As you think back on this past week, imagine your life is being reported in the news. What would the headlines be? Something at work, or home, or school? Or something more personal? Think about it for a second… Now, which headlines from the regular news got your attention this week? The accident on the 5 fwy yesterday? Hillary Clinton’s win in South Carolina? Or something about Donald Trump? Think about those too.
It had been quite a week in Jerusalem before this morning’s Gospel. Jesus’ followers decided to share some of the stories with Jesus. “Did you know, Jesus, that Pontius Pilate – the Roman puppet who is too big for his britches–announced that he was going to improve the water supply in Jerusalem by building an aqueduct, and that he was going to pay for it with funds from our temple? Well, some of our fellow Galileans didn’t take this sitting down. They organized a heroic protest. Pilate had Roman guards dress as part of the crowd, and on signal they took out clubs and pummeled the leaders to death. Then, to show who was boss, he mixed some of their blood with the animal blood used for sacrifices. What do you think it means, Jesus?
Then of course there were those Jewish laborers working on the aqueduct when a tower they were building near the pool of Siloam fell over and killed 18 of them. They were Roman scabs, taking pay out of the temple treasury and offering their skills to enhance the interests of our oppressors. They sure got what was coming to them, didn’t they?”
When we feel vulnerable it’s practically a knee-jerk reaction to seek to restore some sense of order to the chaos, some feeling of control over the randomness. Jesus’ followers trusted Jesus enough to tell him their stories, and to offer their explanation of suffering and death. Jesus offered an alternative way of looking at the stories. "No" he said. "They weren’t worse sinners; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Jesus says they didn’t suffer because of their sin. Whew. But unless you repent, you are going to lose some blood too. Uh oh. As Paul wrote in today’s Epistle, “if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”
Jesus touched the panic they had inside about the awful things happening around them and inside them. They had good reason to be terrified. They searched their hearts for anything they might have done that might have brought disaster their way. They lay awake at night making lists of their mistakes.
Jesus honored the vulnerability that fear had opened up in them. It’s not bad to feel fragile about ones life. It seems like God only gets in through the cracks in our hearts, the occasional openings in history, the wounded and broken ones who long for God. I love Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem. He sings, “There is a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in.”
Even those of us who claim to know better react the same way. Calamity strikes and we wonder what we did wrong. We scrutinize our behavior, our relationships, our diets, our beliefs. We hunt for some cause to explain the effect in hopes that we can stop causing it. We are less interested in truth than consequences. We crave control over the chaos of our lives.
But in order to learn that we can’t make life safe nor tame God, we have to accept the crack. Those who don’t know how to listen, wait, and hope view all tragedy as destructive. But the truth is that we bring good out of evil through faith, perspective, trust, hope and prayer. Otherwise evil takes its course in the world. (Richard Rohr, Good News According to Luke, p. 158-9)
That is the conversion Jesus wants for his followers. So he tweaks their fear. Don’t worry about Pilate and all the other things that can come crashing down on your heads. Terrible things happen, and you’re not always to blame. But don’t let that stop you from doing what you are doing. That torn place your fear has opened up inside of you is a holy place. Look around while you are there. Pay attention to what you feel. It may hurt you to stay there. It may hurt you to see, but it’s not the kind of hurt that leads to death. It’s the kind that leads to life.
And it leads to life not only for us, but for those who are the most vulnerable in society. It is urgent that we repent of our ways, because those ways are destroying the most vulnerable part of us – whether it’s the humanness buried deep inside each of us, or it’s the poor, the unemployed, the chronically sick and the homeless who confront our social systems with their relentless need for assistance.
Some of us at St. Athanasius have begun to work on the crisis of our neighbors without shelter. We’ve just begun walking a long road. We’ve already had successes and failures on the short section we’ve walked. The failures make me wonder if I should have started down this road. Why couldn’t I ignore the crisis like most people do? But we take one step at a time.
The story of the fig tree is a call to patience as we wait for all the beautiful qualities we long for in our personal lives and in our society. Those qualities - like peace, forgiveness, safety and compassion - take time to nurture. But they are worth waiting and working for. However, while we wait we wonder about the consequences of our violent natures, our unforgiving attitudes, and our hard heartedness. Will God wait for those qualities to be formed in us? Will we?
In Palestine, as in Los Angeles, land was very valuable. Fig trees were supposed to produce fruit after three years. Jesus tells a story about a fig tree that failed to produce fruit in that time. The owner wanted to cut it down. The gardener asks for more time to make it produce by caring more intensely. If he succeeds the owner will repent and the tree will be saved. If he fails, the gardener will cut it down.
Who is this gardener in the story, and who is the owner? There is not just one answer. A false view of an angry God could be the owner. Or people who judge others - including us! - might be the impatient owner. We call another person lazy or stupid or mean or useless. Jesus could be the gardner, who patiently nurtures peace and safety. Or maybe Jesus is calling us to be the gardener; the ones who need to give time for peace and well-being, time and grace to see the other person’s good qualities.
Since tonight is the Academy Awards Presentation, it’s appropriate to talk about movies. In the rather old movie, Billy Eliot, young Billy joins a ballet class that meets after his boxing club, and he is found to be a talented dancer. But his father and brother refuse to allow the dance lessons to continue, considering it too prissy for one of their family. A fig tree moment comes when Billy’s father, who had prohibited further dancing, marches down to the hall to catch him in the act and to beat some “sense” into him. The boy defiantly dances his utmost before his dad, converting him to seeing what he is capable of.
The movie is set during Margaret Thatcher’s war on the coal workers. So moved is Billy’s father that he crosses the line to join the “scab” laborers (strike-breakers) so that his boy might go to the ballet academy. The father could not be told how good the boy was; it was only when directly confronted with his son’s talent that he could see his error. He repented of his views and acted on the new self-understanding. (Craig Thompson, Narre Hampton Park Uniting Church, Melbourne, Australia)
We have to keep repenting even as we have to be patient with ourselves. And we have to be patient with others even as we keep working to get them to repent, because God has given us a share of the responsibility for bringing life to the most vulnerable parts of creation.