March 24, 2019

3rd Week of Lent Year C 2019

Note: the audio is from March 17th, 2nd Sunday and the text is from March 24th, 3rd Sunday of Lent

Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:7-9

Have you ever thought you’ve known something and you’ve been really sure that you are right, and then find out later that you were wrong? You had heard something or maybe made up your own story about why something happened to someone and your perception was reinforced every time you thought about it or told someone else what you thought, so that it became very difficult to accept that you might be wrong, almost impossible in fact. Social scientists call this confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing ideas or beliefs.

I do it all the time and am continually confronted with the fact that I know much less than I think I do. So while I see myself becoming less certain about things I once took for granted, I also see myself as growing in wisdom, learning to trust in my limitations and the mystery we call God.

One of my spiritual practices this Lent is to catch myself when I start to form a story about someone or something without really knowing what is going on. Something our brains are hardwired to do, to recognize patterns and deduce conclusions based on our observations. But when I begin to do that about someone when I really don’t know, whether my conclusions are good or bad, they are most probably inaccurate at the least. And besides that is not really my business any way. I even do it with God.

When I was a young Christian, in my teens and college years, I thought that if I did something that was displeasing to God, then God would cause something displeasing to happen in my life. lf I had an unkind thought about someone, then I would not get something I wanted. And conversely, if something bad happened to me, I got sick or had an accident of some kind, I had this lingering feeling that maybe I had done something wrong, or maybe God didn’t really like me as much as the people that seemed better off than me.

Of course the truth was that I did make mistakes, have unkind thoughts about people, and did displeasing things in God’s eyes, but what was not true, is that God is causing the bad to happen in my life because of my unfaithfulness. “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” God is merciful to the sinner and the saint. Bad things happen to everyone, but those are not God’s judgments as much as they are the results of living in a broken world.

Paul Nuechterlein, a Lutheran pastor comments on our Gospel:

Someone in the crowd mentions a bloody incident of Pilate’s troops killing some Galilean locals, and so Jesus uses this as an occasion to challenge a widely held human belief — namely, that those who die are being punished by God. An extension of this belief is that we, the good guys, should sometimes kill the bad guys to carry out God’s punishment against them. Jesus asks the question for them and then answers it himself: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Jesus says something similar to this at his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. When a disciple draws a sword, Jesus says, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” “You will all perish as they did.” In other words: If you think that Jesus wants us to kill the bad guys in order to bring God’s punishment upon them, then you’re wrong. If you don’t repent, if you don’t turn to a different way of thinking and doing things, then you will die in that same way. “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

But Jesus even extends this point about death from this instance of violent death to one of accidental death. It’s not just about death involving human violence. The same point can be made about accidental deaths, like a tower falling over and killing people or a deadly tornado. If we see these things as punishments from God, and if we don’t repent, if we don’t turn to another way of thinking, then we will die under the delusion of that same way of thinking. We will die thinking that God is punishing us. “We will all perish just as they did.”

James Alison, a Roman Catholic priest and theologian writes that what Jesus is doing in our Gospel reading today is throwing a curveball at our imaginations in order to shock us out of our preconceived ideas into thinking a new way about God and God’s reign of love.

Step one: get people to identify God with a master coming to visit a fig tree in a vineyard—Isaiah and Joel help Jesus to start with a familiar image.

Step two: have the master do something utterly against the levitical law demanding a harvest of fruit during the first three years. According to law, no fruit can be harvested for three years; even in the fourth year only first fruits, not profits, are available.

The master who wishes to foreclose the entire operation by cutting down the tree cannot be God, although our terrified imaginations think of God as the one foreclosing. In fact, foreclosing is directly against God’s law—and thus God’s imagination.

Step three: perhaps our imaginations can be nudged toward thinking of God as the gardener who begs the master to repent, to change his mind and heart and cease to foreclose. Then the gardener, not ashamed of getting his hands dirty, can perhaps nudge the tree into producing the first fruits in the fourth year.

Step four: hint at Joel. Joel 1 tells of a barren fig tree and a demand for the people’s repentance. But in Joel 2, the fig tree gives its full yield. What God wants all along is for people to receive abundance, and he begs us to allow him to train our imaginations away from fear, scarcity and the violence that is their sacred mantle.

Maybe this Lenten season is about our lives as a fig tree, being lovingly groomed by God the master gardener so that we might produce fruit worthy of repentance, a change of perspective about God’s love for us.