Not Your Parent’s Repentance Sermon
Not Your Parent’s Repentance Sermon
As we journey with Jesus through Lent a great many themes are explored. Today we look at repentance and ask what does Jesus really mean when he’s asking us to repent. The question is seen through a passage about death and judgement in Luke’s gospel. It is puntuated with a story about a tree that is dead.
Scripture: Luke 13: 1-9
One of the most mournful cries that a person can cry out is ‘why?’ It is often a question punctuated with regret, sorrow, anger, and grief. Why did this thing happen. When we ask this question regarding ourselves we wonder why we are being punished, we know we didn’t do anything to deserve it. And when we ask this question of others, we wonder if perhaps they did do something to deserve it.
This is the question that opens our gospel reading from Luke. Did these Galileans suffer because they were worse than other people? In other words, was their punishment justified. This is the question that Jesus is faced with in our passage.
On his response Jeremey Williams notes that, “Jesus does not discuss Pilate in his response; he instead talks about his fellow Galileans. He asks if those who were slaughtered were worse sinners than other Galileans because of how they suffered. The logic of his question is funded by the Torah (Deuteronomy 28-20). Also, other popular understandings of divine retribution presumed that punishments, especially catastrophes, were proportionate to the crime or sin. To that logic Jesus emphatically says, “No!” (ouchi).” (Jeremy Williams)
Jesus says no, these people weren’t terrible individuals. No, these people didn’t deserve what happened to them. If you are a careful reader of the passage and Luke’s gospel as a whole you will pick up on a textual note. Luke tells us why the Galileans were punished, because Pilate mixed their blood in with their sacrifice. It’s an odd note and we might not know what to do with it. It represents two things, the first being ritual impurity which would lead people to think that under Torah law the punishment was justified. However, this is a point of foreshadowing and perhaps even a trap that Luke is laying for us. At the end of Luke’s gospel Pilate will mix the blood of Jesus, who is from Galilee, with Passover sacrifices.
The answer has to be no, or the message of Jesus doesn’t work. Luke is using this passage to disrupt the status quo of ideas around ritual purity. This is important because ritual purity is what controls your access to God. If you aren’t “clean” you can’t attend temple, you are cut off from God. It becomes a device of control and Jesus isn’t interested in this.
What is curious about the passage is Jesus follows up his empathetic no with a message about repenting. Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. So, is Jesus making things easier or harder? What’s this repentance business all about. At its simplest repentance might mean a complete turn around in behaviour, a 180 degree change. We change our minds in a way that leads to a change in our conduct.
What Jesus was saying to those assembled was stop thinking the way you are. Stop thinking that people deserve the punishment that they are getting. Because if you don’t turn from this wrongheaded notion, you are going to receive as they did. Does this mean God will punish us for thinking that way? No. Jesus is trying to make a point in order for people to change their frame of mind about issue of injustice and unrighteousness.
Allow me to put it another way. I’m painting with a broad brush here and pulling on some strong stereotypes with this illustration. When you see someone who is drunk, or high, or homeless and possibly all three of those things a standard response is that the person is a degenerate and deserves what they get because they can’t help themselves. Again, I’m painting with a broad brush and pulling on some strong stereotypes. In short, we often think that people in less fortunate circumstances deserve what they are getting. And many of the rules we have in our society, while designed to help, in practice do little more than keep people where they are. In many ways this is by design.
Jesus, in this passage, is saying stop thinking that way. Because when we think that people are getting the fate that they deserve we stop having empathy for them. We stop seeing the face of God in them. Remember, Pilate who mixed the blood, is one of the last characters in scripture that we would attribute as having authority about what God’s justice should look like.
Which brings me to the fig tree. The owner says cut it down, it hasn’t produced fruit for three years. The owner has written off the tree. The gardener still sees life and says, let me nourish this tree and provide it with what it needs to survive. Now we might equate the tree to those who had their blood mixed in the sacrifice, or who had a tower fall on them, or the degenerates we’ve encountered in life. And we would be wrong, that is not who the tree represents.
The tree represents those who are asking the question of Jesus in the first place. The tree represents us when we fail to have empathy and compassion on others. The tree represents us when we say that people deserve what they got. Jesus is saying, stop judging others and start producing good.
Or put another way, and this is the opposite of who repentance is often preached. Often it’s ‘Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand!’ The message is, stop sinning or else! We are being judged and it isn’t by God, it’s by the preacher. Matt Skinner writes, “Repentance sounds like a retrograde religious idea to some people. They think it’s inconsistent with preaching about a gracious God, or it’s a topic that attracts bullies and meanies to the pulpit.” (Matt Skinner) If that was the case we would be missing the point. In this passage, when we are called to repent it isn’t to stop sinning, that isn’t what is cutting is off from God. In this passage, the call to repentance is a call to stop judging others and to focus on the goodness inherent in our own life. A rather sobering message.
If the fig tree represents us, ask yourself this question: Why do people plant fig trees? If a fig tree isn’t doing it for you just substitute your favourite tree growing fruit. Why do people plant apple trees?
People plant apple tree to provide sustenance and nourishment in others. If we are the tree then we have a job to provide sustenance and nourishment to others. If we aren’t doing that, then we are dead and perhaps the owner is right to cut us down.
We can internalize this message and think about how it applies to our individual lives. How can I bear more fruit, how can I provide more goodness. The more pertinent question is how does this shape us as a community of faith. What does it mean for us to provide goodness, nourishment, and sustenance? How is that lived out, what does it look like?
Asked more simply, what is our congregations hope, not only for itself, but for the world? And how should we go about living out that hope?
At the Annual Meeting we asked you fill out a survey and you see the results of the survey in your bulletin. You’ve told us what you think is most important. The Session is doing some more work and is eager to hear more from you. We want to pull at the string of those answers and dive a bit deeper on what you are looking for regarding worship, discipleship, growth, Sunday School, and pastoral care.
If the fig tree represents us, then it also represents the church. That requires us to be open, warm, welcoming, to dispense with judgement and instead find ways to nourish and allow life to flourish. That’s the call of the church. That’s why those five items you prioritized matter. Not because any one of them is individually important, but because they need to point towards the message of the church. Not for our satisfaction and gain, but for the worlds. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security.
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