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Lectionary Sermons: Lent

God Wants All the Hopeless Cases

By David Bennett

Lent Three, Year C:
Exodus 3:1-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13: 1-9

Today's texts and the collect we prayed are very "Lenten." They speak of sin, wrongdoing, immorality, repentance, and even death. Even the gospel reading, the "good news" seems to be mostly bad news about the death due to all who do not repent. To many in the greater world and even in many churches, such ideas are seen as radically out-of-date and unfashionable. After all, it's not very "polite" to speak about such matters, let alone believe in them. However, I think Jesus' words are just as appropriate today as they were in the first century.

In today's gospel text, Jesus is asked about a tragic incident that occurred among certain Galileans, an event that probably weighed heavily on the minds of Jesus' audience. Outside of Luke's gospel we have no other references to this event. What seems to have happened is that Pilate sent his forces to attack some militant Galileans who were in the middle of offering sacrifices. The result was that the blood of these Galileans was mingled with that of their sacrifices in a bloody mess. Jesus' audience, being Jews occupied by the Roman Empire, probably have strong feelings about the incident. Jesus apparently senses the intent of his hearers' mentioning the event: they want to know whether the Galileans were killed as a punishment from God for their sins. This understanding was probably pretty popular back then as it is today in certain churches. Jesus then mentions another incident when a tower fell on 18 people. Were they greater sinners than everybody else in the area to merit such a disastrous fate? Jesus emphatically answers, NO! God does not specially punish people for their individual sins. The gathered crowd may breathe a sigh of relief at hearing this. However, Jesus isn't exactly offering them good news with what follows: unless you repent, all of you will likewise perish, he says. Recent interpreters have tended to see Jesus speaking here about physical death, at the hands of the Romans, but traditionally the Church has seen Jesus speaking of spiritual death. Either way, the result of normal human living is almost always chaos, whether spiritual or physical. They ALL shall perish likewise unless they repent, Jesus says. And I think the message for us is the same: We shall ALL perish unless we repent and turn to God.

Jesus' hearers may have come looking for comfort, but they probably do not feel comforted hearing they are in need or repentance or they will die. This is a grim message. Many of his audience probably takes offense, seeing that some believe that God rightly punished the reckless Galileans, and others take offense at being called to repentance, when they consider themselves perfectly righteous. Fortunately for them (and us), Jesus doesn't simply stop at pointing out humanity's natural inclination toward sin, which leads to death. He follows his strong words with an encouraging parable.

He tells of a fig tree that has been using up precious soil and vineyard space for three years, and has yet to produce fruit. The owner of the vineyard suggests that its time for the tree to go. "Cut it down!" he says. After all, it's a waste of land and soil. Even back then, gardeners knew that if a fig tree did not bear fruit in three years, it probably wasn't going to bear fruit at all and was not worth keeping. However, the vineyard-keeper convinces the owner that if the bad tree is fertilized and cared for, it might bear fruit yet. So the owner gives in and gives the tree one more year to bear fruit. And if it doesn't bear fruit in the year, then he will order it to be chopped down.

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Jesus is not simply teaching us gardening techniques here. He is saying that even though we all equally deserve death through our sinful actions, God is patient and merciful, offering us His mercy even to the very end. The antidote to spiritual death is Jesus, and this antidote is available at all times. The fig tree had had its chance, three years, and statistically was a lost cause. Many of us are just like the fig tree, lost causes, never bearing fruit, in need of fertilization. Yet according to this parable of Jesus, God shows mercy to all the lost causes, even all of us.

The lesson is that God gives us many chances to turn to him, many chances to receive his grace that leads to eternal life, and many chances to amend our lives and bear fruit. If we do not accept his offer of grace, it is not because he did not give us ample time. If we bear no fruit, it is not because of Him, but rather us. To put this parable in modern terms let me tell you about a good friend of mine in high school. He had been overweight since he was very young. No matter how hard he exercised, or changed his eating habits, he seemed to never be able to lose weight. Statistically he had very little chance of losing weight, since he did not shed his excess weight during his growth spurt at puberty. I remember reading that someone in his situation only has a one in thirty-five chance of successful weight loss. As his friends, including myself, lost weight and got in shape for football season, his efforts never bore any fruit. Like the fig tree in today's parable, the statistics suggested his case was hopeless. But like God with us, we his friends never gave up on him, and he never gave up either, and today he has lost over 100 pounds and kept it off too. This "hopeless case" only needed a little more time to bear fruit. God is the same way. There is no hopeless case in God's eyes.

Many of us are well aware of how to lose weight and bear physical fruits in our lives, but how exactly do we bear spiritual fruits? How can we allow God to fertilize us, changing us from dead to fruitful? The answer is all around us really, from the purple color to the covered crosses. It's Lent. Today's gospel is Lenten to its core. Jesus tells us we ALL need to repent. ALL. We start by accepting His offer of grace, and then continually repenting of our wrongdoing as Christians, remembering that even as Christians we still sin. Then Jesus speaks to our need for fertilization. If this concept seems initially foreign to you, don't worry. Our culture is deeply opposed to the ideas behind Lent, and so are many churches. Admitting that every single one of us deserves death because of our natural inclination to wrongdoing is contrary to popular notions. Our culture's mantra is "I'm ok, you're ok, we're all ok!" If this is true, there is no need for an antidote to spiritual death, no need for spiritual fertilization, because all is well. Of course, we only need to actually speak to people in our culture to know that the real mantra should be "I'm not ok, you're not ok, but we all say we're ok!"

The Lenten season, and Jesus' words today, remind us as Christians that we are certainly not ok, and in fact can be quite mean and miserable when left to our own devices. And unfortunately, this concept, while true, is not very "polite" or "positive" so we often hear little about it even in our churches. Why ruin a fun, positive worship service by mentioning something so negative as sin and evil? Well...because we all face the difficulties of sin and evil, and glossing over this fact does little to help us overcome the sin in our lives, which Jesus encourages us to do.

If you don't believe me that sin is all around us, just look around at our own actions and those of others: war, terrorism, poverty, inequality, divorce, the breakdown of the family, and the list goes on. Try telling the innocent second grader who is switching schools because her dad just left and the family is broke that "everything is ok." It's not ok. It's hard to deny that there is sin in the world when we see it affecting the life of a second grader. When we prayed earlier to be "defended from all adversities" and to "be protected from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul" we are asking God to protect us from the results of sin and those things that cause us to sin.

But as we know Lent is not only just about acknowledging the sin in our lives. Some only emphasize this aspect of Lent, and thus Lent can become entirely about carnal one-upmanship, you know, seeing who can confess the most sins in the shortest amount of time. We must remember that Lent is also about doing something about sin. Lent is a good time for us to open ourselves to God's fertilization, becoming more like Christ through repentance, fasting, scripture reading, regular Eucharist, almsgiving, and other Lenten disciplines. Lent is a time to take inventory of our lives and see where we fail to meet the standards of Christ, and to train ourselves spiritually, bearing fruit, like love, patience, and mercy. We are of course not earning our salvation (for it is free), but training ourselves to overcome sin, being continually molded by the Holy Spirit to become more Christlike, and in the process continually being fertilized and cared for by the Holy Spirit.

But we mustn't stop at our own gardening, but use our time and talents to tell others about the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Remember God wants ALL the hopeless cases, and as we examine the sin in our own lives during Lent, we must not forget to share the only hope for our sins with others. After all Jesus said that we ALL must repent. There are plenty of people in our own community, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, men and women, whose lives are in disarray, not bearing spiritual fruit. Our first notion is often to give up on them, saying, "oh he will never get his life together," or "she could never become a Christian." However, Jesus is telling us in today's gospel that God is merciful even to people who have never born fruit in their lives. As we go about in our daily lives, during Lent and beyond, let us remember that we offer the greatest news of all, the antidote to spiritual death, the fertilizer of lives, Jesus Christ. It is only through Him that we live forever and are made able to bear fruit.

This sermon was delivered on March 14, 2004 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Chillicothe, Ohio. Thanks to Rev. Richard Terry for the opportunity to preach. The author of the sermon has joined the Catholic Church since preaching this sermon.

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