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Third Sunday of Lent (C)

Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15
Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12
1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12
Luke 13:1-9


         So, are you feeling a little uncomfortable when you hear today’s gospel?  I sure am!   I prefer  “Comforter Jesus, “Peace Jesus,” “Good Shepherd Jesus,” “Jesus loves me Jesus.”  UNLESS YOU REPENT, YOU WILL ALL PERISH JUST AS THEY DID! is not the Jesus I like to think about.  Jesus is making us uncomfortable. 

         And today, in the midst of Lent, we are face-to-face with Jesus the Discomforter.  After all, isn’t Lent about self-examination, penitence, and a reminder that we are not alone in this world. Others travel with us, people we love and care for, people we don’t really like much, people we fear, people we pity, people who hurt us.  We are all on this path together. 

             And where am I in this scripture?  Am I one of the followers who is rushing to tell Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate has killed while they were worshipping?  Am I trying to figure out why, looking to Jesus to make some sense of these tragedies?  Am I one of the ones trying to figure out if there is something about me and my loved ones who “deserve” to not be a victim of such tragedies?   Am I one of the ones who lost someone I loved at the Temple or when the tower of Siloam fell?   

            Maybe I am. . . but listen again to Jesus’ response.  UNLESS YOU REPENT, YOU WILL ALL PERISH JUST AS THEY DID!  He says it twice, so it must be important.  Are you feeling uneasy again?  I am.  That’s not the response I want, but maybe, just maybe it’s the response I need to hear.

            One of my favorite movies (and perhaps many of yours as well) is To Kill A Mockingbird.  It is also an excellent book.  And if you’re not familiar with it, I highly recommend it.  There are so many wonderful lessons we learn from this movie.  The story is told through the eyes of a young girl, Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout.  It is set in a small town in the South in the 1930s.  Scout lives with her older brother, Jem, and her widowed father and attorney, Atticus Finch.  Atticus Finch is surely one of the great fictional heroes of all time.  But let’s think for a moment about the character Tom Robinson.  Remember that Tom Robinson is the Black man who is wrongly accused of attacking a young white woman when he was actually trying to be kind and helpful.  Atticus agrees to defend Tom Robinson against these charges even when he knows that his chances of winning are slim.  In one particular scene, the Sheriff comes to the Finch home to warn Atticus that a mob is headed to the jail to break out Tom Robinson and, presumably, to lynch him.  Can we even imagine how frightened Tom is?  He has a wife and children at home.  He has done nothing wrong.  Now, he is accused of this terrible act.  He knows the reality of his situation.  Atticus knows the reality of Tom’s situation.  The Sheriff knows the reality of Tom’s situation.  It does not matter how Tom has lived his life or how kind he is, he cannot escape the world he lives in.  In this particular scene in the movie, we see Atticus sitting on the front steps of the jail. He is sitting in a chair with a lamp, reading a book.  He is sitting with Tom through the night.  They both know that Atticus will not be able to defend Tom, or even himself, against a mob, but he sits there nonetheless.  As the mob arrives and threatens to take Tom, three children appear—Scout, her brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill.  Although Atticus orders them to go home, they refuse.  We can see the fear in this father’s eyes.  We can relate to that fear—someone we love is in danger—we are afraid for their lives.  What diffuses the situation, however, is Scout’s innocence in calling some of the men by name.  She names their children who are her friends at school.   For a brief moment, this becomes the great equalizer.  Scout helps them to see that they are no different than she and her father.  I think Tom must feel some comfort that this prominent white man is willing to sit outside his cell all night.  And maybe he feels relief when he realizes that Scout is calming the crowd and they are leaving.  But he still knows that Scout’s words do not change the way the mob sees him.  He has done nothing wrong, yet there is little hope that they will see him as equal in God’s creation.

            Isn’t this like the people in Luke’s gospel today?  They are well aware of the times they live in.  They know that they are in danger—Jews living in a Roman-occupied world.  It does not matter if the Galileans who are killed are innocent, or perhaps even worshipping at the Temple.  Jesus corrects our notions that they were somehow “worse” than the ones who did not die.

            Jesus asks “Do you think that THESE Galileans suffered in this way because they were worse sinners than all others Galileans?”  “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.”  “But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”  We must all examine our lives.  Because the reality is that we are like all of these people.  Sometimes we will suffer when we have done nothing to deserve it. Sometimes we will stand up for what is right in the face of opposition.  And sometimes we will be the oppressors, the ones who hurt others, all the time believing that we are better than them.

            If we examine our lives during this Lenten season, we will see ourselves as equal participants in God’s creation.  So that we will not die believing that we are greater than or lesser than the rest of God’s creation.

            Thankfully, the writers of Luke move us from Jesus the Discomforter to Jesus the Comforter, the gardener.  In the Parable of the Fig Tree, Jesus tells us about a vineyard owner and a gardener.  The owner doesn’t see fruit on the fig tree that was planted three years ago.  What the people listening to Jesus knew (that we may not) is that fig trees are known for producing a great deal of fruit each year.  They flourish particularly when cared for by an experienced and thoughtful gardener.  So, the owner is justified in being frustrated that this fig tree has not produced any fruit in three years.   Soil is being wasted on this fig tree.  Isn’t he being reasonable in wanting to cut it down?  But Jesus talks of a gardener who asks for another year to tend to this tree.  He proposes that the owner give it one more year, allowing him to feed and nurture it.  Then he agrees to cut it down if it still is not producing any fruit. 

            Jesus sees that we all bear fruit, that we need to be tended.  Jesus tends us by modeling God’s love for each of us.  Jesus tends us by showing us God’s love for all of us.  Jesus shows us how to tend to one another and see that we all bear fruit even when it is not visible to others.  Our logic says to “cut it down” if it is not bearing fruit. But God’s love is not limited by our logic. 

            This is the Good News:  Jesus reminds us that God loves us all.  God will continue to tend to us, helping us grow and become fruitful.  Just like the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, we tend to one another.  But this kind of growth requires self-examination.  It requires us to move to a place where we are connected to all of Creation.  We connect to Creation through love in our thoughts, words, and deeds…in what we have done and what we have left undone.  We are not alone.  We repent to tear down the walls that separate us from others—the people that God created.  Jesus reminds us that God tends to us with love just because we are.  God’s love does not limit itself to those we believe are deserving.     In gratitude, we tend others with that same love. 

            If we look around us, we see people tending to one another regardless of whether they deserve it.  We help someone for whom we feel sorrow and pity.  We sit with others in their darkest hours so that they will not be alone.  We remind others of their own humanity by acknowledging them and their loved ones.  We all tend to God’s creation.  We live out “God among us.”

By Dr. Jill Walters

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