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March 3, 2016, 8:30 AM


Luke 13:1-9, Common English Bible
Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans?  No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.  What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”
Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none.  He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’  The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer.  Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’”
What do we make of the suffering and tragedy in the world? How do we think about God’s activity in instances of tragedy and pain? What do we do with so many headlines? Five dead in Washington State. Three dead and fourteen wounded in Kansas. Six dead and two wounded in Michigan, and these all in just the past seven days. There were others that didn’t make the headlines. Syrian cities and villages in rubble; her people dead or fleeing. Anxious mothers in Brazil delivering babies with serious birth defects. Storm damage across the south. Citizens of South Sudan and Flint, Michigan without clean water. Would we attribute this suffering to divine punishment? Do we think these people in Kansas or Brazil or Sudan or Michigan are somehow worse offenders than all other people, and somehow deserve this punishment? As your pastor it is my hope and prayer that you would answer a resounding ‘no.’
But we have heard people say such things. We have heard televangelists blame disaster and tragedy on groups of people and certain behaviors. And if we are really honest and discerning, we must admit that once in a while such language slips into our thoughts, and sometimes through our lips. “What did he do to deserve such a thing?” “What did I do to deserve this?” There is this little seed of thought that somehow has made its way into our brains and it slips forward every once in a while to torment us. So perhaps we can understand the crowd gathered around Jesus in today’s reading from Luke as they bring up to Jesus a horrible tragedy in their city that is gnawing at them.
As is the case most anytime we read just a snippet of scripture, today’s reading has us stepping almost literally into the middle of a teaching and conversation. Jesus has turned his eyes and travels toward Jerusalem and it teaching, healing, and preaching on the way as the crowds swell around him. In this particular teaching that we have wandered into the middle of Jesus is confronting and challenging the crowd about how they think of God, and God’s activity in their lives and in the world. First he compliments them in their ability to interpret the signs in nature around them, to anticipate the weather. When the wind is blowing in from the desert, you know it is going to be a hot one. But if the wind shifts and blows down from the mountain, you know it is going to pull in moist and cooler air. The people are so good about noting and understanding the basics of the weather, why can’t they do so in interpreting God’s activity in their lives and in the world around them. “Think for yourselves!” Jesus implores, “Use your head! Make up your own mind! Don’t just swallow everything the religious leaders have taught you.”
It is at this moment in the teaching that we walk in. Jesus has issued the challenge, so the crowd brings up one of those popular teachings they had just swallowed in the past—when bad things happen to people, it is punishment for their sins, the things they have done wrong, divine retribution. But this recent tragedy is gnawing at them. Pilate ordered the slaughter of a group of Jewish Galileans while they were at worship. At worship! This doesn’t seem to sit well with that popular teaching. How could they deserve punishment while at worship? So, Jesus meets them where they are. “Do you really believe that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans traveling to Jerusalem for worship? No! It doesn’t work that way! And what about that tragedy the other day where the tower of Siloam collapsed and killed 18 people? Do you honestly believe those people were worse sinners than everyone else in the city? No! It doesn’t work that way.” And then, if you are reading the most common translations of New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) or New International Version (NIV), Jesus seems to say a strange thing, “But I say to you REPENT! or you will perish!”
What? Doesn’t that seem to contradict what Jesus was just saying? Repent or perish! The problem comes with the word ‘repent,’ and the meanings that have been placed upon it over the years. Repent is another capital letter word, as Wilderness on Lent 1 was a capital “W,” and Covenant last week was a capital “C.” Repent this week is with a capital “R.” For those of us who have experienced fiery evangelical preaching, when we hear that word, ‘repent,’ we have visions of fire and brimstone preachers holding their bible high, clutched tightly in their hand, shouting, “Repent….or you will burn!” We have images of tearful confessions, kneeling before the altar, giving our lives to Jesus, and engaging in acts of penance. For those of us who haven’t encountered such images, the word ‘repent’ means acknowledging something you have done wrong, saying you are sorry, and making some amends; seeing the error of our ways and turning over a new leaf. However, this is barely scratching the surface of the meaning of the word used in scripture.
The word in Greek is “metanoia.” Some commentaries also try to give this word a simple definition, “turn and go in an new direction.” This is too simple, it just walks us up to the edge of the definition so we can peer in. It falls short of the truly transformative nature of this word, metanoia. Metanoia means to completely change; heart, mind, body and soul. It means to change your perspective, your heart, your mind, your life. And when that call to repentance comes for scripture, and especially from Jesus, it is a call to shift your entire orientation so that you are in line with God. That is why I chose the Common English Bible translation above—it is more nuanced than the NRSV or NIV. Here this scripture again.
“Jesus, what about the Galileans who were slaughtered by Pilate while they were at worship? That they were bad people?” the crowd asks. “Do you truly believe that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans journeying to Jerusalem on pilgrimage? That they were bad people? No! It doesn’t work that way! Change your perspective, your hearts, your minds, align yourself with God or you will be lost! And what about those people killed, 18 of them, when the tower in Siloam collapsed? Do you honestly think those people were worse sinners than everyone else in the city? No! It doesn’t work that way! Change your perspective, your hearts, your minds, align yourself with God and see how God is really working in the world, or you will be lost!”
“Let me tell you a story: There was this person who had a fig tree planted in their vineyard. I don’t know why it was planted in the vineyard, you would think it would interfere with the ripening of the grapes, but never mind that. This person goes out to the tree at harvest time to collect the figs and finds nothing, not one fig. The tree has not completed its purpose and produced fruit. So the tree owner calls over the gardener. ‘Look, for three years I have been coming to this tree at harvest time and every year, nothing! This is a bad tree! Cut it down! We can’t be wasting the soil’s nutrients that way!’ But the gardener responded, ‘Let’s wait a minute. Let’s look at this from a different perspective. Maybe the tree doesn’t have everything it needs to produce fruit. Give me another year. Let me nurture this tree. Let me aerate the soil to release more nutrients. Let me pack in some fertilizer to give it a boost. If I do these things, perhaps the tree will be able to fulfill its purpose, to bear fruit.’”
Repent—changing perspective, aligning ourselves with God. Galileans were lost in a horrendous act of violence. Eighteen people were crushed under a falling tower. If we take these facts and hold them alongside Jesus’ story we begin to see where God IS involved in the world—the gardener. God surrounds these tragedies with comfort and care, offering healing for bereft families, love for hurting communities. And the call of this story is for us to do the same, to embrace the call to follow Jesus, to model our lives after his, and take up the mantel of gardener. We become a people that are not about punishment, but are about nurture. Not about retribution, but about restoration. Not about vengeance, but about love—tough love sometimes (as Jesus today in our reading) but always about love.
The call to repent becomes now for us a call to shift our orientation to be aligned with God, to change our perspective, our hearts, our minds, our lives. It is a call to see the world and God’s activity in it in new ways. It is a call to be gardeners in the fields of the world where tragedy and suffering strike.
Let us Repent! …and trust in God’s good news. Amen. 

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