March 3, 2013
Third Sunday in Lent
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
At first blush, this morning’s gospel reading seems harsh. Those Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with the sacrifices and those poor people on whom that tower fell in Siloam, Lord surely they were worse sinners than the rest of us for such bad things to happen.
No, but unless you repent, you will likewise perish.
Sadly, this has often been preached as a boogeyman story. Perhaps this has been inflicted on you at a funeral. The words change depending on whether the preacher thought the guest of honor was saved:
“Well, the dearly departed is up in heaven looking down on us. And wouldn’t they smile if you too came to Jesus and got saved so you could celebrate with them.”
The other version goes: “Well, it’s too late for the dearly departed, but it is not too late for you to get right with Jesus so you don’t wind up like they did.”
(Pastor Tom calls these “pastoral malpractice.” I concur!)
This approach comes from using what is called a “commonsense, plain text” reading. This way of reading is a child of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and the 17th century Age of Enlightenment. It says that everyone can read the Bible for themselves, and the simplest reading that anyone could understand must be the one true reading.
This way of reading the Bible played a major role in the theological fights that took place throughout the American Civil War. If you want to say that God supports abolishing slavery, you have to look at the arc of scripture, the overall themes, the ways in which such ideas play out among many stories. If you want to say that God approves of slavery, you just need to read several texts with a commonsense, plaintext reading. Churches split over this, not necessarily because they thought slavery was good, but because they said that to deny the plaintext, commonsense reading of parts of the Bible is to threaten the reading of any of the Bible.
And let’s face it, it is easier to argue for something with five or seven Biblical texts in hand than it is to sit down and talk about how the overarching themes and direction of the Bible say something very different than those five or seven verses.
One of the difficulties of this reading is that it tends to cut rather selectively. It often turns out that a plaintext, commonsense reading of certain select verses come to support a position. Like when the church preaches that wives should be submissive to their husbands. (Couples, do not look at each other yet. I will let you know when it is safe.) Do we go on to the next verses and read that this is to be a mutual and loving relationship? Do we leave off that the husband is to be to the wife as Christ is to the church?
And if we read both sides of this, do we project onto Christ and the church the rules of patriarchy that say one is to rule and the other to be ruled? Or do we project onto our human relationships the relationship between Christ and the church? Christ did not come to be served but to serve. The church is not the slave of Christ, but a friend of Christ. So too husband and wife are not to lord it over one another, but in mutual love work together for the good to which they are called. (Now you may look at each other again.)
It is not enough to look for the simplest possible reading, nor does it work to lift a verse or two and pretend that they speak for the whole life of faith.
This morning, we need to read on as well. They speak of a divine patience, a love, a tender care, like a gardener who spreads manure around the tree, and waters it and tends it.
The landowner says, “This is worthless, it is just taking up space, rip it out!” “No, no,” says the vinedresser. “Give it another year. Let it be tended, watered and fertilized. Then, if it does not yield fruit, then we can plant something else here.”
We live between these two stories don’t we?
On the one hand there are evils and violence in the world which end lives way too soon. Some of them, like Pilate’s sacrifices are done by our fellow human beings: abuse of power, treating our fellow human beings as commodities or as less than human, neglecting our neighbor. Others are beyond human doing: hurricanes, tornadoes, meteorites.
Whether natural or man-made, we recognize in these tragedies the fragile nature of our own existence on this planet that we share.
On the other hand, there is the ongoing work of growing in our faith. Sometimes it happens when we think life is shoveling poop around us. But there are those moments when we have known forgiveness, have known that “there but for the grace of God go I,” and we get another chance.
Between these two stories we discover that each day that we have is a gift. We do not know how many more we may have. This is not meant to be a downer, but a call to awaken. Jesus loves you more than your guilt, your pain, your grief. How do you want to live today? Maybe you aren’t ready for this yet. So how will you tend the fig tree of your life so that it might blossom and bear fruit? Or as the poet Mary Oliver says:
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life? (The Summer Day)
For each day is a gift.
Thanks be to God. Amen.