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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Urgency of Our Repentance - 02/28/2016

There certainly is an overall theme of repentance and a sense of urgency in this story and parable we have from the gospel of Luke today. It's interesting and necessary, I think, to follow repentance and urgency through the story and see what it reveals to us. Interesting because in this season of Lent, it's good for us to take time and think a little more deeply about what it means to repent. Necessary because parables aren't always what they seem.

Remember that Jesus used parables as a way of publicly teaching people about who God is and what God desires for this world in a place where simply looking at a Roman soldier the wrong way could get you killed, let alone talking openly about the Kingdom of God being more powerful than empire.

So Jesus offers these parables, often, wrapped up in things that don't seem quite right, so we dig a little more and hopefully find the deeper message within. It's a lot like geode hunting – when you find one it doesn't look like much from the outside, but once you crack it open you find a whole other reality inside.

So this sense of urgency in our text today starts with the people who have come to Jesus upset and probably terrified by what has happened to a group of Galileans at the temple while they were worshiping. Herod has killed them in a place where they expected there to be some inherent safety – some sense of respect and awe for a higher power that sets that space and that activity apart from the world … off limits to political power plays and guerrilla warfare tactics.

Unfortunately, we can easily imagine the way this incident has rippled through the hearts and minds of the people who come to Jesus with this urgent and distressing news.

We see that evidence in the reactions we all had when we heard about the murder of the people who gathered for prayer group at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, S.C., last summer, or our reactions to shootings at schools in Columbine, CO, and Newton, CT, and too many other places, or our reactions to this week's mass shooting in a workplace at Hesston, KS. It was number 33 of 34 mass shootings in 2016 already.

Jesus intuitively knows what the people are asking – How can this be? It's the question in their eyes. It's the burning question underneath nouns and verbs and adjectives they are using to tell Jesus about what happened.

How can God let something so horrific take place?

Now I don't know if you've noticed this much about Jesus, but he rarely gives a straightforward “yes” or “no” answer to a question. He likes to dwell more in the realm of “well there's this answer, but also … there this and this and all these answers too.”

But, here, Jesus just gives a flat out answer to the question he seems to instinctively perceive. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you.” (vs 2)

“No.” Besides a resounding “Yes!”, it's as flat out and plain an answer as he can give. “No. That is not how God rolls.”

And he pushes that flat out answer to cover other places were the people, and where we, may wonder, “How can this life-giving, steadfast loving God you are telling us about let this happen?”

Jesus asks them: How about those eighteen people who were killed at that construction site in Jerusalem, when the tower of Siloam fell on them? “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (v. 4) “No,” he says

Here also we can relate to the people in our story because we all certainly endure tragedy, setbacks and difficult times in our lives … accidents, abuse, heartbreak, illness, loss of all varieties. It's the stuff that can make us wonder where God is in the midst of it all and how our gracious creator could just sit by and let this happen. But Jesus says “No” and since he is rarely this definitive, I think we should take him at he word. 

With a this definitive “No” Jesus tries to dispel this sense of urgency and confusion the people have brought into this encounter, but he doesn't dismiss the urgency. He redirects it into our need for repentance. 

“No,” he says … But …. “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (v 3 and 5).

In following this sense of urgency through our gospel reading today we then come to the next question – why does Jesus present our need to repent with such urgency. And what exactly does he mean that we will perish as those Galileans or construction workers did?

And that's when Jesus gives us this parable of a fig tree that has not bore any fruit yet. There is urgency here too. The owner of the vineyard would like to cut his losses and put his resources into something that shows him some tangible signs of bearing fruit, but the vineyard worker knows these things take time and argues for another year of tending the tree before making that rash decision. There is a sense of urgency in saving the fig tree in that moment, but even when the vineyard worker successfully wins the fig tree another chance, the sense of urgency remains. A year is not long and that's all the time the fig tree has been given to turn things around and begin giving the owner the fruits he clearly wants.

Because of the nature of parables, we automatically want to assign our own familiars to the actors of the story. In the case of this parable, our minds may automatically fill in those characters as follows. We, the ones who need this repentance so urgently, are the fig trees who have not yet started bearing fruit. We're in need of a Savior – the vineyard worker – who will spare our lives from that which has power over us in this story – the vineyard owner.

So we may think of Jesus as the vineyard worker, defending us, caring for us and doing all he can to help the us be healthy enough to begin bearing fruit.

So then who is this owner? Is it God? I think a lot of the time we automatically go there and if Jesus had answered the other questions “yes” – “Yes, those Galileans were murdered in their place of worship and learning,” and “yes, those construction workers were crushed because they were worse sinners than others” – that might make sense. But Jesus said “No,” so this characterization of a God who would bargain with Jesus for the life of God's people just doesn't fit. It doesn't agree with depictions of God's love and care in other parables in Luke either – for instance, God as a shepherd who won't lose track of even one sheep … or God as a woman who turns a house upside down and inside out looking for one coin.

So what if we looked at this parable in a different way?

We remain the fig trees that are not bearing fruit. But what if we understand the vineyard worker to be Jesus and therefore, because we profess Jesus to be God, the worker is also God. And the year Jesus wins for us fig trees is actually our lifetime. The owner, the one who is so concerned with the time it is taking for us to bear fruit, so anxious for the return on his investment, is actually the world … earthly powers that spend a lot of effort telling how we should be productive and in what time frames and to what ends.

Looking at the parable in that way I think opens up some key insights into what Jesus is trying to tell us here.

First, he again shows that God's way is not to be standing there impatiently tapping a foot on the ground and quick finger on a watch face while we struggle to get ourselves together and bear fruit.

Another thing we learn is that God, through Jesus and the activity of the Holy Spirit, will do everything we can imagine and especially everything we cannot imagine to turn us into the way of God. Today this activity is centered on our need to repent.

In living a life that is centered on repentance, we prune away that which does not serve us well – ideas we've outgrown, habits that aren’t life-giving, relationships that are toxic and pull us away from life as God intends it. And we nurture that which helps us grow into the beautiful ways God created us – we fertilize ideas that lead us and others to love God and serve neighbor. We grow habits that honor and strengthen God's creation – from the individual bodies we inhabit to the planet God has asked us to steward. We share our fruits with like-minded people who live in the freedom of God's law and the Good News of Jesus Christ and with those who have not yet heard the story.

This parable also informs us as we make our way to the cross this Lenten season. God coming to us as Jesus to prune us and nurture us is a glimpse of what is coming through that cross. God knows that our experience in this life is peppered with tragedy, abandonment, doubt, hurt, loss – and God does not sit by and let the world have its way with us with no response.

That response for us is Jesus, the one who in a few weeks shows us once again that in his death and resurrection, the wounds we experience and even our deaths are not the final word. The final word is God's word and that word speaks life eternal and the love of God to us. That word greets us in the bread and wine of our communion today. That word overpowers the forces of evil that trample our hearts and sometimes our lives.

That word is behind the urgency of our repentance too – urgent because it is through this repentance that we do not perish as the Galileans and construction workers did because we do not have to remain captured in the shackles of sin – those we commit and those committed against us. Instead we are freed to repent and forgive and live, freed to be and bear the fruit God envisioned in each of us when we were marvelously created. Freed to the way that has been made possible, the way already won by our Redeemer, the vineyard worker, Jesus Christ.


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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