Scripture - Luke 13:1-9
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, March 3, 2013

I'll never forget a woman from the first church I served. I'll call her Susan. She had an enviable life. Her husband was a wonderful guy with a substantial income. They lived in the right neighborhood, had plenty of friends and two beautiful children who were doing well in school.

Then Susan had a third child. But there was a problem. This little boy's brain did not develop properly and never would. His serious disability insured he would never go to school and would require constant care throughout his life.

I made several pastoral calls to see how Susan was faring. She talked about the dramatic changes they had made in their lives and it wasn't long before she began telling me why her son had been born this way. It was her fault.

"How could that be?" I asked.

She said that a couple of years earlier they had tried to have their third child, but very early in the pregnancy the doctor determined that the fetus was not developing normally. He recommended an abortion and Susan followed the advice. Not long after, the doctor said she was healthy and to try again. When she gave birth to this little boy who would never speak, never feed himself, never dress himself, she was certain she knew the reason. She believed God was punishing her for having the abortion.

I pressed her to explain why she thought God would punish her. Had the doctor indicated that she had done something wrong?

No, he hadn't. He said there was no clear reason why the fetus had not developed normally. There are countless variables involved in every pregnancy. At many points along the way, something can go wrong. However, her doctor's words made no difference. Susan was convinced she was being punished.

I tossed aside my reflective listening skills. As gently as I could, I pointed out that while her life was turned upside down by this tragedy, she was not the only one impacted by it. Why was God punishing her husband? Why was God punishing her other two children? More to the point, did it make sense that God was sentencing this little boy to an extremely deprived life because of something his mother had done?

She had no response other than to remain convinced that God was punishing her. What hooked me as her pastor, was not only that I hated to see her persecute herself and to make a rough situation even worse, but that she imagined God to be a harsh judge who would destroy the life of a child to punish his mother. I tried to help her see that the world is not such a tidy cause and effect place. Good people suffer and scoundrels get away with murder. I talked about the image of God that Jesus painted for us time and again. God is loving and forgiving, and wants good things for us. Not a single word I said made any difference. She believed God was punishing her and that was that.

When disaster strikes, we search for reasons. We put great effort into trying to make sense of tragedies. It doesn't sit well with us to say sometimes stuff just happens. We long to nail down a reason so that we can feel as if there is a perfectly logical explanation, rather than acknowledging that there are things beyond our control that wreak havoc with our lives. What happens in life does not always make sense. We and our loved ones are vulnerable.

In this morning's reading from the Gospel of Luke, we hear about two tragedies that took place during the lifetime of Jesus. Some Galileans were performing their religious rituals, when Pilate had them killed. It sounds as if it was a gruesome scene. Their blood was mixed with the blood of the animal sacrifices they were offering.

Jesus mentions a second tragedy that must have been in the headlines. Eighteen people died when a tower collapsed.

After mentioning each episode, Jesus posed the question that was simmering beneath the surface. He said, "Do you think these people suffered because they were worse sinners than others?"

Most of his audience nodded and said, "Yes. People get what they deserve. God punishes sinners."

If we flip to the Gospel of John there's another example of this line of reasoning. Jesus and the disciples walk near a man who has been blind since birth and the disciples ask Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"

People assumed - as did my friend Susan - that tragedy was always the result of sin. But in John, and in these two examples Jesus raises in Luke, he answers "No." These tragedies did not result because these people were sinful.

The notion that the people who suffered were being punished is especially troubling because those unaffected by the tragedies were blaming the victims for their demise. Jesus says "No," to such thin theology.

What prompts such reasoning in the first place? Is it because we want to believe there is a rational explanation for everything that happens? Is it a way to convince ourselves that such things would never happen to us? "Those people suffered because they are terrible sinners. Compared to them, I'm not so bad. They got what they deserved. I don't deserve it, so I'm safe."

Jesus rejects such thinking, but then says something that sounds as if he might be contradicting himself. After saying, "No," these people did not suffer as a result of their sin, he adds, "But unless you repent, you will perish just as they did."

At first glance, it sounds as if Jesus might be confused. But that doesn't make sense, so where is he going with this?

First, I think Jesus is warning us not to pass judgment on the fate of others. Do not presume that those who suffer are receiving their due. Second to repent is to turn toward God. It is a call to quit living in a way that is taking you further from God and to start living in a way that will draw you closer to God. Third, Jesus uses these tragedies that are fresh on people's minds to remind them that the clock is ticking. He's saying, "Wake up. Life doesn't last forever. Don't put off what is essential until it's too late."

Then, Jesus follows with a 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, "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?" The gardener replied, "Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; if not, you can cut it down." '

Some interpret this parable as an allegory. The three years represents the three years of Jesus' ministry. The fig tree represents the Jewish nation. The tree's barrenness represents the fact that they rejected Jesus. The landowner is God who has become impatient with the people and orders the tree cut down. Understood this way, it is a parable of judgment against those who rejected Jesus. Read this way, followers of Jesus can do a bit of gloating that we are God's favorites.

Or, some say the fig tree does not represent the Jewish nation, but represents anyone who refuses to live a Christ-like life, it is a frightening parable of judgment designed to scare us into doing the right thing by threatening us with death.

However, if God is the landowner, whose patience has run out and is ready to chop us down, then we are doomed. If God is a scorekeeper, highlighting every time we give in to greed, every time we fail to forgive, every time we neglect someone in need, every time we fail to make the right choice, then we are destined for darkness.

However, I don't think this is a simple allegory and I don't think its thrust is judgment. There is certainly a sense of urgency, but there is also a sense of hope. And if God is like the scriptures tell us countless times slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love - then God just may be the Gardener; the One who refuses to give up on us. The One who says "Let it alone for one more year."

We can hear that as a threat or we can hear it as a reminder that we do not live forever and we never know when calamity will strike. Who knows when a young, healthy man who exercises regularly will have a heart attack? Who knows when a pathology report will come back with the "C" word? Who knows when a driver who is texting will collide with us?

Don't put off the life God wants you to live. Don't perish with regrets. Live in such a way that when you die, your family and friends will be able to celebrate a life that genuinely counted for something because you touched the lives of others in healing and nourishing ways. Live in such a way that people will remember that you lived a fruitful life - a life that was kind and compassionate, faithful and forgiving, just and generous.

God does not want anyone to simply take up space on this planet by living a barren life. Let God aerate your soul with love and peace. Let God pour on the fertilizer of joy and hope so that you may truly blossom and bear an abundance of beautiful fruit.