Unless you also repent

28 February 2016
Third Sunday in Lent
Lent 3C (RCL)
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

In the RCL, we read the great stories of God’s redemption of God’s people in the Old Testament in course (sort of). Last week, we heard of the covenant which God made with Abram, so that Abram might know his progeny would inherit the land. Now, we skip over the whole story of Joseph, and find Moses exiled from Egypt, keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro in the wilderness. He encounters the burning bush that is not consumed, and receives his vocation from God.

An interesting thing about flames: we recognize a single flame, as of a candle, and we notice its persistence and identity — the same flame continues on the same wick until we blow it out. Yet, the flame is constantly being renewed. The heat of burning melts the wax, which wicks up the wick, and by the heat of combustion is transformed into plasma. The electrons falling through the energy states of the molecules in the plasma emit light and heat, and the spent gases exit the plasma into the atmosphere around the flame. The flame, though never for long made of the same “stuff”, perdures.

In the bush, God transforms one kind of earthly stuff into the stuff of divine revelation, and unlike with a normal flame, the earthly stuff is never spent. Moses turns aside to see this sight; he trains his vision on this transformation. The orthodox might say he trains his vision to see the divine energy coursing through the bush. And from the bush, God calls, “Moses, Moses.” Mose responds, “Here I am.” After God has told Moses that God has heard the cry of the people, and that God is sending Moses to the people, Moses asks how he should answer so that the people know he has been sent by God. God answers, “Tell them I AM has sent you.” The phrase I AM is almost identical to the phrase “Here I am.” We learn to see the divine energies by training ourselves to be present, to respond, “Here I am.” The world is then alight with the presence of God.

The Gospel reading for this week seems a bit disjointed. The first half deals with a theology of sin and punishment, while the second is a homey parable about gardening. Why does Luke stick these two together?

Some present tell Jesus about some Galileans whom Pilate evidently had killed at a Temple festival. Presumably, they were looking for Jesus to condemn them for some reason; to be reassured that people who suffer bring their suffering upon themselves by their own sin. It would be very easy to see if these particular Galileans had protested the Roman occupation of Jerusalem while they were at the festival. Their deaths would then be a good object lesson — this is what happens to protesters.

Jesus will not allow us the comfort of thinking they brought their own deaths upon themselves. “Do you think they were worse sinners than any other Galileans. No, but I tell you (all) unless you (all) repent, you (all) will likewise perish.” And then he turns to an example where fault would be harder to find; people killed in a construction accident. These were clearly not protesting, but just working. But, unless you repent, you will likewise perish.

We seem to be hard-wired to try to find a cause for someone else’s suffering. It means that we must not be so bad, since we didn’t suffer, since our house wasn’t hit by the tornado, since our city hasn’t had race riots. Jesus won’t give us that comfort. Before you point the finger, he says, look to yourselves. What are your sins?

And then Luke connects this with the parable of the fig tree. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus curses a fig tree on his way into Jerusalem because it bears no fruit. Once in Jerusalem, he “cleanses” the Temple and tells the story of the vineyard and its keepers. On his way back out of Jerusalem, his disciples see the fig tree, now withered. He tells them that if they have faith the size of a mustard seed, they would be able to tell this mountain (the Temple Mount) to be cast into the see and it would obey. For Mark, this act is clearly an indictment of Israel, reminding us of Isaiah 5, the song of God and God’s vineyard. Matthew moves the episode of the fig tree to a point earlier in his Gospel and away from the entry into Jerusalem to soften its effect.

Luke removes the episode of the fig tree altogether and replaces it with this parable. The remedy for failure to produce justice is not to chop the tree down, but dig manure around it. Digging the manure is hard and patient work. So is repentance. After we have discovered the places where we have been unfruitful, we must do the slow work of repentance (digging in the manure), so that we might become fruitful.

Producing fruit is not too far different from the burning bush. Sunshine, water, dirt and carbon dioxide are converted into recognizable fruits, which in turn can be converted into energy in our bodies (and back to manure). Our faults are not to be indictments against us, but opportunities for change. And if we point the finger, instead of making the changes required, we will likewise perish.

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