The Rev Cynthia K. R. Banks; Lent 3—Year C; Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9. Video.
Whew! We’ve got some rough stuff today. I Corinthians 10—now this is Paul speaking: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, our ancestors were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and they all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink. They all drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and, for Paul, that rock was Christ. Nevertheless…” “Nevertheless” is never a good sign; it’s like saying, “I love you unconditionally, but…”—it sort of negates whatever came before. Back to Paul, “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.”
It gets worse. Paul continues: “Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did. We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”
And then Paul goes all encouraging: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
But tell me, when you’ve just heard about all the awful things that befell those who strayed, do you trust the encouragement that comes at the end? I’m not feeling the love here. Do any of us ever change because somebody puts the fear of God into us? Not in my experience. Oh, fear, shame—they’re effective for a short-term shift in behavior, but these never result in true transformation. Transformation always comes through wooing; transformation comes when something is calling to you that is so much more attractive than what you are living right now. Transformation is never born of fear and shame; transformation is the fruit of love.
I love Paul. I find tremendous amounts of truth in Paul, but I think Paul got this piece in I Corinthians 10 wrong.
By the way, he does a flip-flop in Romans 9-11 when he makes the case for how these same ancestors, these same children of Abraham, will absolutely be enveloped in God’s mercy and compassion because God’s gifts and call are irrevocable. In I Corinthians 10, I think, for a moment, Paul lost sight of the gospel of Jesus. Paul’s human; it happens to all of us.
Which brings us to Luke 13. A rather bizarre, really puzzling, difficult passage. Some were present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus 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.”
First of all, we know nothing about either one of these two events. Second of all, it still sounds like judgment. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” That verb for perish means to be destroyed, like fully destroyed. I’m not feeling the love here either.
Then Jesus 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.’”
But the nuances in this passage flip it on its head. Jesus’ listeners are doing one of those awful theological twists that was common in those days, and unfortunately, still all too common in our day—if someone, or some group, really suffers an awful fate, they must have been awful sinners, horrible offenders. If Pilate mingled those Galileans blood with their sacrifices, they must have really been evil. If that tower fell on those eighteen, they must have done something to deserve God’s wrath. Remember Job? This is the theology of Job’s friends—look at all that Job suffered, he must have sinned.
Jesus calls them on their poor theology, and even goes a step farther. “Do you think they are worse sinners than all other Galileans? No! Do you think they were worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem? No! But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
I still don’t like the sound of that perishing part, but the root for perish also means lost. If we can’t repent from looking at the fate of others and judging them for it, we’ll be lost. Jesus does not judge those Galileans or the eighteen from Jerusalem who were killed as being any worse than the rest of humanity who lived around them, but if we try to blame them, or make it all about them, we will lose our way, and that will destroy us. And, if we understand perishing in this sense of being lost, we’ll see next week that Jesus is all about searching for the lost—lost sheep, lost coins, lost people.
And then there’s the parable that Jesus tells. The man is so frustrated by the behavior of that fig tree that he wants to just chop it down. Kind of a scorched earth approach. Ever been so frustrated that you want to lash out and destroy that thing, or person, in front of you that just won’t do as you want it to do?
But the gardener sees the potential that’s in that fig tree if it just gets a little nurture, which by the way involves getting your hands in the manure and working that manure into the soil and letting that mixture of good soil and manure soak into the roots trusting that growth can come from manure, if you work it right. And brothers and sisters , we’ve all got some manure in our lives that we need to work. I love it when Jesus gets earthy.
And, the gardener gives the man an out—if it doesn’t produce in a year, then you can cut it down, but the gardener well knows that that tree is going to be just fine. It’s the man who needs the space to let his heart soften; it’s the man who needs the space to be transformed.
Yes, there’s judgment in these passages today, but it’s not the weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth-burn-in-hell kind of judgment; it’s much harder than that—it’s the kind of judgment that happens when we hear the voice of Jesus, or he catches our eye, and we know that all that blame and anger we are casting over there about those people really says more about our own hard hearts than it says about theirs.
Jesus pierces us, cuts to the quick of our souls, but that wound to our heart can be the means to helping us rejoin the human race knowing that all of us are in need of the mercy of God, and we are utterly lost without it.
But oh, if we can stave off that desire to lash out, if we can repent of our judgment, if we can let Jesus help us work the manure and soil of our lives and be patient with ourselves and others, trusting in the fruits of compassion always born of mercy, there won’t be a need to cut ourselves, or that ever-present other, down. Amidst all the judgment, and blame, and shame in our culture right now, this is fruit that that we’re all hungry for. Amen.
The Rev Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 28, 2016