This sermon was written by Emily J. Garcia, our Kellogg Fellow, for the third Sunday in Lent, March 3, 2013.
Tonight’s Gospel features one of my favorite words : “repent.” I don’t like this word when people shout it at other people in the street; I don’t like this word when it’s used to flay others into guilt, when it’s just a way of saying “You’re bad.”
But repentance isn’t really like that at all!
Contrition and penitence are feelings of sorrow or conviction for the wrong we’ve done. But repentance doesn’t stop there—repentance follows this acknowledgement with a turn towards the right thing, the good thing—towards God. When we repent, we stop doing one thing and start doing something better. I like this word, “repent,” because I know I can trust the God we’re turning towards. I know that when we repent, we can say with the Psalmist, You have been my helper, and under the shadow of your wings I will rejoice.
Our reading from Luke starts off with a cryptic statement about Pilate and some Galileans. Bishop N. T. Wright explains that some Galilean pilgrims had been offering sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. Pilate—perhaps fearing rebellion or a riot—had ordered in the troops and had them killed. Jesus immediately dismisses the idea that these Galileans deserved this sudden and violent death, or that it was a punishment of some sort. Jesus turns these sudden deaths towards his listeners—“unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Commentator Luke Timothy Johnson says Jesus’s point is that “death itself, with the judgment of God, is always so close. It can happen when engaged in ritual. It can happen standing under a wall. And when it happens so suddenly, there is no time to repent.” This repentance is “not simply a turning from sin, but an acceptance of the visitation of God in the proclamation of God’s kingdom.”
This is certainly one motivation to repent. If we keep in mind that any day may be our last, why would we waste time?! If our time here is short and fragile, certainly NOW is the time to ask for forgiveness from those you’ve hurt, to set things right with those you love, to start treating every person you meet with the dignity they deserve, to spend your time and energy on the things that actually matter.
I’m a nervous, worrying person, and this awareness of the fragility of my life has always been a strong motivator. But I found after a while that if this is your only motivation, it runs you down quick. It might get you sprinting, it might quicken your pulse, but if you end up living a marathon rather than a sprint, this fear of death might turn you bitter, instead of helping you live a holy and Godly life. Fear only goes so far.
Luckily, the second half of our reading from Luke holds another, longer-burning motivation for repentance. At first glance, it seems like this is another threat-filled story—our attention is definitely caught by those three words, “Cut it down!”
But I think that this parable shows the mystery of God’s righteousness and love. I think God is the vineyard owner, but God is also the gardener.
God looks at us and knows fully our pettiness, every hidden place where we are crooked and thorny, our nastiness, our dismissiveness, our small and petty cruelties. God sees all of this. And God says, This is not good enough. What have you done with all the sunlight and good soil and care, to produce these dry branches? We’re like the Israelites who Paul talks about in First Corinthians, who take the gifts and guidance of God and then—because they’re human—keep messing up.
But see, God is also the gardener, who says, Give her another year. In fact, I think God says this year after year—Give her another year. He knows where we have hidden new roots, new branches, new leaves which we can’t even see in ourselves. He sees somewhere a capacity for generosity, giving without expectation of receiving. He sees that we can be patient and kind; we can be self-controlled, and at peace. And he sees, most importantly, that we can learn to love others even as he loves us—selflessly, entirely, joyfully. We look at ourselves and see the dried tree which gives no fruit; God sees that, but sees also what we might become, if we accept his love and help.
And THIS is in fact the best motivation to repent: God’s relentless compassion, his mercy.
This mercy and compassion is like the burning bush which Moses sees—strange, and apparently impossible. God’s mercy and compassion are so unexpected and wonderful that they draw us away from our usual paths, and closer to God’s flame.
And caught in his flame, how could we not change? As we’re drawn closer to him, we give up things that are not good enough for God. We give up things, and God takes them away, and the line between each gesture is sometimes blurred, so that we can’t tell where our will and God’s mysterious action interact exactly. As we come closer to God, these things are burnt away, discarded like Moses’s sandals. This is the mystery of sanctification, the lifelong process of being sanctified, made holy by and for God’s glory.