[Sermon preached the 3rd Sunday of Lent, February 28, 2016]
The eye is a very tricky thing. It can often fail us at many different points in our lives, as many of us have learned. My eyesight gets worse every year for example. The fact that many of us, like my parents do, have to hold a menu out about 4 feet from their faces to read the dessert list. Or my oldest child whose eyes are worse than mine, and when she is at swim practice, and they are following the stopwatch on the wall to measure their rest between laps for their intervals, she has to wait for one of her teammates to go, trusting they are leaving at the right time. Imagine that, trusting someone or something else because you cannot see clearly.
Or our eyes can make us think we see something that we don’t actually see. Magicians bank their entire trade on this. Misdirection. Sleight of hand. Having you look one direction thinking that everything is happening over there…when it actually is happening over here.
My dad’s a magician. We used to do shows together as part of the children’s ministry that he was pastor of at his church in California. Card tricks. Coin tricks. Cups and balls. All sorts of things. He would use them to explain faith and hope. Wondering what one believes when they cannot see clearly.
Without that sight, we live off of our perception. What we think happened. What we want to believe is true based on what we saw. The Galileans apparently come to Jesus with a perception. Having seen evil at its worst they want an explanation, but Jesus gives none. Maybe it was their emphasis. Their overly concerned minds for the sins of others. Or worried that God might be the divine accountant they have heard about, tallying their mistakes and placing them in his ledger for safe keeping. Or maybe they just want Christ to take political action. To strike down Pilate and the Roman hordes. To breakdown the nations and restore Israel once and for all. He’s supposed to be the Messiah and that is what the Messiah is perceived to do.
Instead they hear – Repent, or you will all likewise perish. That’s a little rough. Taking people who seem so hurt and fearful and preaching a message that seems to lack comfort. But maybe it is all these years of fire and brimstone preaching in American pulpits that forces us into this difficult interpretation. We hear “repent or perish” and we think intolerance, hate, anger.
But what if we reimagine things. Reimagine the words and their tone. This could become an addiction intervention of sorts. A time when Christ steps in with actual words of comfort to a dying world bent on killing itself. Please stop or you will not live. Repentance, that changing of mind, turning around, turning away, adjusting the vision. Casting off the sight one uses to see certain things, to want certain things, to expect certain things, to have our eyes focus on where they are supposed to be.
Repentance means to stop looking to the other sinners as somehow worse than you. Or to think that your stuff doesn’t stink as bad as others. All that does is create division, to make God and forgiveness to be pointless, to basically make Christ one who has died for nothing. It makes us grow our own pride and intolerance, categorizing the world into certain types of people. Christian or unchristian. Good or evil. Thereby denying to them the very grace and mercy offered to us. Otherwise we divert our eyes from a concern for ourselves, and from Jesus and His concern for us, and just look to the other to judge and damn them to make ourselves feel better.
Or from looking at others sins we turn our eyes to ourselves and see only what we may think of who we are, or what we think we deserve. “Well, God is punishing me.” Worried that we have done just one thing too far or too damning. Letting our eyes focus on what it is that we do instead of on what it was that was done for us. Here Christ calls for us to repent of our unworthiness. To repent of the level of merit we think we need. Repent of working to make ourselves bearable.
Repentance means to stop using the sin of the world as a stump speech. To make our political cause based on some sin we think we have the cure for by some political rhetoric. Repenting of all our charging ahead into the world to make Jesus into some sort of guru who has the answer to fixing everything if we could just formulate the right policy. But then we turn to finding the answer outside of repentance and forgiveness and mercy, and we turn somewhere else. We become believers in certain people - Trump or Bernie, or Hillary, Ted, Marco, or whomever we find worthy of being our savior on Capitol Hill. Hoping that our anger or animosity or work for a better world will make things so good that there will never again be sin to repent of.
So Christ tells the story of the vineyard and the fig tree as a connection. A fig tree that seems so unfruitful. The owner wishes to cut it down and discard it. But the gardener comes and says, “No. I will dig around, give it some air, some water, put some dung over it, and give it some time. Be patient. It will work.” An odd story to attach to that word – Repent or perish.
But maybe it is not so odd. Removing the issues with evil or pain, pointing them towards repentance and changing where it is we look, Christ offers us this picture. A tree. Barren and dry and unfruitful. Do you see it? It is there in the vineyard needing some work. Do you see it? It’s you. You’re the tree. And the worry may seem to be the fruit, but it is actually the tree. It has to be the tree because that is why there is a gardener and there is fruit. You have need of a master gardener who steps in to add a little water some manure, compost, to feed you, to grow your fruit of repentance.
That is the work of Christ on your behalf. That is the working of repentance, to divert your eyes from all the hopes of fruit in the future, or of how pretty you may look, or how bad you think you are and Jesus comes in his overalls and Crocs to do some weeding, some tilling of the soil, some spreading of…stuff…to bring about your faith and trust in him as the one who opens eyes and brings life in a world bent towards destruction.
All of this is important because this passage has actually nothing to do with the problem of evil. It does say that bad stuff happens and people get caught in the mess. But what one does or does not do is not painted as some deciding factor that you can see or judge by. It is the intensive proven work of Christ to dig and grow the fruit that makes or breaks you. That causes repentance and creates faith. The Word proclaimed. The receiving of the forgiveness and mercy in Christ through bread and wine. Things outside of you at work in you.
The importance of it all is that you do not see truthfully. You may observe things, you may perceive so many ideas about people, the world, God. But then God steps in as Jesus to blow all that out of the water. You will never be able to know the things hidden from your eyes. You don’t know the patience for which God is working in you to bolster your faith and grow your fruit. Until then, we wait. We pray. We trust. We seek help. We glory in the gifts we receive and weep for the losses we entail and hold firmly to the fact that Christ is still active in the world. The one who calls to repentance, but repentance for your sake, not his. Amen