This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, 14 March 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 55: 1- 9, 1 Corinthians 10: 1- 13, and Luke 13: 1 – 9
In light of the number of times that I have moved, it is very hard for me to say that I have an ancestral home. Oh, I have seen the house where my parents were living when I was born and I have gone by some of the places where I have lived in the past. Interestingly enough, there are no plaques on the door or signs in the yard that say “Tony Mitchell lived here from time to time.” Of all the places that are a part of my live, the closest I have to an ancestral home is my grandmother’s house in St. Louis, MO.
It is a place where my memories began, though in the pictures of a two-year old. And, unless the current owners have done something, there is a cast of one of my feet on a concrete slab in the backyard. Pictures over the span of time from 1950 to 2000 show the cumulative effect of a grandmother who loved flowers. When the property was first bought in the late 1940’s, it was over ten miles from downtown St. Louis and in the midst of the Missouri truck farms. Of course, in 2000, it was still ten miles from downtown St. Louis but the truck farms were gone, replaced by apartments, houses, malls, and interstate highways.
But my grandmother’s flowers remained. And the last time I looked, the grape arbor was still standing in the backyard. This particular arbor served more as a boundary between her property and the next door neighbor than it did as a source of grapes. Any grapes that we collected off the vines were small and almost tasteless. To be honest, I can never recall any great moments harvesting grapes in all the time that we visited my grandmother. But it was decorative and it served a purpose, so it stood as a place for grandchildren to play.
Since we never cared for the grapevine, we never got any grapes. The vineyard owner in the Gospel reading today is complaining that the fig tree is not producing any fruit. And he tells the gardener that if it doesn’t start producing soon, it will be chopped down.
Fig trees served as shade for the weary traveler. But it doesn’t do any good for a fig tree to be shady if it is not producing fruit. Figs are sweet and nourishing. And the seeds from the fruit are the source of future trees. So a fig tree that does nothing but shade the weary traveler is actually worthless, for it cannot provide for the future.
And fig trees also played another role. In this parable, as well as a similar reference in Mark (Mark 11: 14), the fig tree is a reference to the nation of Israel. The prophet Hosea uses the images of the fruit of the fig tree as a reference to God’s delight in Israel’s choice to follow the covenant made on Mount Sinai. But Hosea follows that with a description of God’s anger when the nation decides to follow other gods.
It is God’s anger that is the common thread of the three readings for today. But it is not the anger of God that we sometimes think it is. Even today, long after the Biblical times, we still think in terms of blaming the victims. If someone did something wrong, it was clearly because they were sinners of the greatest kind.
The people following Jesus that day asked Him if those killed in the political murders or natural disasters died because of their sins. To this Jesus replies with an emphatic “No!” But Jesus also added that unless one repented, unless one changed his or her way of living, then they would perish just as those who died did.
The danger is that we become like the Corinthians, safe in our belief that our actions protect us from sin. The Corinthians felt that because they had been baptized into Christ and partook of the communion that this protected them. But Paul is quick to point out that the Israelites in the desert also had their sacraments. Paul felt that by the crossing of the Red Sea and the direction provided by the pillar of fire and cloud that they were baptized into Moses and the covenant solidified on Mount Sinai. The Israelites had their own food and drink provided by God, just as the bread and juice that we use in our communion were provided by Jesus. But that covenant and those sacraments did not prevent them from sinning against God. Those who wandered in the desert died in the desert because they were not willing to completely follow God.
Paul is quick to compare the sins of the Corinthians to those of the Israelites in the desert. Remember that while Moses was with God on Mount Sinai, the people reverted to their old ways of worship and behavior. The description of these sins and actions were written as a warning of what would happen should future generations get too complacent. Paul’s warning is “if you think you are standing, be careful that you do not fall.”
Those are also Isaiah’s words and the words of invitation for today. “Come to the feast,” God calls to us, “Come to the waters!” Those in need of grace and God’s mercy are invited to receive it now. And that is the catch; for Isaiah is quick to warn us to “Seek the Lord while He may be found.”
We cannot assume that God’s invitation is ours to accept later, when it is more convenient for us. We cannot continue a life of foolishness, wasting our resources and abilities on trivial things when the most valuable thing that we will ever have is given to us today.
Jesus’ warning about the future of the fig tree is a warning to us. The fig tree will grow if it is nurtured and cared for but if it is ignored or it is assumed that it will grow on its own, it will die. Our faith will grow if it is nurtured, if it is in an environment of support. And the faith of others will grow because we are there to provide that environment of support.
When John Wesley began what has now become known as the Methodist Revival, he himself struggled with two questions: What was the nature of salvation and what was the role of the church in dealing with society’s problems.
In Wesley’s time, England was undergoing a series of rapid changes, changes that we would later call the Industrial Revolution. But though some gained from the results of this revolution, many did not. Pay was low, healthcare was limited if not non-existent, and there was no such thing as a retirement plan. You started working when you could, and for some that meant as young as ten, and you worked until the day you died. Your workday was sunup to sundown and your workweek was six days a week, with only Sunday off. You dared not take a day because you might get fired. If you owed someone, you were likely to be thrown into a debtor’s prison until your family could raise the money to pay off the debt. Welfare, as it were, was dependent on the whim of the rich and the patience of the poor. Alcoholism and drug abuse was not uncommon.
Against this background, the church supported the idea that being poor was a sin and if you were poor you were a sinner and to be pitied, laughed at for your lot in life. It was not an environment that brought people to Christ; it was an environment that could lead to social unrest.
As Jesus had done, so too did Wesley contend that the poor were not sinners because of their poverty nor should society ignore them. Through the Methodist Revival, the first Sunday school was started. It was not the Sunday school that we ourselves went to but rather the first organized educational system in England. Because they were working the rest of the week, Sunday was the only day that many children and adults had a chance to go to school. The first sustained efforts to deal with alcohol and drug abuse came because of the work of Wesley and his followers. And because Wesley and his followers sought to create an environment of growth and sustenance, there was not the social unrest and violent revolution that plagued France at the same time.
Sin is not a product of one’s status in life nor is it because of who someone is or where he or she was born. Unfortunately we tend to think so, even in our enlightened society of today. We cannot lead lives which say to someone that we are better simply because we have chosen to follow Christ, for choosing to follow Christ does not exempt us from the problems of the world.
We cannot make deals with God and expect them to hold. C. S. Lewis wrote
People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules, I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heaven creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is Heaven: that is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other. (From Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis)
Lent is a time of repentance, a time of change. It is a time to change our lives and how we think. We come to the table today, knowing that when the Israelites grumbled about the lack of food, God provided food for them. When the Israelites grumbled about the lack of water, God provided water. The bread that we eat today and the juice that we drink are reminders of God’s grace and His willingness to provide when His people were in need.
The bread that we eat to date is also a reminder that Christ died for us so that we could live. The juice that we drink is also a reminder that Christ shed His blood for us so that our sins would be forgiven. These acts liberate us.
As we come to the table today, we come knowing that the very act of communion serves to liberate us from this world of sin and death.
As we walk away from the communion table today, we are a liberated people. But with our liberation comes a responsibility. The challenge is to accept this liberation and turn away from the false idols that we think protect us from pain and suffering. The challenge is to accept the liberation given through communion and cast away the idea that somehow we, individually, can control our lives and avoid the sufferings that plague others.
The owner of the vineyard gave the gardener a year to bring the fig tree back to life. Our own sense of liberation will quickly die if we do not work to sustain our faith. Others will not know the sense of liberation that we have today unless we reach out. The fruits of the vineyard will not grow in an environment that does not provide for growth; the fruits of the vineyard will not be harvested unless there is an effort to do the harvesting.