A Sermon by The Rev. Beth Lind Foote on March 24, 2019
Massive flooding in the Midwest, cyclones in Australia and Mozambique, a corrupt administration, the rise of the far right, mass shootings: the fire hose of Bad News is often too much to bear these days.
Today’s Gospel’s reference to the tragic collapse of a tower, and an horrific act of theological terror by the Romans— reminds us that there has always been really Bad News in the world, and people have always struggled with what to make of it.
Jesus says to his disciples, why did these terrible things happen to those people? Was there causality between their sin and their misfortune? Was God punishing them? In Jesus’ time, people thought that God punished people for their sins with misfortune and illness. We often hear the disciples ask Jesus about whose fault is it that people are sick and need healing? Was it caused by their sin or their parents’ sin? Jesus always says, “neither.”
Jesus says, “no, these things were not their fault.” God was not punishing them for their sins. But yes, they suffered. Yes, they died. And you also will die. Jesus says death is part of the human condition.
Jesus also uses these two tragedies to talk about the urgency for us to repent, or in Greek, Metanoia. Repentence or Metanoia means to turn towards God. Jesus says you will die also “Unless you repent.” There is an opening there in those words. An opening towards mystery, and to something more: freedom and new life.
On Ash Wednesday, we were called to observe a Holy Lent by self-examination and repentanc, and we received ashes on our foreheads as a mark of our mortality. However, I believe that Jesus does not leave us there in the dust of mortality. Lent continues, and offers opportunities for growth. Ashes are the beginning, not the end.
In our lesson from Exodus, we see Moses turn towards the Burning Bush where he encounters the ultimate mystery: Yahweh, the great I AM. God. Appropriately, the Burning Bush does not turn to ash because God is immortal.
God calls to Moses and says, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” The act of repentance, the act of turning towards God, is holy ground. We stand here on Holy Ground, today on the third Sunday in Lent. Whenever we turn towards God and repent, we are on holy ground. God calls us towards freedom. But with this freedom, God also calls us to greater responsibility to do God’s work in this life.
Moses did not feel up to the great task God calls him to, but God’s power works through Moses, because Moses repented and turned towards God, and grew in his relationship with God.
In a few weeks at the Easter Vigil, we will hear the dramatic story of Moses parting the Red Sea. Moses repented, he turned towards God, and God worked through Moses to lead the Israelites to freedom.
As I preached on Ash Wednesday, ashes are a kind of fertilizer. Repentance is a kind of fertilizer, too. It unclutters our souls, it creates space in our hearts. It’s an antidote to the bitterness of life that can build up in our selves. Repentance opens the way to a greater freedom, and to God’s call to us in ministry.
In the second half of our Gospel today, Jesus tells the Parable of the Fig Tree. In my mind’s eye, it looks something like Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree, spindly and neglected. The man who owns the Fig Tree only cares about its fruit. But the gardener cares about the tree itself and what goes into making a healthy tree so that it can bear good fruit. Like Charlie Brown in the movie, the gardener says, “this little tree just needs a little love.”
And that’s what the gardener does: he loves the Fig Tree. He digs around the tree and puts manure around it. He probably waters it. He invests in the tree, and takes responsibility for it. He looks to the future and sees its possibilities.The Fig Tree is a bit like us in Lent. We may be worn out by the fire hose of Bad News, and worried about the future.
The Fig Tree could be a bit like All Saints in the Interim time. We are thirsty for God’s loving care. Our Psalm today says it best:
God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; *
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
2 Therefore I have gazed upon
you in your holy place, *
that I might behold your power and your glory.
When we repent and turn towards God, Christ, the Gardener is there waiting for us with his pruning sheers, his fertilizer, his watering can, and his love for us. God does not punish, God nourishes.
God knows what we need before we do. God works with us and calls us into a fruitful life of freedom, and collaboration with God’s dream for the world. This is the Good News. May our Lent continue with healthy repentance, and preparation for new growth in Christ. Amen.