Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
March 24, 2019
Luke 13: 1-9 (CEB)
Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. 2He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? 3No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. 4What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”
6Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ 8The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. 9Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’”
Bishop Michael Curry is the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church. He’s also the guy who preached at Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s wedding a little under a year ago. Anyway, in a commentary, Bishop Curry recalls his childhood. He remembers those occasions when some unfortunate incident would befall someone; you know something like falling and breaking a leg, or getting in a little fender-bender, or the like. On such occasions, the older folks would look on and say in jest, “You ain’t been livin’ right!” In other words, the somewhat wiser folks were telling the poor soul that whatever misfortune had befallen them was a direct result of that person’s bad behavior. It was a way, of course, of making light of an unfortunate situation; injecting a little humor into the midst of some minor hardship. This was never something people said seriously when others were really, deeply hurting. “However,” writes Bishop Curry, “I have heard the principle behind the saying articulated when things fell apart for someone, when the burden of the heat of the day becomes unbearable, when things seem to go from bad to worse, when someone cries out from a bed of affliction or shrieks in despair from within a vale of tears. ‘Why? Why me?’ In the painful struggle of trying to make sense of something senseless,” Curry says, the age-old logic of ‘You ain’t been livin’ right’ sneaks into our consciousness.”
I think this is a big part of our human nature, is it not? “Cause and effect” we call it. If there is some obvious effect, there must be an explainable cause. “The desire to comfort by explanation is part of who we are as human beings. It comes with the territory.” This has been a part of humanity for all of human history. This is one way we try make sense of the world. We want an explanation for everything. So it was in Jesus’ day as well. These crowds that are gathered around Jesus as he moves his ministry toward Jerusalem, they are looking for answers. Pilate, infamous in history for his heavy handed ways, has murdered some Galileans in the Temple, their blood mingling with the blood of their sacrifices. In another incident, the Tower of Siloam, which must be along the Jerusalem wall somewhere near the Pool of Siloam, crumbled, killing 18 people. While neither of these incidents is recorded anywhere else in the Bible, or even in history, it is not the incidents so much as the question they raise which is important here. The people ask Jesus of such strange and terrible events, “Were the people who died more sinful than everyone else?” Like most of us in the throes of tragedy, they want to know, “Why?”
To this natural human tendency, Jesus spoke directly, emphatically, even bluntly. “No,” If Jesus were speaking in our day, he might say, “No. Just No.” “Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you….” A person’s righteousness or lack of it has nothing to do with any evil that may befall that person. In this passage, Jesus is responding firmly, but pastorally to a universal human ache. He offers an answer to their question, which we will get to in a minute, but first he makes clear that the question itself is all wrong. Because, I mean, let’s face it; “if God was in the business of meting out judgment and curses in relation to our sins, there probably would not be anyone left on the planet.”
Jesus makes clear, this is not about sinfulness, and that’s not our concern anyway. In fact, whatever it is about, that’s not the point either. The point Jesus drives home today is this one: “…unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” The NRSV puts it this way, “…unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” On this third Sunday of Lent, as we continue our journey to new life, the message for the day is change. Most immediately, perhaps, we need to change our human tendency to seek simple answers to complex problems. Nor is our task to judge those around us, for any reason. That is something we need to change as well. But Jesus’ message is much bigger than even that. We need to repent. The Greek word which we translate as “repent,” it means to make a 180-degree turn. To repent is to live in a distinctly different way.
Change. That’s Jesus’ answer to the question. If it really is any answer at all. And I think that’s the point. Jesus doesn’t answer the question of the people around him, but he tells them what is most important; “Unless you change, you will die….”
Now, I’ve already said this “change” word a lot in the sermon this morning, and some of you all are probably feeling like I’m preaching about the devil or something because most of us just don’t like change at all. In fact, I get the feeling sometimes that there are plenty of folks in this world who would a lot rather die than have to change. That doesn’t take away the necessity of the change to which Jesus is calling his followers. However, there is yet good news in this passage for everyone who gets a little nervous about change.
You see, after telling the people they need to, basically, “change or die,” Jesus tells this odd little parable about the fruitless fig tree. For three years, a landowner has had this fig tree on his land—soaking up the sun, drinking in the water, taking up the nutrients from the soil. But it has never once, not once, produced a single fig. So the landowner goes to his gardener and tells the gardener the fig tree is a waste of space and he wants it gone. But the gardener appeals to the landowner for one more year. The gardener promises, “I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can tear it down.” For three years the landowner has watched that fig tree, likely thinking something along the lines of, “Maybe next year it will produce fruit.” It never did, for three years, nothing changed. But the gardener, full of mercy, offers extra special care for the tree if the landowner will allow one more year.
Friends, our Lord desires for each of us new life. Christ wants this for us, so much, in fact that he is willing to put in the extra effort to nurture in us the change necessary to experience new life. This is grace; beautiful, abundant, unconditional grace—not because we have done anything to earn it or to deserve it; not even because there is some guarantee that a change will actually work in us. God’s mercy is showered upon us simply because God loves us, because God desires for us abundant life in Jesus Christ. And because Christ sees in each and every one of us the potential to bear the fruit of life, if only, if only we can repent and change.
Still, there is one last word of caution here. That part about bearing the fruit of repentance, the idea of seeing the change Jesus seeks from us, that’s as important as experiencing the new life that comes with it. Not only must we repent and change, but we also must bear fruit worthy of that change. In other words, we don’t just say, “I’ve changed,” and then effectively sit around until we pass on to the next life. God wants to see the change, God wants to see us bearing fruit even now. We have to engage in the deep sort of transformational repentance that actually results in a new way of living; that gives us new eyes to see, and a heart ready to serve with love and compassion those who are outcast, despised, needy. That’s discipleship, that’s new life—not something that benefits us, but something that actually changes the world, too. Life-filled action that makes the world a better place and makes the kingdom of God a reality for more and more people. Those are the fruits of grace, the change of mercy that is possible precisely because Jesus is willing to tend us, nurture us, and draw us into new life.
Here’s what I want to leave you all with this morning. And I’m just going to be honest in saying to you up front, this is a tough one. It’s hard enough to think of our own lives and the complete change that Christ is calling us to as we journey toward new life. We like our lives; we are resistant to radical change. We don’t want to have to take a complete turn. I understand. There are lots of things in my own life that I need to take a look at and determine if it is life giving, or if I would be better off to turn away from it. But the greater challenge here is that it’s not just that we need to change individually. We must change as a society, as a community, and yes, even this church must change. I told the Leadership Council a little over a week ago that change is necessary in this place. Change will be the key to the next 75 years of ministry at Wesley Memorial because only change brings new life. Yet, it can’t just be me or a few people talking about change, every person who is a part of this church must also be a part of driving the turning by which our church will experience new life. That’s how this church got started, you know. A group of lay people who got busy. In Mac Defriese’s history of Wesley Memorial, he writes, “Dr. W.F. Blackbard, District Superintendent, appointed Mrs. W.H. Lonas as organizational chairman. This was a wise selection and resulted in Wesley Memorial’s starting on the right foot. From the day of her appointment she gave gladly of her time and her talents. No task was too large or too difficult—none too small or insignificant.”
Now it’s our turn. The next 75 years begins with each of us making a commitment and a change. Our life is in our service in Christ’s name. So in our turning, let us give gladly of our time and talents. As we look to a future with hope, may we face change boldly and faithfully, seeing no task as too large or too difficult, nor any too small or insignificant.
Here’s what I know. If we are faithful, then Christ, too, will be faithful. In infinite grace and mercy, he will nurture us along the way, and we will bear the fruit of new life!