|Sermon by: The Rev. Rebecca Tankersley
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
March 24, 2019
Third Sunday in Lent
Unless You Repent
“Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
From last September through last month, a group of 40 people met in the Youth Center every Tuesday evening for a journey we call “The Way.” Of these, 6 are now enrolled as catechumens to be baptized this Easter (and we are holding them in prayer this Lent as they complete their preparation). Others will be confirmed or will renew their confirmation vows on Pentecost. Still others have served as Companions – sharing, supporting, and reflecting theologically with our Wayfarers.
This has been my first experience with the Way, so I can’t say how it’s gone in the past. I can say this group kept me on my toes, eagerly raising questions which cut to the roots of our faith, week after week. One question, in particular, challenged us repeatedly: the question of theodicy. Why do bad things happen to seemingly innocent, good people?
We are not the only ones who struggle with this question. In our gospel passage today, a group comes to Jesus with news that Pilate has mingled the blood of Galileans with the blood of their in the Temple. We don’t have an historical account of such an event, but the story is consistent with other accounts of Pilate’s incredible cruelty to Jews. This group informs Jesus of Pilate’s actions without explicitly raising the question of theodicy, but Jesus knows they come from a tradition in which pain, suffering, and premature death were understood to be signs of God’s “adverse judgment” against the sufferer. It’s an all-too-common theological move: refusing to acknowledge that bad things happen to good people, we presume that if bad things have happened, the people must’ve done bad things. The impetus behind, and one of the great dangers of, this thinking is simple: if there’s a hierarchy of sin and if punishment is dealt out accordingly, then we who are not suffering can believe ourselves safe and holier than those suffering around us. In the face of a terrible human tragedy and in response to such dangerous theology, Jesus speaks “directly, emphatically, and bluntly.”
“Do you think because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you.” Then he uses another example – 18 who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell. “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.”
God doesn’t rank sin. Suffering and death are not markers of the magnitude of one’s sin. Bishop Curry, reflecting on this theology of suffering as punishment for sin, has said: “Frankly, if God [were] in the business of meting out judgment … in relation to our sins, there [wouldn’t] be anyone left on the planet,” because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Turning the group from reflecting on the sins of those who’ve suffered around them, Jesus calls the crowd to consider their own sin. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Harsh words, right? If we breeze through this reading without reflection, we can come away with the notion that Jesus is threatening us with death by torture or disaster – that we’re all sinners in the hands of the angry God we’ve heard so much about. But don’t forget, this is precisely the theology he’s working against with this crowd.
Just as all have sinned, all will die. That’s not the threat here – that’s a fact of God’s creation. Our bodies die and this life as we know it comes to an end. Jesus’ warning is not that the unrepentant will perish, but that they will perish “just as they did.” To understand what he’s teaching, then, we must examine how those in the passage died. How did they die? Well, all were unprepared.
In the Great Litany, which we prayed on the first Sunday of Lent, we prayed for God’s activity in all areas of our lives. One of those petitions is relevant here. We asked,
From all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.
To die is human. We were reminded of this truth at the outset of this season of Lent through the imposition of ashes with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Occasionally, humans die suddenly – which is tragic. But to die suddenly and unprepared – to meet our maker, to withstand an evaluation of lives – this would be terrible tragedy. This is what Jesus wants to prevent in the lives of this crowd. This is why he warns, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
“Unless you repent…” This little conditional phrase is so important, for it opens up possibility of a different outcome. That we will perish suddenly and unexpectedly like those who died at the hands of Pilate or in the fall of the tower is not a foregone conclusion. “Repent,” Jesus pleads. In Hebrew, the word is shuve and calls us to turn (180 degrees) from former beliefs and actions and toward God’s kingdom as revealed in Jesus. In Greek, the word is metanoia and calls us to a reorientation of heart and mind toward Christ. This is why Jesus offers the parable of the Fig Tree in response to the crowd’s report of terrible tragedy.
Throughout Scripture, God’s people have been likened to vineyards planted and tended by the Lord but which fail to bear fruit and so draw God’s judgment. Jesus is working with these images, but he supplements them with images of fig trees, which are signs of God’s blessing.
Here, an absentee landowner annually has come to inspect his property. He’s watched one fig tree – not unlike a certain lime tree on my back porch – for three years, more than enough time for the tree to begin to bear fruit. This one’s yielded nothing. “Cut it down! Why should it … waste soil?” Suddenly and unpreparedly, the tree is about to die. The metaphor begins to take shape. The tree isn’t a tree at all: it’s us, and the owner … is God.
Ah, but there’s a gardener who perceives the tree needs special care to be productive and so pleads with the owner for one more year – just a year. The gardener agrees that soil is too valuable to be given over to unproductive trees. He doesn’t argue the tree is beautiful and should be allowed to grow independent of its fruitfulness. Rather, he desires the tree to have every opportunity to produce before so final a decision is made. Just as Abraham once prevailed with God for the protection of ten righteous residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, the gardener prevails with the owner for one year.
“Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Just one more year … the parable supports the urgency of Jesus’ call to repent and also reveals God’s judgment is tempered by mercy. The tree cannot merely choose now to begin producing figs any more than we can accomplish our own salvation. The gardener’s role will be critical: he’ll provide constant care, aerating the soil, perhaps pruning unhelpful branches, and spreading manure around the base. We might say he’ll “till it and keep it.”
If we understand that we’re the fig tree and God the owner, who’s the gardener? We had a joke in seminary that whenever we didn’t know an answer, Jesus was a good guess. That would be a great guess here as well. Locking into this metaphor, I read in one article this week that “The manure around our roots is the very blood of the one who pleads for our justification before God.”
Our future is in God’s hands and dependent upon the tender care of the gardener of our souls. The message today is that we share in the work of unfolding our future when we heed Jesus’ call to repent. Our work is to take stock of the ways in which we have failed to bear fruit, to examine our habits of consumption which rob precious resources from those who would bear fruit, and to take a complete and honest inventory of the ways in which our brokenness leads us to harm our families, friends, and communities. My work this Lent is come face-to-face with how I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and to invite Jesus, the gardener of my soul, to prune, aerate, fertilize, and bring fruitfulness from my life.
“From dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.” And all God’s people said,
 Michael Curry, “Third Sunday in Lent, Homiletical Perspective”, Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide.
 See, e.g., Isaiah 5:1-7.
 See, e.g., Micah 4:4 and Joel 2:22.
 See Genesis 18 for the Abraham story.
 Genesis 2:15.
 Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, “Third Sunday in Lent, Homiletical Perspective”, Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide.