March 20: The Third Sunday in Lent

The sermon for Sunday, March 20, 2022, was delivered by Michael Rader as a response to Luke 13.1-9. Michael is a lay preacher at St. Hilda St. Patrick and is heavily involved in mission and outreach to unhoused populations.

Bless the Words of my mouth, O Lord – and may we have ears to hear them.

It hasn’t been all that long ago, back in the Spring of 2015, that nine men and women in a Bible study in Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C. were gunned down by an assassin.  While deep in prayer and study with their brothers and sisters.  Gathered in God’s holy house.

Then two years later, in October of 2017, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, eleven worshippers at their Shabbat morning service were slaughtered by gunfire – including several Holocaust survivors.  While surrounding themselves in God’s holy, loving presence.  In their safe, sacred space.

I remember being very troubled by both of these brutal assaults on people of faith.  People who had gathered in God’s name to praise and bless the Lord for His gifts and mercies. These attacks led to many troubled conversations within congregations throughout our nation – and, in the end, with little changing in how we do worship.

In our daily news this past week we heard of atrocities being inflicted on innocent children and their parents in Ukraine.  Reports of three deaths in a Maternity and Children’s hospital from Russian artillery. A Maternity and Children’s hospital. Sacred lives gone in seconds.

Let’s hold onto these stories for a moment…

So, in the Gospel text from Luke this morning, what we just heard sounds so very much like some of those news stories from today.

The Jews were quite frightened and unnerved by recent news being spread on the streets of the violence and disasters in their small world of ancient Palestine, in the city of Jerusalem.

Pontius Pilate, the Roman Emperor’s puppet, had sent his soldiers into the holy Temple in Jerusalem to brutally butcher a number of Galilean pilgrims as they were making their sacrifices – simply to make an example of his disdain for the non-Roman citizens – and to instill fear in the hearts of their families and friends.  The comingling of their spilled blood with that of the sacrificial offerings defiled the sacred sanctuary of God’s Temple…

This sacrilege was then followed by the sudden, unexplained collapse of the Tower of Silóam, crushing eighteen Galileans to death.  Had that been an accidental event? Poor workmanship? Or, had the tower been intentionally demolished?

Some of the followers of Jesus were anxiously awaiting His words of wisdom, but they didn’t like what He had to share.  He didn’t offer them any sympathy or compassion for the loss of those lives.  His audience wanted to know why he thought these two events had happened, and if they needed to be worried for their own safety.  What precautions should they take?

They wanted to hear if somehow, maybe, those who had died had been evil, and had thereby incurred the wrath of God.  That God had smitten them for their atrocities.  They were seeking assurances from Jesus that they themselves might, by taking some actions, be able to avoid similar, horrific punishments.

They wanted some comfort that those Galileans had suffered their violent deaths simply because of their sins, and not just because of random circumstances.

In Luke’s telling of the story, Jesus did not satisfy their urgent concerns. He seemed to brush them off as irrelevant.  It felt as though He had zero empathy for their distress.

Instead, Jesus simply said, “no”.

But then he used the moment to begin to teach them that life is unpredictable. It can be long; it can be brief. Life can take many strange turns, and how we live it can involve innumerable chance happenings which we cannot possibly foresee.

Let’s face facts.  We will all die at some point, and we are given zero clues as to how, when or where.  The important thing is how we make our journeys, and how we treat others along the way.

Our physical bodies will eventually fail all of us.  Guaranteed.  No exceptions.  Only our souls will continue on, and the extent to which we repent of the harm we do to others during our worldly sojourn will determine what our next life might look like.

Our earthly lives are in fact fragile, despite our best efforts.  And only by God’s graces do we escape traumas – for the most part.  If we are so blessed.

Most recently we have been receiving almost hourly updates on how our brothers and sisters in Ukraine have been faring, surviving, protecting one another despite all odds. Deaths have been coming unexpectedly and swiftly – particularly to those most undeserving of it – mothers and children.

The point is that we truly have very little control of when or how we will depart this worldly life.

But we do have the ability to control the destiny of our souls, with prayer and compassion for our sisters and brothers.

In the second part of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus told his followers a parable. A story about a fig tree.  A fig tree whose fate was in question.

It had failed to produce figs so far – but that is how a fig tree’s life goes.  It has to reach maturity for it to become able to produce its fruit.  And reaching that maturity takes time, it takes ample water.  And it takes a generous amount of fertilizer.  Manure if you will.

It doesn’t survive all by itself.  It needs a gardener.  A mentor.  Someone who understands its needs. Someone who is patient and caring, and willing to provide personal attention.

The owner of the fig tree had grown weary of waiting for it to produce.  Three years felt to the owner like far sufficient time to reap his rewards.  A total waste of good soil and the gardener’s wages.  Time to hack it down to the ground and start over.  Call it a lost effort.  Plant something else.

That gardener however had been doing his work diligently for those three long years.  He knew the fig tree well.

Think about Jesus.

For three years he had led his ragtag group of disciples about Galilee, Nazareth, Capernaum.  And yet, they still weren’t understanding half of what He had been trying to massage into their jaded hearts and thick heads during all that time.

Jesus may well have felt like the owner of that fig tree. Or perhaps, instead as the gardener.  He was feeling that with just a little bit more care and feeding, that little fig tree might well finally yield the fruit it was destined to deliver.

Are you a fig tree?

Are you perhaps a gardener?

Or are you the owner who is in a hurry to get to the final destination rather than experience the journey and spiritual growth along the way?

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