March 3, 2013 – Lent 3, Judgment or Fruit

To listen to this sermon, click here: Judgment or Fruit

It may be that every generation has felt this way, but most days our generation does seem to have more than its share of evil and suffering. Every day we hear news of terrible things being done by people and terrible things happening to people. We hear about the murder of little children in Connecticut, or about whole villages decimated by AIDS in Africa, about earthquakes or floods, or about young men and women sacrificing themselves as suicide bombers. There are natural disasters and very unnatural cruelties. And when we hear these terrible things on the news or in the course of our conversations with others, our minds scramble to make some kind of sense of it, to somehow separate ourselves from it so that the reality is not so terrifying. It is the most human thing in the world to try to find the reasons behind these tragedies. Why would a young man kill his own mother and a room full of first-grade children? Why would a whole generation of people be destroyed by disease? Why would thousands of lives suddenly be swept away by a tsunami or an earthquake or a war? And when we ask why, we are very often trying to pin the blame on someone or something. We want to pass judgment; and one reason we are so desperate to do that is because we want to assure ourselves that those terrible things would never happen to us.

And that’s one reason people are so quick to pronounce judgment in the face of tragedy. After the Newtown shooting there were posts on facebook that basically said Jesus wasn’t there to protect those little children because people had made laws against prayer in schools. After the horrendous earthquake in Haiti, some people said it was punishment from God for the presence of voodoo religions in Haiti. We hear that the spread of AIDS is God’s punishment on homosexuality. And people are always quick to assign blame to Islamic nations. If something horrible happens, we want an explanation. We want to reserve the scarier kinds of judgment for really bad people, people who have really screwed up, not plain old people like us. When people suffer, we feel much more comfortable thinking that somebody – not us – but somebody deserved it. We like to have a bad guy to point our finger at.

And that’s the kind of mindset Jesus was opposing when someone in the crowd brought news of a great tragedy, about some Galilean Jews that the Roman governor, Pilate, had had murdered in Jerusalem as they offered their sacrifices in the Temple. It was a terrifying thing; it was as if we heard that armed troops had been sent into a church on Christmas Day to shoot down the congregation. And, in the buzz of anger and fear that must have followed this announcement, Jesus knew exactly what they were thinking. “Do you think that there must have been something unusually bad about these people because such a horrible thing happened to them? Are you trying to find an explanation?”  And he brought up another example, “What about the unfortunate people who were killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed on them? Do you think there was something unusually bad about them that brought about their deaths?” And he said to them, twice, “Repent, or you will perish in the same way.”

Jesus is not saying to them, “Get your act together or God is going to let Pilate murder you, too. Or maybe he’ll let a tower fall on your head.” Rather, he is warning them, “If you think that the terrible things in this world are punishments from God; if you think that every bad thing that happens means that God is out to get sinners; then watch out –  because you are just as much a sinner as those people were. Don’t judge, because judgment will kill you.” Jesus was teaching that very same truth in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said, “Judge not, so that you won’t be judged. For with the judgment you use you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured out for you.”

If you try to hedge yourself in with a protective wall of judgment, Jesus was telling them, it will fall on you and crush you just like that Tower of Siloam. Judgment will lead to death. But there’s another way, a way that leads to life. Jesus told them, “Repent, or perish.” Life, not perishing, is what repentance is all about. When we think of repentance, we think of being sorry for what we’ve done, of regret, and that’s part of repentance, but the word Jesus uses is much bigger than that. Repentance, metanoia in Greek, means to change your mind. It means to start thinking about things differently, to stop looking at things in one way and start thinking of them in another way. To repent is to make a fresh start. And so Jesus tells a story to make clear what he means.

I want you to picture who Jesus was talking to in this passage. He was still on his steady journey towards Jerusalem, but he wasn’t just talking to his small band of disciples and maybe a few stragglers that joined them along the way. Luke says that thousands of people had gathered, so many people that they had begun to trample on one another. And into that mass of desperate people, desperate for healing and desperate for kindness, desperate from poverty and desperately hoping to hear a word from God, suddenly there had come this fearful news about Pilate’s slaughter of the Galileans. “Don’t get mired in the old mindset of passing judgment,” Jesus warned them. “Repent, change your mind, and look at this another way.” And then he told these frightened masses of men and women and children a parable, a story, about a fig tree.

There was a fig tree planted in a vineyard, and year after year when the owner of the vineyard came out to gather figs he found nothing at all on the tree. And he finally ran out of patience, and he came to the vinedresser, the man in charge of tending the vineyard and said, “Let’s just cut this tree down. It’s a complete waste of space.” But the vinedresser said, “No, let’s not cut it down right away. Give me a year to dig around the roots and to spread some manure, and if it still doesn’t bear any fruit, well, then we’ll cut it down.”

Repent, said Jesus. Stop hiding behind judgment and let’s look at this another way. I tell you that judgment will kill you. Do you think those people suffered because they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Is that the meaning of this terrible event? The story of the fig tree says no. The tragedy that happened to those people that were killed by Pilate or crushed in the fall of the tower is the same as our own death. There is an end to our lives on this earth. And within the years that God sets for each one of us, we are called to be fruitful. For those whose lives were lost, whether their lives were fruitful or empty – that is not our business to judge. All we can know, all we need to know, about a person who has died, is that their life is now safely in the hands of God. But the story of the fig tree reminds us that God calls us to be fruitful in this season of life, and it reminds us that there is an end to this season.  The story of the fig tree tells us that God looks for us to be fruitful today.

And that would not be very good news if the story stopped there. Instead of comfortably passing judgment on those who have suffered, are we called to condemn ourselves for our failures, for the barrenness of our lives? Was Jesus saying, “Do you think those people were worse sinners than you? No, you’re just as hopeless as they were, so you’d better get repenting before you get what you deserve just like they did.” Thank God the story doesn’t say that at all. Enter the wonderful character of the vinedresser, the one who is not quick to judge, but who is merciful and gracious.  He doesn’t stand back and watch to see if the tree can bring forth fruit of its own power. The vinedresser tends and feeds the tree, and in his wisdom he allows it the time it needs to bring forth fruit.

Today is the day God looks for us to be fruitful. And we are no less sinful than all the sinners we see around us. But he doesn’t condemn us for our failures. Instead, he does all that we need to make us fruitful. He digs around our roots. Have you noticed God tends to disturb us sometimes when we get stuck in our old hardened patterns of thinking? He puts people in our lives that call us out of ourselves. He allows us to go through troubles that make us put our roots deeper into him. And we find our ties to things that are not helping us grow snipped off, just like the little root hairs are pruned when the vinedresser loosens the soil. And when the soil of our heart is loosened, the life of the Spirit pours in to revive us. He feeds us; as the story says, he manures fertilizes us with the good nourishment of his word and sacraments, with the beauty of his creation and the sweet fellowship of his people. And something more, something we need to be reminded of again and again when we lose patience with ourselves and with one another – he gives us the time we need to grow and to blossom and to set fruit. A person’s life might last an hour or a hundred years, but God numbers our days, and he gives us the time we need to bear the fruit he has called us to bear. In our season he looks for us to bear abundant fruit, and under the wise and loving care of the vinedresser how could that possibly fail?

In his letter to the Romans, Paul admonishes us not to judge one another, because we are, each of us a servant of Christ. “And who are you,” Paul wrote, “to judge another man’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.” And here’s the best part – “And he will be upheld,” Paul wrote, “because the Lord is able to make him stand.” The story of the fig tree tells us the same thing: “You will be fruitful, because the Lord is your vinedresser, and he is able to make you fruitful.” But there is also some urgency in the story. The vinedresser comes to us today; today is our time to grow, to drink in the water of the Spirit, to rest, to sink our roots in deeper, to bear the fruits he is calling forth from us.

Each day we are called to bear three things, to bear our cross, to bear one another’s burdens, and to bear fruit. And as we live each day in Christ we find they are one and the same. We bear our cross by lifting up the sorrows of the world into joy and hope. Instead of passing judgment, we hold the suffering and pain and sorrow up to the light of God’s grace, knowing that he is with us in all things, and that because he is with us we will not be crushed by any evil thing. And knowing that, we are able to help to bear the burden of our brother or sister. We can ease their load by sharing it with them, by sorrowing with them, by ministering to them, or just by being with them. And then, as the vinedresser does his work in and through us, we also begin to bear all the fruits that the Spirit means to grow in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness and self-control. All these things that we could never in a million years produce in ourselves, by our own efforts, become a part of who we are, in our season.

Every tragedy is a brutal reminder to us that there is a limit to the time we have in this season of our lives. And particularly in the case of senseless violence and insanity and cruelty we will always be tempted to retreat in fear, to point out the bad guys, and to hide behind judgment. But Jesus calls us to repent, to think afresh. Like all humankind, we are barren without his care. Without Jesus we and anyone else who looks at us might think we are just a waste of space. But God looks at us and he sees the abundant life that he created us to have in his infinite wisdom when we were less than a speck in our mother’s wombs. And the time for the vinedresser to love us into that abundant life is today.

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