Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
March 24, 2019
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “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.”
Then he told this 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.’”
I pride myself on making excellent homemade chicken noodle soup. My noodles are actually like dumplings- light and chewy and delicious, simmered with the taste of the soup. I learned how to make the noodles not from any book or website, but just from watching my mother make soup many years ago. I watched her crack the eggs, put in the flour, spread the mixture out on even more flour, roll it out to just the right thickness, cut the noodles into strips, and then place them lovingly into the gently boiling soup pot. One thing I noticed was that after the noodles were cooked, my mother turned off the heat, put a lid on the pot, and then told everyone that the soup had to sit undisturbed for ten minutes. So when I began to make this soup for Maren and Amelia, I always told them not to disturb the pot during those ten minutes or there would be a terrible catastrophe.
A couple of months ago I was telling my sister that I loved to make chicken noodle soup with our mother’s recipe. She asked how I did it, thinking perhaps that she would give the recipe a try. When I related to her the final detail, the instruction about putting a lid on the pot and not touching it for ten minutes, my sister starting laughing. “You know why Mom said always said that, don’t you?” “No,” I replied naively. “Mom just wanted to keep people out of the food before dinner. We didn’t want you sampling the noodles before we all ate together.” I was stunned! After all those years, suddenly a loving detail of my recipe was exposed as a tool of my clever but manipulative mother.
Pastor Joseph Evans writes that, “you have to be careful with people. If they don’t know the answer, they may well just make something up…. Sometimes we make up what we need to hear in the moment- and whether what we make up is the truth or not may not matter- because what we make up may be more comforting than the truth”
Evans tells the story of how he was with a group on a mission trip to Haiti. They were flying from one side of the island to another in a small propeller plane steered by a Cuban pilot. The turbulence was horrible and once the plane landed the passengers were all thankful to finally be on mother earth again. While unloading the baggage, one member of the group said to another member, “I wasn’t worried. Our pastor had his head bowed in prayer the whole flight.” Evans said that he was glad that this church member that saw him with head bowed thought he was praying during the flight. In reality he had his head down because he thought that was the only way he could keep from throwing up.
There was some of that explaining and rationalizing going on in the Scripture lesson this morning. There was a group of people gathered around Jesus, taking about a tragedy, the same kind of senseless bloodshed that we experience all too often today. It seems that Pilate had killed a group of Galileans, apparently while they were worshipping, because their blood then was intermingled with the blood of the sacrifices. This sounds too much line the headlines of our own day. It was an awful thing, people murdered and then defiled in death. People wondered, in the logic of those times, what had those people done to deserve such a punishment? How could they prevent the same thing from happening to them? Jesus asked the crowd, “Do you think their suffering means they were worse sinners than anyone else?”
Jesus then reminded them about another terrible contemporary situation. A tower at Siloam had fallen, killing eighteen people. The tower was in a remnant of the old Temple, a place where people who protested the rule of Rome often worshipped, in opposition to the new Temple where Pilate and Herod controlled the priests. People also blamed Pilate for these deaths. Jesus asked, “Do you think they were worse than all the others in Jerusalem?”
Such is the power of evil. When tragedy strikes, we quickly become afraid. We get intimated by the power of the Pilates of the world and by power of their hate. We know that such power is evil and that God’s power is divine and good, yet we are more easily impressed and shaken and moved by the stark and horrible grip of evil. We are terrified into thinking that we live in a world on the verge of collapse and we develop a fear about tomorrow.
While we may not use the conventional wisdom of Jesus’ time, believing that those innocent people died because of their sin, perhaps we use our own conventional wisdom. We search for reasons why such tragedy happens. We try to find blame. It is someone else’s fault. Perhaps we believe it is still God’s judgment served. There are voices that tell us we’ve turned away from God. There’s no prayer in school. Our nation is corrupt. Things have gotten so bad that surely we are the edge of total collapse as a society. There are other voices telling us that there are too many guns. Our children play too many violent video games. We condone or even worship violence. Some may even believe that God no longer cares what happens to us or that God is no longer active in our world.
There may be logic to some of our thinking and I would not advocate that we stop trying to find solutions to end acts of hate and terror. Yet finding blame is part of the wisdom of the world that wants to fix things and move on quickly. It is the viewpoint that sees a worthless fig tree and demands that it be uprooted and tossed into the fire because apparently it just can’t produce fruit.
Jesus said, “Repent. Turn around. Change. Look at things differently. Repent of the notion that sees God working in ways that send violence and tragedy. Repent of the thought that God is one who rules with our sense of judgement.” The word repent at its root is about thinking or perception. It refers to a wholesale change of how we understand something- like the reason we keep the lid on the chicken noodle soup. Repentance might change our behavior but it first involves us seeing things differently and coming to a new understanding of what God makes possible.
Jesus then told the story of a fig tree that did not bear fruit. The owner of the tree was tired of its failure and wanted it chopped down and destroyed. But the gardener asked if he could nurture the soil around the tree for one more year, just to see if the tree would then bear some fruit. I am struck by the differences in the reaction to the current events of Jesus’ time. When discussing the news, the crowd was afraid, seeking an urgent response, looking for something to blame, full of cynicism and despair. Yet Nancy Rockwell writes, “When Jesus sees people knotted up and tense at the mention of the murdered Galileans and the Tower of Siloam, he responds with a playful tale, creating a space in time where hope can rise.” He talks about a patient gardener who would be none other than God, a gardener who doesn’t let the reality of evil overwhelm the possibilities of hope.
I think of June Silliman, a farmer in Toulon, Illinois. June was on the cutting edge of conservation agriculture, using strip farming for rotation of crops and no-till planting to reduce erosion and to add the nutrients of the previous crop to the benefit of the newly planted crop. I would walk with June in his fields and he would bend over and pick up a part of his beloved field. And then he would carefully explain to me the difference between dirt and soil. Dirt was something that a farmer used without much thought care or nurture. Soil was something the farmer got involved with and put his or her hands into. Dirt was ordinary. Soil was sacred.
Children’s television host Fred Rogers would remind us that when tragedy happens, we should look for the helpers- the doctors and nurses and first responders and Good Samaritans. That is where God is. That is how God works. We should point the helpers out to our children because it is those helpers who embody what is good and reassuring and right.
In the midst of tragedy, Jesus told this parable of the fig tree to people to dismiss their fear and cynicism and to embrace hope and compassion. In this parable he is telling us that when we feel most hopeless and fearful, God isn’t going to leave us barren and send us to the fires. God will come into our lifelessness, our fear, and our hopelessness with compassion and love. God will get dirty with us, amid the smelly stuff that life tosses at us and piles upon us. And God will work with us, tending the soil, creating new life, even in the midst of what appear to us as dead things.
In this season of Lent, we are to repent and seek a new vision for our lives and for our world. Perhaps in this season we are to hoe around our roots a bit, to give God some space to fertilize and water, to feed our hopes and not our pessimism. We are to look at things different, not with our same old assumptions, but with the reality God is a gardener who always wants to give us more time, all the while improving the soil in which we live.