’re all beginning to suspect that the last many years we have worked and struggled through may well turn out to be the greatest stretch of peace and prosperity in our lifetimes.
War, climate change, a rogue asteroid – there are any number of looming crises that could throw all we know and love into a state of chaos. What’s so interesting to me in this moment, is that these words before us in Luke, these words that Jesus spoke 2000 years ago, were spoken to people on the verge of the same kind of disruption.
There is an urgency to Jesus’ message this morning that has been building all throughout the previous chapter. He is on his way to Jerusalem. He knows his time on earth is coming to an end and he also knows that the discontent of his people that has been roiling just beneath the surface is going to erupt before much longer. He knows they will try to free themselves from Roman rule with force and he knows they will be crushed in the process. Everything is about to change.
The world as they know it will be coming to an end.
And so all throughout chapter 12, Jesus warns them to be ready with a series of exhortations and parables. He tells them not to live their lives in fear, bowing down to worldly powers who can only harm the body, but to live in fear of God who has power over our eternal souls.
He tells a parable about a rich man who had such a good harvest that he pulled down his little barn in order to build bigger ones. Rather than share his bounty with those who did not have enough, he chose to keep it all for himself, trusting that his wealth would insulate him from suffering and death.
But God appears to set him straight: You fool, this very night you will die and you can take none of that with you.
“So it is,” says Jesus, “with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or…what you will wear…” And you all know the rest. You know his lovely words about birds and lilies as well as I do, just as God knows that we all have needs and is there to help us meet them.
So don’t worry about your material security, says Jesus. That’s not the goal nor will it save you from what’s coming. But “seek ye first the kingdom of God and all of these things will be given to you as well.”
And then Jesus tells two parables about servants. In the first the servants are ready and waiting to serve their master and the master rewards them with a wonderful feast. In the second, the servants give up on their master ever returning and run wild. They exploit and abuse one another and the story does not end well….for anyone.
Line by line, Jesus builds on the same idea: if you knew what was coming, you’d change your ways. If you knew what was coming, you would care more about honoring God than getting ahead, more about doing good in the world than worldly goods, more about what you can give then what you can get…or get away with.
He keeps turning up the heat, and as he does, the people become increasingly agitated. He can feel their discomfort rising and he throws it right back at them: What? “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Listen! The choice before you, the choice to follow me or keep going the way you’re going will tear you and your families apart. But the end is coming and it is coming soon. You will have to choose. If you wait and let others decide for you it will be too late.
Which is precisely where our reading for today picks up. The people are feeling Jesus’ anger and frustration and some in the crowd decide to engage in the age old art of deflection. “Yes Jesus, we know we need to step it up,” but did you hear what Pilate did over in Jerusalem?
I know we’re not perfect, but he and his soldiers stormed in on some Galileans – people from your own home town – and murdered them while they were making sacrifices to God in the temple.
I mean, talk about sacrilege! Talk about people who deserve God’s wrath! What about Pilate and his minions, Jesus? We’re small potatoes next to that kind of evil. Doesn’t God have bigger fish to fry than us? How’s about we all grab our torches and pitchforks and go get the real bad guys? Come on, Jesus, you in? For God and country and what not!
They are obviously trying to get Jesus worked up into some sort of nationalist self-righteous fervor so he’ll take out his anger on Pilate in the name of God rather than them. But Jesus is not so easily distracted.
He looks at them and essentially says: let me get this straight: You think Pilate should be cut down for his evil, the way Pilate cut down the Galileans? And you think because he is evil, we can go take him out in the name of God? Do you still think that’s how God works?
After all you’ve experienced, after everything you’ve seen, do you still somehow believe that God makes sure people get what they deserve? As if God is up in some karmic control room meeting out justice so the bad guys always get what’s coming to them?
By that logic, the Galileans themselves must have been horrible sinners or God would have protected them from Pilate. But, were they? “No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Or what about those people who died over in Siloam when the tower fell? Are you telling me that wasn’t just some terrible accident. Do you think they were worse sinners than all of you here and God finally caught up with them? “No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Repent, repent, repent…but repent of what? That’s the big question? And I think the answer, for them and for us is this: we need to repent of the misguided notion that we get to play God – or at least play at our idea of God- judging who is good and evil and taking them out as we see fit.
Jesus’ message here is not, repent or God’s going to destroy you. God, at least according to Jesus, is not out to destroy anyone. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that God is like the gardener in the parable of the fig tree, the one who wants us all to live and flourish.
I think God is the one patiently and desperately trying to create the time and space and conditions for us to get our act together in the slim hope that we might finally stop destroying one other.
Vengeance. Retribution. The idea that you can wield a sword like a scalpel, drop a bomb that is smart, or achieve peace with just a little more violence. That’s the sin we all need to repent of.
I learned something amazing this week. I learned that when the gardener in the parable says to let the tree alone, the word for “let alone” is the same root word from which we get our word for forgiveness. It is the very word we use whenever we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
“Let it alone,” says the gardener. Leave it be.
And I think that is Jesus message for us as well.
“Let each other alone,” says Jesus. I mean can’t you see that none of you are innocent, that no one is perfect, that none of you have gotten this far without hurting or exploiting or wronging someone else?
Can’t you see that if you stay stuck in this blame game, if you hide behind your own self-righteousness the better to justify your bloody acts of vengeance, that you will perish. In fact, if you all keep going the way you’re going, thinking it’s your God given duty to rid the world of bad people in the name of God, we all will?
My friends, as risky as it is, God’s answer to the evil in the world is not to cut down the bad people, because the cutting would never stop. God’s answer is to forgive us all and to keep giving us what we need to do better, in the hopes that we will forgive and help each other do better too.
The cost is unbearably high. It’s true.
But for love of his people, Jesus was willing to pay it back then…and I suppose the fact that we’re still standing means that God is willing to pay it even still.