We enter today’s text with mention of two disasters, one was some kind of state sanctioned violence by Pontius Pilate against a group of Galileans resulting in many deaths and the other was a natural disaster where a tower in Jerusalem toppled over and killed several people. We can certainly relate to these kinds of events when we look at what goes on in our world today and what we are familiar with from history books. There are still governments in the world today who don’t value their citizens, who see their citizens as disposable. And natural disasters, my goodness, it seems like every season brings its fury. Blizzards that kill livestock and leave people stranded; flooding that whisks towns downstream; fires that show no mercy; earthquakes, tornados, avalanches, and hurricanes.
The crowd questioning Jesus referred to the acts of Pilate against the Galileans, the ones outside Jerusalem, different from the Jews, yet followers of Jesus. It seems they are wondering if the God that Jesus spoke of had something to do with the tragedy. But how does Jesus respond? He dismisses their earthly concerns about who gets struck down and by whom they may be struck down and Jesus focuses on eternal matters. Were the sins of those that got struck down any more vial than the sins of other Galileans? Ones that didn’t get struck down?
And Jesus quickly alludes to the tragedy of the tower collapsing in Jerusalem, striking down Jews within the city, and asks the same of them. Were they worse offenders than other Jews? These types of tragedies happen to all different kinds of people, whether they were in the Holy city or outside, whether they were Jew or Greek, whether they wore sandals or went barefoot.
We do this as humans. When we notice our differences, we instinctively want to classify them as better or worse, good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. We want to know where we stand on these human scales. And not only that, but we use them to gauge our own lovability or worthiness or longevity. As long as I stay on the better more acceptable side of the scale from those other people, then I’m safe. I’m in. I’m good to go. I’m lovable. I’m worthy.
When we lived in northern Nevada it seemed the gap between those who went to church and those who would never set foot in a church building was deeper than other places. We had close friends on both sides of this gap. People we still consider dear friends. I did my internship for seminary at the local Methodist church so the whole congregation knew us pretty well and certainly knew the path I was on in ministry. One Sunday afternoon I went to drop something off at the home of a non-church-goer friend, we’ll call him Sam. He was outside the garage with friends drinking beer. I got out of my car and handed him the item, something Dean had borrowed, I think, and we were standing there visiting. All of a sudden from across the street a lady from church is making a bee-line for us. She was their neighbor. She walked right up to me, touched my arm, looked intently right into my face, never acknowledging Sam’s presence, and said, “Tara, why are you hanging out with these sinners?”
I couldn’t believe it. She said the quiet part out loud in front of all of Sam’s friends and neighbors, his wife, his grandson. It was one of those moments when time stood still. No one made a sound. No one took a swig of beer. No one pedaled their bike. No cars drove by. I had no idea what to say. She was still staring at me waiting for an answer. I looked at Sam and his eyebrows were raised, death grip on his beer bottle, and starting to steam from his ears. I imagine he had a lot to say but was restraining simply because I was there. So I turned back and said to her in a very calm voice, “Well, we’re all sinners so I guess I’m in good company here.”
In her defense, she wanted to protect me from crossing some imaginary line that would associate me with “those” kind of people that perhaps might get struck down by God. Well meaning for sure. She had seen in her many years of living there how easily people get sucked into that black hole of addiction and giving up God for money and lust among other things.
The gap was really, really deep on that street right then and she disappeared into her house as quickly as she had appeared. I looked back at Sam, who was still steaming, and asked him if that really just happened? The truth is it happens quite often, right here inside of us. We compare our life and our own sin to that of others to see if we’re good to go. Well, if they’re still standing and they do worse things than me then I’m in the clear, right? Or how about when we get called out about something we’ve done, and our instinct is to throw the next guy under the bus. “If you think what I did was bad, did you see what so and so did? I’m not that bad.” Siblings tend to be particularly good at this. In order to lessen the burden of my own sin I use someone else’s sin as a stepping stone to raise me up a bit. Just enough to be on the right side of that imaginary line.
Jesus reminds us, however, that there is no imaginary line, not even the threshold to this sanctuary, not even the walls of Jerusalem, the Holy city. There’s no imaginary line that designates some level of goodness where sin is no longer sin in order to insulate us from all pain and suffering. Jesus points out that the path away from the burden of our sin is a repentant heart. When I become aware of my sins, whatever they may be, can I acknowledge my wrong doing? Ask for forgiveness? Pray for guidance to navigate life without needing that sin? Can I accept love and grace and mercy despite my sin? Are we more likely to justify our sin or make excuses for our sin or compare our sin to others than repent? They all require time and energy yet God only asks for one of them, not as a means to prevent catastrophe, disaster, or tragedy in our life. Changing our hearts and our minds around sin prepares us for this unpredictable journey.
It may seem like a dauntingly impossible task. The thought of acknowledging our own sin might increase anxiety, cause you to raise your eyebrows, clench your fists, and blow steam out your ears, or…..hustle back inside your house in disappointment. We’re all sinners. We’re in good company here.
Jesus also reminds us that we are not alone in our repentant journey. Like the barren fig tree, threatened with being cut down, we too have a vinedresser that intercedes on our behalf. Jesus. Only through Jesus are we saved from the destruction we may deserve. God’s justice and human justice are not equivalent concepts. Our lovability and our worthiness are not determined by our sin or lack of sin. We are loved and adored and worthy because of whose we are.
In the book Rediscovering Church, author Jonathan Leeman reminds us that “churches don’t make people Christians...churches are embassies of heaven.” If you are lost, alone, or in trouble in a foreign country you can go to the US Embassy and find refuge and safety and help. Churches, the Church, exists as a refuge for the lonely, safety for the lost and help for those in trouble. The church is a community that gathers to be strengthened by God’s Word, to encourage each other in faith, and be loving and welcoming towards one another no matter where each person is in their own journey.
The vinedresser does more than intercede in this text. Jesus says he will dig around the fig tree and put on fertilizer. He’ll remove the soil that is not providing nutrients and can no longer retain water to sustain the fig tree let alone contribute to bearing fruit. He’ll then cover the roots with rich, dark, spongy soil full of life and minerals and essential nutrients. As an embassy, the church offers this cleansing and renewal through baptism and remembrance of the one who intercedes on our behalf through communion.
As a community, in here as well as our larger communities out there, we tend to our hearts and our neighbors hearts like the vinedresser tends to the fig tree. Our repentance makes room for love and nourishment in our heart where worry and fear once lingered. A gentle reminder, an invite, sharing a meal, a kind word, a helping hand are nourishment to our neighbors. And we don’t know how God will work through our tending and nurturing. Sam no longer drinks. I have no idea if that moment in his driveway had any impact on that decision. I only know that in that moment there’s no way I could have abandoned him or his family and friends who witnessed it. I couldn’t let someone chop down his fig tree regardless of the fruit it produced...or perhaps the fruit that was most visible, the low hanging fruit, the easy stuff to pick on.
There are many things in this world that we have no control over. Jesus continually, over and over, focuses our attention on what we can control, on what we can change, and it’s not someone else. It’s our own hearts and our own minds. By tending to the soil surrounding my own heart I’m a bit more patient, I use more loving words when I discipline, I pray more and judge less, and I’m truly humbled by the work of the real Vinedresser, Jesus, who makes all good fruit possible.
99.9% of our dna as humans is identical. It only takes that 0.1% to create all of the uniqueness and differences that we see. We are more alike than we sometimes care to admit but we’re in good company.
Let’s pray together:
Gracious God, thank you for bringing us together, for encouraging us in our faith, and for placing good fruit in our hearts that will nourish us and our neighbors. Help us to focus on what we can change and leave our worries and fears at the foot of the cross. Amen.