Sermon for 3rd Sunday in Lent
24 March 2019
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It was just over a week ago that a white supremacist murdered fifty people during Jummah prayers in two New Zealand mosques. As an American, I must say that when I heard the news, I thought this tragic event felt all too familiar. We have seen such horrors committed again, and again, and again in my home country—in places of worship, in movie theaters, in schools, at concerts. But again, and again, and again, we’ve seen nothing change, either regarding our gun laws or my country’s addiction to white supremacy and xenophobia.
But something different happened in New Zealand this week. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern swiftly denounced the attack and flatly refuses to even say the name of the murderer. Just hours after the incident she announced that gun laws in New Zealand would change—and less than a week later, they did. All types of semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles are banned, effective now. “Our history has changed forever”, she said “And now our laws will, too.”
Now is the time, the nation of New Zealand has said.
Not after the next mass shooting.
Not after the next election.
Now is the time to make a change, now is the time to turn in our guns, now is the time to turn away from white supremacy.
Now is the time for repentance.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, we hear reports about two ancient tragic events. First, people came to tell Jesus about some Galileans killed by Pilate. “Their blood was mixed with their sacrifices” we can imagine them saying, almost in a whisper.
It’s not clear why the crowd wanted to tell Jesus this, but it seems they were probably looking for answers. Why did the Galileans suffer like that? Were they sinners? Had they done something wrong? Who was to blame?
As usual when humans ask such things, one can hear the more important question that lies just underneath: “And how can I make sure such a thing never happens to me?”
But Jesus didn’t give the crowd a sermon on the sins of the Galileans or helpful tips for avoiding suffering. Instead, he responded this way:
“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.”
It might seem odd that Jesus would respond to folks worried about one tragedy by bringing up another one. What does a tower accidentally falling on eighteen Jerusalemites have to do with Pilate murdering some Galileans?
But this is exactly the point.
Bad things don’t happen to good people, or to bad people—bad things happen.
Suffering is suffering. Sin is sin. All have fallen short, which means all are in need of an equal amount of mercy and forgiveness.
And death comes to all of us, equally, one day.
“So quit pointing fingers at their supposed sins” Jesus seems to be saying “and worry about your own. This isn’t about them. It’s about you. It’s about what you’re going to do now.”
There’s an urgency in Jesus’ voice, isn’t there? Jesus seems frustrated that even after all his teaching, and healing, and miracles, people are still more worried about the sins of others than with their own lives and actions. But not much has changed, has it?
When terrible things happen, we love to somehow justify things. We love to point fingers. We love to place blame for suffering. If a tower in Jerusalem fell today, half the city would blame the Occupation, and the other half would blame the Palestinians, and American Christians would shrug and say “Well, you know towers are going to keep falling in the Middle East until Jesus comes back…”
And still, I believe Jesus would say to us the same thing: It’s right and good to be concerned about the suffering of others, but don’t worry about what they did or didn’t do to deserve it. What are you going to do now? Now is the time for you to make a change. Now is the time for you to turn toward love, toward justice, toward the cross.
Now is always the time for repentance and turning toward God—not only in the wake of tragic events—for our own sake, for the sake of others, and for the sake of the Gospel of Love.
As our brother Martin Luther once wrote: “How soon not now becomes never.”
Dear siblings in Christ, this is a tough word—in Jesus’ time, and now! I can say that preachers like to talk about repentance about as much as you like to hear about it (which is not a lot.)
But thanks be to God, after driving home our common need for repentance—not tomorrow, but now, for we never know what tomorrow will bring—Jesus tells the people 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, ‘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.’ ”
Now whenever I’m reading parables, I find it helpful to ask, “where do I find myself in this story?”
I suppose I might be the fig tree, which isn’t bearing fruit but is taking up space where other, better producing plants might grow. This is most certainly true!
But I’m also often the landowner, eagerly pointing my finger (and swinging my axe) at those around me who I think are not bearing fruit (or who are growing fruit I don’t care for.)
It’s also entirely possible I’m the manure in this story, as there are days when I just really stink. Amen!
Whoever I am in this parable—wherever the hearer is supposed to find herself—it seems clear to me that we can see Christ in the gardener.
When the gardener replies to the landowner,
‘Sir, let it alone for one more year…” I hear Jesus offering a word of grace to the crowd who has just heard the message “Unless you repent, you will die.”
I hear Jesus saying:
“Yes, now is the time to repent. Now is the time to make a change. Now is always the time to bear fruit!
And also…be not afraid.
Be not afraid, because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Be not afraid, for I am with you, even in the mess.
Be not afraid, for although you may feel useless or barren,
Though you may worry there’s no way to turn things around now,
Though others may be saying it’s too late—
Too late for you,
Too late for the world,
Too late for peace based on justice in Israel and Palestine,
Too late for new gun laws,
Too late to stop the march towards war,
Too late for change,
Too late for repentance,
Too late to bear fruit…
Listen, Jesus says:
I’ve got a shovel,
And some manure,
And I’m not giving up on you.
Jesus, our gentle gardener, not only graciously gives barren trees more time,
And sinners second chances,
He gives his own life for this broken world.
While we so often hesitate to repent, to change, to turn toward life and love,
Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem, and towards the cross, that we may all know eternal life with him.
A little over a year ago, I moved to a new house here in Jerusalem. To tell you the truth, I was very grumpy about moving. I had lived in my former apartment for 3.5 years and would have preferred to have stayed there. To make things worse, I needed to move in December, which is truly a terrible time for a pastor to move house!
The packing day took much longer than planned, and although I didn’t have to lift any boxes myself (thanks be to God) I was still exhausted by the time the last box was placed on the truck. I decided to do one last pass through the apartment to be sure nothing was left behind.
But just as I was preparing to lock the door behind me, my mover, Wael, pointed to a large clay pot on the balcony. “Don’t you want to take this?” he asked.
I took a look at the pot with its brown and dried up plant out there in the December cold, its branches twisted tightly around the balcony railings, and said, “Nah. Just leave it. It looks dead—plus it seems pretty attached to this place. I don’t think it would survive the change. Why bother.”
But Wael knelt down and carefully, one by one, unwrapped the crispy brown branches, liberating the plant from its former home. Then he carried the pot down three flights of stairs and placed it in the passenger seat of the moving truck.
Wael put the plant in my new garden, where it sat looking dead all winter long. But slowly slowly, shway shway, I thought I saw it starting to perk up. As spring changed to summer last year, its branches started to wrap themselves around my garden fence. And now, this spring, the plant I had so nearly given up on seems to have made itself at home.
It made the move. It did survive the change…and it just might be ready to bloom.
In fact, maybe today is the day! Maybe even now, as we sit here contemplating the fig tree who was given a second chance to bear fruit, my once-dead plant is releasing its first springtime blossoms.
Dear friends, during this Lenten season we are reminded that all of us, daily, have the need to repent, to turn away from sin and death and turn toward love and life, to become trees bearing good fruit, fruit that will last.
Thanks be to God for Jesus, our gentle gardener, who never gives up on us.
Thanks be to God that Jesus' story, the world's story, our story, does not end on Good Friday.
And thanks be to God for the gift of time,
For the gift of today—a day to repent, a day to make a change, a day to love, a day to live. As the poet Mary Oliver wrote:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.